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This year for my birthday the universe sent me a kestrel. One Sunday afternoon when I was trying to write, my wife came in frantic. There is a huge bird in the fireplace. A hawk or something. When I came inside and looked into the fire cave, it appeared small peering out from the glass. And frightened. Unsure of how it would get out as were we. The whole evening we tried various schemes to liberate it: capture it in a sheet, or transfer it to some contraption and carry it outside? By ten that evening, defeated, we left it to rest overnight. The next morning, I knew what had to happen: it had to be caught by hand, carried outside, and released. I did not do that. The fellow who mows our lawn did. He was as enamored with the kestrel as I. He grabbed her from beneath the flue, held her gently. Outside he released her. She flew to the peak of the house, nattering at us either about the conditions of her captivity or about her relief at finally being free. Five minutes later, we saw her perched with another kestrel about her size, a sibling, we presumed, chirping and squawking as if retelling the entire story.
The subject of this review is Jenny Johnson’s extraordinary debut collection In Full Velvet, published last February by Sarabande Books. I love the book and have much to say about it, but I want to make you wait as we readers have waited in anticipation of what might be in the world of lesbian poetry. (Should you find waiting tedious as my wife does or should you find yourself with limited time, feel free to skip ahead.) Before I turn to In Full Velvet, two other books from the past merit reflection—Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season and Jenny Factor’s Unraveling at the Name. Meanwhile, do not forget the kestrel. She may reappear.
My copy of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, the copy I read as a teenager, albeit a late teen, sitting on the hard plastic mattress in a college dorm room, that copy still sits on my shelf, and I regularly take it out to read. Yes, I have the beautiful reissue by W. W. Norton, hardbound with a pristine jacket. Yes, I love that copy and the fact that Hacker is published by the most august of poetry houses, but that hardbound copy is not my reading copy. My reading copy is a paperback first edition from Arbor House. While researching this piece, I learned that Arbor House simultaneously issued Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons in cloth and paperback. Now, as a book maven, I covet a cloth edition, rare and expensive. Even if I owned one, my reading copy would remain the first paperback edition. The poems, the printings, the pages. I love them all. I also love my teenage scrawlings in my reading copy.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, to the disapproval of my advisor who said it was not a paper that would help me move around the world. I should write about an early modern woman writer, she said, perhaps Christine de Pizan. She was right. That paper resulted in a stack of graduate school rejections. Even forty years later, writing about lesbians is hardly something one does to move up in the world. Some lessons, I have to learn again and again; even then, I do not believe. The lessons still do not stick. What does last is my love for these poems, for this book.
That paperback copy—my reading copy—is where I first encountered Hacker’s luminous sonnets. Holding the pages of my reading copy, I realized lesbian love, lesbian sex, lesbian lives, and lesbian poets can be in conversation with literary canons. The glue of the spine on my copy of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons has completely degraded. It flakes off when I open the book. The spine cracks when I turn the pages. Its pages are no longer bound together but laid together. This may be a metaphor for the lesbian characters in the book: no longer bound together but laid together.
I first read Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons in 1988 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was coming out, reading my way to understanding what it meant to be a lesbian. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons was a sweet relief from the literature survey courses that shaped my reading life. At eighteen, Marilyn Hacker showed me through these poems what a quotidian, urban lesbian life might look like, straddling two cities, New York and Paris, and peopled with a rich cast of friends and ex-lovers.
Hacker taught me, more than any independent lesbian film, what sex could be, what it could look like, what it could feel like. From the initial desire for another woman, “I brushed my lips / just across yours, and fire down below / in February flared,” to the detailed sexual positions, “I’d love to grip your head between my thighs / while yours tense toward your moment on my ears,” or “when it’s you and me / heart to cunt to heart to cunt,” she explained the connections between the mind and body in her sonnets:
First, I want to make you come in my hand
while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,
I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I
hold your drenched loveliness contracting.
