“When God Was a Woman” by Carmen Giménez Smith

A poem title to catch your attention.

This poem comes from one of my favorite contemporary poets, Carmen Giménez Smith, who teaches at New Mexico State University and edits the literary journal Puerto del Sol. Giménez Smith has published four poetry collections and a beautiful memoir, and this poem comes from her most recent collection, Milk & Filth.

When God Was a Woman

When God was a woman,
empire was meh.
When God was a woman,
we built Schools of Listening
and every week we sat quietly
until we could hear
each other’s thoughts.

No shadows when God
was a woman. Little girls
had great dominion,
and grandmothers
were venerated.
Sky was the giant
bellows of her inside.

The grace of God meant
flowing and willowy. This
was when God was a woman.

She played harmless pranks
because she liked keeping
things light. She made it rain
on our collective good hair days.
When she met someone
who seemed fun
and a little mysterious, she invited
him into heaven,

then she made her daughter
blind for a week, which in retrospect
was kind of mean, but her
daughter made the best of it.

The poem’s tone is so conversational and light-hearted that it’s easy to miss some of its careful turns. I love the short third stanza, for example, in which the repeated /w/ sound enacts the “flowing and willowy” grace of God. W is a special kind of English consonant known, fittingly, as a “glide.” Because the lips don’t come together and the tongue doesn’t quite make contact with any part of the mouth, the consonant has a special flowing openness to it.

You could easily imagine this poem with the word “if” instead of “when” in the title. After all, the poem is engaging in a kind of playful thought experiment. But I love “when” for the way it suggests a sense of loss, as if the poet were talking about the way things used to be in some pre-lapsarian past. Milk & Filth is a defiant, feminist collection of poems, and certainly this poem operates under the conviction that we might be better off without the aggressively masculine, domineering gods of so many religions throughout history, from the vengeful god of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the capriciousness of Zeus, Ares, and their ilk.

"Goddess" by Galen Dara

“Goddess” by Galen Dara

I’ve thought about this poem a lot lately with the attention given to gender issues in the LDS church. I have wondered, and I know I have friends who have also wondered, why we don’t talk more about Heavenly Mother, one of the most beautiful and unique Mormon doctrines, but one that is for the most part muted in church culture. (I’d love to read a Mormon feminist version of this poem. The title would need to change, since the issue is not “when God was a woman,” but the fact that God, or at least god, is a woman.) In particular, I have more than one friend who has expressed that because of negative experiences with fathers, teachers, or male priesthood leaders, they find it hard to relate to the idea of a loving Heavenly Father and wish that they could openly embrace a relationship with a female deity. (It’s a special blessing in my life that I have a great dad and haven’t had this problem.)

I love the lines in the second stanza that say when God was a woman “little girls / had great dominion, / and grandmothers / were venerated.” Maybe this is because I have little girls in my family, and I think the world would be a pretty fun, creative, and overall compassionate place if they had great dominion. The lines only make sense, though, in a culture in which little girls have very little dominion, and grandmothers are not venerated–in other words, American culture. We are taught that we were created in the image of God, but I also think it’s the case that we tend to create God in our image. That is, our ability to understand God is constrained by our experience, values, and imagination. What happens when our experiences and values lead us to think that the most powerful beings in the world are aggressive men? We can only imagine that God is like that as well.

So this poem invites us to start over and imagine a world in which God is not a powerful man but a compassionate, albeit slightly mischievous, woman. I’ve heard various, mostly unsatisfactory, reasons for why we don’t talk more about Heavenly Mother in the church. The most convincing to me is that we simply don’t know much about her (though that never stopped any high priest group I’ve been a part of). That’s why I love this poem, because I think revelation depends on desire and imagination. We need to want to know things, and we need to begin to study them out in our minds, i.e., use our imaginations, among other critical capacities.

One last, slightly unrelated point. I love the idea that the God of the poem lets into heaven anyone who strikes her as “fun and a little mysterious,” rather than just those who are good or righteous. It seems like we do everything we can to suck the humor and joy out of religion. I’m all for a god that lets it back in.