With all the celebrations of gay same-ness after the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage, I am grateful for Leah Laskhmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s filthy gorgeous poems, which remind us how queer desires still have the power to fuck shit up. The poems in her collection Bodymap demonstrate how queer desires–for each other, for ourselves, for something different – can provide a roadmap for moving toward freedom.
Reading so many poems about raw, dirty, queer crip sex made me think about Yasmin Nair’s recent argument that radical sex does not always translate into radical politics. While I agree that we can’t assume that any particular kind of sex is necessarily revolutionary (don’t we all know kinky people with regressive politics?), the poems in Bodymap serve as an argument that queer desire can–and should – fuel us to challenge the social order and reclaim the full humanity of those whom capitalism discards – including queers, people of color, working class folks, poor people, immigrants, undocumented people, and disabled folks.
What shines through every single poem is how hard Piepzna-Samarasinha has had to fight to love her queer, femme, disabled, brown working class self in a world that doesn’t always love her back. Her determination to love is generous; it starts with herself and then spreads its shimmering wings out to encompass all of us who have been marginalized and fucked over by systems of oppression.
In several poems, Piepzna-Samarasinha describes how she came to love her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts as a metaphor for loving herself. In “my city is a hard femme,” she writes” “My city a broken/ beautiful bitch/ with a necklace of junk trees blooming/ from her throat.” The phrase, “junk trees blooming from her throat” will echo in my head for a long time both because it is stunningly beautiful and because it upends our hierarchy of value. When jewelry is inexpensive, we call it “junk,” but Piepzna-Samarasinha finds beauty in everything cheap or undervalued from clearance dresses at TJ Maxx to abandoned city lots.
We are taught to love the shiny surface of capitalism – IPhones, condos, and designer clothes–and to hate what it leaves in its wake – the underbelly that exposes its costs, from contaminated cities to sickened survivors. But not Piepzna-Samarasinha. She unabashedly declares her love for the people and places who have survived the traumas of capitalism, and she challenges us to do the same. In “dirty river girl,” she compares the polluted river in Worcester with survivors who end up sick and disabled:
What would it take for a river that polluted
to be loved?
What would it take for us to know our bodies beautiful?
To wash them clean?
Nah – not washed clean
What if our working-class, fucked up, sick, survivor bodies
beautiful just like they were?
beautiful like the weed trees that would take over every abandoned
lot in my hometown?
Survivors’ bodies collapse because they are carrying the stories of abuse that nobody wants to hear, just as our cities collapse, holding the brunt of capitalism’s abuses that we are told to forget. Piepzna-Samarasinha honors our survival, even when we are no longer (or have never been) a shiny subject of capitalism. Like the weed trees, we are still alive, still green and growing, in spite of concrete domination.
Piepzna-Samarasinha extends this love to fellow sick and disabled queers whose desire in the face of ableism requires creativity, negotiation, adaptation, and empathy – things that we all could use a little more of when it comes to sex. When she is in too much pain to get up, let alone go out, she lies on her bed with her vibrator: “When I fuck myself, I remember: they didn’t wash us away./ filthy/ abandoned when not making money anymore.” Watching Netflix, perusing Facebook, Hitachi in hand, Piepzna-Samarasinha uses desire to assert her inherent worth, even when her body and brain are not “productive.”
And then there is the poem that made me lick the most salty tears from my face, the poem that I keep reading over and over again to sear its words on the inside of my eyelids, the poem that will undoubtedly keep some people alive: “this is what I know about crazy.” This poem – a blessing for those of who are “crazy”– shook loose a few layers of shame that I didn’t even know were there. Familiar with crazy from its rocky inside, Piepzna-Samarasinha lifts up those of us whose brains sometimes melt from trauma, those of us who have created secret inside worlds, even when we can’t share these worlds with anyone else.
Fully aware of how society demonizes and criminalizes crazy when it’s not the crazy of famous white men, still she asks: “what do we have that no one else has/why were we made in this perfect image by a god who loves crazy/boys and girls and othergenders/.” Reassuring us that “wrong is not our name,” Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us of our special talents and tells us that no matter how much we feel categorized and boxed in by the world, “you can still grow between the cracks, punch out space in your chest for a liberated zone.”
By focusing on all that we can do in spite of/ because of/inside of oppression, whether it’s ableism, racism, or classism, she offers us hope in the form of healing tinctures from her purse, slutty thrift store heels, and a lover’s gift of stolen mulberries. And this is the pure genius of Piepzna-Samarasinha: she bears witness to the bleak landscape of Nagasaki and still manages to love and celebrate the dandelions that grow from its crater.