Not finished yet
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:
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
People just can’t find
a way to let me
And why not?
What would they
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.
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...