Dreaming the Common Language: A Guest Post by Miguel Murphy
Tonight I am a parade of love and anger.
For those of us who are gay, a sad, palpable irony accompanies, even ruins, the celebratory mood, the prayers of thanks and joy. On November 4, 2008, we accomplish a fulfillment of the civil rights movement, and yet on the same night we find that our relationships are marginalized, our desire to manifest our lives, our loves, and our families in the public realm has been very cleanly snuffed.
Tonight 18,000 gay couples are marching for their lives. Tonight, hundreds of years are walking arm in arm together parading the rim of some comic black abyss. Men and women who love one another with their bodies and with their intelligence, like you. Tonight they are marching. Together they are daring the absence to abolish them. They are crowding the darkness with the light of their private embraces. Tonight they are together, facing the public, their faces lit by starlight and police light and news camera, flashing their pleas and anger. They are facing the hypocrisy of our culture and government, refusing silence, determined, defiant, undefeated.
We carry our signs: we carry the singular river of our song, our voices lifted into a shout that echoes other revolutionary movements: Separate Is NOT Equal! Ban H8! Yes We Can! Sí Se Puede! Yes We Can!
Tonight I am marching with them.
I am taking you with me.
I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone. . .
When I first put out a call for Gay poets to submit to the upcoming February 2009 issue of OCHO magazine: DEAR AMERICA, DON’T BE MY VALENTINE, I received a surprising handful of negative or insulting messages. Some queer poets thought the point I was making silly, others were offended by the vulgarity of the call. In it, I appropriated the language of the illicit, the derogatory, to emphasize in a dramatic way the feeling that as gay men and women we have been demoralized by our political system that even as it courts our race and gender, illegitimizes our pursuit to love.
Separate is not equal. It is a catalogue of derogation. It is who we are. It is also, obviously, not who we are. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. . .
Dear Fags, Dikes, Trannies, Transvestites, He-she's, She-males, Tomboys and Mamas-boys, Lesbos, Fudge-packers, Muff-divers, Bears, Twinks and Closet Freaks, Butch and Lipstick, Hairdresser or Harley-rider, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green--Dear family, dear people of color and other,
This is a call for queer poetry, essays on poetics, and reviews of works by queer poets for the February 2009 OCHO edition: DEAR AMERICA, DON'T BE MY VALENTINE.
Your work does not have to address the politics of this post. The purpose of this issue is to highlight and bring together a strong sampling of diverse work by queer authors in the contemporary American poetry scene.
Please submit your work as a single word doc attachment, pasting your cover letter and bio in the message itself, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
My intention was not to pursue an issue of poetry devoted to the question of gay marriage, nor to the sex life of gays, nor to announce our political dissatisfactions as queer citizens, though I’m sure our poetry is concerned with these topics. The catalyst for this issue certainly involves the current political discrepancies in our rights, but the intent behind it is simply to offer a portrait of the poetic life of living queer poets. Who are we and what are we writing about? In part, I’m inviting you to my parade of love and anger, because I want to know you, I want to walk with you in your private struggles, whatever they may be. I want to cross the divides of silence that keep us from speaking out, that prevent the poetries of our loves, beliefs, families, prayers.
The call for submissions is still open. In part, submitting your poems is a political act too, in which you stand with me out of solidarity for legal and cultural equality:
And I laugh and fall dreaming again
Of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
To move openly together
In the pull of gravity, which is not simple
What is marriage?
Campaigns against gay marriage have used the slogan Freedom for Marriage to sway voters. The campaigns against gay marriage reason that gays already possess civil rights, that we may procure civil unions. (When in history has love been civil?) And so we are relegated to using the technical term, Partner. It is a word with business connotations, and not romantic, certainly not spiritual inference. Husband. Wife. These are words we gay men and women long for because they signify the validity of choice: they are garlands of a ceremony in the interest of a sacred pursuit; they validate and defend a deep intimacy in the public realm; they are shield and banner.
They are not words we have been allowed to use, even if our experience is marriage-full. Consider this poem by Rafael Campos, from his collection Landscape with Human Figure:
On Valentines Day
We’re not a married couple, though today
We let ourselves pretend we are. We walk
Together holding hands outside, afraid
Of nothing. Lost in recipes I cook
A dinner too outlandish, while you plot
To buy me something I can’t really use.
