Poems and Identity

Various texts in this class have brought me back to the poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. Many of the poems in this work grapple with Vuong’s identity as a gay Vietnamese American author who was the first in his family to learn how to read and write. Vuong was one of my first introductions to poetry and LGBTQ literature, and his poetry has stuck with me ever since.

Like many readings from this class, the collection highlights the disconnect that often occurs between people who identify as LGBTQ and their respective (though disrespectful) families. In Angels in America, Joe struggles with his sexual identity and its lack of acceptance in his family and upbringing. Night Sky continues this theme with the added isolation of being a first generation immigrant from Vietnam, having neither family nor community to turn to in moments of existential crisis. The poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” details Ocean’s specific struggle with his parents, communicated in lines such as “Your father is only your father / until one of you forgets.” Familial tension is a central feature to the queer experience, and it need not be between a queer child and their parents. Bechdel’s Fun Home illustrates this tension on the part of the father and his inability to reconcile his identity with the life built around him. Vuong’s attempts to grapple with these familial constraints on his identity shine brightly in Night Sky and would fit well amongst the background of other class readings.

Acceptance in America

Angels in America is a play that demonstrates the struggle in asking for help when one’s voice is hardly recognized. It’s fitting for a play centered around struggle to begin with a funeral, but the funeral differs from what follows in the rest of the play: it’s final. There’s a sense of completeness to the struggle of Sarah Ironson. Even though her journey lives on in her descendants, they “can never make the crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist,” according to Rabbi Chemelwitz. What she has lived and died for is, largely, secure.

The same can not be said for the main characters in this play. The AIDS crisis in the ’80s presented an open-ended threat to the gay community pushed on by forces of negligence and ignorance. When these characters experience loss over the course of the play–whether a life or a relationship–there’s almost always a notion of social forces at play. Looking at Joe, he struggles deeply with the conflict between his sexuality and the influences of people most important in his life. When he drunkenly confesses his sexuality to his mother, she immediately rejects him and his words as “ridiculous,” asking him to return to his wife. When Joe later confesses the same to Roy, seeking an acceptance beyond a paternal blessing–an acceptance of his authentic self–Roy responds angrily and also orders Joe to reunite with his wife.

Neither Joe’s mother nor the closest person he had to a father were willing to recognize him for who he was. Similarly, the AIDS crisis was able to occur because people willingly failed to recognize a growing problem: a problem that only became recognizable once it began affecting straight men and women. Perhaps this is exactly what Roy recognized when he said “Homosexuals are men… who have zero clout.”

Living from the Bones

“Stereotypes and lies lodge in our bodies as surely as bullets. They live and fester there, stealing the body.
The body as home, but only if it is understood that the stolen
body can be reclaimed.” (Clare 13)

In this chapter Clare describes the tension between his queer, disabled identity and his rural upbringing in the backwoods of Oregon. The first sentences that I selected conclude a bleak paragraph detailing the ways in which various bodies–queer, disabled, impoverished–are stolen from the people who inhabit them. He highlights “Leonard/Lynn Vines, walking through his Baltimore neighborhood, called a ‘drag queen faggot bitch’ and shot six times. Matt Shepard–gay, white, young–tied to a fence post in Wyoming and beaten to death,” displaying a nationwide trend of violence towards queer people within their own communities (12-13).

Despite this, Clare’s following paragraph attempts to remedy this paradigm and assert the body’s capability for reclamation. He encourages a revolution against biases and lies that have been weaponized against marginalized bodies, and it feels as though these acts of revolution/reclamation are central to the ways in which LGBTQ+ authors write about their experiences. I’m reminded of Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now” where she posits this hypothesis: “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person. One possible corollary: that what it takes—all it takes—to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person,” (9). Allowing the body to be a home requires it to be lived through the first person, not through the stereotypes of others; for Clare, it must be lived from a perspective “that comes close and finally true to the bone,” (13).

Coyote Cry

“Climb the broken stone stairs into the hills. / Climb them into the night’s throat.” (23)

This poem makes me think about the point of view of the speaker, one apparently from the point of view of a coyote. Likening the coyote cry to a lost woman evokes a sense of longing for company while maintaining the sense of fear induced by a coyote howl. Yet, I don’t find this coyote-speaker to be coming from a place of ill-intent.

Jones’ poetry in this collection balances a fine line between a sort of unity with the rest of the world and an incredible isolation from anything beyond the immediate self. (By immediate self I mean the self unencumbered by external social pressures—for Jones, these pressures often include his own family, unfamiliar lovers, or the heteronormative structures of society as a whole.) The lines “She needs you / like I need you” (23) sort of lead me to thinking about the hedgehog’s dilemma with a small caveat; rather than the hedgehog’s pricks keeping people from getting close, people’s own fear of the coyote prevent them from interacting with the coyote in the way that the coyote needs.

The effect of this point of view is that the poem is able to bring about a sense of identity with the feeling of being feared. These two lines (“Climb…”) in particular almost feel demanding from the speaker, pleading for the reader to face what unnerves them.