At the Miami Book Fair in November 2015, I heard the indefatigable poet, scholar, and editor Julie R. Enszer read from Lilith’s Demons, her new collection of poems just out from A Midsummer Night’s Press. Julie also spoke about one of her forthcoming editorial projects for the Sapphic Classics Series at the same press, which would bring the complete works of Pat Parker—published and unpublished poems, prose, and plays—into one volume of literary, historical, and lesbian-feminist significance. As a preview of (and fundraiser for) that coming attraction, A Midsummer Night’s Press had also published Strong, a small collection featuring three poems by Pat Parker. Naturally, I rushed to the main table afterwards and purchased both Lilith’s Demons and Strong.
A few weeks later, I was sitting at my gate at Fort Lauderdale Airport with both books open on my lap. The incoming plane hadn’t even arrived yet, so I knew I had plenty of time for a poetry-soak. I began reading, moving back and forth between the two, annotating—which is what I always do if I suspect I’m going to write about or teach the works at hand. I got to the good reading place, too, akin to a deep sleep where dreams are rising steadily to the surface, no outside sounds intruding. Only the most riveting material guides me to that place, into the still point at the center of the turning world.
The next thing I knew an airline employee was tapping my shoulder, repeating the word “Ma’am?” the way one calls into a canyon and listens for the echo. “Are you Julie Wade?” I nodded. Had we met? “They’ve been paging you to board the plane for the last ten minutes.”
Suddenly, I heard the quiet all around me. The chaos and the crowds had dispersed. I was alone at the gate with my books and my bags. Almost an hour had passed.
“But the plane wasn’t even here!”
“Oh, it came. It came quite a while ago.”
So then I was running down the jetway, mine the last ticket scanned, and me the last person to step aboard the aircraft before the flight crew closed the doors. Believe me when I say: I am not the kind of person who shows up late and scattered, to anything, ever. I am always early and usually over-prepared. But that’s when I realized I was in the midst of a literal experience, watching it transmute into metaphor.
In other words, sometimes we need to be jolted out of our predictable behaviors and routines. We need the kind of reading that scatters us, pulls and weaves our cerebral, emotional, and visceral chains. We need poetry that makes us nearly miss the plane.
First, I want to talk about the three poems from Strong that caused this essential disruption in my day, all of which appear in The Complete Works of Pat Parker. Then, I’d like to talk about that larger compendium itself, and the three poems I’d choose to highlight if I were invited to compile Strong: A Sequel.
What better introduction to the work of Pat Parker than her triptych “Goat Child,” an emboldened bildungsroman in verse chronicling Parker’s birth in 1944 through her arrival at adulthood in 1966. This poem begins, “‘you were a mistake’/ my mother told me—ever since i’ve been/ trying to make up.” But thankfully, for the lesbian-feminist movement and for the contemporary reader gauging that movement with Parker as a guide, this pilgrim didn’t succeed. Instead, she recounts: “i settled down & / fought my way thru first grade / defending my right to / wear cowboy boots even if / i was a girl which no one / had bothered to tell me / about at home.”
Already we feel this poem like hot breath against our necks, its sharp enjambments turning us forward in time at breakneck pace. If our speaker is fighting in first grade, we marvel, imagine the fighter she’s training to become. By twelve years old, she recalls
having to admit that
i really was a girl &
all of a sudden no more
football, not even touch
or anything & now getting
angry because i still
didn’t like dolls &
all this time me not knowing
that the real hang-up
was something called virginity
which i had already lost
two years ago to a really
hard-up rapist that i
never could tell my parents about.
But the poem doesn’t pause here either. No time to contemplate or mourn what was taken from our young speaker; no time for blame or healing, because the poem has become a speeding bullet “OUT.” The speaker switches to third person—the better to see herself from: “this brave young / goat blasting full / steam into everything / breaking into the landlady’s / window while showing / a young delinquent a backhand & running / like hell.”
