A Review: Heaven to Me. Abe Louise Young. Sequim, Washington: Headmistress, 2016.
At Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in the late 1990s, I taught at least two sections of freshman composition each semester. We read a number of gay and lesbian authors, including Gloria Anzaldúa and Adrienne Rich. LGBT rights were among the subjects students could choose for their research papers. Since many students were from conservative backgrounds, I should not have been surprised when papers denouncing lesbian and gay “lifestyles” arrived at the end of the semester. What made my Carbondale students somewhat unusual, however, were their efforts to appear compassionate Christians rather than angry or spiteful. They expressed pity, especially for lesbians, whom, they claimed, almost always have been the victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Citing dated or conservatively slanted sources, they claimed that lesbians should be treated with sympathy, not condemnation. Reading those papers, which exuded condescension and anti-gay religious teaching, was painful. Although I have taught English composition for many years since then, the experience with these conservative Christian students in Carbondale was particularly challenging. After a couple of years in Carbondale, however, I moved back to Texas and pushed memories of Carbondale into a locked compartment that I rarely open or examine.
In Heaven to Me (Headmistress, 2016), Abe Louise Young celebrates lesbian selfhood and community. Aptly titled, Heaven to Me conveys with warmth, love, joy, and total conviction that being lesbian is heavenly. Young dismantles tired stereotypes of lesbian victimization. She refuses the aura of a tragic or melancholic persona. Her voice is not the voice of a woman who turns to women after being rejected by a male partner, mother, or father. More importantly, perhaps, she dismantles the idea that lesbian identity is a reaction against abuse, sexism, patriarchy, or heteronormativity—that lesbians, that is, define themselves in response to oppression or in relation to other identities and subject positions. No, Young reminds us. Lesbians are. In being and loving, lesbians know heaven.
As if to emphasize that lesbians simply are, Young begins the volume with “Arrival,” which portrays a twelve-year-old at the time of sexual awakening. “At twelve,” the persona recalls, “I became an astronaut /reaching out with huge gloved hands / and red tunnel vision toward the moon.” In these lines, one senses the awkwardness and unsureness of a young girl on the cusp of pubescence. The moon is “cold, distant,” “longed for,” and “unattainable” for this young, inexperienced girl but is also “luscious,” “tender,” and “without man.” By the end of the poem, the girl finds the object of her desire: “I reached out and found it: / a live breast in my hand.” Although particularly lesbian, this girl’s growing awareness of sexuality resembles most any adolescent’s. Why, one asks, can we not celebrate this young girl as we do other figures in poetry and fiction? Historically, the sexual awakening of straight white young men has been privileged in publishing circles. Canonical male fiction writers like James Joyce, James Agee, John Updike, and Philip Roth, for example, have all focused on adolescent sexual awakening. White straight male privilege makes it unnecessary for such writers to focus on the struggle for dignity and acceptance. LGBTQ writers, however, continue to struggle for equal representation in the publishing industry and thus also must challenge publishers to represent the full range of their existence. When LGBTQ writers do appear in print, straight readers often prioritize coming out poems in which LGBTQ persons are understood in the context of how straight people respond to them. Although coming out in a heteronormative culture is critically important in LGBTQ lives, Young reminds readers not to privilege straightness. She reminds straight and LGBTQ readers alike not to focus primarily or exclusively on straight responses to queerness. Apart from the experience of coming out, Young reminds us to celebrate sex and sexual desire for their own sake.
Fittingly, “Equality Hymn,” which celebrates the “fat woman’s body,” follows “Arrival.” “Equality Poem,” too, demands the celebration of queer bodies and queer lives. The poem contrasts typically patriarchal and heterosexist responses to fat women with the persona’s adoration of bodies that “spill, stretch, round out, roll.” Although “some people,” whether men or patriarchally conditioned women, “whisper” that the fat lover is “not healthy” or that “something is wrong with her self-esteem,” the persona sees “power, divinity” in the woman who gives her “bliss.” In this poem, the argument with straight-identified readers is explicit. Although the patriarchal, heteronormative gaze might define the fat woman as “obese,” the persona is exasperated by such responses. “Please,” she says, annoyed. “You’re going to die, too,” the persona tells such readers, and will die without knowing the “wonder” of “unraveling / detractors” and “throwing off / flowers.” Lesbian lovers are not lacking or deficient. Rather, judgmental conformists are those who lack. Burdened by patriarchal standards of beauty, such critics fail to appreciate beauty, sensuality, and fleshy bodies.
To read Heaven to Me is to flip through the joyful pages of a lesbian life from a twelve-year-old’s discovery of desire (the “longed-for” moon”) and the body (“a live breast”) to a young woman’s first date to pregnancy and life in academia. In “The Best First Date,” the persona describes being surrounded by “female ancestors” who smile “indulgently” and “enjoy our liberation” but “stop / us from making / early promises.” Wryly, the persona acknowledges the uncertainty of relationships and the possibility, even the likelihood, of making regrettable decisions. Still, the poem celebrates both early love and the knowledge that young lesbians belong to an ancient tradition with a deep lineage. Likewise, in “Ode to Alternative Insemination,” Young celebrates “lesbians / having children,” which includes the exciting, even thrilling discovery of sperm available from donors, the “fountains of sperm going off / all over the world, it’s like Versailles out there, Rococo, / 24/7.” Here, too, the emphasis is on abundance, plenty, and positivity. Lesbians can be inseminated, Young suggests, and are inseminated, and celebrate this milestone. Young crafts a poetic space, a heavenly space, for lesbians to be themselves. This heaven is not otherworldly or supernatural but exists in the fleshly, human now. This world is a heaven because being lesbian, and loving lesbians, is joyful.
Being joyful, however, does not mean repressing memory or emotion and is not to be confused with happiness devoid of discernment or depth. In “Transgenerational,” Young portrays sexual abuse that crosses generations in an extended family. Parents, children, and cousins have suffered abuse. Offenders, the persona remarks, “can spot us / in a sea of children.” Having been abused herself, a “disassociative” mother lacks the capacity to protect her own children, one of whom is the persona, who is lesbian. Like the other poems, “Transgenerational” refuses a causal association of lesbianism and sexual abuse or any form of victimization. “My lesbianism has absolutely nothing to do with any of this,” the persona says, and threatens to “cut you / out” if you insist on the linkage. In this ending, the persona subverts the stereotype of the butch dyke who “cuts,” instead suggesting that she will “cut out” from her life those who fail to respect her in her entire personhood. She demands space to be herself and will remove from her life those who demean her with the label of victim. In this explicit demand for personal autonomy and lesbian wholeness, “Transgenerational” is the pivot of this refreshing and courageous volume of poems.
Reviewed by Rachel Jennings
Rachel Jennings has published poems in La Voz de Esperanza, Appalachian Journal, Struggle, Blue Collar Review, RE:AL, Concho River Review, Red River Review, Nantahala Review, and the San Antonio Express-News. Her chapbook, Hedge Ghosts, was published at LaNana Creek Press in 2003. In 2008, she published a book of poetry, Elijah’s Farm, at Pecan Grove Press. She teaches composition and literature at San Antonio College and works with the Macondo Foundation, founded by Sandra Cisneros.