Living as a Lesbian by Cheryl Clarke (Feb. 2014 Pick of the Month)

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Publisher/Date:  A Midsummer Night’s Press, Jan. 2014
Genre(s):  Poetry, Politics, Sexuality
Pages:  152
Website:  http://www.sinisterwisdom.org

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

LIVING AS A LESBIAN is a book right wingers warn you about. About riots and clits and pride in being black and lesbian, Living takes these subjects, infusing them with her observations and insight, pouring a wickedly-worded brew that wakes up your senses.

To read Living is to know Cheryl Clarke. Born in 1946, this poet, educator, essayist, feminist and activist was raised in segregated Washington, D.C. where she became captivated by words, learned deprecating humor from her mother, father and aunt, and spent time spying on grown folks conversations. Clarke saw and felt the turbulence of the 1960s, especially the violent outcome following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a disturbance that haunts her still to this day. This unjust world nurtured her poetry beginnings, especially when she was an English major at Howard University from 1965 to 1969. Her Chocolate city education – followed by a Masters and Ph.D. from Rutgers University, where she later retired after 41 years as a professor – is what lead her to become the rebel she is, even to this day.

This realization of Clarke is integral to reading Living. It frames the words you’ll find inside: metaphors draped in turquoise, descriptions of dirty politics and provocative sex, jazz riffs that carried Clarke into adulthood.

When I was approached to review Living, I was told it was a reprint of the book originally published in 1986. In saying yes to this review, I was slightly intimidated. Clarke is one of our living legends, a woman who has written influential essays and pronounced her lesbianism proudly and apologetically. She doesn’t mince words, but instead asserts her own capabilities as a black gay woman. In Living, Clarke poetry reflects this strength and her considerable knowledge of the world through her black lens.

Unfortunately, almost 30 years later, Living still has resonance. The police brutality Clarke refers to in “Miami: 1980”, still as relevant with our black men being gunned down by crooked cops, mostly recently with recent FAMU grad Jonathan Ferrell last year in North Carolina. The unadorned passion Clarke shows to her woman in “Kittantiny”, can be found in our own bedrooms. The same white privilege Clarke denounces in “we are everywhere” now shows up in racially inappropriate social media posts and half-assed apologies (I’m looking at you, Madonna). When blacks are increasingly undervalued, Clarke told you that back then with “urban gothic”.

And poor people
black, purple, umber, burgundy, yellow,
red, olive, and tan people.
In neat-pressed vines.
On crutches.
In drag.
With child and children.
Dissidents, misfits, malcontents, and marginals
serving out our sentences on the streets of
America
spread-eagled against walls and over car hoods.
Frantic
like rats in a maze
an experiment in living
down at the jail,
the courthouse on the highway.

I think it should be said that Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian can be complex, daunting almost. It’s not a quick read, and it should definitely be consumed with plenty of thought and afterthought. Some of her references are from a different time, but the reprint of Living does include Clarke’s notes that fill in the gaps, for the generations that might not understand her references. It’s as if Clarke is a godmother of sorts, passing along the history that she’s seen and overheard and lived, and that is worth the challenge Living presents.

Reviewed February 2014

About Cheryl Clarke

Cheryl Clarke is a poet, essayist, scholar, and activist. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (originally self-published in 1981 and distributed by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1982); and for Firebrand Books Living as a Lesbian (1986), Humid Pitch (1989) and Experimental Love (1993). Her most recent books are the critical study, After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (Rutgers University Press, 2004), and The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke 1980-2005 (Carroll and Graf, 2006). She is the recipient of the 2013 Kessler Award from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York. Clarke played June Walker in the 1996 feature film The Watermelon Woman directed by Cheryl Dunye. She lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ and Hobart, NY. She and her lover, Barbara Balliet, co-own a used and rare bookstore in Hobart, N.Y., the Book Village of the Catskills.


Losing Control by Cheril N. Clarke

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losingcontrol1Publisher/Date:  Dodi Press, June 2009
Genre:  Romance
Pages:  216
Website:  http://www.cherilnclarke.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Brianna Anderson knows love and politics oftentimes lead to scandal, so she’s covering her bases in LOSING CONTROL, the latest from revered author Cheril N. Clarke. The author of best-sellers Intimate Chaos and Tainted Destiny has delivered another captivating novel, this time following Brianna and her bid for City Council.

In case you forgot, Brianna is the go-getter in Tainted Destiny who left Sadira to pursue a career in the public sector. Brianna is now running for office in Rockville, New Jersey, a depressed city marked by unemployment, homelessness and political corruption. Brianna’s intentions, while she doesn’t have much experience, are pure and motivated by lifting the fog of hopelessness blanketing the city’s poorest residents.

Her opponent, however, is a woman led by pure greed. Three-term incumbent Colleen Smith, the councilwoman elected for three consecutive terms, wants to defeat the green candidate at any cost. Colleen could care less about her impoverished community, but rather reaping the wealth her position has afforded her on the backs of the people she serves.  With the stones Colleen’s throwing, Brianna cannot allow her deepest secret to be uncovered and therefore denies her sexuality – even as her attraction is growing for city treasurer Pam Thompson.

The pair meet somewhere along Brianna’s campaign trail, and are instantly drawn together. Brianna can’t help but feel something toward Pam, an intelligent, gorgeous woman, but indulging their feelings would mean Pam would have to deny something, also: her husband. And imagine the scandal that would erupt if Brianna’s opponent were to find out. She’s worked too hard, and there’s too much at stake for both her and Pam to lose.

Clarke’s Losing Control combines an involved love story with the behind-the-scenes action of a campaign. The romance between Brianna and Pam builds slowly, and takes a while to reach its peak – figuratively and sexually – but is worth reading to see how it ends. Clarke is proficient when it comes to the agony of love, and Losing Control shows what happens when the sacrifice is worth it.

Reviewed November 2009