You call me silly nicknames (“Tater Tot”
Is one that makes me cringe); I look at you
A little wistfully, believing love is real,
And do things equally ridiculous,
Like sit in places you’ve just left to feel
Your warmth seep into me. The two of us,
Together all these years, forget we are
Two men who’ll never marry, still just queers.
The word “queers” is deliberately final in the poem. I would argue it encompasses the “ridiculous” affections of the quotidian married life (holding hands, using “silly nicknames”, buying gifts) as the reader witnesses an almost embarrassing domesticity of the couple, but it also reminds us that as gay men, no matter how clearly our experience together is marriage, we may only “pretend we are”. Even though the poem is a defense of “all these years” in which sentimentality prevails: “I look at you . . . believing love is real”, in the end the couple is betrayed by culture, “still just queers”. The celebration of an anniversary is acutely ruined by the difficult, political word. We are relegated to a word long used to berate us, and the poem ends with a hard consideration of inequality.
Poetry is a corruption. So is being gay.
I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed do I have in common with them? or what with
the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of
these states inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or
large that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.
As a gay Chicano poet living in Los Angeles, I find myself driven by the worrisome and offensive truth that the statistical achievement of voter turn-out by people of color did directly and negatively influence the passing of Proposition 8 to re-write the California constitution to redefine marriage as a union only between one man and one woman.
I was born in 1974, the same year Adrienne Rich began writing poems in The Dream of a Common Language. As I think about the immediate immigrant history of my family, and about the activism of my uncles and aunts, I am reminded of the late Cesar Chavez, and the way language has been used recently to drive our country into the throes of political passion. I grew up listening to the stories of immigrant migrant workers, to the stories of my mother and uncles, to the hushed stories of my grandparents who labored in fields and endured those violences. I grew up with an activist’s heart. Uvas No! Sí Se Puede! These were our cries for equality. This is our beauty. We believe first in our suffering, and next in the idea that we can fight it.
The Obama presidency has already been hailed as a post-modern achievement that transcends the boundaries of race and class. Significant in part because it offers people of color, so often relegated to the national imagination of the poor and working classes, a vision of ourselves we have not really believed. The promise of hope that he represents is the deep and purposeful fulfillment of our own vision of ourselves. He means we can imagine ourselves differently. I speak of these things as a Gay Chicano Poet, and the activism of my parent’s generation infects me here. I feel compelled to point out the heartbreaking bigotry of a movement that cries equality even as it fails to save its own, even as it institutionalizes inequality. People of Color, we are too conservative. And those of us who are Gay must now assume the activism of our parents’ struggle to voice our own rights and to condemn the open and unapologetic bigotry of our own families, churches, and local communities.
And those of you who are straight must stand with those of us who are gay, because you are not strangers to us, because we belong to you and you are our Friends, because love means you must face the destruction of whatever stands between us. Because you cannot disavow or disown us anymore than we can disavow or disown you.
Equality is not just romance, it is also a pragmatic pursuit. We deserve to be treated with respect, but this respect must also be translated by the law.
This last week has been exceptionally, profoundly upsetting. I have sought out gay voices in poetry, I have looked for those poets writing about our relationships, and come up short. It is not that there are not important works by gay authors, perhaps more easily found if you are a gay man, that validate our relationships. Mark Doty’s Atlantis, is I think, one of the most important works to deal with beauty and loss, questions of bodily frailty and spiritual life regarding the gay experience in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Thom Gunn’s work, notably The Man with Night Sweats, is especially poignant, profound and necessary. But these seem dated to me as well. They don’t feel contemporary to our predicament in this political year. I am homesick for a poetry that isn’t written yet. Where in poetry do we turn for solace, strength, confirmation that our spirit is human, when we are faced with the question of our own basic equality? Equality, because at the center of the pursuit of marriage is the Whitmanian notion that our bodies are miraculous, the drives of the flesh transcendent.
