I’m reading Jack Spicer again. At first, his work sounded prophetic, then I realized that it registers the long life of queer disposability.
Roses that wear roses
Roses that wear roses must enjoy
The flowers they are worn by.
Roses that wear roses are dying
With a mirror behind them.
None of us are younger but the roses
One might learn to enjoy mirrors, to understand mirrors as less distorting than the outside world, to see oneself as a rose in a mirror, as one wears roses. To see oneself as a rose and to imagine producing enjoyment in the rose one wears. The word beauty is absent here; instead, the word “enjoy.”
What communion is being proposed here, what reciprocity, between one short-lived form and another short-lived form? How to read that shift from “enjoy” to “dying”? Or to read the urgency of that “enjoy” because of its proximity to “dying”?
A bad (if necessary) reading practice “gays” authors we know to “be that way.” And the poem that opens my vocabulary did this to me, “Berkeley In Time of Plague” calls out to be “gay-ed”:
Plague took us and the land from under us,
Rose like a boil, enclosing us within.
We waited and the blue skies writhed awhile
Becoming black with death.
First published in 1957—the editorial notes do not indicate when it might have been written—the poem reaches from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the AIDS era Spicer could never have foreseen. Circulated in the McCarthyite 50s it speaks to the power of a paranoid state to prolong the life of plague, to domesticate militarized practices of normativity. Published, also, as the Civil Rights movement takes place, it speaks to the metonymic work of blackness as “death.” To how blackness remains the figure for/of death in the U.S. imaginary.
To be blackened is to be “dying”: constantly, endlessly.
Dying sutures black:queer.
Spicer’s roses lead me to Hemphill’s roses:
I allow myself to dream of roses
though I know
the bloody war continues
Where Spicer’s roses can inhabit—or fantasize about—a livability enabled by mirrors, a private space of rose-to-rose interaction, saturation, dying, Hemphill can only permit himself to “dream of roses” in his dying present.
Hemphill wants to believe in the promise of roses.
What the rose whispers
I vow to you.
And in Hemphill’s hope, I see Spicer’s despair: to blink, in Spicer’s poem, is to risk missing the short period during which one can “enjoy” and be enjoyed by the “dying” roses. But the “roses” are “dying,” whether one blinks or not. The promise of the unbloomed rose is always threatened.
Some roses never bloom.
From this distance, it is impossible to think of gay roses without considering the enclosing plague: AIDS literature brims with flower images, of the fatal beauty of petal-like skin cancers. Evidence of wars to value and save queer lives. Still evidence of wars to value and save queer lives.
We are still dying.
Increasingly, I have come to think of queerness as disposability. To think of queer world-making as a fantastic project, more rooted in science fiction than in any form of social realism. To inhabit a queer-erasing world with whatever strategies might be at hand, to try to bend while hoping not to break.
And roses looking at dying roses must also watch for mirror-destroying earthquakes.
My mother used to grow roses.
Now, her gardens are full of hardy plants that grow without tending.
Once indifferent to the roses, I find myself wondering about them, even missing them.