Feb 20, 2010

The “Strangeness” of Girldrive

NOTE: A shorter version of this review was originally published in the Poetry Project Newsletter, January 2010.

Gaze out the window. Notice the velvet black cows grazing on the ochre cornfields of Nebraska, snow capping the icy blue grand Tetons of Wyoming … Pull over to gawk at the swirls of evergreen trees dipped in the brightest autumn hues, frosted with Montana mist. Every turn of the car brings a new excuse for dreamers. This is the rush of the road, seeing the highway stretch out endlessly and flipping it the bird.

-- Girldrive (21)

Jack Kerouac reading and writing the road? No – it’s a young feminist named Emma Bee Bernstein. And she is not claiming a masculine road identity as some declaration of independence, poetically musing upon the mountain turns of western American interstates. Instead, Emma, with her best girl, Nona Willis Aronowitz, drives better than a crazed Dean Moriarty; and the two are wanderers with a project.

Indeed, they may be the daughters of legendary New York City artists, poets and intellectuals (Ellen Willis and Stanley Aronowitz, Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein). But on the road in Girldrive, we glimpse only Nona and Emma at the wheel – gal-pal-ing up for the road trip of their life. The result is a conceptual art project that is collaborative, not solitary, driven, even if wonderfully “lost.” Girldrive is a book composed of a set of interviews with other feminists (mostly young women of their generation) around the country, as well as a stunning mosaic of photography. Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, as the book is officially titled (Seal Press 2009) makes its reader step into the Michelin-soled shoes of the Beat road warrior as she turns the mythic gendered paradigm around. Women take on the quest motif here. And this book’s central question -- how we are “redefining feminism” -- inhabits and displaces all previous road maps.

“I’m insanely jealous I didn’t think of it first,” writes Anna Holmes on the blog Jezebel in a review of Girldrive. I felt the same way reading this book – and not. Because … we did our own roads in my feminist generation. All striving women have their “journey.” As Nona, the journalist of this book writes: “feminism is hopelessly intertwined with figuring out who you are and what you truly want” (Girldrive p. 24). Feminism is the road and the journey to the difficulty of a woman’s “self” – one that is fractured by the otherness of those, too, on the road, riddled with bumps and potholes in a patriarchal landscape.

Across the unrelenting middling plain, I am on my youngest journey. South Dakota becomes a trail of hot asphalt. It is summer. My mother is at the driving wheel. My “femininst” mom, an editor at our local newspaper, never would use the F-word. This is the early 1960’s and “feminism” is not part of the regional vocabulary.

Even so, she complains of regular sexual harassment by men in the newsroom where she works. She complains of the humiliation, the anger -- decades prior to Anita Hill’s lessons before Congress on how to pronounce the word “harassment.” My mother has three children and a lime-green Mustang. We are driving past the Badlands. We hide from the streams of heat under infrequent highway over-passes. Wheat fields, corn fields, the road tar – smells mingle in the plains winds. The highway is long. We are running down the road, no cars in sight. No one seems to be following our tracks.

Emma is the “dreamer.” In her Introduction, Nona recalls that her friend and collaborator, who tragically died before the Girldrive volume was complete,

battled with depression that ultimately killed her, but that cannot overshadow the fact that she was, at core, a fervently idealistic soul.

(signed,“Nona, spring 2009,” p. xv)

Emma’s suicide in December 2008 shook the poetry and art world in New York, as well as her young, feminist community who knew her to be an up-and-coming photographer. But the dream if the dreamer has not died. In her provocative essay on poetic language, called “Strangeness,” Lyn Hejinian writes of “the dream” as if, too, a road trip, what Hejinian calls a “journey.” Like the dream, writes Hejinian, the writing of “journeys” will inevitably present “problems of framing.” Hejinian is riffing on William James’s “radical empiricism,” and what Hejinian seeks in a poetry practice that places “The emphasis on the experiencing of transitions” – a poetics of “strangeness.” Poetry is not rhymed verse versus free verse. Not “poetry” versus “prose.” Not past emotion caught in some Wordsworthian moment of “tranquility” (as if the mind was ever in that static and removed place). Poetry is an address of “sensible realities” – examining “the arbitrariness, unpredictability, and inadvertence of what appears,” says Hejinian. Emma says (again): “Pull over to gawk at the swirls of evergreen trees dipped in the brightest autumn hues.” Poetry is the language of experience in a moment / written. In the journey, the text, the “details may have been lost in the instability of the dream terrain or in one’s own forgetfulness” (Hejinian). Yet “forgetfulness” is a mode to forge new byways – to push against the tired concepts and forge new cartographies.

In a language newly gesturing, what is the cartographer’s best map? This book asks, in Nona’s Introduction: “What do twenty-something women care about? What are their hopes, worries, and ambitions?”

Such navigational questions open Girldrive but do not cease as the book progresses. Nona’s describes a project dreamed up by the two graduating college seniors over a spring break brunch in New York, ordering the proverbial “eggs and Bloody Mary’s” (pp. xii, xi). The result is “poetry” – but without genre or traditions of “poetic form.” At first glance, the full-color cover and pages make this book appear slick enough to seem, perhaps, a high-production scrapbook created by sophisticated “twenty-somethings” – two “girls” who possess a good camera and a Photoshop application. Yet the book is so much more. A conceptual “poetic” work, Girldrive is a multi-media ensemble and “inter-genre” manifesto as well as memoire, art photography as well as interview print journalism. And what makes the book truly innovative is not just this porous format but the brave interviews with young women, most relative strangers to the authors, who replicate what appear to be American young women’s doubts, fears, cultural condemnations and hopes and innovations on a feminist “movement,” it turns out, that is still moving – moving beyond that of their Baby Boom mothers (like myself).