There is surely Audre Lorde. The recently controversial Hart Crane. I’m searching for those poems who have found a language for marriage, in some form, experience without title. For whatever experience that word might mean. For these poets, like for Whitman, the language of eros confounds the question of marriage. I feel desperate that our language might also determine us. Carl Phillips and Frank Bidart, important poets to my reading life, both dramatic and yet elusive. Rafael Campos, James L. White. This is a significantly inefficient list. It seems that for me at least the names of gay women poets are far less available. I wish I knew who you were or are. I scan the poems, read the leaves. I’m looking for those poems that speak to the difficulty of loving as a necessity, and the necessity of loving secretly because we are gay. Poems that speak to an unnamed domesticity, that is in turn sacred. Because even for contemporary gay poets, marriage is simply not part of our vision of ourselves. It has been withheld, we have appropriated its namelessness. We have had to write about our lives apart from the aspiration to marry, distant as they are. Still we find poems that explore our shared experiences as couples.
We certainly have built marriages, families. We have lived long lives together, made difficult sacrifices, held out through the bitter nights of arguments together, slept near the breathing shores of one another, promised each other, gotten drunk, cheated and returned, snored and vomited and won awards and adopted children and endured the humiliations and grieved together and made an anniversary of our namelessness together, walked the dogs, cooked dinner, listened to music, done nothing together, absolutely, out of the pure satisfaction of being and belonging.
Perhaps what I am saying is that I want to write a book of marriage for my own life and times.
I return to Dream of a Common Language tonight for its frank address of gay erotic life as a sacred pursuit, for its direct exploration of gay relationship and love as profound political acts, and for its struggle to name them. Here is the third section of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Origins and History of Consciousness”:
It’s simple to wake from sleep with a stranger,
dress, go out, drink coffee,
enter a life again. It isn’t simple
to wake from sleep into the neighborhood
of one neither strange nor familiar
whom we have chosen to trust. Trusting, untrusting,
we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves
downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered
over the unsearched. . . . We did this. Conceived
of each other, conceived each other in a darkness
which I remember as drenched in light.
I want to call this, life.
But I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.
Here is a poem I recite for its bravery. Here is a poem that makes a distinction between the erotic encounter and commitment. It’s one thing to have a one-night stand, something completely different to have a relationship that falters between discovery and choice. The use of the word “familiar” seems especially poignant. Rich reminds us that the gay experience has been relegated to promiscuity and namelessness. We are not talking about random lovers here, the one-night stand from which it’s simple to “enter a life again”. Isn’t this what the gay lifestyle has struggled with all along? How to be legitimate, how to pursue a relationship that isn’t only a sexual secret? Haven’t we all been desperate for someone to cruise our loneliness and to become themselves an answer to it, even if only briefly? Because it wasn’t possible to be asked out on a date, or to be invited to dinner with your family. But even in the poem, we haven’t been able to speak about dating or even marriage, because it hasn’t belonged to us.
“It isn’t simple”, Rich says, “to wake from sleep into the neighborhood / of one neither strange nor familiar / whom we have chosen”. I think we are talking about one meaning of marriage here, of what it means to pursue the shared intimacy of two, “trusting, untrusting”, in which the announcement and admission of eros (“We did this. Conceived”) is nothing less than the spiritual pronouncement of our Being: we are born to each other, we imagine and dream one another “in a darkness / which I remember as drenched in light”. If the first stanza of the poem makes the distinction that our relationship is a choice to trust someone, to wake “into the neighborhood” of someone, and if our fulfillment together is revealed by our shared erotic discoveries, the poem breaks when Rich announces “I want to call this, life.” Isn’t this what marriage is? A desire to pursue a meaning of life together? A question we commit ourselves to, to share in the struggle of its wonder?
Of course, this can’t happen until our private choice, our relationship, is free to announce itself in public: “But we can’t call it life until we start to move / beyond this secret circle of fire”. The last stanza is a call to enter the political realm, to exist also outside, in the neighborhoods, to exist as we are not only in the privacy of a bedroom “where night becomes our inner darkness” but as we are in the difficult currents of democratic engagements, facing one another, ready to bear our differences, ready to be seen and heard, argued with and embraced, our true lives bannering the remorseless clarities of daylight and equality.
[Miguel Murphy is the author of A Book Called Rats]
Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...