Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality – Kevin Simmonds, ed. (Sibling Rivalry Press)

buy it now from SRP Bookshop.

Not being raised with any particular religious context, I
wandered off into atheism—a philosophy reinforced with a couple of semesters of
a Religious Studies major in college. So why is an atheist reviewing a book of
poetry on spirituality? Because some of the most emotional art in the world has
come out of artists celebrating or denigrating their belief systems. And this
marvelous collection is beautiful, bold and breathtaking reading.

I began with the poets who I already know and love: Jeff
Mann (“Cernunnos Tattoo”), Raymond Luczak (“Heresies”), Gregg Shapiro (“Head of
the Year”) and Manny Xavier (“The Omega Has Been Postponed”) and Jeffrey Beam
(“St. Jerome in His Study”), and none of them were disappointing. Mann and
Xavier, in particular, represented by entries showcasing their best
attributes—Mann’s earthy Eros of myth and tattoos and Xavier’s succinctly
cynical street-smarts.

The real joy of this book, however, is discovering new
voices, or at least those I’d never heard before—and with over 100 poets, those
discoveries come fast and furious. From the slaughterhouse savior of Shirlette
Ammons’ “Roberta is Working Clergy” to Ellen Bass’ heartfelt,
non-denominational “Pray for Peace” to the fisherman/artist in Moe Bowstern’s
“I Give Up,” to the difficult yet dutiful son in Rafael Campo’s “Madonna and
Child,” there are notes to be made and poets to be sought out for further

Everyone’s concept of deity is different, and the poets who
appear in Collective Brightness reflect that diversity. J. Neil C.
Garcia’s “Melu” is a tidy extension of the Bilaan creation myth, Forrest
Hamer’s “Below and beside” challenges the assumption that God resides in Heaven
Above, and Cyril Wong’s “god is our mother” gives Him a loving gender tweak.

But this collection wouldn’t live up to its title without
documenting the queer experience, and although many of the poets represented
here do so brilliantly, three of these touched me deeply. Benjamin S.
Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” seeks to—and succeeds in—finding something other
than naked lust in both a beetle-mating and HIV positive orgies. Haunting and
pointed, I read and re-read this several days in a row. Also truly affecting
was Joseph Ross’ “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973,” which
details the arson of a gay bar/church.

escaped. Many died with their

                                      hands covering their mouths/One man,

                                      George, blinded by smoke and sirens,

                                      his throat gagged/with ash, got out and

                                      then/went back for Louis, his partner./

                                      They were found, a spiral/of bones holding

other/under the white/baby grand piano/

           that could not save

But the ne plus ultra is Crystal Ybarra’s “Dear
Pastor,” which ends this collection on a heart-wrenching note. Fashioned as a
series of short notes to a pastor she had as a child and has reconnected with
on Facebook, this piece underscores the vulnerability of young people searching
for answers within the religious community and how the scorn they sometimes
find affects them for the rest of their lives.

But those are simply the highlights that moved me—there is a
lot of material here and even if faith or spirituality don’t particularly
interest you, these pieces will have an impact on any reader. Kudos to editor
Kevin Simmonds and Bryan Borland of Sibling Rivalry Press for bringing all
these marvelous voices together to sing in this choir. Collective Brightness
is essential reading for anyone who has a soul.

Atheist or not. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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