As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I reopened Out in Print was because of a changing political landscape and the resulting need to provide a forum for queer voices to be heard. Bryan Borland’s compendium of protest poetry, If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration, dealing with the installation of the T—-reich makes a perfect entry–which is why I rushed to get this review out. But another consequence of reading this book is the realization that the need never went away.
Indeed, one of the takeaways from this excellent volume is that the issues of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of “others” have continued and will continue–only now on a much bolder and more pronounced scale. Though many of these poems do address T—- and his infamous deeds and phraseology directly, not as many do as you’d think. The effect is one of a generalized demoralization and an all-purpose call to arms, which is as it should be. T—- is not the problem. The problem is the systemic rot that has allowed him to rise as close to the top as he has.
He does, however, provide a lightning rod for anger as in Nickole Brown’s “Trump’s Tic-Tacs,” Candice M. Kelsy’s “The Birth of President Trump (after Mary Shelley),” Claire Paniccia’s “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Donald Trump (after Matthew Olzmann),” and my favorite of this lot, Karen Head’s “Listening to Michelle Obama Denounce Donald Trump’s Abuse of Women,” which relates her reaction to a chauvinist watching the news in a hotel restaurant:
Something buried deep beneath/my whiteness, maybe ancient marrow/within the Cherokee cheekbones I inherited/from great-great-grandmother, Hester,/begins to leach/out, surface./Jostling his table, his hot coffee,/isn’t hard with my woman’s hips—/revolutions begin this way.
In many other places, the world-weary protesters who have gone before lament a society that won’t allow them to rest, Miguel Morales’s excellent “Elders” and Christopher Bakka’s disaffected “Are You the President?” among them. But Mary E. Cronin has the last word on the subject (and in the book) with her wonderfully said “We Know How to Do This”:
We know how to do this—/To breathe in a house with no oxygen/to drive in a township where you run us off the road/to dance in a hall where you leer,/assess,/grab./We know how to do this—/To speak in code/as you blunder and bluster,/smashing all the china/as you try to break us. … We are smoke./We swirl around you/fill your eyes,/your nostrils,/your mouth,/as you flail/in vain.
Others look to the means of protest itself, as does Breana Steele in her poignant “Safety Pin,” or Liz Ahl’s incredible “Others Carried Milk” (which decontaminates pepper spray):
Others carried milk—tactical milk defensive milk mother’s milk of human kindness—/And the milk was spilled, all the milk was spilled upon all the scalded eyes, and oh how we cried over it./And even those milky, non-tactical tears were gathered up. We pressed them into shards, into service. We carried them.
From Bryan Borland’s incendiary title poem, “If You Can Hear This,” to Collin Kelly’s call for unity in “From the Air” to Guy Traiber’s brief yet beautiful “All the Squares Turned to Houses,” and so many more, this book serves as a reminder that nothing is more dangerous than words and those who know how to wield them. Power is useless without someone who buckles under to it, and as we have time and time again, we’ll represent those who stand up and scream at the face of adversity. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
Grab that if you can.
©, 2017, Jerry Wheeler