Queer Couplings

Between the sheets of queer lit, now and then

By Dr. Pj Carlisle

This is not just another LGBTQI reading list. It’s a raucous, cross-talking, ethnically diverse, queer queue of books for anyone. A party in the streets that lingers, surges, seethes. Not a top-10 parade of bestsellouts. These books, in their couplings—like the hook-up pins or couplers on boxcars—can be switched. This list doesn’t trudge—instead skips hand-in-hand, a little light in the loafers—through connections that defy genre and history.

—“The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Norton Edition (2100 B.C.)—“We The Animals,” Justin Torres (2011)—

Queerness means strangeness. Most people don’t know that our world’s oldest fiction, recorded on clay tablets, features queer characters. Gilgamesh, “part divine,” dreams of “falling in love” with Enkidu and “caressing him like a woman.” When Enkidu dies suddenly, Gilgamesh veils him “like a bride,” “weeps,” and won’t bury the body until a “worm falls out of its nose.” The language delights. People say queer love isn’t traditional, but strangely, it’s the original.  Four thousand years later, Torres shows us the rub. Each isolated queer kid since the first written word has to reinvent the language of queer love. The brothers in this bestseller speak as a beastly “we” until one realizes he’s different. Luscious language in a gem-like novel. Pray for the day we read “Gilgamesh” and “Animals” to kids.

—“Butterfly Boy,” Rigoberto González (2006) —“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde (1890-91)—

Queer mingles young and old, edgy and quaint in camp. González’s sassy “sissy-boy” Chicano Mariposa memoir won the National Book Award. Coupled with Wilde’s decadent, aristocratic Dorian, these two dance (elbows and wrists akimbo) together across the centuries as a corrective to gay literature’s continuing history of homophobia. Both show that the privileged white-straight-cis canon could benefit from letting itself be shattered by queer desire.

—“Querelle of Brest,” Jean Genet (1953)—“Margery Kempe,” Robert Glück (1994)—“Crush,” Richard Siken (2005)—

Fist-deep connections between this threesome. Obsessional, even shocking, in their experimentation. All three render subtleties of love side-by-side with violent, beyond-edge, gay and bisexual desire. Blasphemous for their times, they feature sailor-boys, a female saint sexing Jesus, and body fluids: violent kisses, blood, sperm, excrement. Use Crush as a palate cleanser, this gorgeous poetry is about boy-on-boy love, though to “crush” is also to press between bodies in order to break, pound or grind.

—“Slow Lightning,” Eduardo Corral (2012) —“Giovanni’s Room,” James Baldwin (1956)
—“Angels in America,” Tony Kushner (1992)—

Queer defies conformity by embracing a productive queer history of shame and difference. Productive, like the variety in Darwin, who knew differences enable survival, are not the harbinger of end days. Baldwin’s Black bisexual American expatriate in Paris battles self-contempt and terror, trying to conform to a stifling morality that denies desire. Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize drama addresses AIDS, religious intolerance and homophobia when an angel crashes through a sick man’s ceiling claiming he’s a prophet of a gay plague.

In Corral’s poetry, language is fluid as sex. His poems live with AIDS. His lines break with the upright, force the reader to get horizontal, skip free between English and Spanish, escape through cracks in ribs, walls, windows, gaps, wounds.

—“Mysterious Acts by My People,” Valerie Wetlaufer (2014) —“The Well of Loneliness,” Radclyffe Hall (1928)—

Lambda award-winner, Wetlaufer populates her queer love poems with quirky voices of girls who love girls. The mysterious acts they commit and their concerns—cutting, tattoos, fisting, marriage, miscarriage, religion, insanity, strap-ons, getting done from behind and clothes—are funny, moving and tragic in turns. Read as the perfect curative to the achingly lonely proto-transbutch in the classic, “Loneliness,” plagued by homophobia and shame. Melodramatic, inadvertently campy and also queerly obsessed with voices and clothes.

—“Butch Geography,” Stacey Waite (2013)—“Stone Butch Blues,” Leslie Feinberg (1993)
—“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel (2006)—

Waite’s painful/humorous poems show that some things haven’t changed for the gender non-conforming masculine who is still often mistaken for a boy. “Fun Home,” Time Magazine’s #1 Book of the Year, is a graphic novel from a butch child’s point-of-view. Poignant. Both offer modern day complications to Feinberg’s  groundbreaking queer classic.

—“Our Prayers After the Fire,” Katie Jean Shinkle (2014)—
—“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” Gertrude Stein (1933)—
—“Zami, A New Spelling of My Name,” Audre Lorde (1982)—
—“Yabo,” Alexis De Veaux (2014)—

Queue up these four notable lesbian poets who also write experimental prose. All employ powerful, centripetal language that pulls us close; the Queerest of female narrators; and characters who pay intense attention to describing their shifting worlds. Shinkle’s collective “we”, like many working-class kids, especially girls, are desperate to the point of defiance. Prayers is an ironic delirium dream. Every sentence defies expectations as the narrative shatters like winter ice—or the glass bottles they fling. They desire Real Boys, or better, a girl named Tomorrow. Mythical. Gorgeous. Stein’s cubist tale is a blatantly false autobiography—the supposed narrator (her partner Alice)— allows Stein to create a voice, a bit awed and obsessed with cataloguing and collecting: artwork and people, especially Queers. Zami provides a Black corrective to privileged white lesbian history. A “Biomythography,” autobiography + mythology. Skillful and sensual with lush details of life and racism in NYC and Mexico. De Veaux’s Yabo, a hybrid novella whose character, Jules, is an intersexed person. Zen, an urban archeologist, unearths slaves buried under Manhattan. Like a Queer Toni Morrison, DeVeaux draws no impermeable boundaries between living and dead. Set in North Carolina (sic), the hold of a slave ship, and NYC. Brilliant.

—“Nevada, Imogen Binnie (2013) —Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig (1978)—
—“Boy with Flowers, Ely Shipley (2008)—

Puig’s powerful but depressing trans classic provokes readers to a productive examination of their own humanity. Binnie’s scrappy novel and Shipley’s delicate poems defy feminine and masculine stereotypes, schooling cis-gendered folk to reject restrictive gender boxes. The extravagant variety of God’s Creation proves His love for the Queer and fabulous.

Dr. Pj Carlisle, UD’s Herbert W. Martin Prof. of Creative Writing unashamedly gives glory & exclamation to All Things Counter! Dappled! Couple-Coloured! In Stipple! Strange! Freckled! Adazzle! and Queer! Reach DCP freelance writer Pj Carlisle at PjCarlisle@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Tags: ,

Dr. Pj Carlisle, UD’s Herbert W. Martin Prof. of Creative Writing unashamedly gives glory & exclamation to All Things Counter! Dappled! Couple-Coloured! In Stipple! Strange! Freckled! Adazzle! and Queer! Reach DCP freelance writer Pj Carlisle at PjCarlisle@DaytonCityPaper.com.

One Response to “Queer Couplings” Subscribe