VOLUME 3, ISSUE 316 | 15 - 21 April 2004


Poets on the Beginning of Desire
Edited by T. Cole Rachel and Rita D. Costello
Soft Skull Press
120 pages, $11.95

Bridging the Chasm
Compiled for young adults, this anthology resonates for those long out of the closet


When I was 18 and trying to get used to the fact that, despite my boyfriend––sigh––I liked girls, I spent hours at St. Marks Books, cross-legged before the poetry section with Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, June Jordan in my lap. I was too freaked out to venture into a women’s bar or even a gay college dance. I was afraid of dykes.

But these lesbian poets spoke to me, and they spoke of me. They helped me figure myself out. They helped me feel less lonely.

It was, by no means, a perfect solace. The poets I read had more worldly concerns than sex and sexuality. I’d hunt and peck to discover the lines that rang with answers to my feelings. If “Bend, Don’t Shatter” had existed back when I was “struggling to outlast my own restlessness” (David Trinidad, “Boy”), I’d have found all my eureka moments in a single, accessible volume.

Published by Soft Skull Press’ Red Rattle Books, an imprint that “aims to satisfy the need for socially aware, non-didactic, sophisticated children’s and young adult literature,” “Bend, Don’t Shatter” brings together 59 poems by adult writers looking back on the first inklings of queerness, on adolescent desire and denial, on coming out. From the pulse of homoerotic awareness: “I lie in bed/listening to my breath/his breath, breath/I am fully clothed/and sweat beads on my face/his face, face” (John G. de la Parra, Jr., “Awakening”) and panicked self-protest: “first thought in my head waking up was, oh no./i can’t say./it was that girl./lee.” (robin pickering, “Untitled”) to sexual experimentation: “I’m a boy with my cousin/she’s the only one/who lets me do this” (Jody Helfand, “The Boy Girl Game”).

There are accounts of social deviation: “Age 17: I bleach my hair and drive to Hollywood to buy New Wave sunglasses and punk rock buttons to pin on black, second-hand shirts I steal from the Salvation Army. I stop talking, except when I speak in a language I make up, which drives mom to the brink...” (Jeffery Conway, “The Odd Years”), and reprobation: “Mama said I was a girl,/to stop that curl in my lip––/get off my boy trip” (Andrea Shipley, “Mama Said”), and bittersweet forbidden love: “late at night, your voice/a Sunday whisper so/your mother cannot hear/her son has called that boy/again” (Christopher Stahl, “Polestar”).

In lines like “boy on boy is okay” (Matthew Wascovich, “Serial Toxic Teen”) and “it occurred to me, this was going to be fun” (Danielle Pafunda, “Saltbox Brothel”), the book’s message to young adults is, as T. Cole Rachel and Rita D. Costello write in their editors’ note, “You’re going to be just fine.”

But this volume’s intent is by no means to suggest a therapeutic cliché. Venturing beyond the reductions of the standard “coming out” story, these poems recognize that sexual identities are more complex than sexual experiences. Dallas Angguish’s “Arythmia (1-10)” recounts the dissolution of queer love in the ugly brew of the narrator’s family life: “When I’m home from school and even Peter’s body is not enough to distract me I have to deal with the fact that my father is a charcoal beast of embers. His fist leaves depressions of ash. My mother is unstitched at the seams; at the joints of her shoulders you can peer in and see darkness and stars. I come from that darkness and back to that darkness I will go.”

The poem struck me with recognition. I thought of my high school gym teacher who came out years after I had graduated. I ran into her on the D.C. Metro, and she asked if I’d come back and speak to the school board, tell them that if I had known an out gay teacher, my self-acceptance in high school would have come more easily. I demurred. The fact was that, like many kids from homes such as Angguish’s, I had more to deal with than my queerness. Sexuality, the book insists, is a part of us, not the whole, informing everything else about us, but also we informing it. This is why, as the gay cowboy of Timothy Anderson’s “I Think You Got Me Confused” puts it, “...there’re more/Than one queer truth.”

And, yet, there’s a shared sensibility borne of our difference. In several of these poems, queers are naturalized at the same time we’re acknowledged as a breed apart. Queerness is rendered almost supernatural. It is special to be queer. It may begin in a smothering awkwardness, like “(t)he most vulnerable creature in the world/The caterpillar” (Rigoberto Gonzalez, “Mariposa”), “(b)ut when it springs out of its dark cocoon,” out of the closet’s estrangement, it is an “(a)pplause of color/Champion/Miracle extraordinaire.”

“(Q)ueerness is an art form”; when we accept our “transformations”––“trans-gressive/trans-everything”––“we become another invention of ourselves” (Tatiana de la Tierra, “Butterflying”).

Embrace your ripening difference—first experienced in “(s)nippets of desire like tiny green seeds,” “invisible to all but except those who have a twin seed hidden under their own terrified tongues” ––and it will not “sap your strength/and strangle” you, Ron Palmer argues in “The Logic of Queerness: (Releasing Your Ivy Evening Within).” “Finally, after years of hating myself...,” he testifies, “...I let the seeds grow, grow, and grow/Until they kept growing and covered me with ivy so strong/And vibrant and unique that it became my reason for living./The seed that began inside me finally taught me to sing.”

Evoking Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” T. Cole Rachel (“You Can’t Go Back To Sleep”) writes of “the clamor of singing parts––/of hips, hands and curious palms, shoulders, thighs/and suddenly upturned flesh, a chorus of hungry noises/that will soon resemble a tune, a summer song/we will eventually recognize as our own,” our earliest same-gender fumblings leading us, finally, into a community filled with the ugly-beautiful music of our shared queer being. It is a music by which all beings––not just queers––are enriched. With a difference that insists upon tolerance, “We save the world just by swimming in it.” (Horehound Stillpoint, “This I Whisper”)

Fear, shame, punishment, and bashings are also chronicled, but given its mission, “Bend, Don’t Shatter” is uplifting. Queer empowerment courses through it, not dogmatically, but tacitly. Sometimes, the realities of homophobia are muted. There is no trace of Matthew Shepard in Anderson’s poem, and he’s hardly in Walter R. Holland’s “Black Water Creek” despite its “forbidden” desire, or in Scott Bailey’s “Hide-N-Seek,” “despite Grandpa calling me an ‘ole sissy.”

And if the poems aren’t that politically challenging, nor are they particularly linguistically challenging. Shaping a book for adolescents, T. Cole Rachel says, “sometimes meant excluding poems that were really beautiful, but perhaps too sophisticated for our audience, or too dark.”

Nevertheless, “Bend, Don’t Shatter” has much to offer an adult reader. Even considered through the jaundiced eye of this experimental poet and political activist, the book evokes nostalgia. (It was Halloween, college year abroad, the improbable living room rug of my Yugoslavian host, who was asleep in his room. She was South African. She giggled atop me and asked if I was all right.)

This collection propels longing. (I pine for the woman I love.)

And, yes, it contains moments of fascinating language (Palmer, Rachel, Angguish) and exquisite craft (Trinidad, Gerard Wozek’s “Song to Myself at Seventeen”). But, mainly, it just feels real. It asserts the familiar again and again. In Jason Schneiderman’s “Last Ditch”: “The one day of my life I had a girlfriend/was the first time someone asked me point blank/if I was gay.” In Sharon Zetter’s “Misdemeanor”: “You leaned over, smelling of mint/lip-gloss, and kissed my neck./...it didn’t matter/that you were a girl/and so was I. Because no one was there/to witness the crime.”

The poignancy of all this lyrical expression of queerdom is enough. Written for teenagers or not, “Bend, Don’t Shatter” made this jaundiced eye cry.

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