Dispatches From Lesbian America, Edited by Xequina Berber, Giovanna Capone, & Cheela “Rome” Smith, Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 2017, 400 pages, $12.73
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jaeger
I was twenty-three and living in South Korea. I ran away for a multitude of reasons, some of which I was only starting to figure out. After years of not fitting in, of feeling like something was dreadfully wrong with me, I started to put the pieces together. But I could only achieve that by moving 7,000 miles away from my strict Catholic and Conservative upbringing. Now it was time to return home, but I could only do that if I came out to my parents first. I didn’t want to get on a plane and cross the Pacific Ocean only to get rejected. If my parents were going to have problems, I might as well stay where I was. Right? That made the most sense.
“But how should I do it?” I pondered aloud to a friend of mine over dinner one night.
“Well, you could call collect,” he suggested. “And when the operator asks whose calling, you can say ‘your gay daughter.’ If they hang up, you know not to go home.”
I laughed, nearly spitting out the sip of soju I had taken. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if he was serious or not. However, his suggestion put me slightly more at ease, even though I didn’t take his advice. That call remains one of the hardest I’ve ever made, but I got through it. My parents did, too. Though for them is was a long road to full acceptance and for me there were many years of anger, pain, and self hatred.
What many people don’t realize is unlike most minority groups, the queer community does not have an immediate support group. We don’t (generally) have our parents to guide us or to protect us or to hand us a road map for how to navigate both the internal and external obstacles we might face. That’s why books like Dispatches from Lesbian America are so important. The collection of stories — both fiction and memoir — was complied by three editors — Xequina Maria Berber, Giovanna Capone, and Cheela Romaine Smith — but Capone was the force behind it, the one who first dreamed of giving it life.
The stories are diverse, coming from lesbians living across the United States and hailing from various cultures. Several themes are pervasive throughout the book; religion, gender identity, discrimination, self-hate. It’s not surprising that they are the same themes that repeatedly crop up for many lesbians, especially when coming out and trying to figure out with whom they can be honest. Reading these stories is important because they clearly demonstrate no matter how ostracized you might feel in your every day life, your pain, indecision, loneliness, and confusion are not unique to you. Others are going through or have gone through similar situations. A community, a support system does exist. And one can gain strength in reading and learning about others.
In her essay, “On Being a Lesbian Femme in a Heterosexual World,” Happy/L.A. Hyder says,
“Of course, whatever portrait of lesbianism you managed to discover was certainly not nice. And if there was anything a good girl was supposed to be, it was nice.” It’s an awful stigma so many of us have had to confront. What does it mean to be nice in the real world, and how can we find a path to acceptance while shunning the behaviors that opens doors? While there are few answers offered, the awareness that others have endured similar experiences is refreshing and necessary.
And how many of us have survived battles grounded in clothing. Why must there exist such stark lines between the men’s department and the women’s? Why do people quickly glance at your hair and make an immediate judgments about your gender? The inability to fit such strict gender rules should not lead to negative self esteems, but they do. We learn to hate who we are because the world tells us we’re doing it all wrong. But there’s an element of freedom in shutting the doors on what others want, what they expect of you. In “My Olive Green Coat,” Haley M. Fedor states, “I knew I could never go back to living like that: closeted, full of self hatred and denial, feeling uncomfortable every moment in clothes that may as well have been as binding as corsets. I could never go back to long, impossibly thick hair that my mother refused to let me cut above my ears.”
It’s not just me. It’s not just you. Neither of us are an anomaly. That is why this book is so vital. So important. It speaks to a community of shared experiences and very clearly tells the reader, “You are not alone.”
Count Four, Keith Kopka,Published, University of Tampa Press, 2020, 99 pages, paperback $14, hardcover $25.00
Reviewed by Mark Spano
It is rare to find so developed a poetic voice, as you will find in Keith Kopka’s first collection of poems, Count Four. Kopka’s gaunt, obdurate diction, wrests the mythic from the most unceremonious events of everyday living. These poems are as strong as any I have read. Kopka is clearly in league with the best poets writing today.
Kopka’s is a new and original voice of a generation that is the heir of the mishmash of a latter-day urban ethnic life in America. In Kopka’s lines, we hear a world of some prosperity, some opportunity, and the wearisome quest to eke out meaning.
