Gaywakening. We all come to it, queer fam. Or we do if we’re lucky. What happens when it happens for us at seventeen, and we’re a Catherine Wheel of hormones and idealisms, glitter lipstick tucked in our back pockets, antiwar decals on our messenger bags? Danez Smith’s “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar” comprehends the short fuse of that tall hunger, of wanting to chase everything you can with your mouth first, see if you’ll live to regret it, later.
It’s the strokes of stylistic flair in the poem that most move me, the way the word “dash”, set on its own line, feels like a canyon, a broad-hipped homecoming for the bodies of other men. I love, too, the embodiment of “whiskey coke” as new-appointed lord and saviour, a move that feels both insouciant and deeply invested in a whole avenue of self-care previously denied one. A gay bar, after all, can be a sanctuary. The poem alerts us to this from the very first line: “this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we.” Sometimes all the acceptance you’ve thought to ask for comes from sticky pleather seats, before-midnight drink specials, colourful condoms dispensed like candies from the all genders bathrooms, the weight of a boy’s tongue in your mouth when you are yourself, in this moment, a boy with a needy, sugared tongue, wanting it lit.
What the poem captures perfectly is the twinned, double-forking spiral of young abandon and its mirror-awareness: “i want my new god to look at the mecca i built him & call it damn good / or maybe i’m just tipsy & free for the first time”. Because so what, if in this one, outstandingly queer moment, you say more than you mean? Beneath the strobe lights, you find you can say anything, at all.
Read “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar” here.
Danez Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, was published in 2017 by Graywolf Press.
This is the sixth 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.