Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

On Lisa Dordal’s “The Living Room”

“then down the narrow hallway / to the back of the house, past / the empty rooms of siblings long moved on.”

 

In this quote, the “empty rooms of siblings long moved on” refers most obviously to the now scattered state of the speaker’s family, her (most likely older) siblings having grown up and moved out of their father’s house; however, there is a darker implication in this line. Those empty rooms could also be taken to symbolize the empty space left behind by dead LGBTQ+ people who, unlike the speaker, succeeded in taking their own lives. This can be supported by the use of the word “siblings,” which indicates that the people in question are innately like the speaker, who we know is a lesbian from reading other poems in Mosaic of the Dark. The existence of this symbolism doesn’t mean that the speaker hasn’t passed by her grown siblings’ old rooms on the way to her own room; however, it does add a second layer of significance to that passing. Meanwhile, the line break in the second to last quoted line emphasizes the word “past,” which in turn emphasizes the people who preceded the speaker (both her literal siblings and the figurative siblings who died). There is a tension between these two groups, as one group is absent because they grew up and the other because they will never grow up. Furthermore, the emphasis on the word “past” is significant because the speaker, in this moment, likely believes that she only has a past. She is, after all, attempting to give up her future.

 

In Tendencies, Eve Sedgwick references some horrifying statistics about LGBTQ+ youth suicide. That reality—that even today, LGB youth are three times more likely than straight youth to attempt suicide, and four times more likely to make medically serious attempts (see this) (A note: we don’t even know that much about the statistics concerning transgender youth, but one study found that 41% of transgender and gender nonconforming adults had attempted suicide in their lifetimes)—forms the context of this poem. That reality is also why poems like this are important. This moment in the poem focuses on the past, on the “siblings” who came and left, yet there is an implied future for the speaker as she imagines her father’s careless words, “Asprin? he’d say. / Asprin can’t kill you.” While what this reveals about the relationship between the speaker and her father is its own tragedy, there is some relief in knowing that the speaker herself lives on. She does indeed have a future, a future from which she recounts this experience (the poem is in the past tense). Though there is value in remembering the past, including those who have passed, this poem does more than linger on the tragic history of LGBTQ+ suicide. It also suggests that the future exists, that at least some LGBTQ+ youth survive to adulthood, that LGBTQ+ stories are, as we discussed in class, “survival stories.”

6 Comments

  1. paintstarsincolor

    October 7, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    Yes! This is so compelling because of its relevance throughout our history and, especially, modern society. The LGBTQ+ community have been persecuted by those strongly ‘advocating’ for homosexuality and queerness as sinful and shameful. Their harmful opinions and beliefs succumbing to their desire for “control” over the lives of those around them (Warner 1). And for what? Because they themselves feel separate from the ‘norm’ in some shape or form? Are they shameful of their own thoughts and/or actions, therefore seeking to ruin the lives of others?

  2. These “survival stories” you mention are a widespread conception, “I look at my adult friends and colleagues doing lesbian and gay work, and I feel that the survival of each one is a miracle. Everyone who survived has stories of how it was done” (Sedgwick, 1). It is extremely sad that the survival of people with nonconforming sexual desires is termed “a miracle”. Your post also reminds me of a line from another post: “ The Lies that Save Us speaks on the sadly necessary precautions that must sometimes be taken” (The Lie, Our Savior). The emotional hardships society creates for members of the LGBTQ community is outrageous, and the common theme of survival in these passages has helped me understand the severity of social justice issues that accompany gender and sexual identities.

  3. Wow, this is a beautiful interpretation of these lines in the poem. This piece is already so tragic, but your deeper interpretation of this moment is really poignant. In my post for this week, I discussed the poem “Even Houseflies” and examined the relationship between lesbian mother and lesbian daughter, even after death. Both of our posts speak to the connection LGBTQ+ individuals share and the lived experiences they (and only they) can truly understand, including the pain of coming out in a heteronormative world.

  4. When I was reading this poem I didn’t break down the different meanings that this quote could represent. By looking at your analysis of the quote from the past, and future, I gained a better understanding of what the empty rooms could signify. I wonder if Lisa has actual siblings or if the people described were her adopted sisters. From re-reading the poem, I wonder if Lisa is connecting the experiences and memories that she had in her old room, with the physical space of her house, or if the rooms were ever actually filled with people. When asking “so what”? I think that this line signifies how time has created separation between Lisa’s old house, family, and the family (in whatever way she identifies) that used to live in her house. I think because of her use of referencing the past and the future.

  5. literaryvampire

    October 8, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    I had not even considered the possibility of a double meaning of the word “siblings” here! After reading what you said, however, it makes a lot of sense, especially considering the themes of poems later on in the book that have to do with Dordal’s identity as a lesbian. I also think that this part could connect to Dordal’s mother, especially considering her possible non-heterosexual identity and how she was never able to explore her identity or live to see a future in which it was possible for her, personally, to come out (if at all).

  6. Your analysis of this passage was amazing! I never thought about this line and now it seems so clear in the context of the book. Wow! The use of statistics to tie in Tendencies was a really strong supporting argument that helped clarify your analysis. One thing I noted was the use of siblings. Siblings is a word that implies family connections so in this case the author also seems to be referring to her chosen family and counting her queer peers as brothers and sisters. This could also mean that she feels their absence as accurately as she would if she lost her own siblings.

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