Sappho’s Lesbian Poet Series: How to Dress a Lesbian
Going out does not make you home to the world; nor, certainly, sex. You need connections beyond sex: a community, a culture, a shared set of obsessions.
– “Love on the March”, Alex Ross, The New Yorker 12/11/12
When I was a young lesbian in rural New Jersey in the 1970s, I was completely lost in a dark sea and sky – with no stars, no sun or moon to guide me. The word “lesbian” was only uttered, when uttered at all, with contempt and mockery. There didn’t seem to be a place for me in society and culture, and expressing myself would be dangerous. I wrote poems and kept my poems private: a community of one.
Then I saw two words in the Voice of the village who pierced the fog: Lesbian nation. A whole nation of people like me!
It’s 2021, and I’m still very much in tune with the lesbian nation, especially the poet part of the population. Where are the stars, the sun and the moon of the lesbian poets? I’m still looking for you. I love these lesbian poets the most who are fearless, inclusive and complete, who don’t self-censor. Let me share your voices with the world. So I did it, starting Lavender review and Headmistress Press. To celebrate and promote these projects, I post a series of book reviews or interviews here on msmagazine.com.
Full disclosure: I published some of these poets in Lavender review, although I haven’t published any of their books. Headmistress Press created Lesbian Poet Trading Cards for some of these poets. Some of these poets have served or will serve as judges for the Charlotte Mew Headmistress Press Chapter Competition, now in its seventh season, and open for submissions until July 4, 2021, judged this year by Julie Marie Wade. Also this year, Headmistress Press is hosting its second annual Sappho Poetry Award, for a collection of lesbian poetry.
Vi Khi Nao, Naomi Replansky, Mary Meriam, t’ai Freedom Ford and Charlotte Mew were the first five poets in this series.
How to dress a lesbian?
How does a lively lesbian dress? How to transform conventional and traditional clothes into our own looks? How to send signals to other lesbians? For this special edition, Caroline Earleywine, author of Lesbian fashion struggles (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) and Mary Meriam, author of My daughter’s green jacket (Headmistress Press, 2018), sewn a cento with excerpts from their books, intertwined with excerpts from other poets.
The Latin term “cento” derives from the Greek κέντρων, which means “‘to plant leaves’ (of trees)”. A later word in Greek, κεντρόνη, means “patchwork garment”.
I must mention your mother-
land, Lesbos, surrounded by a sheet of salt
water with Sappho and his anguish
Love poems and don’t we all live
there, or do we want to do it? An island
women who wear a crown of mouth
who don’t know how to shut up, who the fuck
the uncomfortable, who owe nothing to men,
who own their desire.
Did they also interview the men?
Or did they only interview the women?
Lesbians watch lesbians.
Who are you? How do you define yourself?
I weakly list the interrogators
look through my telescope back.
I am all adrift in the spring fog, trembling.
Port to starboard, keel to mast, pillar,
my sails quiver in the salty waves,
I’m a stranger to myself, with only one word
my sisters found on Lesbos and gave it to me.
I was never, in truth, a girl.
Only a question that could not be asked,
only a problem that could not be solved,
not wearing any print.
As a verb, “mode” is extremely bizarre. Our queer community learns to shape their identity from the clothes we wear, the costumes we choose, the fabrics we desire and the statements they make. No other community allows clothing to serve as a primary and dominant marker of subjectivity, both individually and collectively. We don’t just allow shaping; we rely on what we put on our bodies to speak out, report and serve as proof of who we are.
After reassuring me he didn’t think differently
of me, he asked me if I wanted any of his old clothes.
We go out naked. First when we are born; then, as lesbians. When we are born, immediately we are dressed by others. We are subject to decisions made by others about how we appear to the world. Clothes become definitions of who we are: man, woman, rich, poor, groomed, neglected. This grandfather clearly cared. Her offer is protective, compassionate, even trendy in trans lesbian fashion.
Magazines say men prefer it hanging down the middle of my back. They’re not saying that makes me more of a target, that it can be fashioned into an extra limb to grab hold of, a limb that can’t strike back. My hair followed me around bars, sending invitations to men without consulting me.
With the speed and disorientation of a physical attack, this hair rushes from magazines to target to helpless member to stalker to unruly seductress. Who knew hair could mean so much? Hair is a signal. See how much time and effort I put into my hair? Come here. See how I don’t care what you think of my hair? Keep away. When I see short, careless hair on a woman, it nods to me like a lesbian.
