If prophesy is speaking an idea whose time has come, then Collective Brightness must be prophetic. In a time when the right for all persons to participate in religious freedoms, such as marriage or ordination, is shifting and changing, and when religious groups of all kinds demonstrate their turmoil over sexual identity, the 100 plus poets represented in the anthology write boldly of faith, lack thereof, religion, exclusion therefrom, and spirituality that cannot be taken from them.
The book opens with Franklin Abbott’s “Koan.” Koans are Zen Buddhist stories or sayings that must be understood intuitively – they do not make sense to our rational minds. Abbott’s “Koan” explores history, both global and familial: “my face/ before my birth/ was half/ my father’s face/ looking/ back into/ eternity.” This koan sets the tone for the book – intimate and urgent, these poems speak to a world that see persons who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, or Queer as less than whole people. These poems insist on speaking the experience of poets whose souls are demeaned and damned by people who claim to determine who religion is and isn’t for.
The book doesn’t have a religion agenda; it isn’t an evangelical anthology. Ellen Bass’s poem “Ode to The God of Atheists” insists on a world in which “[t]he plums that bloom extravagantly,/ the dolphins that stitch sky to sea,/ each pebble and fear, pond and fish/ are yours whether or not you believe.” Beauty, spiritual and physical, fills this world, as Robin Becker writes about “peach and azure birds” flying from the mouth of a monk brushing his teeth. God godsself is drawn by this beauty. In the poem “Beetle Orgy,” from which the anthology’s title is drawn, Benjamin Grossberg writes of God looking down on a group of HIV positive men having sex and being “[m]oved to add/ His touch.” God gains from this experience, “comes to some knowledge/ as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased/ by the collective brightness of human skin…”
The anthology does not ignore the other, painful side of faith, religion, and spirituality. Kazim Ali’s “Home” claims that “God’s true language is only silence and breath,” and Jericho Brown, in “Romans 12:1” (the verse in which Paul orders Christians to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices”) observes that people, “[o]n the whole/ Hurt by me, they will not call me/ Brother. …they hate a woman/They smell in me.” Doubt, loneliness, hatred, and rejection are aspects of the spiritual experience of LGBTIQ people that are also explored in the anthology.
As is violence. Late in the book, Joseph Ross’s poem “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973” brings the murder of the patrons of the Upstairs Lounge, a bar and church where gay men could worship, vividly to life. Ross writes of the patrons singing “like they deserved to.// They prayed like they meant it.” The bar is set on fire, and many of the patrons die, including George, who escapes, then returns for Louis. The two “were found, a spiral/ of bones holding each other…” Ross does not stop with the fire; he continues to the aftermath – the jokes on the radio, the laughter of priests, and the refusal of churches to bury the dead: “Save one: a priest from// St. George’s Episcopal Church, who received hate mail…”
This is the hate and indifference to violence that leads to despair, which is achingly described in Regie Cabico’s “Soul Bargaining”: “By soul,// I mean God make me a wind instrument so I can toss myself/ into the East River. The street lamps are howling for the first// slivers of light. By light, I mean falling off a bridge// wrapped in the arms of a God who knows your name.”
Collective Brightness includes a poem by Azwan Ismail, a Malaysian writer who received death threats for participating in the It Gets Better Project and producing a Malay language LGBT anthology, Orang Macam Kita. Seung-Ja Choe is also included, the first time a Korean poet has been featured in an LGBTIQ anthology in any language. And Japanese poet Atsusuke Tanaka appears translated by Jeffry Angles for the first time.
The anthology is a global effort, and one that again and again gives evidence of what editor Kevin Simmonds claims in the introduction: “Abiding with this faith [which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as the “opposite of certainty”], however, is one very personal certainty: No matter what, as a gay man, I belong.”
This Sunday, October 16, Kevin Simmonds and other poets from the anthology, Collective Brightness, will read at Sunday Kind of Love at Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Sts, Washington DC. The reading will begin at 5:00 p.m.
Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, & Spirituality
Edited by Kevin Simmonds
A free review copy of the book was provided to Split This Rock by the publisher.