Harvey Milk Plaza, San Francisco, 6/28/09  (photo: C. Dungy)

The street sweepers have passed, and the crowd control fences have been carried away.  Pride, for some, is over and done.  But for many, the persistent resistance that Pride weekend celebrates still thrives.  Thank goodness. In honor of Pride and, moreover, in honor of the spirit of resistance and persistence of the Stonewall rebellion and the movements it spawned, (and also in a sort of answer to a question Catherine Halley posed some time ago), I’m going to share a few poems by a small sample of writers from the West Coast LBGT community.

Eloise Klein Healy, author of The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho, connects her love of the poet Sappho to a very contemporary, daily existence.  Our lingering fascination with the poet from Lesbos is filtered through this book’s witty, sometimes heartbreaking perspectives.  In the poem, “How Much Can I Have of Sappho?” she grapples with what it means to be denied the right to claim the poet.  Here are the final two sections of the four-section piece:

III

I live with the anger that Sappho and I
are denied each other.
She’s a word like “aunt,” I’m a word like “quaint,”
we’re always off-rhyme,
two words like “ain’t.”

People say to me, “You know, she didn’t have to be
a lesbian.  You know nothing
is proven, right?”

A one-size-fits-all meaning of the word lesbian
is one I don’t even ask for.

“What would Sappho think?”
I ask myself.  She would think, “Who’s that
new girl?”

IV

People just can’t find
a way to let me
have her.

And why not?
What would they
lose then?

Maybe people just feel a need
to put me in my place,
to set me straight.

What attracts me to this poem is its plain spokeness, and also its light touch (“What would Sappho think?” / I ask myself.  She would think, “Who’s that / new girl?”)  These belie a turbulent emotional undercurrent.  The poem keeps up a calm face even as there is a great deal of emotion, intention, complexity of purpose contained therein.  It feels like an apt statement of a sort of committed resistance that must carry on daily, that cannot risk expending overmuch energy at every turn because there is going to be another struggle to undertake the next day and there must be energy kept in reserve.

A complaint that is often waged against poets writing from marginalized communities (I hate that phrase, pardon my use of it here for expedience’s sake) is that they are not angry enough, that their poems are not direct enough in their articulations of resistance.  I, personally, love a poem that expresses a kind of restraint while it makes clear that the speaker is not going to roll over and hush up anytime soon.  There is a certain kind of staying power a poem like this suggests, that the speaker’s resilience is not going to sputter out overnight. This is a good thing, since, as her poems suggests (read some more here), there is still plenty of work to be done.

This poetic conservation of energy, even when circumstances might suggest appropriate conditions for immoderate rage, seems to be one of the key factors tying together the poets I am looking at today.  D. A. Powell’s new book, Chronic, is full of poems that play a number of emotional registers, backing away from all out rage much of the time and employing, instead, sarcasm, sideways references (which in poetics speak we call allusion), understatement, dry wit, feigned indifference.  Poems like “centerfold” and “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song ‘good times’ by chic” overlook what’s at their core, if by overlook we can simultaneously mean to willfully look beyond as well as to carefully survey.  When the matter at the core of the poems has to do with chronic disease, the degradation of civilization as we know it, and love’s ever-dissolving potential, it might be best to take a step back every now and again to gain a fresh perspective, to rest the spirit for the inevitable struggles ahead.

This post owes a debt to Cole Krawitz and Griselda Suarez, the two San Francisco Bay Area writers who organized a reading for the 2009 National Queer Arts Festival.  I was familiar with the work of most of the poets reading at the event: D. A. Powell, Eloise Klein Healy, Jewelle Gomez, Elana Dykewomon, Ching-In Chen, the magnificent Dorothy Allison, and the multi-genre force, Rigoberto González.  Only one poet was completely new to me: Ely Shipley.

Shipley’s work fits into this idea of persistent resistance beautifully.  The poems take on ways of looking, and chip away slowly, often delicately, at the perceptions they initially suggest:

Boy with Flowers

My aunt loved me, asked me:
will you be the flower
girl at my wedding?  But I’m not
a girl, I argued, and she persuaded me:
you’ll get to throw rose petals

onto the aisle, walk before me, both of us
crushing them beneath our feet, my gown
dragging over them.  I agreed.  I wanted
nothing but chivalry.

At the church, my mother and I
waited in the small room.  She brushed
my aunt’s hair until the dress arrived.
Isn’t it beautiful?  And I agreed until they tried
to put me in it.  I’d seen my father

and uncle earlier, standing in a circle
of other men, smoke hovering over their heads, a halo
and their voices kind, quiet, and deep.  I told my aunt—
I want to wear a suit like them!  She promised

if I wore the dress I could wear anything
I wanted after: army pants, a sheriff
badge, cowboy hat, and pistols.  My mother shot her
a look in the mirror where we posed, both of them
angelic in white, and me not yet

dressed.  Today I wake from another dream
in which I have a beard, no breasts,
and am about to go skinny-dipping
on a foreign beach with four other men.

I’m afraid to undress, won’t take off my shorts,
so they gab me, one at each ankle, the other two
by each wrist.  I am a starfish hardening.
The sun hovers above, a hot
mirror where I search for my reflection.

I close my eyes.  It’s too intense.  The light
where my lover is tracing fingertips
around two long incisions in my chest.  Each sewn tight
with stitches, each naked stem, flaring with thorns.