This work seems less autobiographical than what I would call a lived metaphor that is woven into juxtaposed scenarios of a day’s wretchedness. Kopka writes in the poem, “Monument,”
I am caught, zip-tied
a foot stuffed
into the cubby-holed
backseat of an idling
Crown Vic, my wrists
shredding more with
each strained shout
through the window
at the chubby rookie
left behind to watch me;
even then I knew
he was the boy picked last,
yet secretly too sure
of himself in a body
growing faster than
the small world
And, nearly a hundred years ago, poet Stephen Spender wrote,
What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away,
The lack of good to touch,
Kopka’s poems do not possess the direct sincerity as Spender and his ever so well-meaning generation. Kopka’s voice, his generation’s voice, is wise to sincerity, incapable of being totally in cahoots with good intentions. These poems are more a grungy reckoning with what Spender has described as “The lack of good to touch.” They are hard poems, sometimes cruel, and ablaze with artistry.
Leave It Raw. Shakira Croce. Finishing Line Press, 2020, 30 pp. $14.99
Reviewed by Lauren Amariti
With Leave It Raw being her first collection of poetry, Shakira Croce leaps onto the poetry scene with a landing that is bound to be felt by her readers. Croce’s poems detail the human experience in its rawest form, but does so in particularly abstract ways by connecting these truths to the elements of nature. The motif of nature in its purest form and the rawness of certain aspects of the human condition are laid out with power and honesty and resonate when you are least expecting it.
Even when detailing something seen as typically mundane, particularly in “I Got Cable,” her voice and message rings through, saying “I got cable/to better hole up/and nest and maybe fix,” detailing even raw parts of the human condition one wouldn’t expect to arise from the attaining of cable. Her language not only works for the in-the-moment-ness of her poetry, but they connect to the past as well, as “Our Song” in particular creates a brief but impactful, beautifully done, connection to the HIV/AIDS crisis by saying, “It’s as simple as offering protection/from a line on the rise/in another CDC report failing to remind us/it’s no longer a death sentence.” Her style, while remaining abstract and requiring readers to do some digging, also varies. Her form bleeds into the experimental category in “Broadcasting the Search for the Missing,” which is told in three columns and reads in a diagonal at the end, representing the descent of a skydiver. “Homecoming” particularly makes one feel nostalgic for youth, as it is about finding your individuality, but lays out in quite raw terms, that we do so as long as we can still blend in and we are “seen as one body of color.” It almost makes nostalgic the conformity of the youth to their peers, but it made nostalgic how simple that time was for people. It reminds readers of the fact that while that may have been a trying time then and lays raw the truth of adolescence, the struggles hardly stop past then, they just simply change.
Croce’s poetry, while tonally ambiguous, is impactful and is able to resonate with readers under the guise of comforting the reader into thinking they are simply reading about life. Leave It Raw hits deeper: it details the horrid/beautiful/plain truths of the human condition that simply aren’t recognized. It ponders on nature in conjunction with humanity, and cushions the readers into thinking about one thing then hits us with a raw truth about the other and how that connects nature and humanity. It leaves raw the fact that humans are a byproduct of nature, and leaves us pondering our significance and thinking (nostalgically, or otherwise) about our own individualistic human experience while connecting us to everybody else. This is a book worth the read, but requires grappling. This is something one will need to, and want to read over and over to understand, but is well worth the knowledge you gain from the understanding of Croce’s poetry.
VERTICAL BRIDGES: Poems and Photographs of City Steps, Paola Corso, Six Gallery Press, 138 pages, $15.00
Reviewed by Mark Spano
Only describe, don’t explain.
― Ludwig Wittgenstein
Metaphoric images are an unspoken language learned before we learn to speak. Images provide us interior scaffolding prior to words spoken or written. It is this poetic basis of mind that makes it possible to communicate employing metaphor. In Paola Corso’s new book, VERTICAL BRIDGES: Poems and Photographs of City Steps, the metaphor for the interior scaffolding is brought to life by the imagery of exterior scaffolding, those human-made structures that we ascend and descend. These external structures take on a life in the minds of those us who have lived with them daily throughout a lifetime.
This book is a collection of poetry in the broadest sense. The book is made from epigrams, poems, photographs, and prose-poems, including materials written in both English and Italian versions and English and Spanish versions.
Corso’s work explores place as metaphor. As the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard tells us, “All great, simple images reveal a psychic state.” And by that definition, Corso has used real places to create meaning well beyond their function. In so doing, the author has evoked a beauty that is both authentic and resonant from the commonplace. The author takes the familiar edifices of gradient movement and transforms them into conveyances of emotion and memory.
I loved this book because of the originality of its uses of staircases, ladders, etc. as repositories of meaning beyond the usual up and downs of poetic imagery.