We’re cheering now, for our rebellious goat tearing through the world, charging against hierarchies, binaries, conformities of all kinds—until she slows, turns a corner, is herded into a pasture with the other goats, the other sheep, an ominously quiet place: “the shepherds came / & taught me skills / to provide for them.” Oh, no. This book will have you muttering aloud, shaking your head. This poem will have you shuddering at what the goat child learns the female body is good for: “to cook-to fuck / to wash-to fuck / to iron-to fuck / to clean-to fuck / to care-to fuck / to wait-to fuck.” At the end, “the goat child died— / the goat child died / & a woman was born.” We, the initiated, know this is not a victory.
When we meet Parker’s speaker next, she is on the move again: “Movement in Black.” Her refrain trails behind her like an outstretched arm, tugging and clasping: “I am the Black woman / & I have been all over.” If only my own history lessons had been as riveting, as incantatory, as the way Parker sings the past. Wouldn’t I—wouldn’t all of us—have become radicalized sooner? The litany intensifies, and the “I”’s, notice, have graduated. Now they are capitalized:
I was on the bus
with Rosa Parks
& in the streets with Martin King […] I was a Panther
in New York
in San Francisco
with gay liberation
in D.C. with
yes, I was there
& I’m still moving
When, later in the poem, I reach the honor roll for brave Black women—”Phillis Wheatley / Sojourner Truth / Harriet Tubman”—and I begin to hear the poetry of their names in Parker’s elegant arrangement—”& Billie / & Bessie / sweet Dinah / A-re-tha”—I am thinking of those on the list who are still with us. I hear “Nikki Giovanni” and remember reading her in college while I was supposed to be stocking shelves, the way I kept hiding her collection so I could read it wherever I stood. I hear “Angela Davis” and recall listening to her speak at my school just a few weeks ago, sitting with my wife (my legal same-sex spouse!) in that electrified auditorium. I am thinking of the phrase “living history,” of Parker’s instantiation of it—”& all the names we forgot to say / & all the names we didn’t know / & all the names we don’t know, yet.” Living here, in the Yet, I begin to name them: Michelle Obama, Karen Bass, Donna Edwards, Ruth Simmons, Claudia Rankine… .
In “Womanslaughter,” the last poem in Strong, Parker writes “of the four / daughters of Buster Cooks, / children, survivors / of Texas-Hell, survivors / of soul-searing poverty, / survivors of small-town / mentality”—of whom she is the youngest. This poem recounts the death of her sister, Shirley, at the hands of Shirley’s husband: “One day a quiet man / shot his quiet wife / three times in the back. / He shot her friend as well. / His wife died.” It is in these moments of journalistic precision—the short, tight lines that withhold commentary, that present the bald language of facts—where Parker strikes hardest at the reader’s heart and mind. In the third person, she indicts herself and her siblings: “The three sisters / of Shirley Jones / came to cremate her. / They were not strong.” The strength they lacked then is the strength she will spend her life cultivating.
By the end, the poem has evolved to a rallying cry, a resolution. In first person, with capital “I,” Parker recounts:
I have gained many sisters
And if one of them is beaten,
Or raped, or killed,
I will not come in mourning black.
I will not pick the right flowers.
I will not celebrate her death
and it will matter not
if she’s Black or white
if she loves women or men
I will come with my many sisters
and decorate the streets
with the innards of those
brothers in womanslaughter.
Instead of vigils, Parker vows vengeance. Instead of elegies, Parker vows action. And in this way, all her poems serve as catalysts, summoning the reader to join this poet-speaker on the move. The goat—stubborn, powerful, unrelenting—will never return to that sedating pasture again.
Encountering anew these three poems from Strong within the The Complete Works of Pat Parker only reinforced my experience of being swept up in the momentum of the poet’s vision, passion, and commitment to social change. Reading Parker is always akin to marching: it is that rhythmic, that purposeful. It is an activity that seems to engage my whole body.
