Searching for Solace in Queer Poetry
When I feel alienated from my family or myself, I turn to the words of other people like me
“D o you think you’ll ever find someone like your sister has?”
My mother asks me this as I survey my sister’s new backyard. An animatronic owl guards the flowerbed, greening tomatoes hang off the vines, rich mulch frames plants that are not yet fully grown — signs of fresh life, but one that is just beginning.
My sister has lived here in Austin for a little over a year with her new husband, and we’re here now celebrating their marriage. The marriage and this house are a symbol of her safety and her comfortability. Amidst my sister’s security, my mother is worrying about my own.
I say, “I hope I will,” and this is the truth.
The sun shines hot on us in summer.
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds has a false ending. The penultimate poem, entitled “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” is an epistolary written to a future self.
Night Sky is perhaps a book of queer melancholy. An honest account of the emotions of putting up with one’s queerness. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” reads:
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us
Here, Vuong is looking for an ending that proves he has made it through his tribulation.
Throughout Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Vuong reconciles forms of his own identity, juxtaposing images and narratives of his body as a Vietnamese immigrant and as a queer young man. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” ends:
I swear, you will wake —
& mistake these walls
Vuong hopes for a day where his existence is not a barrier but is as comfortable and form-fitting as skin. The use of “mistake” feels important here. The verb could have been “see” or “view” or “understand,” but he chose “mistake.” His perception changes; the wall remains a wall. He must trick himself into believing that he is okay, that he is worthy, even if, in the world of the poem, it might not be true.
I came out to my parents during my first year of college. It was November and it was Parents’ Weekend, when most parents of freshmen flew out to visit their children and see how they were adjusting. My parents drove four and a half hours from Joplin to St. Louis.
As soon as they’d arrived, I knew that I had to tell them. Before I thought I would wait until the holidays, but being around them in the context of school, in a context in which I was already “out,” felt like I was lying to them. In the past few months I had developed what felt like a new life with new friends that I didn’t have to hold secrets from.
Amid tours and samplings of local chain restaurants that weren’t too far out of their comfort zones — I wanted to make them as comfortable as possible, to feel like everything was normal — I couldn’t find the words to tell them. I couldn’t find the words on Friday. I showed them around my campus, pointing out the different places I spent my days. Here was my dorm, the common room, here was the dining hall, our go-to restaurants near campus. Saturday, I was even more afraid. I watched as my parents struggled to register all my new friends’ names. They were overwhelmed, and why wouldn’t they be. Neither of them had ever had a college campus experience like this. On Sunday, we ate lunch at a dimly lit Applebee’s and that felt wrong too. The atmosphere was too depressing. This can’t be where I do it, I thought. But I had been thinking this all weekend, at each of our destinations. So, I knew I had only option — to tell them after lunch, before they left for home, before I got out of the car. My stomach was in knots. I didn’t say a word on the way back to campus.
The parking structure outside of my dorm was gray as was the sky outside, so the light coming through only made it feel grayer.
My dad pulled into a spot so that we could say our goodbyes.
“Before you guys leave I have to tell you something,” I said from the backseat.
This alarmed my mother, as I knew it would. She whipped herself around in the parked car yelling What? in a fluid motion. I was stuck now, I had to tell them.
“I don’t like girls…I’m gay.”
I heard myself say this without believing it, without feeling it was real. The car felt static and frozen.
My mom began to cry in the passenger’s seat. She lifted her sunglasses to wipe her tears. My dad was silent.
“I wanted to let you guys know,” I began, just as I had practiced. “I know that a lot of people weren’t supportive of people like you being together, and I hope that you can be supportive of me.”
It hadn’t been very long that white people in Missouri were comfortable with seeing a Black man with a white woman. My mother had my older sister alone in the hospital. Her family was unsupportive and wanted nothing to do with it, all because the father was Black. I wondered if that was a low blow, but it was the closest I could try to get them to understand.
My mom kept crying, only stopping to ask questions: Who else knew? What about church? What about HIV? I cringed at the miseducation, the misunderstanding. I grew exhausted. I sat in silence for several minutes. I needed to let them process.
My mom kept crying, only stopping to ask questions: Who else knew? What about church? What about HIV?
“I’m just gonna go back to my dorm,” I told them.
I opened the car door and headed to the trunk to get my bag, and I was happy that they at least followed me. My mom, still crying, hugged me and said she loved me.
My dad hugged me and finally spoke: “Are you sure?”
I’m drawn to Justin Phillip Reed’s poetry because of its themes of queerness and God. Reed is Black and gay and I see him as an example of how to turn your own experiences into moving art. On the cover of his first collection, A History of Flamboyance, there is a drawn image of a Black boy, a pink floral print background. His head is crowned in doilies. A gold chain with a lock stands out against his black turtleneck.
The busyness and warmth of the cover soothes me. I like to think of my anxieties this way — a swirl of lace and beautiful, messy things.