The spring wind has always been my happiness,
the voice I learned to hear when other voices
shouted. She lifts my hair like lovers do
taking me to the wind with his tree of yes,
without a hell of a return address.
Queerness is often seen as something that goes against nature, but here it is in step with the wind. Here, it’s a party. Here, nature is a lover who sees us in our truest form, running his hands through our hair, a slight recoil towards ourselves, towards whom we are under the noise of the world.
“That explains why you don’t wear makeup,” she sighs.
Crows, as all girls know, make it glistening black
in rainbow streaks, and looks at you like a snake.
Crows are girls that no one listened to,
whose rituals and wishes no one knew.
Lately I dream of
lipstick. About the coloring of my lips
luminous, walking in the lined alleys
with colored balls to choose the
perfect shot. One to make my
mouth a bloody statement.
Shining like a challenge, not a blush
apologies, a shadow so strong it breaks
I am a nameless creature
under all these layers I am
dig and dig and still have
to hit the skin of me.
All that matters to me is nudity, simplicity. I want a painting to be absolutely bare. . .
You may prefer another word or hate lesbians
I prefer to make a simple and bold statement
You may feel overshadowed by the little serious
You may want to be silent and invisible
My female parts like her female parts
This is a political poem with emotional parts
Look at the uniform gloom of man, his impersonal envelope!
On chicken wrists or soft shoulders, formal and hard assurance.
The drape of the male is designed to achieve self-forgetfulness.
Yet our closets are full
empty sleeves with the possibility,
extended towards us.
You can travel here by jet and car
And never reach for me, I’m so deep
The doors remain locked
Nothing normal has ever happened to me
I was aware that my mom had encouraged a tremendous amount of physical preening, which she had directly linked to my getting a boyfriend, fiance, and hopefully a husband. She made me realize throughout my teenage years that I wasn’t concerned enough about my appearance, which greatly endangered my status as a desirable woman, a datable woman, and ultimately a marriageable woman. But with Angie, in her presence, I felt beautiful, luminous. It wasn’t like I let go of all thought of “aesthetic presentation”, but rather, I was able to embrace a natural beauty in me and in her that my mother didn’t recognize as real. It was too intrinsic, too simple. Real beauty took work. If this love with and for Angie had been possible in high school, I might have “let / my body be beautiful” several years ago, rather than imposing a tailor-made, conformist, prefabricated “attractiveness” on her that only served any purpose. ‘to please my mother and never myself.
maybe it was a truth
I could only face dressed in alcohol and laughing,
disguised as a joke, the glass slipper that I tried
in the twinkle of the night and resumed
again when morning came.
Here in the dark of day, my dear,
I wear the hot pink top and the leaves turn golden,
And you and I, separated, continue to age.
I wonder if we keep consistent,
or if my twig heart dreams of a different tree.
Where’s my daughter’s green jacket? She will keep the earth.
Give back my trees. Bring back the rocks and the towers, my treasures
and all the streams, fast or slow, the fields, the sheep, the earth.
they wear pride flags tied around their necks like capes,
become the heroes themselves.
- Caroline Earleywine, “Ode to the Lesbian Word”
- Mary Meriam, “Attack of the Fanatics”
- Mary Meriam, “Psalm of the sweetest water”
- Megan Volpert, Placards: Queers on what we weaver
- Caroline Earleywine, “Grandpa’s Closet”
- Mary meriam
- Caroline Earleywine, “Blonde”
- Mary meriam
- Mary Meriam, “Return Address”
- Caroline earleywine
- Julie Marie Wade, “My mother, learning that I love a woman”
- Mary Meriam, “Ravens”
- Caroline Earleywine, “Lipstick”
- Caroline Earleywine, “Why do I cut my hair / Why I have tattoos / Why most of the clothes I wear / I don’t feel like they fit”
- Sophia Healy, Lonely stars
- Mary Meriam, “A political poem with emotional parts”
- Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina”
- Caroline Earleywine, “Lesbian Fashion Struggles”
- Mary Meriam, “Card”
- Julie Marie Wade, “The biography of a poem”
- Caroline Earleywine, “Lesbian shoes”
- Mary Meriam, “Sentimentality”
- Mary Meriam, “The Earth”
- Caroline Earleywine, “GSA”
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