Elsa Gidlow : Poet-Warrior


Elsa Gidlow was a prominent Bay Area poet who became an important mentor to many lesbian feminists during the 1970s. Born in 1898 in Hull,England, she emigrated with her family to Montreal while she was still a small child. Then at 19 she moved to New York City. By 1921 , Elsa published On A Grey Thread , the first openly lesbian book of poetry in the United States. Elsa was one of the lesbians featured in "Word Is Out". In addition to several books of poetry and numerous articles, Gidlow published her autobiography, Elsa: I Come with My Songs, in 1986. Her papers are now part of the collections of The Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California. Her manuscripts and writings detail her relationships with other women and her many friendships with people like June Singer, Alan Watts, Lou Harrison, Frank Harris, Robbinson Jeffers, Clarkston Crane and Ella Young. The collection documents Gidlow's personal life, public activity, and literary accomplishments from 1920 until her death in 1986.

Elsa purchased a property above Muir Woods in the 40's.Secluded at the end of a long winding dirt road above Muir Woods,the land originally was a chicken farm, but Elsa had turned it into a magical retreat of California-style lodges with names like the Moon Temple. Alan Watts and later Catharine A. MacKinnon resided there. Many artists and musicians made their way to Druid Heights over the years. But for Elsa, her solitude was the treasure she sought. She continued to write and tend her 5 acre garden. Two books of poetry,many articles, and her autobiography were produced here. In 1980 Hallie Iglehart Austin introduced me to Elsa. Hallie and I had a retreat house at Druid Heights. I would go down at lunchtime and sit with Elsa as she ate. Her stories and wisdom enchanted me. Then in 1986,the month after her autobiography came out, Elsa suffered several strokes. Her friends created a "Circle of Care". We tended to Elsa twenty four hours a day for a month. Then on a splendid June morning , Elsa died. Her work was to be continued in the form of Druid Heights Artists Retreat. Her spirit lives on in her poetry....in the roots of her old apple tree where her ashes were placed....the wind in her garden still calls her name....
-Marcelina Martin, 1996

How the Dream was born...

Love's Acolyte
Many have loved you with lips and fingers
And lain with you till the moon went out;
Many have brought you lover's gifts!
And some have left their dreams on your doorstep.

But I who am youth among your lovers
Come like an acolyte to worship,
My thirsting blood restrained by reverence,
My heart a wordless prayer.

The candles of desire are lighted,
I bow my head, afraid before you
A mendicant who craves your bounty
Ashamed of what small gifts she brings.

. . . that house on Redwood Road in Fairfax, Marin County, became mine by the Winter Solstice of 1940. I called it Madrona. I spent the Yule season there, though the house was not really habitable. I felt a deep need for a transforming ritual, one that in the fortieth year of my life would set me on a fresh course. Seated beside the hearth of the empty house I knew it would begin there. I was alone in the midwinter dusk. Torrents of rain beat into decay what was left of stalks and leaves of the past season and dripped through the roof of the first shelter that was my own. A surge of hope began to replace the defeat that had undermined my will to continue. The latter seemed washed away in the deluge outside as I kindled a roaring blaze in the cold fireplace for the first time.It was triumphal retort to the roaring wind outdoors.

"Elsa Gidlow:Poet-Warrior"
Marcelina Martin 1985

I have said I was alone. Yet, as I added twigs and dry boughs, then madrone logs, the firelit room became peopled by presences: spirits of women. Women I had known: mother, grandmother, elder aunts, and back, back, back, all the women through the ages who had kindled and tended sacred and domestic fires. The elements that feel to me most kindred are water and earth . Fire seemed an opposite power, yet fascinating. That dusk of my fortieth year I began to see why.

My thought revolved around the recent transitions of my life: from city to country, concrete to earth, from rented flat to my own space, from the death of a beloved and a tumultuous relationship to solitude. As the rain poured down and the storm shook the small redwood house, there was born the possibility of a joyous sense of connectedness. A tilting stormbattered house, an emotionally and economically precarious era, at the doorstep of mid-life with no obvious achievement other than survival: none of them mattered. Deeply inward, something new was happening. I watched the burning madrone logs contribute to one another glow, each keeping the other alight. I again felt the presence of the women who had been familiars of this element. I heard their voices telling me: this fire on your hearth is neither individual nor separate any more than your living self is separate from us. We are part of one another as your small blaze is part of our chains of fires linking the centuries, a spark of the cosmic element itself."

For a moment, I wondered... fire not a separate element? Then I saw. This fire I had lighted included earth, air, water, and my human agency. The wood that nourished it included the tree nurturing earth, the water that had made its food available, the air without which it could not live or bum. The flame on my hearth was composite of all the elements. I comprehended why it was a symbol of the sacred. Before going to bed, I placed more logs on the glowing coals of the evening fire.

In the morning, the first dawn of my renewed life , the still smoldering cores of the logs seemed telling me what to do. Madrone wood bums like coal. I placed it on a metal dustpan and took the logs out into the gently rainy morning, there to become charcoal as they quickly ceased consuming themselves. When the remains of my Solstice Fire had cooled, I wrapped them in foil, tied with a piece of red ribbon and placed the first of all the subsequent Solstice Fire Logs, each to kindle the next, for all the years of my life up to the present. When I finally moved to the place I call Druid Heights, the most precious of all I took with me was the residue of the last fire in Madrona. My poem, Chains of Fires was slowly shaped from this ritual,dictated by the women who visited me that midwinter dusk.

Chains Of Fires

Each dawn, kneeling before my hearth,
Placing stick, crossing stick
On dry eucalyptus bark
Now the larger boughs, the log
(With thanks to the tree for its life)
Touching the match, waiting for creeping flame.
I know myself linked by chains of fire
To every woman who has kept a hearth

In the resinous smoke
I smell hut and castle and cave,
Mansion and hovel.
See in the shifting flame my mother
And grandmothers out over the world
Time through, back to the Paleolithic
In rock shelters where flint struck first sparks
(Sparks aeons later alive on my hearth)
I see mothers , grandmothers back to beginnings,
Huddled beside holes in the earth
of igloo, tipi, cabin,
Guarding the magic no other being has learned,
Awed, reverent, before the sacred fire
Sharing live coals with the tribe.

For no one owns or can own fire,
it ]ends itself.
Every hearth-keeper has known this.
Hearth-less, lighting one candle in the dark
We know it today.
Fire lends itself,
Serving our life
Serving fire.

At Winter solstice, kindling new fire
With sparks of the old
From black coals of the old,
Seeing them glow again,
Shuddering with the mystery,
We know the terror of rebirth.
                           -Elsa Gidlow