Cheryl Clarke’s ‘Living as a Lesbian’: The Wherewithal to Tell It as It Is
Author: Julie Marie Wade
May 26, 2014
In her introduction to the re-release of Cheryl Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian (1986, 2014), Nancy K. Bereano describes the book as “exhilarating, brilliant, and often outrageous.” Having just read it for the first time, I couldn’t agree more. Clarke is a provocative poet who never asks permission to make her voice heard. Some poems knock politely on the reader’s front door. Some poems tap casually at a side door or enter quietly through the back. Not so with Cheryl Clarke’s poems. These poems don’t care if they’re disturbing you; that’s the point. They break windows. They shatter expectations. They enter a room, a consciousness, and fill that space completely, whether invited or not. And seizing the power to speak on her own terms, Clarke grants other poets permission to do the same—to write until they no longer feel the need to ask may I?, the social obligation to say please.Here’s an example of what I mean, from “no more encomiums”:
This anger so visceral I could shit it
and still be constipated.
My ass is sore with the politics
of understanding the best given the circumstances.
I could spit this anger
and still choke on the phlegm
This poem refutes the idea that poems must be delicate, beautiful things, that poetry is an art form reserved for songs of praise. Clarke continues:
I can only write this poem, my bilious anger.
This third person, my anger.
I could shit it
This poem also refutes the idea that poems must not break the fourth wall, must not reflect upon their own identities as poems, must not “go meta.” This poem, like its speaker, knows what it is and what it is not. This poem, like its speaker, has no illusions. Neither is afraid of the truth.
Bereano first published Living as a Lesbian twenty-six years ago when she was editor and publisher of Firebrand Books. This was the same year I started first grade. It would be at least a decade before I was exposed to any poetry written by living poets—longer until I was exposed to living poets of color and living poets who were queer. I’m sad to say it took well into the new millennium before I encountered any poets who were all three at once: irreducibly alive, of color, and queer, unapologetically present and accounted for in all their identities.
We seem to like our poets dead, safely contained in the ground where they can’t rebut our interpretations, their bodies of work “complete” and “collected” at last. Living poets are trickier because they might show up at our bookstores or our universities. They might give an interview or release another book that challenges our understanding of their work to date.Their styles might, heaven forbid, evolve.
To manage this anxiety, we seem to group our living poets into clusters that are “alike,” typically along a single axis. We have working-class poets, poets of color, lesbian poets and gay poets, trans-poets, too. The image that comes to mind is an egg carton with the small cups in each crate reserved for poets who belong together demographically. But Clarke poses a challenge to such compartments. She belongs in many cartons at once and will not be compartmentalized. Her complexity—of subject position, but not just subject position—makes her nearly uncontainable, confirms the sui generis genius of her work. She is also a poet who, resolutely, will not walk on egg shells.
Here’s an example of what I mean, from “wearing my cap backwards”:
poets are among the first witches
so suffer none to live
or suffer none to be heard
and watch them burn before your eyes
less they recant and speak their verse
i’m a poet.
i speaks in pig latin.
I eats pigs feet—a shonuff sign
to those whose ears are trained to
dactyls and iambs
who resolve all conflicts in couplets.
Clarke reminds us that to be a poet is to belong already to a marginalized group—a powerful and magical group, it’s true, but as misunderstood and distrusted as a coven. Some poets “recant and speak their verse/ in latin.” They play nice with prose, go high-brow, try to blend in with mainstream voices. Not Clarke. She knows she is a marginal poet within a marginal genre, an “other other,” as we sometimes say. We also sometimes say, “You have to know the rules before you can break them” when speaking of artists who refuse certain givens of their traditions, who innovate compulsively and unapologetically. You can be certain that Cheryl Clarke knows a dactyl from an iamb, and you can be damn sure that she would never choose to resolve her conflicts in couplets. Her poems aren’t about resolution anyway. They’re about standing your ground when the only weapon you have is your tongue. They’re about believing that your tongue, that muscle of language and love, is enough. Watch out: Cheryl Clarke is armed and dangerous.
