Between the Lines: Reading Jill Alexandra Essbaum’s Harlot



There is the harlot.

The bared female form is minuscule,

nestled into the base

of the rigid penis.

You pick the harlot up

and roll her over. There, you find a man’s words

spread across her back. He has defined her

by the men she has been with.

He has only left her

to germinate their seeds.



Perhaps the cover to Jill Alexandra Essbaum’s Harlot, which depicts a woman hugging the base of a penis, is simply to incite the reader’s sexual curiosity enough for the person to pick up the book at read it – maybe even buy it – during a time when mainstream culture seems more concerned with America’s Next Top Model than with America’s Next Top Woman Poet. Or perhaps it can give further insight into the interrelations between sex and gender and religion and poetry beyond its front cover.

Perhaps HL Hix is intentional in comparing her work to that of “Herbert and Wyatt and Donne [and] their parallax view of religion as sex and sex as religion” on the back cover, and almost sounding shocked as he reveals to the reader that this chick isn’t like those guys – she’s a woman! The comparisons are impossible to ignore. Essbaum, as a woman poet of the 21st century, is the naked woman gripping onto the base of the penis on the front cover, or at least this seems like what Hix would have us believe.  Perhaps intentionally, or perhaps unknowingly, Hix has ignored the more marginalized Elizabethan figures for the more prominent, accessible, and male dominated cannon’s work for his comparison. Hix mentions Donne, but none of his mistresses; he mentions Wyatt – but what about Anne Boleyn? In Harlot, Essbaum gives voice to the voiceless women throughout history: the harlot, the mistress, the concubine – all the way back to Mary Magdalene. In a few sentences, Hix demotes these women back into the page margin. He places Essbaum at the base of the erect cannon.

The more adequate comparison for Essbaum’s theme, if not her style, is certainly Margery Kemp. There are clear parallels between Kemp’s devoted emotional and physical relationship with (in her belief) God and Essbaum’s strained emotional and sexual relationship with religion. Mysticism was exercised by women as one of the few powers they had in the religious spectrum. Their belief in the physical connection with God was controversial, much like Essbaum’s controversial approach to religion through, at times, erotic poetry. Perhaps Essbaum is the mystic of the 21st century, but will her work stand up to history, or will she be banished to the sideline like the mistress she tries to give voice to?


Essbaum’s work has been compared to “Dorothy Parker and a lap dance,” according to her website. The lap dance is obvious. The sexuality of the lap dance is in your face – the initial theme is easy to derive. However, Dorothy Parker is known for her witty puns, a more subtle element than the overt sexuality found in Harlot. After further investigation, a multiplicity of meaning can be found within Essbaum’s poem, La Linguiste. There are three levels of meanings that can be dissected.

First, a basic audience, or an uneducated audience can understand the lines of La Linguiste. The sexual references of La Linguiste are fairly obvious, but, as the title would imply, a more complex meaning can be discovered through a linguistic, or structuralist, analysis of the poem. To do this, we must approach language as “a collective phenomenon,” as an ongoing process of accumulating a “system of linguistic signs which the members of a speech community utilize for the purpose of communication” (Saussure 19, Politzer 319). That is, we continue to accumulate new words in our collective vocabulary. These linguistic signs, or words, have meanings attributed to them, which represent ideas or objects.  However, within language, words can have “many potential meanings,” as is the case with Essbaum’s La Linguiste (Politzer 319). There is a multiplicity within the words and their context in La Linguiste, though this is not apparent to everyone, and it is dependent on the speech community/ies that they belong to. However, for the purposes of this reading, we will try to deconstruct the levels of meaning within the text.