The text begins with the poem “Torch Song: Straight Boy:”
I needed saving yesterday
stole your dog tags for a bookmark, fucked a tow truck driver
in your bed, lit your incense to kill the stink of poppers.
This is the art of reaching out to you
In the poem, a straight boy is living in the apartment nearby the speaker, somewhere where the noise and effect of his actions are both seen and heard. But I couldn’t get over the architecture of the scene.
The poem describes a moth alighting on the straight boy’s ceiling: “You crushed the insect with a bare-knuckle blow.” How does the speaker know? Does he live in the apartment above? Was he there, in the bedroom, when the moth was killed? I reread the lines of the poem again. And again. And again. What kind of apartment was this? Was it more surreal than that? Was I reading things too literally? Did it matter? I put the book away and went to sleep, convinced I am just bad at reading poetry.
I reread the lines of the poem again. And again. And again. Was I reading things too literally? Did it matter?
A few nights later I returned to the book and then it hit me — what if they were the same person? What if the unrequited love is with the self? A love that isn’t returned? Reed continues:
I flung faith to the sun’s far side and settled for you as an idea
I never knew anything
could be worshipped in this way
Maybe the straight boy is a reflection of himself. A shadow of an old self, simply an idea. Maybe he finds himself worshipping and reaching out to man that is no longer living. Or perhaps this is just me projecting my own thoughts onto the poem. A yearning for someone to show that mourning oneself is a common practice.
The final poem in A History of Flamboyance is “My Angels / Will Be Tall / Black Drag Queens” in which Reed admits that a queer life is a sad one: “we confess the glory hole is haunted.”
The final lines of the poem read:
we cannot dream
a colder habit than silence
In Reed’s vision, heaven is a beautiful space, if it exists. It is a place where queer angels can be free, and unlike the stage of the living that feels a habitual form of death: silence. Heaven is loud and flamboyant. Heaven is not subdued. I don’t have to talk about myself in a low voice. I don’t have to pray that my extended family won’t ask if I have a girlfriend. I don’t have to worry about an eternity of feeling like I don’t quite belong in happy places.
Heaven is loud and flamboyant. Heaven is not subdued. I don’t have to talk about myself in a low voice. I don’t have to pray that my extended family won’t ask if I have a girlfriend.
I watch a squirrel run through my sister’s backyard. I want it to talk to the fake owl.
“I’m just so sorry for the way I reacted,” my mom says.
I figured this was where my mother’s conversation was going: we always approached my queerness this way: barely grazing it. Always brushing its side with delicacy.
I tell her it’s okay, that it has been almost five years, but secretly I am happy to hear her say this.
I feel proven right. That it wasn’t a good response. She cried the entire week after I told her. Every time I called her I felt the wound I had given her. I was still embarrassed about the way I had said it: I don’t like girls, I’m gay. The words sounded so silly to me. As if I were afraid of the word “gay,” so I had to say it in other words first. Thinking of that moment felt like pressing a bruise on the inside of my stomach. I never pressed on it too long.
She begins to cry again. I can’t see behind her glasses but I hear it in her voice. I don’t like to see her like this. So even though I am proven right, this doesn’t feel good. I tell her we don’t have to talk about it anymore, that I know she is sorry, that I always thought she was doing the best she could.
I hear my sister and dad inside playing a board game. I take a sip of my mother’s tea. I think of other things to talk about with her.
“It’s just, it felt like you died,” she says.
My favorite album in high school was a Christian rock album, Come Now Sleep by the band As Cities Burn. It seemed to struggle with the existence of God. It seemed depressed. Song titles like “Our World is Gray,” and “Contact,” and “Wrong Body.” The opening song, “Contact,” begins with lyrics that caught my attention:
Hearts aren’t really our guides.
We are truly alone
’cause God ain’t up in the sky
holding together our bones.
I had never heard a Christian album talk so explicitly about questioning God’s existence before. If we could question the existence of a God, we could question some of what the church thought. I finally felt like my own thoughts were justified. I listened to it over and over.
The song surpasses six minutes in length, but I always stuck around for the final sequence. The song strips down and becomes just vocals an ethereal synth, and light, acoustic guitar strums:
And brother have you found, the great peace that we all seek?
You say take a look around, if there’s a God then he must be asleep.
I listened to the album on repeat dozens of times searching for solace.
When I hear others talk about Moonlight, I wonder if we watched the same film. To me it’s not a story about love, but a story about death — the state of being dead.
To me, “Moonlight” is not a story about love, but a story about death — the state of being dead.
Death here, is present in absence. No death happens on-screen. The character Juan, the father-figure to the protagonist Chiron, leaves an absence that is felt throughout the film. Mahershala Ali even won the Academy Award despite only being present in one third of the film’s triptych.
But, in fact, none of the male protagonists are present in more than one third. Each Chiron of the film “dies” at the end of each act. Each new iteration is different. A different actor plays him in the next — the death and absence becomes embodied.
