HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 2, 2007
A Sturdy and Life-Affirming Body of Work

John R. Guthrie

On Eloise Klein Healy’s The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho


I last saw Ms. Healy was in June when she read from The Islands Project as the featured poet in the Rhapsodomancy reading series at Los Angeles’s Good Luck Bar. The voice of her new work is clear. It resonated within as I drove home where I ordered the volume online. When it arrived I read it through at a sitting.

In the lyrically beautiful “When Does a Self Begin?” the narrator is attending her dying mother;

Under the anesthetic she dies
into the hands of another and returns,
the gases in her blood crossing
back to the proportion and balance
of the living. I sit like a scribe
in the outer chamber waiting room
while her soul comes back
into the wrapper

The poet’s death watch continues until the night when the phone rings at 3:20 A.M.;

Two weeks ago she stopped
eating and drinking and speaking.
The nurses say it’s common, the person decides.

The narrator concludes with the following poignant lines from “Rites;”

I am trying to remember
my days in her body
when she was young
and wanting this baby to come.
I have known her longer than my life.

Ms. Healey’s mother, Carmen V. Klein, died in 2006 during the production of The Islands Project.

The volume has much food for thought in other areas. In “How Much Can I Have of Sappho?” the poet asks;

Maybe people just feel a need
to put me in my place,
to set me straight.


It is a given that we as a society are enriched by both candor and diversity. Yet generations of scholars have sought to keep the gay or lesbian writer in their place. In her passionate love letters to Susan Gilbert, Emily Dickinson provides one of many possible examples;

… I love you so already, that it almost breaks my heart--perhaps I can love you anew, every day of
my life, every morning and evening--Oh if you will let me, how happy I shall be!


On Dickenson’s death, her love letters to Gilbert were gathered and burned, though some few escaped the flames by chance. Thus Ms. Dickenson was “set straight” for generations yet to come.

Similarly, a primarily heterosexual critical establishment sought through the years to keep Walt Whitman deep within the closet. Yet we seem as a society to have come to terms with the obvious homoeroticism in Leaves of Grass, in particular that of the “Calamus” poems. Besides the lyrical beauty of his work, now liberated from that critical closet by a more realistic and enlightened society, Whitman serves as a positive role model for gay youth. We are all much the better for it.

She is the founding chair of Antioch University Los Angeles’s celebrated Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

I was a student in Ms Healey’s class on “Prosody,” in the summer of 2005. She was dealing with a topic, essentially the story of metrics, that in the hands of many professors would be somnorific.  But she provided sparkling historical illustrations, evidenced her characteristic wit and charm, and made it into a memorable moment.

She is a prolific and much recognized poet with five previous books of poetry, three spoken word recordings to her credit. Her Passing was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry as well as a finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Prize. Artemis In Echo Park was also a finalist for the Lambda Book Award. She produced Women’s Studies Chronicles, a chapbook, in 1998. Ordinary Wisdom, from Paradise Press, was reprinted by Red Hen Press in 2005.

Healy was awarded the Horace Mann Award by Antioch University Los Angeles for her contributions to the arts and simultaneously was named Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. Her work has also appeared in numerous anthologies to include Another City: Writing From Los Angeles; California Poetry: From The Gold Rush To The Present; Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals; Grand Passion: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond; The Geography Of Home: California’s Poetry of Place; and The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave.

She was awarded artist’s residencies at The MacDowell Colony and Dorland Mountain Colony and was Guest Writer at Ohio University in 2004. Healy was also the recipient of a COLA Fellowship from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles and a California Arts Council Grant.

She directed the Women’s Studies Program at California State University Northridge and taught in the Feminist Studio Workshop at The Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. She is the co-founder of ECO-ARTS, an eco-tourism/arts venture. In 2006 she established ARKTOI, an imprint with Red Hen Press that focuses on writing by lesbian authors.

Eloise Klein Healy’s The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho
Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2007. 115 Pages.


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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