feature art: Autostraddle // photo: CSA Images via Getty Images
I love Pride month, it’s a time where I feel the most alive, and most able to bask in the glow of lesbians and queer women that I love. Just as I have discussed in regard to music, there are so many talented LGBTQ poets who are gaining recognition in the world now. I feel so blessed to be able to read their work and even talk with them about their work. In a field that was once dominated by the cis straight white male voice, LGBTQ poets and poets of color are finally starting to get their due.
These books I have chosen for In Verse this month are by LGBTQ writers and cover many topics that sometimes do and do not have to do with being queer. Whether they choose to write about queerness or not, these collections are still invaluable reads during Pride month.
Head Off & Split by Nikki Finney
If I touch her there everything about me will be true
This book, a National Book Award winner, is stunning. I truly felt knocked back when reading these poems, especially the ones dealing with the atrocities of the Bush administration. The poems are alive, and moving, like a body of water. They chart the humanity of people who lost their lives during storms, they refuse to look away and so force you to look as well.
Poems like “The Aereole” bring the reader into a more intimate space. The body becomes centered and focused, and desire comes with it.
In “The Clitoris,” the speaker says
desire can rise,
honor sea levels,
desire refuses retreat.
and it ties together the embodied and the wild. coming back to water means calling on the storm waters that took so many lives, ruined homes, shifted landscapes for many people and families. What can we make of the desires of the water, does water want to destroy, does it want to have the power to cradle a life in its hands? I think of all this while reading this collection. I don’t come out with any answers, but poetry does not have to provide that for me.
Finney is a fabulous poet who’s work I myself need to delve deeper into. Head Off & Split is a great place to start for newcomers.
Space Struck by Paige Lewis
Lately, I’ve been feeling betrayed by names
The first poem I ever read by Paige Lewis was “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm,” a beautiful and celestial poem, and I immediately was in love with their work. What I loved about the poem was that the “you” felt like it was me, and so I was pulled into this strange world, listening to the commands and seeing everything as it was revealed to me.
The poem begins:
“Sit on the park bench and chew this mint leaf.
Right now, way above your head, two men
floating in a rocket ship are ignoring their
delicate experiments, their buttons flashing
I think starting the poem with a command is what makes me like it so much, it immediately situates you in the world of the poem. It orders you to pay attention. The rest of the poems also grab your attention, but for different reasons. One thing I found in the poems is a refreshing humor I don’t often find in the books I choose to read. Like, one of my favorite lines in a poem:
“I’m the vice president of panic, and the president is missing.”
While there is humor in the poems, there is also a sense of doom, of feeling small and untethered. But also a fear of taking up too much space in a world with disappearing habitats and endangered species. There is so much contained within their words that I find myself in, that resonate so deeply with being a human that also cares deeply about the world around them.
Lewis is a very compassionate poet, you can feel it in the work and in the language. It’s a great collection to read this Pride month for that reason.
Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi
Walk to the store & back without disappearing
This book deals with the sometimes unpretty reality of being a queer person in public, but especially a Black queer person, and all the histories tied up in those identities. The poem “The Lion Tamer’s Daughter Learns the Rules” includes the lines:
and the words are both historical and biblical. There is an admission and recognition that the speaker can never be the “winner” because of history. Because when you’re Black and queer in the world, any stranger can be a death sentence.
So much of life for Black queer people is being asked to choose, which this poem deals with. In some queer spaces there is anti-blackness, and in some Black spaces there is homophobia and transphobia. To hold all of these identities in one body is to be, in a way, always choosing. Unless of course you find the blissful company of other Black queer and trans people.
Alabi’s work is sharp and precise. The poems do what I love in poems: They surprise me. Sometimes there are words I couldn’t imagine that appear next. Just as I’m getting comfortable an in the rhythm of the poem there is a turn. I like that kind of poetry, it leaps off the page, it kind of shakes you by the shoulders.
I’ve been looking forward to this collection of poems since reading Alabi’s work in an anthology of Black poets. It certainly did not disappoint. I recommend this work if you are Black and trans but most importantly, if you are not. There is so much power in reading stories that do not mirror our own. That’s where you can find your humanity.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
I lost it all with my eyes/ wide open
Ocean Vuong will be known as one of the most celebrated writers of our time, and for good reason. Vuong’s work is delicate and seeing, it really reaches into the core of what sticks with us and makes us feel.
Many people might have had their first introduction to his work through prose, specifically On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and that makes sense to me. But I deeply encourage you as a reader to also read Vuong’s poetry.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds, as I read it, deals with generational trauma, queerness, and family. It is a deeply personal work as many poetry collections are, but the language really sets this book apart from others I’ve read.
The poem, “Eurydice” starts with the lines
“It’s more like the sound
a doe makes
when the arrowhead
replaces the day
with an answer
to the rib’s hollowed
It is a devastating beginning. It does what good poetry does and imagines a new language for you. It says something plain but in a way that expands the definition. Vuong does this a lot in this book, and I really love that in this work and envy that skill.
Vuong has a great quote about how queerness saved his life that gets passed around almost every pride, and I can’t help but think of it when I read this book, and when I read his newest collection, Time is a Mother. Being your truest self is how you save your own life, the perfect message for the Pride season.
When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
Our kissing would rhyme/ with cardiac arrest
I got introduced to Chen Chen’s work the same way I do many poets: they tweet something smart or cool and I follow, then buy their book. I was drawn in by the title of this collection and bought it almost immediately. Reading through it, I found humor and a biting nature that was so refreshing and welcome.
“Summer Was Forever” covers the pressures of the version of you your family wants you to be and who you are in reality. It also is a poem about young love, young queer love and desire and I find it so beautiful and sweet. Those early queer crushes are always so monumental and I think this poem gets that across so well.
In “Elegy,” the speaker muses:
“Like all scholars in any sort of heaven, I will study
the metaphysics of madness. I will find
that the littler the light, the better it tastes.
On Earth lately, I’ve been looking at everyone
like I love them, & maybe I do. Or maybe I only love
one person, & I’m beaming from it.”
Chen’s poems have that element of surprise that I talked about earlier. It is beautiful and it’s engaging. The music in the poems is so prevalent, even when the poem is wide and stretching and feels a little chaotic. I try to read poems that challenge me, and many of these poems challenged me. It’s always a good sign when you have to stop and google something when you are reading, and I did that many times with this collection.
Chen’s poetry made me feel the way Dunce made me feel, I found myself smiling at some sections and reading with a furrowed brow at others. When a book of poems makes you ride the wave of emotion that way, it has done its job.
i think i read a lot of poetry, and every time you post one of these lists, i am chagrined then delighted to find more poets whom i’ve not even heard of, let alone read – i’ve read two of these collections, and am already hunting down how wonderful to have a place to get excited about queer poetry!
(excuse the painful sincerity – the 90s kid in me is allergic to earnestness but damn i love poetry!)
Ooh I am especially interested to read Chen Chen and Paige Lewis.
I really admire how vivid your writing about poetry is. I find it so hard to describe and you do it so well!