Julie Marie Wade’s When I Was Straight is a collection of twenty-three poems, divided into two parts, “Before” and “After.” In the first half of the collection, Wade tells stories from her life before she came out as a lesbian. Each of these poems begins with the line, “When I was Straight,” and explores the emotional landscape of life before coming out. One poem begins, “It was a shame. It was a secret. / It was a phase.” This poem riffs on stereotypes about homosexuality, personalizing them, lending emotional poignancy. Each of the twelve poems in the first half of the book plays with tropes of coming out, many of which are well-trod, but Wade still deliver joy and discovery to readers in these poems. In these poems, Wade is at her most deft.
In the second poem of this series, Wade confesses that when she was straight she “did not love women as I do now.” She describes a preteen slumber party with “sleeping bags like straightjackets.” When she has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she cannot find the girl who is the host. She confides:
______they all looked the same to me, beautiful &
untouchable as stars. It would be years before
I learned to find anyone in the sumptuous,
The pre-teen girls as untouchable stars is one of the many moments in this collection where Wade provides language and imagery that delights and surprises. The tension between childlike wonderment and the adult embrace of the “sumptuous, terrifying dark” demonstrates how Wade builds connections through contrast.
The second half of When I Was Straight examines the reactions of other people to learning “I am a lesbian.” In the poem, “When My Grandmother Learns I am a Lesbian,” the grandmother looks up “from her crossword page” and deadpans, “Don’t be silly, dear. You’re Scandinavian.” People in the office wonder if she liked Brokeback Mountain, rave about the Indigo Girls, and assure her, “I voted for Barack Obama.” Perhaps because these poems explore the emotional responses of other people, sometimes they lack the intimacy and discovery of the poems in the first half. Perhaps explorations of internal landscapes are more ripe for poetry than explorations of the more external, interpersonal interactions, or perhaps poetry is simply more interesting when something is hidden.
Still, these poems of “After” challenge and delight. Most provocative in this series is the single line from “When the Foreign Exchange Student Learns I am a Lesbian.” Wade writes his words: “Didn’t you ever want to be something important with your life?” I read this line as mournful, as a wry commentary on the societal expectation that queer people cannot be and do important things. I read this line as sad and cutting. I wonder, though, for younger readers, is this line simply comical?
Either way, When I Was Straight is a rich collection for people who are coming out, for people who have come out, and for people who know people coming out. Wade is a poet with a warm heart and a strong, poetic voice.