She demonstrated the reciprocity of lesbians, “at last / inside me where I trust you, then your tongue / where I need you. I want you to make me come.” Published in 1986, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons presents lesbianism as both ordinary and taboo. Hacker is no Stein concealing her love for Toklas in repeated, benign phrases. Rather, she uses an array of explicit words to describe and celebrate female genitalia, never recoiling from the sticky, the messy, and the sensuality of lesbian bodies. The carnality of lesbian sex may be arranged within the artifice of poetic formalism, but the realities of organisms, masturbation, lust, and desire are never disguised by meter and rhyme.
Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons is the story of a year-long romance between the speaker and a younger woman, Rachel, known affectionately as Ray. In the story, Ray is twenty-five years old. I spent my twenty-fifth year looking for an older lover who would “say how much and where I’d kiss you / into your answering machine” and with whom “for / three weeks the conversation hasn’t stopped, / except for love, so much, such thorough love / we’re not presentable, though we’ve been going / out.” You might imagine that no lover ever lived up to this story, but in fact they did; only they never wrote me sonnets, let alone a novel in sonnets. Nevertheless, for years, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons was the standard by which I judged all poetry. Oh, let me be honest, it was the standard by which I judged all aspects of my life.
Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet revels in the queerness of the natural world. The opening poem, “Dappled Things,” a praise poem, begins:
Thank you day for dappled things—
For ambrosia beetles streaking skylines inside a maple
For pansies speckled as a painter’s sleeve
For russet-crusted sidewalks of lichen, airy springs
of fiery-structured fringe For pink corpuscles
making midges soon to be burst out the undersides of leaves
The poem riffs on the sonic proximity of dapple and apple and considering honeybees, male bonobos, a marmot, a magpie, a lioness, and a house sparrow. The litany of praise continues for both the day and the female beloved. Hacker’s diction drew into her poems words like crepuscular, avuncular, redolent, and unstalwart (all words I dutifully looked up in a dictionary, writing their definitions in the pages of my reading copy). Rereading the collection, the language itself seems bound to urban intelligentsia. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons taught me that the best place to be queer was in a city. Johnson’s language, on the other hand, celebrates the natural world, bringing ecology into the world of lesbians, suggesting both that people can be queer anywhere and that everywhere one looks there is some form of queerness.
There were periods of my life when I was out of love with poetry. You know those times. Love affairs cannot always burn so brightly; we cannot read and adore words with the same intensity every day, every month, every year. We all have moments of alienation, despair, despondency. During one of those moments, I picked up a collection of poetry published by Copper Canyon Press. I bought it, most likely from a chain bookstore with a poetry section tucked in the back, for only one reason: it carried, on the back, the name Marilyn Hacker. She had selected the book; she judged it worthy, describing Jenny Factor as “a poet who is not afraid to dare the extravagant gesture (the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown).”. Such praise. I knew it was a book I would like. I did.
Unraveling at the Name enters the conversation at a very different moment than Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Hacker had celebrated lesbianism in full flower during the repressions of the Reagan administration when gay and lesbian people fought for the dignity and survival of their lives and loved ones. Hacker’s work was part of a broader project that brought greater recognition of queer lives in the United States during the 1990s. Factor’s book was published in 2002, during the second Bush administration. By then, the ostensible gains for queer people in the 1990s seemed to be eroding with substantial defeats of LGBT rights at the ballot box. A nervous electorate affirmed again and again in cities and states across the country that they would never recognize marriage that was not between a man and a woman.
Consider these different representations of marriage. In Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, one sonnet is titled “On Marriage.” Hacker writes in the final sestet:
No law books frame terms of this covenant.
It’s choice that’s asymptotic to a goal,
which means that we much choose, and choose, and choose
momently, daily. This moment my whole
trajectory’s toward you, and it’s not los-
ing momentum. Call it anything we want.
The defiant tone of the poet typifies attitudes to marriage among urban queers in the 1980s: the possibility was beyond the scope of the law and beyond the scope of the imagination. What was possible and perhaps even more significant was recognizing the humanity of queer relationships and celebrating those relationships. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons exemplifies these celebrations. The relationship at its center is one that begins and ends over the course of a year; it is not a binding for life. It is a queer relationship not only because both lovers are women but also because they defy the state (law), religion (covenant), and social convention (age).