In some instances, Essbaum creates this multiplicity by using grammatical terms that are also used in everyday speech, while some lines are constructed with grammatical terms that share phonetic/structural similarities, like roots, with words used in everyday speech, or are at least can be familiar to an average, uneducated, English speech community. When presented with “her genitives began to tingle,” the reader/listener can connect “genitives” with “genitals” by phonetic/structural recognition (Essbaum 49). This is easy enough, as they share a root word, which causes the words to look similar on a page and have similarities in pronunciation. However, the following line, “and that dangling modifier of his? Well / it did not dangle for long,” does not work on the level of structural recognition (49). This is because the phrase is “observed under certain [semantic] conditions” that can change the interpretation of the phrase (Mahmoudian 194). By itself, “dangling modifier” has no sexual connotation, but in context to the rest of the poem, the sign accumulates a new connotation. In an instant, it creates the mental image of a forming erection.

We could easily take these meanings and understand the poem’s lines in their sexual context, or we could dive further into the multiplicity of Essbaum’s La Linguiste. Where “in the language each term has its value through its contrast with all the other terms,” Essbaum’s lines produce new meanings in contrast to their context and word multiplicity (Saussure 88).  In one instance, the “dangling modifier” gives us the picture of a flaccid penis, but in the second phrase we learn that the modifier no longer dangles, indicating an erection. However, in a grammatical sense, a dangling modifier modifies, or explains, a word not found in the sentence. For a dangling modifier to “no longer dangle,” it must have found the word that it modifies, (in which we can assume in this context that it has found the word “vagina,” and that it is about to modify it considerably). The multiplicity of the words both function correctly in the sentence, yet they both maintain the same sexual semantics.

Similarly, we see this function in the aforementioned tingling “genitives.” The phonetic/structural recognition and context allow us to interpret her meaning, but the fact that “genitives,” in the grammatical sense, constitute a relationship, generally of a possessor, could further the sexual significance. While it seems that she is the possessor of her genitals in this line, it could indirectly show the power struggle within this sexual relationship. When Essbaum continues with “they conjugated. Elatedly,” the audience constructs the meaning of this line from phonetic/structural similarities or root knowledge (49).  They understand that the two characters in the poem are having sex. However, what makes this phrase interesting is the understanding of what grammatically affects conjugations in a sentence. The connection between person, gender, aspect, or mood and the possible affect they can have in regards to the sex in the poem spurs at least a little brow curling. In looking at the broad context of La Linguiste, there seems to be a power struggle within the sex. The idea of possession of genitals, or sex that is affected and changed by the gender of those involved, brings forth issues of gender relations that deserve further analysis.

Again, in a later line, “when he inserted his expletive,” can be analyzed multiplisticly (49). We can understand that, in the context of the sentence in relationship to the sexually charged poem, expletive represents the man’s dick, even if we do not have the definition of expletive in our personal dictionary. The context is clear. If we understand that the definition of “expletive” includes the word dick (or cock or other similar representations of the penis), then we can see how the second meaning also aligns with the context of the sentence. It serves to replace the “bad” word that the expletive signifies. However, it could further suggest that the expletive, the dick, is a meaningless word – just filler. If the genitals are something to be owned, and the penis is a meaningless modifying agent, what are we to understand of the intercourse taking place in the poem?


Ironically, while Essbaum “discovered / surprisingly enough, that ‘to ejaculate’ / did not simply mean shouting Fire! / in a crowded lobby,” we discover, in reading Essbaum, that there are many words that carry multiple meanings, and that we must not only deconstruct the sign’s multiple meanings and analyze them as separate entities – we must also take in the collective natures of their meanings. However, this is the linguist’s approach to the text. In reality, the “sign is ‘arbitrary because the meaning of a word […] depends solely upon the conventional use of the word by the community” (Waterman 307). So while the reading will appeal to both basic audiences and linguistically informed audiences, the audience attributes the meaning to the words that they have collected from their speech communities – they will interpret the words based on their personal vocabulary.

