Pansy by Andrea Gibson
Sometimes I come upon a book for review entirely by happenstance. An advanced copy or a new release arrives unexpectedly in my mailbox, I read the book as my schedule permits, and I find myself emotionally and intellectually invested in its contents. When this happens, I want to honor the poet’s work by writing in response—the best way I have found to support my fellow writers in the world. But since I read far more books than I can review, and since I never review a book about which I am not passionate, serendipity in review selection is a plus.
This is serendipity: when my friend and poetry mentor Denise Duhamel sends me an email “Do you know the poet Andrea Gibson?” Denise was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to click on the link to this poet I did not know performing the poem “Birthday” at Keuka College. Angie, my spouse, who is a librarian and who was cc’ed on the email as well, responded before I could: Wow! Didn’t know about Andrea Gibson, but I’m glad I do now. I’m going to request her 2015 book Pansy for the library. The title to her first book is Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. Love it! Thanks for sending this.
Then, I too watched and listened to Andrea Gibson deliver this poem on the small computer screen in my office. Deliver feels like the right word here. Gibson didn’t read or recite; Gibson ushered something living into the world. When I finished watching and listening, I felt that molecular shift that sometimes comes over me at poetry readings when the speaker has been particularly powerful. Even with technology between us, Gibson had charged the air around me with electricity. I promptly ordered a copy of Pansy for myself.
It occurred to me in the interim that the unique energy and charisma of Gibson’s performance poetry—of Gibson’s rendering of this poetry—might not translate with equal intensity to the printed page. But once the book arrived, I learned there was no need for concern. You know that expression “to pack a wallop”? I was never quite sure what a wallop was—how to describe it—until I read Gibson’s long, sprawling, wind-up poems—each stanza’s impact accentuated by accretion—and then BLAMMO!—a short, incisive wallop-poem to follow. Reading the long poems is like scaling a wall, summiting a cliff, and then leaping off it. The short poems are what happen when you hit the sea below.
Take, for example, “Ferguson,” this couplet quieter yet more resounding than a splash:
A sea of blood, America,
and not even a shell held to your ear.
OK, you may say, we hear the tender assonance of “shell and held.” We feel the poignancy of the image, the sorrow of the story it contains (shell) and cannot contain (sea). But what makes this couplet so striking is its relationship to a probing, self-excoriating epistle which precedes it in the volume—a poem called “A Letter to White Queers, a Letter to Myself.”
This poem begins:
Another Black man has been murdered in our streets. And I am white as a ghost haunting my own grief. Thinking, “Who am I to feel grief?”
Thinking, “My god, who am I not to?”
I am white; I am queer; I have asked myself these same questions. But this is the first time I have read a poet reckoning in a way that teaches me how to ask them better, deeper, carve them into the cliff instead of tossing them like pebbles into that widening sea of blood.
I am writing to tell you that last week, someone posted a comment on my Facebook page that said, You’re the kind of bitch it would be a pleasure to hang. And that was tucked in between thousands of other comments equally as fucked, some of them, like yours, from people in the queer community, who furiously disagreed with a post I wrote about Michael Brown being murdered by a white supremacist system designed to murder the hearts, bodies, and spirits of People of Color.
But Gibson doesn’t stop there. Andrea Gibson doesn’t show us only that being an advocate for equality and justice carries a risk, brings about the threat of victimization. This isn’t a praise song by Andrea Gibson for Andrea Gibson, but an interrogation of what it means to advocate for others within the nexus of white privilege and queer-female oppression. Imagine my surprise, and my awe, when a few, unlineated stanzas later—these poems often cannot be confined by lines—Gibson reckons thus:
You wanna know what white is? White is having somebody tell you you’d be a pleasure to hang, having a whole lot of people agree, and not even thinking to lock your door that night.
And then the next stage of reckoning that lifts this poem to its climax—that channels the voice and spirit of that white queer champion of intersectionality, Leslie Feinberg, for whom this collection is dedicated as both elegy and homage:
White is knowing if someone is going to be hung you are not the one. White is having all of Eric Garner’s air in your lungs. No matter how queer you are. No matter how anything we are. If we are white we have Eric Garner’s air in our lungs tonight. And that means our breath is not ours to hold. That means our exhale is owed to mercy, to the riot of our unowned hearts, to the promise that who we weep and fight and tear down the sun for will not only be our own faces in the mirror.
Where else does this book dare to go? you may be wondering now. Consider the wallop-poem called “My”:
torn from me
like a tooth.
No tooth fairy.
No god. Only me
and my rage
waiting for my bite
to grow in.
For a poet who can run lines like red lights, this whole poem is an end-stop. This whole poem is screeching tires on asphalt. This whole poem is looking back in the rearview to take stock of what we hit in the road. It comes later in the book, after a line-stretching, nerve-shredding occasion poem called “Upon Discovering My Therapist Willingly Shares an Office Space with a Male Therapist Who is an Accused Sex Offender Supposedly Recovered from His Urge to Rape 13-Year-Old Girls,” which begins:
I sat on her couch,
back stiff as a roofied drink,
jaw tight as a tourniquet,
asked if she had forgotten
that I too had been exactly 13,
had only just started my period, was terrified
to use tampons for fear one would get lost inside of me
when the man as old as my father got lost inside of me,
that I was yet to find the string of him
anywhere but roped around my own neck.