As Hacker defies convention, Factor lives inside a conventional marriage, navigating her way out to live as a lesbian. Unraveling at the Name juxtaposes coming out as a lesbian with the unraveling of a heterosexual marriage; she describes the relationship as “an Open Marriage, not a Trial Divorce, / between a lesbian woman, a straight man / who cannot bear to hurt each other much.” The giddiness of coming out in these poems juxtaposes with the sadness of the dissolving relationship—and is complicated by the young child the two share. While Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons is a novel in sonnets with a handful of dazzling villanelles, Factor’s collection leans into sonnets and includes other formal poems (the canzone still makes me swoon). The heroic crown of sonnets, comprised of fourteen linked sonnets plus a fifteenth that comes from the first line of each of the preceding sonnets, “Unraveling at the Name” offers a sexual history “For those of us who have an awful love, / ungainly, overeager, and does not fit / inside the shape our friendships offer it / a history emerges.” The speaker realizes, “We need more words for love, so we define / the fullest loves we’ve felt. I come alive: / there’s woman after woman, count the names.” These sonnets are extravagant and heady—as exciting to read in 2002 as Hacker in 1988.
Like Hacker, Factor examines the intimate sexual and emotional lives of women. No small task, even today when too often women continue to be reduced to caricatures or sexual props. Poems and stories that describe the intimate contours of women’s lives remain, if not rare, hardly commonplace. Making lesbians the centered gaze, the heroic speaker, in imaginative narratives is still a daring leap to be celebrated. To write the quotidian of lesbian life, of lesbian love and sex, is hardly ordinary. It is life-changing, for readers and for the literary world.
The everyday quality of the poems of Hacker and Factor characterize a significant breakthrough in lesbian poetry. Another occurs in Johnson’s In Full Velvet. For Factor, the natural world operates as a backdrop or symbolic inspiration for human drama and psyches—the beach in Israel, Canadian geese in the Palisades, a hibiscus, a grassy lawn, a full moon, the birds in the roof. Factor writes in the poem, “Super Position”:
Wings scuffling into the eaves.
Bird eyes peek from the roof.
Parenting’s own coffin.
How jolly for the little fellows,
feathered eyeless thumbs
who are birthed where I cannot rest
and call my roof their home.
The bird’s eyes and wings offer a metaphor for the emotional space of the speaker. The reader sees the world through a lesbian’s eyes. To see the world through a lesbian’s eyes is an important step; Jenny Johnson also makes that move—and adds another earth-shaking one.
In Full Velvet drove me back to reread by Unraveling at the Name and Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. It was not just the seven-sonnet crown, “Aria,” in Jenny Johnson’s collection, though all three books share sonnet crowns. All three of these collections of poetry and all three of these poets combine lesbian experiences with the formal structures of poetry in a manner that is exciting and energizing for poetry and for lesbian poetry. Hailing me to reread favorite collections from earlier decades is one signal that Johnson’s In Full Velvet is extraordinary. Yet, I want to be even more direct. In Full Velvet is one of the best collections of poetry I have read in a decade. Such hyperbole invites challenge; I welcome it. Read Johnson and see if you agree. If not, let’s argue about the great collections by lesbian poets over the past ten, twenty, fifty years. These conversations are fodder for our canon.
What makes In Full Velvet great? First, it is in direct conversation with an array of other lesbian poets and queer writers, not only Hacker and Factor. Second, the writing is rich and textured; it leaps off the page, using form and diction to create consistently transcendent experiences with language. Third, these poems, through their language and ideas, open new ways to see and understand the world through a lesbian and queer lens. A few examples from the collection could illuminate these points, although much of the magic of the collection is in discovery.
