Depending on how you look at it, how you layer it on your body, lingerie can be a softness, or a weaponry. Both, like as not. In Jay Bernard’s “Lingerie”, a bra – this simple, torturous chamber – becomes a mechanism of distance and anti-desire, between the poem’s speaker and their mother. A bra can smoulder the senses, even when it isn’t burning.
I’m most compelled by the poem’s bone-whittled, seemingly spare declarations, such as “But our basket was filled with / eggs and seven day bread. / It is why, at twelve, I had sagging breasts.” Later on, the poem despairs of the lack of a good bra, asking, “how many lovers would / be crushed in that sickening / fold where each breast hung / soft and fat and waxen?” I love this uneasy intimacy, the way the speaker’s body becomes a ground-zero of ruthless personal commentary. This description of breasts, almost as unwelcome invaders, as alien appendages seeking – nay, demanding – genteel homes, is its own way to contain the sprawling hurt and isolation of the poem.
It’s a world in which the speaker and their mother square off over a sea of suckling flesh, where images of the speaker’s youth – an innocent, nuzzling child – contrast with the final visual filters of the poem. In them, the speaker encases their breasts in armoured, pantheresque black, a stern rejoinder to the prawn white, pigskin-soft concoctions with which the poem opens. The mother of the poem does not speak, she’s addressed, and in the latter half of “Lingerie”, we feel the speaker’s orbit pulling further and further away from that initial galaxy of bosom-as-tether. By poem’s end there is no warm respite for the pains of what is conventionally called ‘womanhood’, only a sleek black prison for the entrapment of softness. What chafes may yet protect us.
This is the seventh installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.