Bereano reflects, “It is absolutely clear to me that Cheryl Clarke was then, and remains now, a singular, powerful voice articulating the truths of fierce, independent women of color: lesbians who often live lives made triply invisible by their sexuality, their race, and their working-class realities.” Instead of shrinking into invisibility, Clarke does the opposite: she emerges larger than life—distinctive in her voice, her perspective, and decidedly unavoidable in her tone. She is a force to be reckoned with precisely because she is a force who reckons. To read these poems is to have an encounter, to be catapulted outside your comfort zone—whoever you are—by a speaker who will not stay inside her shell, her space, her pre-allotted cup in the carton.
Here’s an example of what I mean, from “Indira”:
You could have been my own mother
trapped in the violence of some man
she sees every day.
Hostess and harridan.
Clarke reckons with history by making it relevant and intimate. She connects herself as individual citizen with international figures like Indira Gandhi. She plugs into macro-level politics to show how they reflect the microcosm, the lives of ordinary people like herself, her family:
Still you could have been a woman in
my own family caught in the violence
of some man in her neighborhood.
Pragmatist and despot.
Most importantly, Clarke isn’t afraid to address anyone directly. She doesn’t need an invitation to speak or a protocol by which to speak. Clarke critiques power differentials frequently in these poems, so she would find it hypocritical, I think, to defer to any presumed formalities. Honorifics and the like only keep others at a distance, and she is intent, even hell-bent, on up close and personal:
After all I’ve known you all my life [she tells Indira].
Black eyes studding the front pages
since before I cared a dark woman
could come to power.
Perhaps the most important thing Bereano writes about Living as a Lesbian concerns audience. She suggests that readers will be impressed by Clarke if they have “the emotional and political wherewithal to take on her work.” This is the kind of reader I aspire to be, someone of emotional and political wherewithal. I want to read outside my subject position(s). I want to read outside my comfort zone(s). How else can I possibly expect to grow? I lingered on this word wherewithal. It is deeply satisfying to me, both sonically and conceptually. I also had the haunting feeling that I had heard it used in a literary context before. Then, when I remembered where, I hesitated. Could I make a comparison between Bereano’s reading of Clarke’s politically charged poetry manifesto and the film version of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys? Was this “acceptable”? Was this the kind of thing that one could do?
Then, I imagined what Cheryl Clarke would say, and I realized she wouldn’t make an excuse or offer any kind of disclaimer. She would give voice to the connections that seemed most meaningful to her and hope her readers had the wherewithal to follow.
In the film, the pompous visiting writer known simply as Q and played by Rip Torn delivers these words in his invited address at WordFest. He speaks to what it takes to be a writer: “Faith. Faith that your story is worth the telling. Faith that you have the wherewithal to tell it. And faith that the carefully woven structure that you create won’t collapse beneath you.”
Q doesn’t mention anything about audience either. The reader is never beyond our reach but is always beyond our control. The reader must find her or his own wherewithal, the willingness and commitment to grapple with the text in question. Cheryl Clarke is a poet of great faith. She embodies the challenge that Q puts forth in this movie version of Chabon’s novel. Her story is indeed worth the telling. She does indeed possess the wherewithal to tell it. And the carefully woven structure she has created won’t collapse beneath her. If it ever did, Clarke has left her credo graffitied on the pavement and the walls. It doubles as a summary of her poetic accomplishments: “Leave signs of struggle./Leave signs of triumph./And leave signs.”
In addition to Lambda Literary Review and Florida Book Review, I also review poetry collections for The Rumpus. They have a credo there, too: “Write like a mother fucker.” I won’t hear these words again without thinking of Cheryl Clarke. For all I know, she coined them. It’s plain to see, from reading this book, that she has lived them.
Living as a Lesbian
By Cheryl Clarke
A Sapphic Classic from A Midsummer Night’s Press and Sinister Wisdom
Paperback, 9781938334061, 149 pp.