Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit by Judy Grahn

By John Zheng
Judy Grahn’s Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit is a thought-provoking study of relationships between human and nonhuman creatures and spirits. It collects ten nonfiction essays, divided into three parts, with a vivid record of Grahn’s observations and contemplations of the sentient world, a historical track of her metaformic consciousness, and a personal encounter with creatures and spirits presenting nature and human nature. As Jenny Factor points out in her introduction, this study is “about capturing a world—our whole interconnected, living world—before it has slipped out of our consciousness and into realms beyond our possible reclamation” (p. 11). Its purpose is to raise an awareness of the world that belongs to both human and non-human creatures.
Grahn is a pioneer in metaformic theory. Her essay, “The Emergence of Metaformic Consciousness,” discusses four varieties of metaform. The first one is wilderness, referring to, in Grahn’s words, “the use of, or more accurately, being in relation with, creatures, formations, and elements of nature to describe menstrual ideas” ( What then are Grahn’s menstrual ideas? Grahn believes that ancient rituals embody ideas through menstrual instruction, which she terms metaform—a physical presence of an idea with menstruation as its fundamental source. Because menstruation is associated with blood, Grahn argues or proudly proclaims in her poem, “All blood is menstrual blood” (
Menstrual blood is the only source of blood
that is not traumatically induced.
Menstrual blood, like water,
just flows.
Its fountain existed
long before knives or flint.
is the original source of blood.
Menstrual is blood’s secret name.
Grahn’s belief reflects her feminist attitude toward mystics and wilderness. She thinks that the metaform of wilderness contains a creature attracted to the menstrual blood or the feminine shape, like the legendary snake mentioned in “The Emergence of Metaformic Consciousness”:
Anthropologists currently believe that the oldest continuous religion on earth is among Australian aborigines, some of whom have a deity named Rainbow Snake. According to legend, two sisters, the Wawilak Sisters, were the first to be swallowed by the Snake. This happened on the occasion when the older sister was giving birth. The younger sister began to dance while they waited for the afterbirth, and suddenly she began her first blood flow. At this instant, the Snake came out of the waterhole and wrapped itself around both of them and their newborn child. Anthropologist Chris Knight has hypothesized that the idea of the Rainbow Snake, coming from the “womb” of the waterhole, and said to
“swallow” a woman when she menstruates, is an example of menstrual synchrony, evidently
so central to these people—at least at one time—that “menstrual blood of three women” is a topic of
women’s cats-radle games, and most rituals include “menstrual” flows.
The use of the snake reflects Grahn’s idea that animals, like us humans, have emotion, thinking, consciousness, communication, and social life. With this idea held firmly in mind, Grahn develops an “interest in how to process the encounters with creature consciousness, involving intentional interactions and communications from nonhuman beings, as well as encounters with that even more mysterious aspect we call spirit” (p. 16). For example, Grahn describes a spirit cat seen by her and her friends in the house. It is a light-colored, female cat that comes up the porch steps, brushes past their legs, and goes inside the house. This unpredictable encounter immediately associates her thinking with human-nonhuman interrelatedness because it feeds her “sense of profound delight at the interconnectedness of life: we are not just random dust motes blowing around, when, anyway, maybe dust motes aren’t so disconnected either” (49). What Grahn says keeps a mysterious touch, an interactive response between humans and nonhuman creatures/spirits.
Grahn is not just a conscious observer but one who records and reflects her experiences with nature and human nature. She takes a notebook with her for her physical experience, like lovemaking on a broad smooth stone one night on a ranch, and later contemplates the experience aesthetically with detailed notes about it when she needs to develop her metaformic consciousness (p. 190). In a way, Grahn’s observation and experience show her understanding of self and other creatures and spirits, both human and nonhuman.
Furthermore, this book shows a new sense of self in Grahn, as she says, “I have always said I am she, her, hers. But after this exploration of levels of consciousness, I have a new awareness that creeps into my speech…. The pronouns that are appropriate for this sense of ‘me’ as a ‘self’ must surely be extended. The pronouns should be ‘we, us, ours’” because “‘we’ interact, the radiance impacts us, co-creating our state of being” (pp. 205-206). In short, reading Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit makes one reconsider the being of self in a large realm of “us” through the touch of human and nonhuman creatures. It provides a psychic and empathic way to understand not just us humans but, more importantly, nonhuman creatures around us. There is a touch to be needed and nurtured; there is an emergency of raising awareness of our existence in and with nature.
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

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