“[H]ow can we explain we haven’t turned away / but returned by different paths, fairy, pantheist, Jew/ . . . . We’re so old we’re brand new.” —Dan Bellm, “Brand new”
Grace (in Christian belief) is “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” But this remarkable (and grace-ful) collection of poems turns it around: we aren’t the sinners here; we are instead placed in the position of bestowing blessings (or not). As editor Kevin Simmonds puts it in the introduction, this anthology is the first in which LGBTIQ poets “claim their place . . . regardless of man-made labels or boundaries.”
These poems are as varied in how they respond to “faith, religion, and spirituality” as they are in tone, which ranges from somber to sexy, comic to cosmic. Many of these poems, read individually, are superb, and represent offerings by some of our finest established writers, alongside relative newcomers. But/and there is a collective brilliance here that makes more of this book than mere anthology.
The poem that closes the collection is a letter in which Crystal Ybarra’s speaker looks back on an early church encounter and asks, “Dear Pastor, / Will I go to your hell if I say, ‘Fuck you!’?” But there are fewer “fuck you” poems than one might anticipate in a book whose title juxtaposes “religion” and “LGBTIQ,” considering our history of being reviled and exiled, if not actually stoned. There is more forgiveness and wisdom in these pages than anger or cynicism. Parents and preachers are pardoned. Even Ted Haggard, the evangelical pastor who hired male prostitutes and used meth, receives patience and understanding (and a voice) in Jee Leong Koh’s “The Cretan.”
Though neither “categorized nor ordered,” many of the poems seem to place themselves into one of three groups: poems that rewrite, those that reinvent, and those that reify.
In Collective Brightness, stories and traditions are co-opted and subverted, reclaimed and revised. The Old Testament’s David and Jonathan, for instance, make several appearances, but in surprising tones and uses, such as in Sophie Mayer’s poem that begins, “Fuck you, Jonathan.” And in Brian Teare’s passionate commingling of the speaker’sAlabama home and the biblical setting, his adolescent self hungrily reads between the lines of the fearsome preacher’s expurgated sermon.
God is re-imagined and remade in our own image. Nickole Brown’s “Etymology” opens with a Stephen Dunn quote: “God knows nothing we don’t know. / We gave him every word he ever said.” There’s a God of Sobriety, and an agnostic God. There’s even a God of Atheists.
Given our history (literary and otherwise), it’s not surprising that a vein of humor runs through the collection. More remarkable, given the book’s auspicious title, is the infusion of sensuality. Many of these poems seem interested in the embodiment of the spiritual, finding God (or something like it) through the human body, and sometimes non-human. In Benjamin Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” there are clusters of both copulating scarabs and men, mid-orgy, touched by God (who learns something from them). And in Ellen Bass’s “God and the G-Spot”:
That’s the day she reached inside me
for something I didn’t think I had.
And like pulling a fat shining trout from the river
she pulled the river out of me. That’s
the way I want to know God.
Other poems are populated with more animals: dolphins, horses, wasps, aging pets. These critters seem to function in context of this anthology (and again, taken collectively) as totems or fetishes, objects or animals believed by some indigenous societies to have spiritual significance.
In pre-Colombian indigenous cultures, “Two-Spirits” (People Like Us) were viewed as having a special status—as if “blessed” by the gods. They were thought to be the “middle gender,” and seen as prophets and visionaries, messengers and emissaries. Kevin Simmonds makes no mention of the reclamation of this territory, of our birthright or purpose as LGBTIQ people, but this luminous volume, a truly Collective Brightness, may have done just that.