Poetry review – LAVENDER FIRE, LAVENDER ROSE : Charles Rammelkamp reviews a prizewinning collection by Kenneth Pobo
Lavender Fire, Lavender Rose Kenneth Pobo BrickHouse Books/Stonewall, 2022 ISBN: 978-1-938144-91-2 38 pp $12.00,
The multi-colored rainbow flag that has burst out every June during Pride month for the past forty years or so is a universal symbol of LGBTQIA+ dignity and self-respect, but the color lavender likewise has a history as a symbol of resistance and power, and as far back as the 7th century BCE Sappho wrote about her erotic attraction to young women with “violet tiaras.”
In the 1950’s, which Ken Pobo also writes about in some of these poems, during the McCarthy era, the “Lavender Scare” was a state-sanctioned witch-hunt to remove homosexuals from federal government. In 1969, the color was an emblem of “gay power,” following the Stonewall Inn riots when police and gays clashed outside of a New York gay bar.
Lavender Fire, Lavender Rose, winner of the BrickHouse Books 2021 Stonewall Chapbook Competition, captures both the horror of continuing homophobic violence and the legitimacy of the gay perspective and homoerotic love. “Late 1955,” a poem set in the Eisenhower years (Ike’s Executive Order 10450 sanctioned the discrimination against homosexuals in the federal government), depicts life in the closet –
What you knew about gay love you learned from lesbian pulp fiction, wore out the pages of Women‘s Barracks. In the library, books on inverts written by Christians and psychologists casing the house of cures. Me, a sand of secrets sifted into a box of guilt. Yet we managed to begin.
So much of the hatred and violence, as this poem suggests, is perpetrated in the name of religion. The poem that opens the collection, “Recent Developments in Gay American History,” features a homophobic pastor who advises,
Beat your kid. Only a strong beating will tear him away from evil. Beat him so he almost dies. I’m a pastor. I know about these things. I’m joking, right? Dad beat me and I’m glad. He’s in Heaven now.
“Before I Came Out” features a “Pastor Clack” who cautions against sex in general and implicitly the “sin” of homosexuality.
Pastor Clack fitted me for a roomy chastity belt, so big that it held our church, my school and the neighborhood.
But after the speaker of the poem comes out – sheds the chastity belt – the world becomes a more vivid and welcome place:
The warm sun delightfully lavender, the moon wearing a white jump suit.
“Velvet” is another poem featuring a “Sunday school teacher,” who indoctrinates his class with images of Jesus, while, subversively (so much of gay life was necessarily under the radar in the suburban town of the speaker’s late 50’s/early 60’s youth), “I listened through / a wire in my transistor radio / to the Mamas and the Papas sing ‘Words of Love’ (dear Cass).”
“Leelah” is yet another poem in which religion is used to stifle sexuality. It’s about a trans kid committing suicide by leaping in front of a truck on the highway.
Josh, born in Ohio, wanted to transition but his folks nailed him in a box called Jesus…
“Leelah” is the name Josh had chosen.
School is another place where gays are singled out in these poems. “Magical Misery Tour” recounts how “Boys / came after me – I didn’t / do well at the games.” “Theme for English C” is written to a professor. “You’re straight, / a perfectly fitted back door. / Gay, I don’t fit.” The professor has instructed the students to write a poem about themselves. The speaker is not sure if it is safe to write about being gay. But at last the student decides to follow the instructions.
So here’s my poem – I colored the paper lavender just for you.
Is this the same professor we meet in “Unlearning”? “That creative writing prof I had sophomore year / who said Whitman wasn’t gay”? The student knows he can’t turn in
poems about my boyfriend or charming high school dalliances I had, mostly in daydreams. His wedding ring, a classroom climate. It never got above freezing unless you agreed with him.
The attraction of femme fatale icons and the camp aesthetic generally, which delights in impertinence, is evident throughout these poems as well. Two poems allude to Bette Davis (“On My Knees Again” and “Open Shed”). Davis once remarked about gay men, “They are more knowledgeable, more loving of the arts. They make the average male look stupid.” How could you not admire her?
Judy Garland likewise is found in two of the poems. “Flaming” concludes:
Maybe I’m a lavender Abenego walking through flame, not catching fire. Protected by Judy Garland.
Abenego is one of the men in The Book of Daniel who is tossed into a furnace but saved by God. “Flaming” takes place in that iconic suburban town, Republican and conservative, as does “”Confederate Judy,” which deals with trick-or-treating on Halloween, wanting to dress up as Judy Garland but deciding it’s not safe to do so.
I wore Judy in my head, belted out “The Man Who Got Away” and savored my Butterfingers.
The Advocate once called Garland “the Elvis of homosexuals” for her value as a camp figure.
Pobo’s skeptical perspective on gay acceptance is evident in “Wedding License,” about the milestone of legal gay marriage, which nevertheless amusingly alludes to the camp sensibility:
At the courthouse I learn we’ll need 60 bucks. Love works 9-5 too. The form asks no relevant questions, like what songs will we play that day? We’ll stand in “the halls of justice” that echo from the ghosts of murdered gay people.
The collection ends on “Piles of Old Cruelties,” a vicious reminder of the homophobic violence that continues. He is unable to forget all the cruelties he has experienced for being gay, all the nasty words and actions, and he sees himself stumbling over the piles,
tripping down the stairs, breaking my neck.
But let’s hope not! Better to end this remarkable collection of poems on the triumphant note of “Come Up and Out”:
Be gay, sun! Kick open that closet and lavender hills.