For many years, Hacker was the gold standard of writing about lesbian sex for me, and in many ways she still is. Johnson, however, offers new ways. In “Tail,” for instance, Johnson writes, “And how good it felt to straddle the sawhorse, out behind the shed, half tomboy, half centaur, / How I clenched a two-by-four between my thighbones and it was part of me.” This couplet is emblematic of Johnson’s poetic prowess. The line opens with sibilance—straddle, sawhorse, shed—and a familiar image. Then, the speaker transmogrifies from a child into a creature “half tomboy, half centaur” stimulating herself with a “two-by-four” and that shaft of wood becomes “part of me.” Concision combined with imagination and verbal dexterity crafts poems that consistently pack a punch.
Two other poems demonstrate the rich archive from which Johnson’s work draws. In “Elegy at Twice the Speed of Sound,” she pays homage to Melvin Dixon:
Or I should name this ache, call it archive fever, reading a speech
given in 1992 by a man,
(Why haven’t I heard of him until now?)
a translator, a scholar, a poet, who warned before dying
of complications from AIDS,
“I will be somewhere listening for my name. . .”
These stanza prefigure the delight of the poet when a dozen stanza’s later she writes his name, imagining him listening and hearing his own name invoked.
Another poem, “Dorothy’s Trash,” considers people’s cast offs and how we search them for traces of queerness. The poem concludes:
Like I said, nothing here,
and me now, on hands and knees
to sniff around, to root behind,
to put one fist deep in the compost
just to feel the heat
of matter breaking down.
Johnson’s signature is to evoke emptiness then fill it with an image drawn from nature that is both queer and rich with meaning like a fist deep in compost, feeling heat from a break down.
She makes a similar move in the opening to the poem “In the Dream.”
I was alone in a dyke bar we’d traversed before
or maybe it was in a way all our dives
merging together suddenly as one intergalactic composite,
one glitter-spritzed black hole,
one cue stick burnished down to a soft blue nub.
The speaker is alone, a space adjacent to empty, and Johnson sets up the poem with something familiar, a dyke bar, then veers into the natural world, this time with a journey not down into the earth but with a zip into the heavens and a “glitter-spritzed black hole.” She returns, momentarily, to the bar with the burnished cue stick. These peripatetic movements energize the poems and suggest the ability for queerness and for queer people to move anywhere in the world, anywhere in the galaxy, anywhere in the universe.
As she confides at the end of “Gay Marriage Poem”, this interplanetary movement is where the poet is most comfortable:
Let us speak without occasion
of relations of our choosing!
as the warps and wefts
amid mats of moss,
without competing for sunlight
our hairy caps are forever
lodging in spaces
that myopic travelers can’t see.
Of such loves unwrit, at the boundary layer
between earth and air,
I feel most clear.
Like Hacker, Johnson evokes the idea of marriage as not driven by the state but by the interior states of people, and love becomes an emotion that connects people to one another and the natural world.
These connections to nature serve to illuminate the poet and, more broadly, humankind. In “Vigil,” Johnson writes about intimacy and how lovers achieve it not through touch, not through sex, but through watchfulness.
I need to tell you about the seeing that goes on between two people,
around two people. Not the touching. The watchfulness.
This is not just about love, though I love her as much now as then.
It’s that she’s always looking out.
If I follow the dotted lines of her gazes she’s looking out at some thing
just out of range:
a river otter surfacing beneath a boat dock,
a damselfly dipping below a waterline,
a wasp out a tiny hole in a hollow gall,
that wasp lifting its legs.
Johnson moves from the speaker’s observations of her lover to the lover’s observation of nature. The river otter, the damselfly, and the wasp are both “out of range” suggesting the remoteness of lovers, but they are closely observed confirming the intimacy between them. Johnson illuminates the complexity of intimacy, of watchfulness, through the natural world; the entwinement of the speaker and the beloved with the natural world is beautiful, desperate, complex, and queer.
