for B. L. M. M.
Gunmen, some say, armed with rifles, and others
a cavalcade of police cars, their blues and whites
shining, are the most beautiful sights this dark
country can offer,
but I say it is the ones you love dearest.
Easily is this proven: didn’t Brenda,
catching sight of the sniper, tell her son to Get down,
braving the bullets,
thinking not of herself or of the body
she wouldn’t give death until now, on her terms;
the faces of friends, the sweet music fading,
not her own safety.
And I think of my mother
whom I would rather see on our stairwell standing,
relieved that her child’s returned safe from the dance
above all the armed men of America
ranked in battalions.
About the Poem
She put the L in LGBTQ+, but unlike Homer, that other ancient Greek poet, fewer people have heard of Sappho. While Homer’s epics sang of war—where men win glory by killing each other—Sappho, the first woman in literature, stood at the beginnings of a different tradition: of a poetry rooted in the interior, of arranging words into musical patterns to express personal (and, ultimately, communal) experiences.
Perhaps Sappho doesn’t get taught as much in schools because most of her work comes to us in fragments. Maybe it’s because in many of those fragments, Sappho (who came from the island of Lesbos and was thus called “the Lesbian”) sang of the love women have for each other. In any case, I’ve often contemplated how Sappho’s poetry subverts or rejects the patriarchal values of Homeric warrior society. In one of her most famous poems, Sappho dismisses the notion that armed soldiers and their warships can be “the loveliest sight on this black earth.” Her alternative? “I say it is whatever one desires.” She then names a woman she would rather see more than her country’s military readied for combat. In Sappho’s poetry, glory is won by being loved.
After Orlando, I started musing on how Sappho might respond to our own culture’s tendency to glorify a violent masculinity and easy access to deadly weapons. My interest was more than literary: I am a fixture in the gay scenes of whatever city I find myself in—Chicago’s Boystown, where I first came out as a young adult, St. Louis’ Grove, even Bangkok’s Silom. This past winter in particular, when I moved back to Chicago for the first time since grad school and needed new friends, a group of “industry” people took me in. A number of these friends belonged to the Latinx community, as would, several months later, a majority of the victims at Pulse Nightclub. Before long, I was hanging out in DJ booths, attending Latin-themed events (like the one where the shooter opened fire); staying after-hours to help clean, even once checking IDs while a bouncer attended to a spill. I often got teased for going out so much (I worked from home at the time and my schedule allowed it), but the fact of the matter is, I felt safe in them: safe to be myself, and free from the fear of judgment or rejection that dog me as a gay individual in every other life arena.
While the idea of a bar or nightclub as a focal point of the gay community feeds into the stereotype of the homosexual dandy and the life of vice he supposedly leads, the truth is that, when churches, schools, town halls, and other socially-sanctioned community centers reject us, gays have to carve out their own safe spaces in the world. (Of course, the “scene” does not hold the same weight for all queer people, and gay nightclubs can be marginalizing spaces in their own ways—even a bar fly like myself does not always feel welcome in certain contexts. Yet, along with the need to improve our inter-community dynamics, it remains true that for many of us, bars offer something closer to sanctuary than other spaces.)
This attack hit close to home: a friend of mine lives up the street from Pulse and had chosen not to go out the night of the shootings. He would later post on Facebook, desperately asking if any one had heard from his friend at the club—an acquaintance of mine—whom he could not reach. A number of other people I know and love have been to Pulse at various points in their lives; for many, it is a place they remember fondly. And given my lifestyle, there is no doubt in my mind that, had the attack occurred in Chicago, St. Louis, or Bangkok, or had I been visiting Orlando that night, I would likely have found myself and my friends in the line of fire. Immediately after the attack, the close-knit nature of the gay community—jokingly bemoaned in times of peace as an impediment to dating—became a source of grim anticipation as many of us outside of Orlando did silent tallies, estimating how many degrees we were from grief.
For the first time after a mass shooting—how many have we seen just this past year?—I felt moved to eulogize. (I also wrote my local government representatives.) I say this shame-faced, because I did not react this way after the last school shooting, even though I work in education. I did not feel this way after Charleston, even though a number of my family members are African American. Orlando taught me that my silence has deadly consequences, that the adage is true: if you don’t speak up while other groups are targeted one by one, who will speak out when they come to shoot you?
For days after the murders, the words of Sappho’s poem echoed in my head, though not taking any real form: “Some people say…but I say…” At the same time, the question of “how” such a thing could happen swirled around me with all manner of responses in tow. For those of us who walked home from middle school dodging volleys of slurs, for those of us who have been spat on in public for a certain lilt in our speech, for those of us who have known these things and worse—there was never a need to look for a “how,” least of all in foreign-born ideologies and radical religious sects. What nursed this event was much closer to home—closer to all of us. Just take a look at some of our politicians.
After I read and cried over the story of Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, this poem crystallized—my own small eulogy for the lives that have been lost. Writing in Sappho’s voice not only felt appropriate, but gave me a degree of emotional distance that made the subject matter easier to approach, something that imitating Sappho’s strict form also aided. The demands of stress and syllable were a stay against incoherent keening, though the temptation was always there.
May Brenda rest in peace and her survivors gain some measure of healing from their loss. (You can help them here.) And may we as a community grow to celebrate, as Sappho did over two thousand years ago, the love between consenting adults as beautiful—regardless of sexual identity—and more beautiful than the implements of war.
Noh Anothai placed first in OUTspoken’s poetry contest for LGBTQ+ identified authors in 2015, and was recently nominated for Best New Poets 2016. He divides his time among Chicago, St. Louis, and Bangkok.