Danika reviews Living as a Lesbian by Cheryl Clarke



Living as a Lesbian is a poetry collection that was first published in 1986, and has been recently republished with notes, reviews, a preface and introduction. I feel like there are several ways to read this book. It comes with notes at the end that reference certain poems, so you can flip back and forth to get a little context for each poem, but even with the notes, I think you’ll get a lot more out of them if you’re familiar with 1980s politics in the U.S. I am not, so a lot of the references went over my head. With the notes, however, you could go on an expedition, researching references until it lead you to lists of other books to read, and albums of R&B and jazz to listen to.

Even without understanding the exact context of each poem–even without understanding every poem–this is still definitely a collection that is worth picking up. Lesbianism is a thread that goes through the book, but it is not the focus of every poem. The topics vary, but they come back to those intersecting identities of black/woman/lesbian/working class. The formats change as well. Some are direct, sparse, straight-forward, whereas others are more abstract and merely hint at meaning. Some poems follow a narrative, others are fragmented and without punctuation.

My favourites, unsurprisingly, were the poems that focused on lesbian relationships. Though this partially because I can understand them better than 80s politics, it’s also because I found those to be the most compellingly written, with the personalities of these women emerging from the page, like in this excerpt from “nothing”:

Nothing I wouldn’t do the woman I sleep with
when nobody satisfy me the way she do.

kiss her in public places
win the lottery
take her in the ass
in a train lavatory
sleep three in a single bed
have a baby
to keep her wanting me.

Although I didn’t understand all of these poems, I am glad I picked this collection up. Learning about our queer history, especially queer people of colour history, is important to me, and I also had to pause several times to note quotes that I really liked. I would recommend this one, especially if you’re familiar with 80s politics and activism in the U.S.