Sad Girl Poems by Christopher Soto
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016
“Rory, do you think we can outlive this?” (home: A Villanelle)
How does our sadness not destroy us? Does it float us? Does it hold us down from wakefulness, from experiencing the hot air? How do we endure when our sadness, especially a sadness that can be “explained” by context, shows itself forth in every object, reversing all constructions created to make machines for capitalistic comfort?
Christopher Soto’s chapbook Sad Girl Poems, at certain instances, expresses the desire to grant what is often promised and assumed: “Can we / pretend time is linear? Can we pretend the memories don’t / manifest themselves in every object passed?” Soto’s poems ask a central question that often, for me, is parallel to institutional critique: “[How can we still create lives of / contentedness & meaning].” But when this question appears, there is no question mark: maybe it is resignation? Maybe it is a knowing that our contentedness must be different? Or perhaps acknowledgement: we live under the illusory claims of “home,” “universalisms,” and “happiness.” Christopher Soto wants to show that these abstractions don’t exist in their traditional mechanisms for everyone, especially not queers, people of color, and the homeless; but that our living depends on working through and decentralizing these concepts in actuality.
What keeps impressing me / pressing on me through(out) Sad Girl Poems is the manner in which Soto destroys / dismantles a binary between poetry and life. Poetry is not for passivity: it is protest, action, “useful” behavior. In the self-introductory essay steeped in critique opening the chapbook, Soto writes, reflecting on the reception of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: “But I didn’t see any of the white people in my MFA program marching next to me when Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson when Erica Garner was killed by NYPD.” When you read a poem / book, do you do anything about it? Are you reading to pass the time? Are you passing away your time? What happens when people pass away because you’re not taking the time to give a shit about their passing?
Sad Girl Poems refuses to allow the reader to be seduced into thinking that they’re forgetting about the world and focusing only on words, texts, textures. Or rather: to think that they’re acting without actually acting: by passing around poems with a layer of tokenism / white guilt / acting as a refracting lens. As Soto writes:
I want people to act, I want people to mobilize around POC sadness. Don’t just feel bad about our stories, consume us, and spit us out…That doesn’t matter. I want you to give your money to the Ali Forney Center and financially support queer homeless youth. I want you to donate your money to Black & Pink to support queer folks in prisons.
For Soto, there is no poem without survival and vice versa. Here the activism and the poem blend, become inexorably intertwined. Here there is no universalized sadness to be easily swallowed. Poetry that allows us to go about “our daily life” post-poem is rejected out of hand. Soto’s poems strike a big NO. Poetry that does not protest is not poetry.
Soto begins protest by means of individualism. They’re not afraid to dip into their own life to start charting a movement into action: the lyric becomes a chance to look inward and then outwardly change external structures. After a riff off Robert Hayden and describing an abusive father, Soto swerves into: “& I want to talk about Rory now.” Rory, the first love, the friend who is now gone, becomes the reflective elegiac energy for the poems throughout the chapbook. The poems operate as a means to collapse themselves, to reflect on the limits of memorializing and versification: “This is such a useless fucking poem. / [He’s not coming back].” But without the presence of “two punk faggots” – who could be Christopher and Rory, who could be you and me – there are no poems, useless or useful. Rory will not come back; our friends, our lovers who have gone will not be back; but this does no work to dismiss the feeling that “there are twenty poems I want to write for you – ” or that there are “white supremacist power structures murdering & incarcerating our communities.” These feelings must be felt together: an anger in our domestic lives and those furies manifested on structural and zoomed out levels; on the levels that make us / demand for us / the creation of poems, of processing. This extends into what allows Soto write: “Waves taped to my face, I’m crying / Then sucking dick for rent. When the / Police lights drift across me like rose petals.” The entire ocean becomes teardrops; the police lights mutate into falling petals. One cries, one universalizes the sadness; then one realizes rent needs to be paid. “Like a child,” Soto writes in the poem “myself when I’m real.” “Discovering the word / Domestic-violence.” The outward and inward transgress; there is no childhood without a “word” to be discovered that explains how the innocence gets turned inside out. Crushed by the wave of a word that now identifies what was before silently understood, accepted.
This leads Christopher Soto to write: “I wonder if heaven got a gay ghetto.” Do utopias, do heavens, exist? If they do, are they modeled after our fucked-up impossible structures? “Lorde know(s),” Soto puns. “Cis-hets don’t like me.” What does any kind of heaven appear like when sadness serves itself up and survives with regularity / with constant distaste and distrust for persons?
So the last poem in Sad Girl Poems receives the title “hatred of happiness” – does this indicate a love of sadness? I’ve read this chapbook again and again for four months, and I’m still shocked when I see the last words: “Please, let me die alone.” I abandon the text. I write in my notebook:
I wrote these words in the dark while watching Tongues Untied / there is a sadness so heavy that it’s not by sad girls or for sad girls that feels like the dream ghost of sad girls haunting over it, making havens for homos in / transitory / trans* park bench homes. Yr favorite flowers: what are they? Are they blooming?
An occasion. A spatial relation. I’m reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. I’m feeling all of the vibrations and vibrancies in the spaces that I’m in. I walk outside and realize that being alive / it’s home. I realize that I can outlive this. I don’t know what this is but it’s something related to “What hell. / What he’ll / Be doing.” He will hell, he will [un]do. A doing.
I begin untangling the writing because it means nothing when it gets linear. Can we pretend?
A writing Soto in “middle class fist fight”: “I hate these poems & you’ve been dead for so long now.”
And, in the next poem:
“By which everything revolved around capital.”
I want to feel through material and not need it. I want to manifest without the revolving around capital. To revolutionize. To fist fight. To love these poems although you’ve been dead.
For so long now.
I’ve been writing through them for so long now. I begin dreaming about Rory, who Soto writes in pubic harp-wires of blond curls. I’ve never even met anyone named Rory.
I emerge from imagination.
Does the ending become impersonal?
Is it too slow?
Soto: “& somewhere / There is a book / I want to write, / Called ‘Anarchist / Island.’”
The somewhere, the gay ghetto heaven, the elsewhere.
The not-here that’s possible here. The not-here: we will write it and act.