Jill Johnston (1929-2010): ‘Sappho is rising’


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January 14, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 2

Dance Journal
By Jill Johnston

LEUCADIA: 20 miles north of San Diego…because we’re sitting here splitting fields and relaxing together and Pauline Oliveros is playing me a tape of a performance of her Composition to Valerie Solanis and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. The friends of our friends are our friends. Dear Everyhead at home, this is happy gay land. Can you believe the place is a Leucadia where a Pauline who is another American and musical Gertrude Stein lives with her recently wedded wife on the Pacific near the cliff of a sunrise ceremony this July 4th performed by a minister of the Universal Life Church which makes the difference between the generations between say ours and Gertrude’s merely one of great pride in announcement.

I told Pauline that the name of the World War I model-T-Ford owned by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas was Aunt Pauline. And that Pauline is the name whose bearers I collect on my grandmother journey toward some place far below the Northern Sea or like Persephone arriving from Hades to join her mother Demeter when the spring is timing to go through the world together but unlike Persephone not having to hear anyone say Ah my dearest you ate those pomegranate seeds and therefore must return some part of the year to sit in the dark places on the throne of yr lord and master. Nah, this is 1971 in Leucadia which is the ancient name of one of the Ionian Islands and the place Sappho is said to have ended her life by a heroic leap off the summit of a magnificent cliff. (At Lesbos she was the head of a great poetic school, for poetry in that age and place was cultivated as assiduously and apparently as successfully by women as by men). You can’t go anywhere you can’t get back from. Before and after follow each other. Picture a lesbian estate on the cliffs of California where doors open green and bodies open blue…Pauline married Lin Barron who she is also a music person a cellist and composer and student at the University of California at San Diego where Pauline is a professor or electronic music and composition. For the two days preceding the wedding she stayed at the Minister’s house in quiet seclusion. Till death do them unite or in life they can part as in all things only perchange when we cease to have any motives at all can we comprehend the magnitude of the event. I fell in love in Los Angeles the night of the brinking day I was planning to leave and didn’t stay because of it. That’s the way isn’t it? You’re takin a very big gamble on gettin some sorrow. So last night happy new year I made the gay rounds in San Diego by invitation a pretty opera singer who later did me in good so I felt as well treated in a strange city I’d never seen by day as I imagined one would as the recipient of an Eskimo wife offered by her old man who makes a stranger feel at home in this manner and custom I’ve heard it sounds fine any old way you get done…You wiped me out I murmuranted. Happy New Year she said. So today January 1 in Leucadia I arrange drive L.A. tomorrow to meet the one I glimpsed many hours over body and loving and not even concerned to be getting it off by the light of a bottled blue candle of a Duccio Madonna captioned our Mother of Perpetual Help. Is this the beginning of a new civilization or the symptom of a dying one. Demeter saw the chariot approaching and like a wild bird she flew to clasp her child. Sappho’s painting of passion…has never since been surpassed (in antiquity her fame rivaled that of Homer). The only boy Daphne ever loved was a boy disguised as a girl. The day of the wedding Pauline went out below the cliff about 4 a.m. to hide out there with her conch shell trumpet and wearing her muslin gown toga Greek style made by the minister’s wife. Pauline is impressively round and solid and good humored like Gertrude for whom she dedicated a piece in 1966 called Participle Dangling. The one I just heard, for Valerie Solanis and Marilyn Monroe, in Recognition of Their Desperation, is scored for string quartet, bass, three flutes, organ, and Buchia Electronic Music System. Many male composers think of her as the only female in their field. She wrote an article in the New York Times this summer on the subject which should be an encouragement to the other active women. In L.A. Alison Knowles was deploring the artistry of Charlotte Moorman whom I said we must cherish in all her vulgarity. Charlotte has no respect for cock in the desperation of her sex to sit on the stage of