Elsa Gidlow, Sapphic Songs

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Sapphic Songs: Seventeen to Seventy.

Baltimore: Diana Press, 1976.

First edition. 79 pp. Perfect bound in handsome burgundy wraps with illustration of the author by Casey Czarnik, one of the founding members of Diana Press and based on a photograph featured on p. 19. With a minimal dent to the top of the spine, otherwise in very good condition; printed on rich, textured paper that ensures the book ages well and feels good in the hands.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

An enthralling collection of love poems written by the poet from age seventeen (“Love’s Acolyte,” written in 1918) to those written in the poet’s seventies (“Love in Age,” 1974). The poems are not in chronological order but begin with Gidlow’s “Invocation to Sappho,” “which has been quoted, reprinted, and anthologised in more place than I know.” In homage to the lesbian poet Renée Vivien’s spelling, Gidlow moves between the more popular “Sappho” and Viven’s “Psappha.”  Gidlow explains in her warm and generous introduction that the publication was borne from her experiences reading poetry to younger generations of lesbians, where each reading of contemporary material ended in questions about her earlier experiences: What had life been like for a woman who loved women in the first half of the twentieth century? “In fact, by far the most frequently asked questions had to do with what were felt to be the problems and agonies of being Lesbian in a society that made you a stranger, if not an outlaw and a pariah.” With these poems, Gidlow delivers an impassioned answer, but at the same time she delivers it with a passion that need not be distinctive of 1918 or 1974, resonating with any time.

Elsa Gidlow (1898-1986) is one of the most important pioneers of lesbian-feminism in North American history in terms of her commitment to poetry, environmental sustainability, and political non-conformity. Born in England but raised in Tétreaultville and Montreal, Canada, from 1918 to 1920 she published the first gay and lesbian magazine in North America with Roswell George Mills: Les Mouches fantastiques (The Fantastic Files). H.P. Lovecraft attacked the magazine and Gidlow in particular as a vulgar hedonist—a sign to Gidlow that she was on the right track in her writing. In 1920 she moved to New York and worked as an editor at Pearson’s Magazine, a move from amateur to professional journalism that Lovecraft never managed, for all of his scathing articles. In 1923, Gidlow published On a Grey Thread, the first collection of explicitly lesbian love poems to be published in the USA. After travel to San Francisco and Paris, Gidlow finally settled in the Bay Area. In 1947 she was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for her affiliations with communist organizations; as a vocal anarchist critical of communism, she was amused at their conflation of opposing ideologies. Seeking solitude in the wake of that experience, and the loss of a lover, she bought a house in Marin County, California near Muir Woods and embarked upon her next adventure: the foundation of Druid Heights. This move is perhaps the most important in terms of the legacy it creates for the LGBTQ+ movement to follow. Founded with the carpenter Roger Somers, named from a conflation of Ella Young’s writings on druidry and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Druid Heights became a community and a retreat for artists and countercultural icons, with beautiful gardens, meditation spaces, libraries, and the first redwood hot tub, developed by Ed Stiles. Gidlow published some of her own writing through Druid Heights Books, including Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian (1975) and lived there amidst stunning architecture, woodwork, and her own thriving gardens until her death at age 87 in 1986. 

FURTHER READING

Elsa Gidlow, Elsa, I Come With My Songs: The Autobiography of Elsa Gidlow (Bookletter, 1986).

Guide to Elsa Gidlow Papers, GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco, CA. https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf5t1nb102/ 

Michael Toivonen, “A Walk Through Druid Heights,” https://medium.com/@savedruidheights/a-first-visit-to-druid-heights-5956d613110c

Erik Davis, “Druids and Ferries: Zen, Drugs, and Hot Tubs,” Techgnosis, https://techgnosis.com/druids-and-ferries/ 

Brooke Palmieri