There’s nothing better than poetry for tough times. Here are three queer poetry collections to get you through.
Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
This visceral, evocative collection is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing at its finest. Lyrically these are an incredibly tight set of poems, filled with gorgeous, haunting images and precise, expertly used language. They’re tough and soft, just like the hard femmes some of the poems are about. A lot of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing in this book is emotional, raw; she writes about hard times, but there are also some really inspiring, comforting poems. The kind of words that you could put on your fridge to look at and remind yourself that you’re going to get through things, that you’re strong. Playing off other queer poets like Amber Dawn and Qwo-Li Driskill, Piepzna-Samarasinha writes tough ideas about love, relationships falling apart, mental and physical illness, disability through a queer lens, queer brown femmeness, being poor, and friendship. She writes about queer brown femme friendship:
the gratitude that is rust brown laughter and a million hair flowers and a million broken beautiful bitches in a clothing swap, stripper heels and space heaters on high and yes girl, get that, you need that, yes. it’s the taco truck and the tea garden, it’s homegirl laughter on a couch is where you can always come home.
And she tells it to you straight but also gives you hope in the closing poem “the worst thing in the world”:
this is the truth: every worst thing you can imagine will come true.
you and your ex bff will be asked to keynote a conference together,
and both of you will say yes.
your daughter will indeed hate you. mothering and living are
both losing propositions. that’s
no reason not to do them. the answer is in what comes after. what
you answered the worst thing in the world with. already in the
afterfuture. breathe in breathe out. everything is not going to
stop changing on you.
hey you sicksauce survivor stunner
you who asked a lot will not always have the right answer.
we’ve always come on boats. we’re going to keep coming. we
know the waves and rough water.
bless the rough water and the small boats.
bless the worst thing
For Your Own Good by Leah Horlick
For Your Own Good by Leah Horlick is full of the kind of writing that inspires superlatives. It’s one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read. This is not because For Your Own Good is in itself prone to any grandiose gestures or excess, but because it is truly a near-perfect, devastating collection of poetry. I do not say devastating lightly. These poems are about an abusive lesbian relationship, violence in a supposedly safe queer space. There is plenty of triggering material: racism, colonialism, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. But there’s a lot more than that, too. The poems follow a kind of trajectory, moving from misunderstanding to healing, sometimes back and forth. What I loved was how Horlick speaks from a calm, present moment to her past self. She is gentle, kind, while possessed by a quiet strength, honesty, and poise. As if she’s tenderly whispering, it’s okay. There’s coming back into herself, into trusting new people, into magic:
You don’t ask questions, unless
I want them, and I want anything
but these red eyes that look out
from mine like the forest, anything but
this silence. When you tell me that this
looks like strength to you, how you love this
about me, I almost hate you. Why do you
have to be so good? This has to be magic, how
you hold me while I turn into a snake and fire
and grief itself beneath you. Good magic,
you tell me, and don’t ask questions
until I want them.
The collection ends with the most gorgeous, hopeful poem. She has healed but not forgotten:
It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer
to the mountains. I can see them—
every day, like I always wanted. Near,
and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me—
on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or, I could ask them to—
which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been
near this new body of mine—
short-haired, tattooed, very strong
and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.
I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised—
and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering
to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.
Where the Words End and My Body Begins by Amber Dawn
Have you ever heard of something called a glosa poem? If you haven’t, you’re like me when I picked up Amber Dawn’s debut poetry collection Where the Words End and My Body Begins, which is comprised of these things called glosa poems. So what are glosas? It’s a cool concept, an explicit acknowledgement of the intertextuality of all writing and poetry in particular. A glosa starts with a four-line quotation from another poem. The poet, then, incorporates these four lines into their own poem, but not all at once: the borrowed lines are used as the final line in ten-line stanzas of the new poem the poet is writing, losing their original context and becoming part of their new poem home.
If you’re at all familiar with 20th century queer, lesbian, feminist, and survivorship poetry (especially from Canada), you’ll recognize a lot of the poets Amber Dawn has chosen for her glosas: Trish Salah, Gertrude Stein, Rachel Rose, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Leah Horlick, Sina Queyras, Jillian Christmas, Lydia Kwa, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashinha, and more! I love the idea that Where the Words End and My Body Begins is an ode to being a reader and writer, and a conversation between women poets. Despite the fact that writing can be about as isolating as work can get, these glosa poems create a kind of community on the page. Reading the collection makes you feel soothed, less alone, and a part of the community too. One of the most powerful poems is “Queer Infinity.” It’s a queerifesto of sorts and a testament to the power of queer art:
Queer grief is a blueprint. We got this shit wired tight.
Maybe we’ve become too good at losing? Are we trauma
bonded? I can’t speak for the whole, only myself
I’d sooner howl at a wounded moon, yes, I might
swoon at a questionable light
but at least I still swoon—my scabby kneecaps
may always weep pink, I’m so often floored.
I’ll never be a two-feet-on-the-ground girl. Let me guess
age didn’t temper your passion either? Your passion, like mine,
only became more strategic.