history. A magnificent woman Charlotte. Tits and teeth and all. And better latent than never. Even if she becomes more and more absorbed in some difficulty we can’t fathom. Her hair was unbound as she ran down the slopes of the Mountain Ossa. Daphne saw him (Apollo) standing upon a peak with the light striking his quiver and she knew him for the most beautiful of the Olympians but when he called to her she fled from him for she had vowed that no God nor no man should possess her. Madam, your breakfast plate waits for you. The decision reached itself really. Mascula Virgo. Going against the grain of her sex. Do you think the time has come to share with a waiting world the names of the prominent people whose lives have been changed by taking LSD asked Leary who answered yes which I answer to the same question I would terminate by saying who have taken homosexuality for the news is urgent to the health of the state in which the girl on the run and her pursuer become alternate versions of the same plight. In San Francisco in a gay bar they told me it was a place that Janis Joplin frequented. Dear Kate Millett, thanks for your letter, I’m sorry too about the unpleasantness of our encounter, I mean to withdraw my challenge since everybody is working on different phases of a personal comeout program. We’ll try to materialize the tellie show for March, I’ll let you know. Gregory you met will be on it. We’d like Paul Goodman and Gore Vidal and Allen Ginsberg and Susan Sontag and I asked John Cage who doesn’t think it’s important. Pauline and Lin here will come if possible. Sappho is rising. As the sun was coming up Pauline emerged from underneath the cliff at the sound of the conch shell trumpet of her mate arriving above also garbed in the muslin gown toga they were married by the minister who rang a bell and symbolized their union by wrapping them round together in a long cloth and releasing two doves to inform the animal world. The newlyweds and company of friends descended the cliff to the beach to celebrate Apollo wears Daphne as a laurel around his brow. For as she felt his breath upon her neck and his hands upon her shoulders she swayed; she knew herself changed, and rooted in earth, and safe from pursuit as the blood in her body flowed down to become sap and her limbs and the flesh and the flowing hair become branches and leaves and Apollo mourned for her where he stood and loved her now as a tree even as he had loved her as a maiden. The country of Lesbos is very fertile. The country of Leucadia is luscious too. You can hear as I did after driving back up to L.A. as I sd to join the one I loved by the light of Our Mother of Perpetual Help the sound of one ocean clapping. Pauline played me her record of the Songs of the Humpback Whale. I wish we could arrange transportation for all far below the Northern Sea or anyway a fantasy I’m developing of triumphal re-entries such as Pauline Oliveros in full concert returning to Houston where she came from. Gertrude arriving New York 1930 or so or when by steamship a celebrity was said to have baffled reporters by making herself clear. (Alice cackled and giggled perhaps a little maliciously). Isadora scandalized herself by flaunting the red flag of her Russian boy poet husband. Janis Joplin told Cavett and America on the tubes she’d been laughed out of her class, out of the town, out of the state, “so I’m goin’ home man.” I’ve got my eyes on a royal barge setting out from Calais to Dover. My fabled father is waiting. Ah Persephone (sd Hades), strive to feel kindliness in yr heart toward me who carried you off by violence and against your will. It’s okay dad we’re feasting on the guacamole and the oysters on the half shell and passing up the pomegranate seeds this trip around. The Female Freeway, a book of poems just out here by Lynn Lonidier who engineered the rituals of the wedding. Dear Lee, Pauline did a tarot reading for me. The first or basic or significator card was the four of wands — two laurel wreathed females under a laurel arch. The outcome card the knight of swords. In a dream I called a reconciliation-with-women dream I appeared as identical twins in the denim jacket laughing bent over slightly on the road under weight of a backpack. I tell Pauline not only is the coincidence of her last name a cropper but the first two syllables of her last name belong as well to my last livid maternal relative. And do what you will you will with the eros in it, and the olive, as in branch, this part of the Pacific coast between L.A. and San Diego is very Greek somehow.

[Go here to read Deborah Jowitt’s recent memorial of Johnston. Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]