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When I Was Straight, the newest book from author Julie Marie Wade (Postage Due, Small Fires, and Lambda Award winner Wishbone), is a slim little volume of poems chock full of insight and life. Published as the eleventh volume of A Midsummer Night’s Press’s LGBT-focused Body Language imprint, it offers a look into Wade’s “before and after:” the first half of the book tackles her life before coming out, and the second half details people’s reactions to learning that she’s a lesbian.
Each of the eleven poems in the “Before” section are titled and begin the same way: “When I Was Straight.” Each takes a different tack, giving another viewpoint of Wade’s life before she came out. In the very first poem, she concludes:
I may have smiled more then,
the part of my lips so often mistaken
for happiness. In fact, it was something else—
a fissure, a break in the line—the way
a paragraph will sometimes falter
until you recognize its promise as
This resonates throughout the first section; that while life went on, in its fashion, something very important was missing. That beyond some line, somewhere, there was an existence that fit better. Instead, she “learned early on about the double life.” Girls all looked the same, “beautiful & untouchable as stars.” And when she was straight, everyone else was straight too: “No one was otherwise, you see. No one had been told another story.”
This section is utterly relatable to anyone who presumed themselves straight because there didn’t seem to be any other option, and yet still knew that it wasn’t quite right. Wade’s language is precise, incisive, and yet lush in parts. Each short poem is offered up as a small bite, easily read, with each re-reading garnering something new.
The following section, “After,” is focused outward – each poem is a reaction from someone else. Titles include “When the Police Officer at the Private School Learns I am a Lesbian,” “When an Old Classmate Learns I am a Lesbian,” and “When the Whole Office Learns I am a Lesbian.” Each poem is a snippet of a reaction, some funny (“Don’t be silly, dear. You’re Scandinavian”), and some heart-wrenching (“eleven years & still no comment”).
In structuring the book in this way, Wade creates an interesting play between internal and external life, private and public. Before she comes out, we get insight into her thoughts and emotions; afterward, she is pushed aside to make room for the thoughts and judgments of others. Her coworkers need her to know that they voted for Barack Obama, her college roommate wonders if she’d be open to marrying a man anyway, and her mother demands, “Where did we go wrong?” It is no longer about her; it is about the people around her. While this does make the second section less personal and lyrical, it is nonetheless powerful, and serves a narrative and political purpose that balances the first section well.
Ultimately, When I Was Straight is a thoughtful collection by a talented writer about coming into oneself, and it is a book that can be read again and again. Highly recommended for anyone who struggled on the way to finding themself, or who struggled even after.
When I Was Straight
By Julie Marie Wade
A Midsummer Night’s Press
Paperback, 9781938334085, 48 pp.