I’m reminded of a quote from Pearl S. Buck I have long admired: “There is an alchemy in sorrow; it can be transmuted into wisdom.” Parker’s sorrow manifests as wisdom, too, but a wisdom that is forged in fire, that takes the form of rage. As Judy Grahn writes in the introduction to the larger volume, Parker “turns that rage into a promise to become strong, to gather other strong women in solidarity.” Enter this book, and you have entered a feminist force field.
Grahn goes on to describe Parker’s body of work as “historic and prophetic, both contemporary and timelessly accessible.” I agree! Audre Lorde characterized Parker’s poetry as “clean and sharp without ever being neat.” I agree!
If I were invited to assemble another sample platter of this great poetic feast, I’d choose poems that epitomize these claims by Grahn and Lorde. To my mind, we have never needed Parker’s prophetic vision, accessible language, and sharp voice—that refuses the neat and tidy, the easy answer, the status quo—more than we need it now, 100-plus days deep in the Trump Presidency. Parker holds a pick-axe in our present cavern. Parker wields the brightest miner’s light in our present dark. Here are the poems I’d choose for all of us now:
Poem #1: “Where do you go to become a non-citizen?”
Tell me if these words feel familiar to you, if you might have uttered something similar yourself, and more than once, since last November: “I want to resign; I want out. / I want to march to the nearest place / Give my letter to a smiling face. / I want to resign; I want out.”
What I love about this poem is that it ends the same way that it begins. We know intellectually that we need to stay and fight for a future America that is better than its past. We know also that Pat Parker has known this fact since she published “Where do you go to become a non-citizen?” in 1978. And yet, she recognizes our collective, visceral need to say no, we’ve had enough, we don’t want to spend more of our lives cleaning up the messes that were here before us, that will be here after us. Parker taps into the power of refusal with this poem—a necessary caesura before the greater power of recommitment to a cause.
Throughout this poem, Parker chronicles the compromised milestones of historical progress and the backlashes that inevitably accompanied them. For instance: “The A.P.A. finally said all gays aren’t ill / Yet ain’t no refunds on their psychiatric bills. / A federal judge says MCC is valid—a reality / Yet it won’t keep the pigs from hurting you or me.” Readers living now are haunted by these ongoing specters: hate crimes against gay Americans, police brutality against Black Americans. We find daily evidence of what Parker describes, even writing two generations past. We understand, yet don’t want to accept, that laws change faster than hearts and minds.
So if laws, even when they change, seek to legislate actions but cannot regulate perceptions, prejudices—the very hierarchies and binaries and coerced conformities that Parker’s body of work rallies against—we need something beyond laws, and Parker never fails to remind us that the “something beyond” is art. Yet who would trust an artist who couldn’t also confess to being “skeptical—full of doubt,” at least some of the time? This poem renews my faith that Parker is a true believer, a committed citizen. Wanting to resign, after all, is not the same as resigning.
Poem #2: “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend”
Talk about poems of immediacy. Talk about poems that speak to our current cultural moment. This poem is a primer for living under the myth of a “post-race” society. Parker begins:
The first thing you do is forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.
On the surface, this may seem a contradictory imperative, but in truth, it is a summons to the more-than-binary way Parker invites her readers to live. I read the first line as a caution against tokenism. No one wants to be valued as a “marker of diversity,” some version of “the Black friend proves the white friend isn’t / can’t be racist.” I read the second line as a mandate for genuine connection between friends.
And yet: “Equal” does not mean “same.” “Equal” was never meant to mean “same.” The white friend and the Black friend do not share the same experience of the world, are not appraised the same way by the eyes of the world. I read this line as caveat against collapsing differences between friends. To acknowledge difference is not the same as ranking difference. And to pretend there is no difference—to see no difference—is not the same as forging truly egalitarian bonds.