In writing La Linguiste, Essbaum has established a distinction between readers and the communities they belong to. Just as “if the audience belongs to a different culture, then we may have to consider the possibility that it may either not know what democracy is r it may know it in a very different form,” we must consider the limitations presented in La Linguiste for various audiences to understand the depth of meaning (Politzer 320).  To some, ejaculation “simply might mean shouting fire in a crowded lobby,” but to some it might mean something completely different. Since individuals possess tailor made dictionaries, each will approach the poem with a different understanding, so that ejaculation might simply mean whatever image that it signifies to the individual.

Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the “types” of communities when discussing the various interpretations of La Linguiste. The poem can be understood by a speech community that possess no understanding of roots or the linguistic definitions, but its inherent meaning acts to privilege an educated community. It perpetuates the “value system handed down and applied by a linguistic community,” in that it strokes the ego of the educated class by acting as an object to be dissected. It opens its legs to be penetrated, but only the linguist can understand its implications.

This is because La Linguiste is more than just about one intimate moment between a man and a woman, and it reveals more than power relationships between heterosexual couples. It is an introspective look at the practice of linguistic structuralism and the power relationships within the field and in historical context. Perhaps we can look at the very obvious linguistic term that seems to be missing from the poem – intercourse. If “intercourse is a principle of unification […] responsible for the extension and cohesion of a language,” would it not easily find its way into a poem constructed of multiplistic signs for their meanings in linguistics and sex, with a pension for an additional interconnection (Saussure 204)?  Intercourse is not found in the poem because no true bond is found between the two participants. They might be expletive, but they are certainly not engaging in intercourse.

Perhaps this is because of “parochialism […], which accounts for why a linguistic community remains faithful to the traditions is has nurtured” (204). The etymology of the word “parochial” alone is interesting in reference to this reading. Whether we take it as the teachings of the Church, especially in the context of Essbaum’s religiously themed book, or if we understand it as the perpetuation of a small range of thinking, as represented by the privileged educated class of readers that approach the text itself. La Linguiste seems to point out the decay of unity resulting from the perpetuation of systematic traditions – within the Church, within heterosexual copulation, and within the distinction between speech communities.


Perhaps there is a duality in Hix’s comparison of Essbaum to Donne. Perhaps she places herself at the base of the cannon’s expletive, strokes the linguist’s ego through a devotion only practiced by mystics – she writes in honor of the cannon without regard for the marginalized; she constructs La Linguiste purposefully to privilege and perpetuate a parochial institution. But perhaps she does this as a harlot, with the complete understanding of her actions. Perhaps she plans each move with precision and an ultimate goal. Her lap dance is to entice the money from your pockets – you are the one who is mistaken it for lust. Even if her name pales in comparison to her predecessors of Donne or Wyatt, she intentionally places herself at their feet, anointing oil in hand, all the while perfectly aware of the inequitable power relations.


Light your cigarette. It feels

good to be finished, doesn’t it? But

something still feels missing. Gone

in a flash. And we still

feel dirty.


Works Cited

Essbaum, Jill Alexandra. “La Linguiste.” Harlot. 2002. (49-50).

Mahmoudian, Morteza. Modern Theories of Language, The Empirical Challenge. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Politzer, Robert. A Brief Classification of the Limits of Translatability. (319 – 322) Ebsco Publishing. 2003.

Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986.

Waterman, John. Ferdinand de Saussure – Forerunner of Modern Structuralism. University of Southern Carolina. Ebsco Publishing. 2003. (307 – 309)

Waniek ,Eva. Meaning in Gender Theory: Clarifying a Basic Problem from a Linguistic-Philosophical Perspective. Hypatia vol. 20, no. 2. Indiana University Press. 2005. (48 –68).  11 March, 2009. /results/results_single_fulltext.jhtml;hwwilsonid=IPS40WZ3YDCU1QA3DILSFGOADUNGIIV0.

Works Referenced

Greenbaum, Sidney. The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Joseph, John. The Centenary of the First Publication of Saussure’s Sign Theory — Odier. Historgraphia Linguistica.John Benjamin’s Publishing. (309 – 321).

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