Poetry is what someone makes when she desires to hear a certain language and cannot already hear it in the world. To this Judy Grahn testifies in an interview: "I suddenly wanted something to read about women, but I couldn't find anything" (Yalom and Davis, 1983). Poetry satisfies the deesire for new linguistic experience, experience that can only be dreamed by the poet before she begins to work. Yet this new language is never purely new: it is made out of repetition, both internally in its formal devices, figures, and themes, and in echoing the language outside of and prior to it. For a poet like feminist Judy Grahn, who is dissatisfied not only with the language already in the world but also with the world itself, poetry can alter through language the relations between the audience and the world by transforming the meanings of words and symbols and thus how we experience them. On the one hand, poetry like Grahn's moves toward something new and opposes repetition of what is dangerous, painful, inhuman in the world and its language; on the other hand, a poem like A Woman is Talking to Death must do its work largely by repeating what already exists. The poem's title enacts this process in miniature, playing upon a figure of speech that at once invokes a stereotype about women's speech (i.e., talking endlessly), and signals both a commitment to language (talking until death, until the very end) and a larger, even mythical, meditation about ultimate meaning in which Death is addressed directly; that it is a woman talking to Death is unexpected and turns the hackneyed phrase inside out. New meaning thus arises out of language that is familiar. Transformation, then, depends upon the politics of repetition and refrain, mimicking in language the transformation of the material world sought by the feminist movement at large.
This is the paradox for the feminist writer: how to use what exists to create what is new. In Grahn's work, the paradox goes deeper. Formally and symbolically, A Woman is Talking to Death is structured around repetitions that generally work as the very mechanism that engages the reader and offers pleasure in the face of the uncanny. Thematically, it is the material of violence and prejudice that we find repeated. If the poem were not words but actions, we might say that we were witnessing its uncontrollable compulsion to repeat, a compulsion that would reveal its drive toward death. But because the poem is made out of words, its thematic repetitions make conscious the very pattern of violence that the larger culture is already repeating compulsively in action; and the formal, verbal repetitions further serve to transform the meanings of those words and our relation to them from an unconscious complicity with violence toward a position in which we may begin to free ourselves from its chains. A Woman is Talking to Death thus works socially upon its audience: Grahn's poem, in other words, is a liberating therapy for a society that is trapped in illness.
Adrienne Rich has pointed out how well Grahn's work transforms language, and the important difference between transformation—which is a real change in our psychic, social, and physical relations—and revolution—which is the replacement of one empowered group by another without necessarily transforming the essential power structure. In an essay on four lesbian poets including Grahn, Mary J. Carruthers rightly observes the connection between Grahn's "repetitive, incantatory techniques" and the "traditions of Whitman, Ginsberg, cummings, with more than a little of Gertrude Stein," and notes how she "transmutes them to celebrate the energy common to women in their diverse work." I suggest that this transformation is also ideological. For listeners, the refrains and repetitions bring about a new relation to prejudice and violence, as they work to release us from the oppressions we use against each other and which continually divide us; and they enact a process of empathy and growth. Grahn's use of repetition is also in certain ways representative of feminist writers in general: repetition and transformation occur with fair frequency, for example, in the work of writers as diverse as Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Helene Cixous, Gertrude Stein, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.