This poem also reveals Parker’s humor:
Eat soul food if you like it, but don’t expect me
to locate your restaurants
or cook it for you
And if you really believe Blacks are better lovers than
Whites—don’t tell me. I start thinking of charging stud fees.
Perhaps my favorite line in the poem, exemplifying the ways white people, and I am one, often condescend to others, even unconsciously:
And if you decide to play Beethoven—don’t tell me
his life story. They made us take music appreciation too.
We’ve all heard of “mansplaining,” a word of our era. Parker hints at “whitesplaining” in a world where, then as now, what is needed is more white listening, more white awareness, of the ways we interact, however well-meaning, in the world. This poem reminds us that meaning well is not, and never was, enough.
Poem #3: “For the Straight Folks Who Don’t Mind Gays But Wish They Weren’t So BLATANT”
This poem likewise draws the reader into scenarios she’s likely witnessed, scenarios in which she may have been implicated herself. The use of second person is so unassuming, so conversational, that the reader almost forgets she has entered a poem. Almost:
Have you met the woman
Who’s shocked by 2 women kissing
& in the same breath,
tells you that she’s pregnant?
BUT GAYS SHOULDN’T BE BLATANT.
Each stanza proffers another turn of the kaleidoscope, another self-contained glimpse of heteronormative culture at work. As a gay person, I think I will recognize each example Parker presents for the hetero-norm it is, but here’s a stanza that took me by surprise:
You go into a public bathroom
and all over the walls
there’s John loves Mary,
Janice digs Richard,
Pepe loves Dolores, etc. etc.
BUT GAYS SHOULDN’T BE BLATANT.
I have seen these scribbles on many a bathroom stall door, hetero-love proclaimed in sand, in snow, on sidewalks just before the concrete dried. But have I ever seen two women’s names or two men’s names similarly paired, carved inside a heart against the trunk of a tree? Come to think of it, I’m not sure I have. Come to think of it, I hadn’t considered how even in the most silent, remote, and anonymous of locations, these declarations of the natural order of love surround us, seem even to indict us if we live another story.
Parker isn’t advocating for fewer declarations of love or desire, of course. She’s advocating for a landscape more balanced in its depictions of love, its proclamations of desire. At the end of the poem, she addresses her heterosexual readers directly:
So to you straight folks
i say—Sure i’ll go
if you go too,
but I’m polite
In other words, if it isn’t “blatant” when heterosexuals do it—whatever it is—then how can it be “blatant” when other kinds of people do it? In her signature way, Parker invites the reader to re-see.
Reading Pat Parker is archaeological. There’s digging to be done, and she turns her lines like a sharp, finely wrought shovel. Some of the poems are spare. They are what we might call “bare bones.” But how can we begin to understand the intricacy of anything without first inspecting its skeleton? Parker gets skeletal with gender, with race, with orientation, with history’s overlapping stories, its contradictions and its luminous, undeniable truths.
Maybe my selection of three poems by Pat Parker needs an epilogue poem, an ars poetica. For this purpose, I’d choose an untitled poem from Parker’s uncollected work of the 1980s that begins with an epigraph we’ve all encountered before. Perhaps it is a statement we have heard pronounced aloud, nearby; perhaps it is a statement we ourselves have made: I’m so tired of hearing about oppression. The words are attributed here to “Woman at Poetry Reading.”
Parker doesn’t waste any time reaching for her shovel:
Once it was said—
We only need to tell people
Show them the facts—
& they will become a mighty force
She excavates her lines as if they had always been there, waiting to be uncovered. She strikes stone going down and keeps on digging. No fear of the plunge, the plummet, or the hard wall:
my dear sister
safe in Nebraska flatlands
secluded in ivory towers
Think for one minute
If you in this decade
are so tired of hearing oppression:
how tired are we
of living in it.
The time for Pat Parker is now, is then, is always. Dig in, Friends. The soil is rich. The words are fine.