Thursday, August 30, 2007



Quarry by Rochelle Ratner
(New Rivers Press, St. Paul, MN, 1978)

Combing the Waves by Rochelle Ratner
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, 1979)

Practicing to be a Woman by Rochelle Ratner
(The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, NJ, 1982)

A Visual and Textual Reading of Early Work by Rochelle Ratner

I confess to being a book junkie. I love them. I especially love oldish books and books that reflect independent--and feminist--publishing. Eileen Tabios graced me with three books by Rochelle Ratner from early in Ratner’s career. I’m an admirer of Ratner’s writing and have reviewed her most recent two books for Galatea Resurrects here and here. Therefore in the spirit of these “transformations,” I conclude with what I call a visual and textual readings of three early work by Rochelle Ratner.

While this book (a chapbook? Hardly at 48 pages, but with two staples and not perfect bound) appears to be orange based on the image taken from Rochelle Ratner’s website, it is actually brown. This is one of the things that books teach us that the Internet cannot. True colors. The book is brown with thick, textured cardstock on the outside, but inside is the most delightful burgundy paper with a design of a flower or leaf--before it was printed the master was obviously hand-wrought. Today, it might be done with a computer and so it would be perfectly repeating and crisp and clear. Looking at this paper, now, though, I imagine the people behind it--their work and their care. I appreciate it. I know that while we’ve gained things through technological advancement, we’ve lost things, too. I cannot recall a contemporary book with such a lovely front paper.

Holding this book reminds of printing before desktop printers or copiers. I remember, albeit vaguely and indirectly, when ink was loaded into presses. It’s evident in this book as the artwork that faces the title page is printed in brown, while the title page is printed in black. The brown knits through the book because a single page loaded onto the press and printed with one color was cheaper than printing multiple colors on a single page and each single page on the printing press becomes at least four pages and sometimes more laced through the final, cut and bound, book. Soon, I become entranced with each image in brown, French coats of arms with fanciful and magical creatures – primarily unicorns but also stags and birds and cherubs – because I know that each picture printed in brown will yield a poem in the book on subsequent pages, also printed in brown. These are the details of printing that are easy to forget, but when remembered seem important and somehow profound.

Combing the Waves, published in 1979 by Hanging Loose Press, entered the world at what I consider the height of the women-in-print movement. During the 1970s, feminists, committed to taking power over their own words and getting their work--poems, stories, essays--into the hands of other women as a way to incite and further the revolution, learned about printing and book production in time period that we call the “women-in-print” movement. While Ratner’s book was not published by a feminist press, it feels like an artifact of the forces of feminism shaping it’s existence.

Hanging Loose Press, founded in 1966, has a strong history with publishing feminist work. Combing the Waves is an early example. The cover art--a block print of a mermaid--sets both a thematic tone for the book as well as a visual element that is continued throughout. There are seven block prints in total in the book, including the front cover, that explore various aspects of the mermaid icon. The final poem of the book, “The Little Sea Mermaid,” explores the Grimm fairy tale with a feminist lens. It end with the haunting line, “Sister, you can still be one of us.”

Ratner’s first book of collected poems, Practicing to be a Woman, appeared in 1982. It is a blue hard bound book with a simple and elegant design. The book brings together almost all of the poems from Quarry--but without the images, a real loss--some of the poems from Combing the Waves and a number of poems from the other nine collections of poetry that Ratner had published prior to 1981. These poems, distilled to their thematic title, present an important document of feminist writing. The lines that begin “Practicing To Be a Woman” provide a glimpse of their significance to the time period as well as their relevance today,

Not that sort of woman,
sticking her little fingers out
to be dainty

the ones I’m attracted to
have more sensible things to do

like putting effort
into being friends with women.
not all of them

but one woman:


Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at


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