I absolutely hear you, she said, But how could I do this work
if I didn’t believe in everybody’s ability to heal?
In everybody’s ability to heal…
It was a reasonable question
but I could have slit that question mark’s throat.
This isn’t a poem that stops at breaking silences. This is a poem that starts with shatter and then collects and examines the shards. The title conveys the gist of the story, but the body navigates its aftermath. Aftermath: as in “the math that comes after,” which is another way of saying “the reckoning.” This poem culminates with what I can only describe as the transitive property of trauma. Gibson works the problem all the way through but does not find, or expect to find, a solution:
And whatever part of me that could believe in healing
was the part he stole.
So go ask him for my forgiveness. Go ask him.
It seems important to say at this hard juncture that whoever you are, this book is for you. It does not discriminate in audience any more than it discriminates in content and form. Gibson promises this much in the last stanza of the very first poem:
Get my faith in us under your skin.
Hold my stubborn in the palm of your free.
Tell whoever is resting their elbows
beside you tonight,
Thank god you never got braces.
Your bite looks like a city skyline.
I bet you’ll leave that kind of mark on the world.
You don’t have to identify as queer or genderqueer for this book to belong to you. You don’t have to be a trauma survivor, or a recovering addict, or someone who struggles with depression every day of your life. But if you do, or if you are—any or all of the above—this book will not build a shelter for you either. That’s its promise, for which I could not be more grateful. This book is inspiring without being “inspirational,” instructive without slipping into the shallows of “self-help.”
In a poem called “Etiquette Leash,” Gibson borrows from and effectively subverts the oft-quoted Bible verse from I Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Now behold:
I know these words are gonna get me in trouble […]
But sometimes love…sometimes REAL love…is rude. […]
to making everyone uncomfortable.
To the terrible manners of truth. […]
Love blows up the dam,
chains itself to the redwood tree,
to the Capitol building,
when a trailer of Mexican immigrants
are found dead on a south Texas roadside.
Love insists well-intentioned white people officially
stop calling themselves color blind. […]
Love is not polite […]
Hallelujah to every suffrage movement hunger strike.
Hallelujah to insisting they get your pronouns right.
There is nothing more I could ask of Pansy than the “boot-laced hope” I find herein, the tough and loyal and indefatigable love of its speaker for the fractured world. And yet Gibson’s intersectional advocacy and poetic activism are rich with—are in fact laced with—more humor than I would expect to find in far more trivial contexts. The back cover blurb from comedian Tig Notaro hints at Gibson’s wit, but wait until you read a poem like “LALALOL.” Just wait. Gibson begins:
And then came the day
I discovered my mother had been writing “LOL”
on the Facebook walls of her grieving friends.
Roger was a kind man. LOL.
Susan left this world far too soon. LOL.
Heaven has another angel. LOL.
Bless her heart and the hearts of the grieving families
but I couldn’t help but Laugh Out Loud.
My poor mother, trying to send “Lots of Love”
and not knowing how.
I too laughed out loud. This poem was not the first time or the last time I laughed, loud and hard. In fact, I dare you to read this book and keep a straight face, or a dry eye for that matter. I don’t think it can be done. Consider a wallop-poem like “On Being the Blow Job Queen of My High School,” its two couplets a pair of hands clapping as hard as they can:
a thousand ways
to stay in the closet.
All of them suck.
This poem is its own standing ovation.
With that visceral ending, that Anglo-Saxon “suck,” Gibson catapults me back to the fulcrum of the book—to the prose-poem litany I posted at the end of 2015 as my holiday greeting and offering for the coming year. The title suggests an outrageous optimism shaped by an earned realism (it is not “Things that Are Magical” after all), which is also indicative of Gibson’s overriding worldview: “Things That Don’t Suck.” Who could argue with “Gumball machines” and “Hourglasses” and “Thrift store coffee mugs”? Not me. Who could argue with “Best friends” and “Sexy librarians”? Surely not me. But this poem is not merely a catalog of terrific, concrete nouns; it’s also a testament to the essential beauty of spectra, to the satisfying break with old binaries that have never done us much good: “Tutus on boys. Tutus on girls.” Yes, yes! “Sex with the lights on. Sex with the lights off.” Here, here!
This poem ends nodding toward the caterpillar’s metamorphosis, part and parcel of all inspirational verse—but remember, Gibson inspires subversively: “Butterflies that remember being caterpillars.” I love this twist, this touching back to the past that is always with us, the not-forgetting. “Butterflies that remember being caterpillars” don’t suck. Neither does “Staying alive.” And permit me, won’t you, this addition to the list: Pansy by Andrea Gibson also emphatically does not suck.