Johnson writes in “Elegy at Twice the Speed of Sound,”
Where there is
no lineage, no record,
proof, there are
myths, and where
there are no myths,
there are traces:
Lesbians read traces and myths. We search for lineages, records, and quantifiable proof. This is a lesbian poetic tradition with different valences and different ways to trace it. One way to trace a lineage is genealogy. Our queer genealogy is not who gave birth to whom, but what books gave birth to what poets, what books opened space in the world for new ways to live and think and love, what books created opportunities for poets to imagine poems in new ways? One genealogy is Marilyn Hacker, Jenny Factor, Jenny Johnson. One way lesbians discover themselves is by reading.
Across the road from my house, perched on the top of a power post, there is an osprey nest. Last spring the mated pair took turns sitting on the nest. We watched two then three young ones emerge. This winter, the pair have returned; we are waiting and watching.
In Johnson’s seven sonnet sequence “Aria,” friends gather at a party to “say farewell / to a close friend’s breasts, top surgery.” Johnson morphs the body into music—“a drum flattened tight” and then an “off-pitch soprano.” In the second sonnet, the sounds of the soprano fill the poem. Trill. Thrust. Thistling.
Then this off-pitch soprano steals through
a crack that’s lit. A scarlet gap between
loose teeth. Interior trill. We’re rustling open.
Out of a prohibited body why
long for melody. Just a thrust of air,
a little space with which to make this thistling
sound, stretch of atmosphere to piss through when
you’re scared shitless. Little sister, the sky
is falling and I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
a line a girl, a prophet half my age,
told me to listen for one summer when
I was gutless, a big-mouthed carp that drank
down liters of algae, silt, fragile shale
while black-winged ospreys plummeted from above.
Osprey are expert fishers. Johnson knows the big-mouth carp drinking algae is destined to be dinner. One feast is another’s life.
The charge of being unnatural is still wielded against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people. Poets offer responses to unnaturalness in various registers. Hacker challenges the unnaturalness of lesbianism by placing it in the heroic poetic tradition. Unnaturalness is undone by situating lesbian love in the same vector as heterosexual love and desire. Through the portrayal of the domestic lives of lesbians in meter and rhyme, Hacker demonstrates with rhythm how the pulse of lesbian lives fit. Yet while the domestic plays a crucial role in naturalizing lesbianism, Hacker never domesticates it. It is still queer: the middle-aged lesbian lusting—and fucking—a younger woman. Hacker never presents sexless lesbians tottering toward the horizon.
Factor’s lesbianism disrupts the “natural” family. The heterosexual unit of man and woman with child is interrupted by the acknowledgement of lesbianism. Like Hacker, Factor uses poetic form to rein in the unruliness of lesbianism, but still it breaks through. Lesbianism storms from the center to occupy the margins—the eaves. In these two collections, both Hacker and Factor center the human to challenge the unnaturalness of lesbianism. Johnson, on the other hand, samples the human, the domestic, and the tropes of contemporary lesbian life, but she insists on an unnatural queerness in all of her poems; she does not make queer natural rather makes nature queer. Rather than a denatured lesbian, she posits a lesbian or queer nature that is both pastoral and bucolic as well as dark, consumptive, feral, and predatory.
I return to the kestrel. I want to imagine the kestrel as a gift, as some divine gesture of confidence in my ability to preserve nature, to rescue wildness. I want my own heroic narrative, but I know the story is darker, without a clear climax. Who is wild? The kestrel placidly flying over our home? Or the lesbians who live inside refusing the natural order of the world, rejecting men, rejecting children? The kestrel, like the osprey, is a bird of prey. I want it on the property along with the snakes to keep at bay rodents attracted to the citrus trees. One of my dogs chases the hawks and turkey vultures and osprey that fly overhead. He believes one day he might catch one. His predatory instinct is present. Palpable. He is wild. I want his prey instinct to be strong in the world. I love him queerly. Who is predatory? The osprey? The kestrel? The owners of this home built on their land? I want lesbians to be like Johnson’s osprey, swooping down, plummeting prey from above. I want lesbian predators. I want lesbian wildness, unruliness, unnaturalness. I want you to read these books. I want to make you come.
In Full Velvet
By Jenny Johnson
Paperback, 9781941411377, 68 pp.