I cried during Mahershala Ali’s acceptance speech of the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards. He said “We see what happens when you persecute people…they fold into themselves.”
It’s just, it felt like you died.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince myself she didn’t mean it as bad as it sounds. Perhaps I was grieving a “death” just as much as she was. I once thought I’d be a doctor, get married right after college, have kids. I realized I wanted none of what I’d expected I wanted, and once I came out, there were no bounds. There was no road map. I thought about how my life could go anywhere.
My mother feels she has buried her son. Or at least a part of him. Or one of them. I imagine a doppelgänger in my place. My instinct says she’s wrong, but sometimes late at night my mind wanders. While she is mourning my straightness that is gone forever, I am dealing with a different loss of self. I too am not the person I imagined I would grow up to be. I think about the things I’ve done I never want my parents to know, all the things I think me would be appalled at. Things I’ve done simply for pleasure. Things I’ve done just to feel like I’m real.
My mother feels she has buried her son. Or at least a part of him. Or one of them.
I am new to reading poetry. That is not true, but feels like the right thing to say. I am new to reading poetry for pleasure, with understanding that there are poets out there with shared identities. I am new to understanding that poetry has been working through the same problems that I have.
In their book of poetry, Mannish Tongues, jayy dodd expresses their queer existence in terms similar to Voung and Reed. The book begins with the poem “Homeboy.” It begins:
I am often caught hollering at homeboys &
homothugs in the stairwells of labored
White parties. Kissing spliffs before familiar
tongues. These are our bodies
These are our bodies indicates that this is a fact, queer life is the perpetual party in the poem.
The final stanza reads:
I am often caught in the dark, with familiar
failures, hollering at homeboys &
There is still shame here in this poem. The speaker is in the dark with failure. “Whispering” here feels like a distinctive choice. First, it brings to mind the image of jayy whispering profanities in a sexual manner. But they don’t grunt profanities or say them; they whisper. Like one tells a secret.
The final section of Mannish Tongues is titled “Eulogies.” The book closes with the poem “A Eulogy for Myself, The Night” and is written in honor of drag icon Pepper LaBeija. The poem speaks of a “He” who “dreamed” and “believed” in a beautiful world. The “He” here is perhaps intentionally unclear. The poem can be read as a eulogy for Pepper LaBeija, for someone else in the speaker’s queer lineage, or maybe, as the title suggests, dodd is writing a eulogy for a former self.
The poem ends:
He believed heaven was opulence — that the divine could truly
own everything in a ballroom at the edge of the universe,
where realness ascends above reality.
He only ever wanted to be real,
to be whole & full,
for all to eat.
It holds the same sentiment as dreams do for both Reed and Vuong. A hope for what could exist. A hope that it does exist.
I wasn’t always sad, but I did come out little and blue. When I was born I wasn’t breathing. My mother went into labor unexpectedly, and I was born two months early. I had to be whisked away by doctors as soon as my umbilical cord was cut. I was eleven ounces shy of five pounds.
Why is he blue? my mom remembers saying at the time. She didn’t get to hold me until after thirteen days in an incubator.
I thought this was a fun story as a child. My mom tells me it was one of the scariest times of her life.
“They had to bring you back to life, you know,” she tells me over the phone.
She hasn’t phrased it quite like this before. There was a resuscitation charge on the bill, this I knew, but I never thought of it in terms of life and death.
As of late I call my mom every other day. Our frequency is an attempt at emotional intimacy, though not the same. I don’t tell her how much her words have upset me.
Three years after my sister is married, I’m living in Pittsburgh. I started therapy when my insurance kicked in. In my therapist’s office, I discuss these thoughts, on unfulfilled expectations, on secrets I’ve kept to myself, how I’ve been so protective of my parents, wanting to prove that they are “good,” that I never gave myself room to sit with my own anger with them.
I’ve been so protective of my parents, wanting to prove that they are “good,” that I never gave myself room to sit with my own anger with them.
In the winter, I come home to my studio and see the outline of the termite that is dead in the lone, rectangular light fixture in my ceiling. One day it burrowed through the drywall or whatever inhabits the space in my ceiling. It’s difficult to conceptualize, but it must have broken through and into the light panel with nowhere to go. It buzzed and clinked around for hours while I waited for it to die. I had to leave my apartment while it happened.
I haven’t brought myself to remove the body. In winter, my apartment is too dark to see in without the light on. I don’t want to remove the body when the light is still on: I daydream of electrocuting myself, of breaking those artificial, fluorescent tubes open, a noxious gas invading my apartment.
I call my mother and ask if she’s dealt with something like this before. She tells me to leave it alone, that she doesn’t want something bad to happen to me. She tells me this every time I check in. “Your dad and I are always proud of you,” she reminds me.
“I love you,” she says. “I love you too.”
I remind myself that this is true.
I take her advice on ignoring the bug for now. I’ll wait until the seasons change.
The future will be brighter and warmer. I’ll just have to wait for it.