The Perfect Queer Poem: For Defining Your Boundaries

What characterizes lyric poetry is often a ghostly “you” that calls the absent one into presence. Sappho invoking Aphrodite, Bishop lamenting her lost lover, Villarreal calling out for her ancestors — the lyric “you” can bring someone longed for near, if only for the space of a poem. “You” is a slippery subject, called into being by “I.” The power differential between the lyric “I” and “you” is never stable, since they both depend on each other to exist.

Queers are pros at pronouns, perhaps because our boundaries between “I” and “you” can be slippery at times. Processing can be a renegotiation of boundaries or a clarification of what, exactly, you desire, and whether that desire is compatible with theirs. Sometimes, processing is checking in with where “you” and “I” are at: if the identities are distinct and the boundaries respected, or if they slip past one another, talk over one another. Take this poem by June Jordan:

when I or else when you
and I or we
deliberate I lose I
cannot choose if you if
we then near or where
unless I stand as loser
of that losing possibility
that something that I have
or always want more than much
more at
least to have as less and
yes directed by desire

The poem presents a grand mal fight, the kind you have when you near the end, where the fights stop being about anything particular because the stakes are nothing short of your own right to want something. The line breaks are hard to take. They make the poem feel like a fight: not knowing when to stop, talking over one another, losing your thread, gasping for air through tears. There is no punctuation in the poem, just a series of conjunctions stringing together the speaker’s shaky plea.

Try reading the poem out loud and pausing at each line break, then try reading it all in a rush. The poem ends an open affirmation of the one thing the speaker cannot stand to lose: their desire. The particulars aren’t the point when you’re fighting with someone who does not respect your boundaries and sweeps away your self-affirmation (“we / deliberate I lose I”).

This is a poem for the desperation you feel when you need to fight to stand up for yourself, for your own boundaries — and the feeling of sense fleeing from you when it falls on deaf ears.
Above all else, June Jordan fought for freedom of the most radical sort — the freedom to define yourself in your own words. The civil rights she fought for were boundaries that protected marginalized people from violence and neglect wrought by a capitalist state that chokes the chances of black, brown, and low-income children to thrive. When we say “the personal is the political,” we mean that by sharing our personal struggles to define our own boundaries, we can start seeing patterns, and start naming the systemic violences that keep us from our freedom. Our personal problems are not personal failings, but shared injustice.

Fighting isn’t nonviolent; neither is desire. Being ready to stake out your right for your body to exist unbothered, strong and safe, to be able to say yes to what it wants and no to what threatens it, is to demand the right to self-determination. Queer people face an opposition that says our desires and names and pronouns are wrong, that says our bodies do not belong to us. As Jordan wrote in “Poem about My Rights,” “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own / and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this / but I can tell you that from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life.”

June Jordan’s politics were personal, but they were also communal. There was no “I” in her poetry that could not become a “you” in someone else’s hands. She made as much space in her poetry to show what it looked like for someone to respect your boundaries and protect your practice of self-determination as she did for fighting against those who would repress her freedom. “And there are stars, and none of you, to spare,” she writes in “Sunflower Sonnet Number Two,” because “you” might be a capacious category, but we must care for each one.

Natalie writes about ghosts, the gays, no-wave feminism, and lefty politics. She lives in New York with her beloved Pomeranian. Follow Natalie on Twitter and read more of her writing here.

Natalie has written 10 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I have been so impressed by how much trouble has been taken to select each poem, to then peel apart all the layers. I’ve often found poetry a bit impenetrable, so it’s opening up new worlds for me. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

    • I love June Jordan and I love this series. There’s so much excellent queer poetry out there and as someone who never got *into* poetry until I discovered how gay it was, I hope y’all will keep this going for a long time.

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