There is Krystal of Flint, Michigan, who declares in her interview: “I witnessed my mom go through a lot of chaos and confusion and abuse, and I remember thinking I couldn’t be that way” (p. 15). There is the Chicana feminist Martha Cotera and her daughter Maria of Ypsilanti. There is Shelby of Jackson Hole, who lives in “’the “equality state,” the first state to grant women’s suffrage’” (Wyoming), and yet is a state that still coddles the men-folk who “’drive trucks, shoot guns, and marry women for the cooking’” (p. 24).

In Sioux Falls we go to the Top Hat dive bar for cheap drinks, meeting a single welfare mom who rejects both the falsity of knowledge through a college degree and a bartending job. (“’You’re a vagina behind the bar.’”) What are the options for young women, this book, this road trip, makes us ask?

There are no answers in Girldrive to that question. Yet, there is Jerlina, a Berkeley doctoral student of the African Diaspora, and Starhawk, a pagan spokeswoman and eco-feminist. They show us new road maps, new directions. There is Joanna Frueh, an art historian in Tucson who makes the “breezy admission that sex is central all through a woman’s life, not just her youth” (p. 77), dispelling age bias against women. And there is Szoke, who is a New Yorker transplanted to Denver, a waitress who admits: “Male waiters are more respected. There are always going to be those people who get off on the idea that a woman is serving them.”

In Tulsa, we meet Melody and Mana; in Austin we go to a burlesque show with Florinda (“’playwright, artist, activist, singer educator’” – and all of 29). A photograph of the fulsome Stephanie in front of a red curtain stares back upon our gaze. So does the pink-dyed head of Cait, the buxom pose of Raine (in appropriate burlesque costume). And Elsa, Laurie, Carmen Erika – we see them sit in rockers and in beauty shop hair-dryer chairs; we see them standing in front of activist bulletin boards and in kitchens. In Baton Rouge we meet the “street urchins” Charlotte and Angie. Says the latter: “I don’t know if I’m a feminist. I believe in equality.”

These mostly but not entirely younger women of America generally report that they still feel silenced and objectified by male counterparts. They are professional women, working-class women, college women, unemployed women. These articulate women – particularly women of color are well represented in this volume – state that they are betrayed by the falsity of U.S. democratic culture. And they show their knowledge of their betrayal through a articulate strength.


I don’t know what “feminism” is – although I teach something called “feminist theory.” Every semester at City College (CUNY) in these so-called “women studies” classes, I ask my students a question I have no answer for: What is feminism? Of course, my students don’t know the answer either. But a good conversation usually ensues. Girldrive is a porous text that makes us ask that question again and again, in the way Hejinian describes poetic language itself -- as a mode of “inquiry.” Frankly, I don’t know what “poetry” is either – except that I like what I perceive to be its “strangeness.”

For all the questions it raises about feminism and art, Girldrive is clearly an ambitious mutational amalgamation of both. It is a road book and a textbook-primer for feminists – and not just the feminists of the present generation, but of the future and the past. Thanks to Nona’s startling courage in seeing this unusual book finished, Emma’s shade is with us. Both “girl-drivers” lead us not toward a momentary destructive path, that of the youthful tragic, but toward something inspiring, the future.

I am a girl-driver too -- but this time I am on a Mexican bus. I am with my best girl- friend Kathy, northern opposite to my hot-blooded sun. She is calm, cool, with the lightest pale blue Norwegian eyes. I am Celtic, also blonde, but with an Irish-red cast. My blue eyes are pools of darkness and round. The bus stops. We get off. We sleep under a big moon carving shadows on the Mayan ruins. This is Palenque and we think we are alone. Then, we find we are surrounded by Mexican men in hats. All night, Kathy stays awake conversing with them in her articulate Spanish, protecting me, making sure the men dare not touch our 17-year-old girl skin. I sleep. I am dreaming of becoming a Mayan goddess, or a road goddess, both.

And now it is a few years later. I am alone, in my car. I am driving up the curved backbone of the Sierra Nevada range, not along the coastal side but on the far side, following the ancient rim of the Great Basin desert. My car is turquoise like the stones found on this high desert floor. My car is almost as old as me; it has a concave window out of which I glimpse the purple peaks in my driving background. Driving is like a cinema without a screen, without projection. It is only me up against my own theater.

The only women along my roadside are the legal whores of the state of Nevada, and the tired middle-aged change-makers in the Mizpah Casino-Hotel – a crumbling edifice in this year (about 1977), which dominates the tired “ghost” village of Tonopah. The only cop I glimpse as I drive by is the black and white photograph of a sheriff, pasted in the driver’s window of a station-wagon with flat tires stuck along the highway’s dusty shoulder. Everyone is a ghost – or, like me, not quite born.

A spaced-out late teenager going home from college, I somewhere make a wrong turn. Recognizing only “strangeness” along this highway, I eventually see a road sign. It reads:

Death Valley – straight ahead.

But nothing is straight ahead, not on this road. For me, a young woman then, an older woman now, it is a treacherous winding path.


In Girldrive, Emma seems not to mind the potential wrong turns. Rather every direction leads forward into infinity as she writes:

The road tells you what to do. Throw on some shades, pump up the radio, put your hands on the wheel. Retrace your route in reflection, but look only as far as the blur of passing yellow lines to see the present. Race your future to the finish line.

This beautiful book has its own blogsite,
and it is available through Amazon and Seal Press. -- LH

PHOTO (above): Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Willis Aronowitz, from the Girldrive blogsite.