The Perfect Queer Poem: For Facing Our Enemies

I had been planning on ending this series with a poem by Joy Harjo when she was named the 2019 US Poet Laureate. She is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, making her the first member of a Native Nation to be honored with the title.

Here is the poem I initially had in mind. I was going to write something about how the poem anticipates the end of the world, about how queer life could mourn a dying planet while also being uniquely qualified for imagining another way to go on when we can’t go on.

But then on Friday, we faced the news of impending ICE raids, then a personal essay about the sexual assaults that punctuated one woman’s life, including one perpetrated by the president. Neither story was on the front page of the New York Times, if you still check that rag. And then there was the threat of war.

So I decided to write about this poem instead:

This Morning I Pray for My Enemies

And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.

I used to think that the worst thing about my enemies is that none of them deserved me. And yet I have woken up at dawn as if my heart told me: today is a new day, a new day to avenge yourself. I’m not ashamed to have survived what they did to me, but I am ashamed to have let them stay in mind without paying rent. And I’m weary of greeting the sun not with gratitude but with anger.

But it’s June, and I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the uses of anger. I’m not nonviolent, as Nina Simone once said, and I do believe that liberation is a struggle. The older I get, the clearer it becomes that anger burns you out if you spend it alone. The world doesn’t revolve around the mind’s individual agonies, but the collective struggles of the heart have a gravitational pull.

Harjo writes that it is the heart that asks who the enemy is, not the mind that obsesses over injustice and throws its telepathic daggers (or maybe that’s just my Libra stellium talking). The heart is open — I’m thinking of the Frank O’Hara poem here — and so it is the heart that can be patient and pause before asking.

The poem leaves open the question of who the enemy is, but we can speculate. “An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.” Let someone who would do you harm close enough and you begin to need them, to obsess over them, to spend more time thinking about them than they think about you. Hello, TERFs, hello SWERFs, hello white women who make bedfellows of cruel white men and who are more than happy to endure a little bit of misogyny for the spoils of white supremacy.

THOSE WHO HATE US DO NOT DESERVE US. The culture we produce for them, the language we give them, our labor as sex workers, domestic workers, our time of day—they do not deserve us. So why pray for your enemies? Have you seen this bon mot? I suppose you could read the poem as saying that you can turn an enemy into a friend by having an open heart. But I don’t find Harjo to be sentimental, nor do I think the poem recommends trying to convince someone the value of your heart when their opening offer is violence. If an enemy is worthy of engagement, then the enemy is someone we can struggle against.

I’ve written about how poems can be prayers. This poem is for waking up to more bad news with the resolve to stay in the struggle for liberation. It is comprised of short lines—recite each one in a slow prayer for keeping our enemies in our minds but not our hearts, so that we do not grow complacent to their threat, even if they offer us an inch of reprieve (as I am writing this, the ICE raids are “postponed”). Any right given can be taken away (an enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend).

If the heart keeps room for our comrades and keeps out enemies, then we can keep asking questions. We stay open, even when our minds are swayed by bitterness and despair, because our queer lives depend on knowing that we don’t have to live like this. We turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Great poem and analysis.

    I know it’s privileged but what helps personally is staying away from certain sites, especially when I’m feeling weak. Wouldn’t have worked when I was living in other places and doesn’t change anything but it just maintains my own personal mental well being.

    Also – try to give the people who care about you at least as much credit as the people who don’t. The people who are not homophobic, transphobic etc deserve a lot more room in your mind than the people who are bigots.

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