The turns in this poem, intensified by the line breaks and also the leaps from one situation to the next, amplify the sense of long struggle.  The poem is about now and also about always, and its pace, slow and steady but also, somehow, accelerated, seems just right for a situation in which everything happens at once and, also, situations unravel over long periods of time. “Boy with Flowers,” the title poem of Shipley’s collection, reveals in increments and, with each revelation, suggests plenty more that’s gone unsaid.

Speaking of plenty more going unsaid, there are a slew of other writers whose work I’d love to address here: Charles Flowers, C. Dale Young, Toni Mirosevich, Troung Tran, Eileen Myles, Jericho Brown, and Elizabeth Bradfield spring immediately to mind.  I’ll close, though, by writing briefly about the inimitable Rebecca Brown, whose earthshaking works of fiction and nonfiction are go-to books for me when I want to think about how to use language most evocatively. This is so partly because Brown's books are so amazing in the manners in which they manage to be simultaneously direct and indirect.  I’m thinking, for instance, of her phenomenal story “What I Did” in the short story collection The Terrible Girls.  In “What I Did” the speaker narrates, in gruesome detail, the specifics of carrying some very clearly referenced thing, but she fails to ever, directly, state what that thing actually is.  It’s a brilliant deployment of abstraction in the midst of clarity, so the story works as allegory and testimony all at once.  This idea of staying power that I’ve been working around in this post seems to come forward throughout Brown’s many volumes of prose.  Each time she tackles a subject in her books, be it her mother’s death, a progression from young lesbian to elder figure, caring for those afflicted with AIDS, grappling with identity, or learning to play war with the kids on the block, Brown does so in an unflinching manner that demands you stay with her for the long haul.

Brown’s work, like the work of all the writers I’ve written about today, bears little resemblance to the glitzy weekend my city’s just celebrated, with its corporate sponsorship and its start-on-time-end-on-time-kindly-police-escorted parade.  This work bears more in common with the dangerous confrontations at the Stonewall Inn, and before, and after, and on and on for the years and years, the decades of struggle and progress and tide turns and surprises (pleasant and unpleasant) and constant persistent celebration and resistance some of us have made note of only on occasion ever since and some of us, thank goodness, are alert to most days.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. June 29, 2009
     lizz

    camille, thank you for this! i have issues with the term marginalization too--but i am very familiar with the concept. thank you for your ability to put a spotlight on these literary profiles and how these issues merge with different viewpoints. and where they intersect with language. this bridge called my back is one of the first collections of poems i ever read--since then i always look for, and believe it is good to find, what others may not mention daily.

  2. June 29, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    Thanks Camille I'm honored. I loved the Ely Shipley poem a lot, love hearing about Rebecca always and you know I love the title of the piece and how it holds it all like a poem.

  3. July 1, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Thanks, Camille, for continuing the conversation. I was just in SF, CA for the Frameline Film Festival and the parades. I love, love, love Rebecca Brown. She's like the Dyke or Trans March rather than the big, old Market-street Pride parade, isn't she? She is the spontaneous dancing we did on 18th Street with hundreds of joyful souls saying goodbye to the King of Pop.

  4. July 3, 2009
     Terreson

    Camille Dungy, this may be a bit off-topic. But the Sappho poem brings the memory to mind.\r

    In the north of the Olympic Peninsula there is the unincorporated town of Sappho. It was established in around 1889 by a settler and his large family from Kansas. His name was Martin Van Buren Lamoreux. He came to Seattle, then he steamed to a Native American village on the Straights of Juan De Fuca called Pysht. Then he and his family hiked inland to make there claim. He called the town Sappho because he was an admirer of the poet's verse.\r

    Sappho is a junction between U.S. Hhwy 101 and State route 113. 113 leads north to the Straights. From there 101 leads east to Port Angeles and then to Port Townsend. To call Sappho a town is a larger claim than it deserves. When I was in the area in the 90s Sappho had a store and that is all. The building-site dates back to the twenties. It started out as a house with a gas pump in front. Then it morphed into a restaurant, mostly patronized by loggers. After logging in the area went bust it became a kind of general store for motorists and tourists travelling the coastal highway.\r

    My job in those years took me up and down the Olympic Peninsula. And so I frequently passed through Sappho. One day, coming in on 101 and turning north onto 113 I saw the statue I had read about in a book on WA state, a geography book celebrating all the state's early white settlements. And there she was, life size, behind the store. Sappho. Artist unknown, at least to me. I just remember I have a photo of the statue in a box somewhere.\r

    An hour or so ago I googled Sappho, WA for the fun of it. Mapquest gives its location. Wikipedia has an entry devoted to it. Then I found a newspaper article telling me the store burned down in 2004; causes unknown. That is sad news. I am kind of hoping the statue still stands. I always romanced the notion of living in Sappho. \r

    Terreson

  5. July 3, 2009
     Terreson

    A case of my bad. The town is called Sapho, not Sappho.\r

    Terreson

  6. July 14, 2009
     Jamey Hecht

    Hi Camille,\r
    As I read your words of praise for Eloise Klein Healy, it occurred to me that you might enjoy my recent essay about her work in the Los Angeles Review #5. \r
    best,\r
    Jamey Hecht\r

    poetry, politics, collapse

  7. July 28, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Terreson,\r

    Turns out you were right the first time. I'm recently returned from the Olympic National Forest, where I drove past the town of Sappho. It was dark, and the station had burned down so we'd passed it before we had a chance to figure out where we might stop, but it was there on the map, and the people in the next town corroborated: Sappho, WA. Now, alas, just a fragment of its former self.