Personal Stories

Compulsory & Contemporary: 5 Queer Poems That Touched My Soul

Poetry to me is a realm to be, I am someone in my words; when in reality I am not even a reason to be.

Ever since I began my journey with poetry, it has created a shift in my perspective…to navigate and manifest tools of ambiguity in ways that are specific, to navigate my way into the spaces that offer acceptance and growth for queer experiences and more.

Poetry to me is a realm to be, I am someone in my words; when in reality I am not even a reason to be.

With certainty, I believe this conversation should not begin with anyone other than Rich. Adrienne Rich has been one of the most prominent writers to address queer theory and non-conforming individuals. She has explored many themes as a formative feminist and lesbian poet. The lines of her poetry Diving into the Wreck highlights a strange search of an illusion to separate oneself from the world, the very place in which an illusion is found.

This is the place.
I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

The above few lines from the poem, portray a vacuum with no natural light or warmth. She directly addresses, in a sincere way, the feeling of an othered body. It’s not a poem about love and desire in which the other is seen, but the wailing of those othered. The speaker is sketched as a being who is a myriad of beings, they are both the merman and the mermaid; but also, that “we” circling the wreck, quietly. For Rich, that is the weight of the othered soul.

Another contemporary artist, Audre Lorde described herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet.” The civil rights activist was a pioneer of intersectionality, her work became reflective of both the black and queer experience of sexuality. Her poem Who said it was simple, portrayed an ambivalence in pride.

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

These lines were carved in the hearts of many in the early 1970s but could have been easily written yesterday. Her lines records years of oppression that she and others have faced over the years. She references race and class in the lines that seem confrontational and cynical. She concludes that she is bound by her mirror and bed, which she means she cannot help but “see causes in colour/ as well as sex.” Lorde appears to speak of the multiple ways in which she is drawn in the final stanza, as she wonders- “which me will survive/ all these liberations.” To mould her experience, all of her social locations intersect; she cannot distinguish her women-ness from her black-ness from her lesbian-ness.

It feels as though as she says “which me” she is asked to separate or dismiss aspects of herself, suggesting there are distinct parts of her. Such pieces may sound contradictory or, more definitely, conflicting with her; the women’s movement needs her to concentrate solely on women’s rights, while the civil rights movement wants her to concentrate solely on black rights. A part of her is rejected either way.

Suniti Namjoshi’s fight is against the white nationalist and masculinized rhetoric of America, as well as the upper-class, male-dominated, Hindu model of heteronormativity. Her work discusses the challenges of getting this changing, interstitial persona with wit and cynicism.

Namjoshi is a lesbian poet who was born in India and lived in three other countries: England, Canada and the United States. This diasporic lesbian author and her poems build rebellion towards bigotry, misogyny and homophobia.

In reality, her denial of heterosexuality is a rebellion against a woman’s secondary or second-best role as a woman. In her poem, Her Form in Clear Water, the poet would accept to embrace a snake’s snuggle rather than tolerate the slavery of a male.  The Eve in this poem parallels the same idea-

Her form in clear water made him
raise his head.
His length slid about her limbs. Eve
in her turn
encircled the snake, pressing her body
to him.
Curious coupling brown snake and Eve,
caught in a twist
of the blind green coil being Adam
and evil and Eve.

Her poems delineate the feeling of a woman’s passion. She wishes to express that heterosexuality falls under the paradigm of a conditioned social construct, whereas homosexuality is innate. In her passion to liberate herself from traditional heterosexual commitment and to find completeness in-kind women; she left no stone unturned. It was in 1978-79 that the notion of lesbianism solidified in the imagination of Suniti Namjoshi. This was the time when revolutionary lesbianism was popular.

Francisco Aragón, a poet, translator, essayist, editor, and San Francisco native, studied Spanish at the University of California at Berkeley and New York University.  He is one of my favourite Latino poets after Neruda. 

While his poems explore how language and narrative simultaneously interact and diverge, they place personal experience within a larger historical and cultural conversation.

His poem, Hair, gives its readers a pleasure so tender. It portrays beautifully how the speaker’s temptations withhold his emotions towards his lover.

for M

1.

who conceived that ravine
or
the contour
of those slopes

Torbay
—washing
over
him as he swims—

is trying to say
don’t let
the barber
shave
below
his collar

2.

I love
breathing
him in

my fingers
raking
his chest

a cub
wanders
the forest

In an interview with Connect Savannah, Aragón spoke of his writing process, noting, “Oftentimes I have the experience of sound or smell or song—some sort of sensory sensation jars some memory I thought had long been forgotten.” The above-mentioned poetry is a great example of how sensuously visual the lines can be.

A shift in tone in the next half of the poem mentions a place (the forest) without the speaker being in that place. It’s as if he is in a labyrinth to reach his deep ravine like memory. The climax suggests how lost and naïve love can make one being… and how sensations so raw and sublime can make one fond of the lover’s parts.

More than scenic landscapes Aragon’s poems are sowed in the landscapes of his memory and such moments with his lover.

Xandria Phillips is the author of Hull (Nightboat Books, 2019), recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry. They are a winner of the 2020 Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging Writers.

I’ve read nearly all of their poetry, but No One Speaks of How Tendrils Feed on the Fruitsstrikes me the most.

no one speaks of how tendrils feed on the fruits
of my demise these dead hands for instance that alight phlox
wild strawberry and pine this is my body out of context rotting in the wrong hemisphere
I died so all my enemies would tremble at my murmur how it populates their homes
So I could say to the nearest fellow dead person I know more than
all my living foes I’ve derived sun-fed design for once from
closing my oak eyes now they’ll never snare the civilian
pullulating my throat

This poem defies tradition: in grammar, in syntax and in resistance. There is a brutal war fought against our generation, and much of it calls for the destruction and degradation of our natural habitat, with little regard for biodiversity, even for decades to come. The title of the poem delineates how tendrils, stems of societies limit voices of the oppressed. In tradition, generations miss growth in the want to not dishonour them but Philips’ poems talk about evolving identities and powers that exist and validate them through them being their self.

The speaker in the poem feels disoriented, with no belongingness in modern America, decaying like a carrion in the wrong realm. The speaker symbolizes her death as a beacon of rested voices that leave echoes of murmurs, for I have learnt that resistance and loud loving my identity would never rest in silence.

The few lines in the poems are extensive in both aspiration and depth, endeavoring to obtain the abyss of intricacies of queer post – colonial African identity in a poem that is as ferocious as it is tender and as tasteful as it is. The last line lights a red fire in my heart… trans lives that have been proximally taken around the world in their fight for humanistic rights spell tragedy but also keep evoking hard hope that renders a hymn of queer voices around the world. The speaker’s imagination lays out a world where hegemonic authorities do not snare citizens and teem up the voices in their throat.

Such poets hold the core of what is implied by resistance in poetry: a resistance that witnesses, places itself alongside the victims, and finds new ways of articulating its interaction with self, culture, and language.

To me, poetry does not become relevant until it reproduces existing principles, provides truths or ready-made slogans. It is an ear that hears voices beyond the comprehension of popular sociology, an eye that sees beyond the colour range of daily politics. It is the aim of poetry today to reclaim the past without becoming primitive, and to detangle the consequences of power from representations; to re-establish the almost forgotten ties between man and nature; to redefine the borders between self and others; and to re-sensitize human beings to the roots of injustice, misery, loneliness and isolation.

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I am an art dilettante, into bilingual poetry, learning to philosophize and comprehend spaces for differences to coexist.
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