My first crush was a girl with my eyes and silky blonde hair. In seventh grade, I attempted to woo her by leading her up to the bell tower in our small town’s cathedral and casting our eyes to the view. It did not go well, as it turned out she was afraid of heights. It somehow got around that I liked her damned boy cousin, who shared her surname. I kept telling her it was a lie.
My first girl love was my best friend. At sleepovers, we would kiss, and I would play a man, and wedged inside one sleeping bag I’d roll over her and she’d call me by some boy name that had meaning to her over the weekend.
My second girl love I wooed in high school swim class. In the locker room, her and I on opposite ends, I’d take off my shirt slowly, delicately; steadily unzip my pants; slip out of my bottoms inch by inch; I’d stand there as she looked at my body, drinking me in. Shimmy into swimsuits. Then we’d swim. Then we’d return and in the showers repeat the process vice-versa all over again.
Women have touched my narrow feet. Women have held my hands. Women have kissed my lips and forehead and shoulders and below my belly button.
But these stories still appear lost and isolated. Being a woman loving women (in the same vein, a man loving men) can feel perpetually unresolved. Whether lesbian, bi, queer, non-binary, or a ‘something-else’ kind of love entirely, women who love women still struggle to be seen and heard. We may hold hands in public more openly now, but our actions in the bedroom remain closed, still featured mostly through the lens of the heteronormative world.
But what sweet nothings do women whisper to women? What swelling feelings ignite on quiet avenues in evenings, on porch steps under dim lamplights?
SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like is an anthology of poetry written by women for women. Approaching 400 pages with over 100 contributors, the anthology takes the hidden intimacy of girl/girl love seriously, showcasing the marvelous ubiquity and variance of women’s love. Though I’ve read plenty of LGBTQ+ poets, this is admittedly the first time I’ve encountered and read a volume exclusively dedicated to the love shared between women with so many voices all speaking at once. SMITTEN is an invigorating experience, coursing along the entire spectrum of romance, heartbreak, suppression, flirtation, admiration, and of course, love.
“This morning / you never stopped. / Of course / I wanted to hear / every detail about / yesterday’s barbeque / in your old neighborhood / and who married whom / and the history of their kids / and how your childhood tribe / crept across / the grouchy neighbor’s yard / on sulky summer nights. / I was also intrigued / by the Kennedy conspiracy, / how magnesium / is essential for the brain, / and why I should avoid / every wheat-filled thing. / […] / but [the] words got lost / in the orbit of your voice / along with gardenia blooms, / my latest poem, / and the stream of clouds / easing from the coast. / […] / Meet me for a chat / on the patio tonight. / Perhaps you’ll acquiesce / when I quote John Donne: / For God sake hold / your tongue and let me love.”“Just Saying,” poem by Carolyn Martin, from Smitten: This Is What Love Looks Like
I read this collection around Christmas but decided to pick through it again around Valentine’s Day. It’s a sensual read, but also sticky. What is immediately apparent when reading SMITTEN is how often same-sex love of women is tangled into heterosexual norms, confusing and oppressing lesbian and other queer narratives. In Avital Abraham’s opening piece “Lesbian,” the willful desire to embrace a word that has been unfairly blanketed in such negative associations comes on strong: “Am I a monster? / Because oh, / oh god, / do I want that word to feel delicious. / I crave its comfort, / dream about snuggling into the word lesbian, / like lesbian I’m coming home, / and lesbian warm smiles, / lesbian lazy mornings and, / lesbian a fluffy duvet, / lesbian half coffee, half cream, two sugars. / Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian, / and it still feels dirty in my throat but – / lesbian – / I will keep saying this word until – lesbian – / it burrows its way into my brain and / lesbian makes a home on my tongue. / I will not let this word be dirty.”
Romantic narratives surge forward nonetheless. In Kai Coggin’s “When I Photograph a Woman” she poignantly describes the sexual elogation of the anxiety of physical lust moving onward into a greater desire of wishing to ‘know’ and ‘see’ another person: “she begins to bend to me / a tulip – s t r e t c h i n g – for a spot in sunlight she lets / stiffness and fear / fall to the / floor / (a silk dress) / her muscles relax / under my glassy gaze it take time sure / it takes both of us being a little scared / but there is always the sudden turn where her cheek / becomes more of a song [.]” In Paula Jellis’ “When She Looks At Me” the verse is tender and quick: “In the quiet silence / between sentences / everything is clear / when she looks at me / In the afternoon / of her kiss / in the dark green shadows / she covers me / and fills me / with desire.” Such lines both manage to encompass the immediate and gradual stages of love.
But some of the poems I find the most moving are those of breakups and struggles, struggles both universal and struggles that feel unique to the gay community. In her poem “so she’s a wound” Cassandra Bumford writes: “i could tell you her name, / but all you need to know is / she was a pistol. / […] / now i’m left with bullets inside me. / she never said to remove them. / i’ve found it hard to breathe / while she’s hiding inside me.” In Kim D. Bailey’s “If Only I’d Been Brave Enough” the vice of same-sex oppression bares together, in nebulous lines: “Regret sits like a cat / on my chest, digging / […] / a swing, pushing until the new / heights hold me / hostage, / and I hold / my breath comes / in shallow graves of dead / children’s dreams, there is no / place for this love. / Bravery is broken ladders […]” Many of these more painful pieces employ a run-on nature, speaking to the neuroticism that emerges from love that ends (or never begins) without proper closure.
My third girl love was a stud. She had massive black gauges in her ears, stretching her lobes out. She could imitate the sound of a slide whistle perfectly. She called me her ‘chapstick’ babe, and when she left me, she left a Burt’s Bees tube behind. But half of it had been used. I debated for about a week whether to use it or throw it away.
Of course I used it. Of course I did. It tasted of mango. I wore it all the way down to the bottom, and tasted her, every last bit. Every little bit I could squeeze out. All the bitter, all the sweet, all the sour, all the cream.
That’s what love looks like. That’s being SMITTEN. A collection worth having on your shelf. No book could ever fully encapsulate the great vast diversity and divergence that is love, for anybody. But as the world (hopefully) progresses onward towards a more accepting (and loving) view of same-sex love, SMITTEN is an important book placed into the public sphere.
Four out of five stars for SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like. And I hope all you fine readers have a happy Valentine’s.
Full Disclosure: I received this book as a gift from Candice L. Daquin, Senior Editor of Indie Blu(e) Publishing. It was given, however, under no pretense of review. I simply chose to write a review because I enjoyed the volume. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and see if you make the cut!
The featured image is of Isabel Emrich’s beautiful oil painting ‘Self Trust’ from her “Refracting Beauty” series displayed at Skidmore Comtempory Art.