Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Mawenzi House 2015,
112 pages, $22.95,
reviewed by Rajiv Mohabir
Bodymap and the Impossible Citizen
In her most recent collection of poems, Lambda Literary Award winner Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha places notions of the body, nation, diaspora, and queerness into conversation. Her third collection, along with her entire body of work, acts as a survival guide for those whose intersections of identities do not line up, whose assemblage of identities oppose the normative identity categories of nation-state. She provides a picture of what it means to be queer: a sexual queer who likes to get fist fucked on the regular, a desi queer who does not come from India but from Sri Lanka and is of “complicated” mixed ethnic heritage, and a body-queer who identifies as a “crip.”
The poet considers the lived experiences of Gayatri Gopinath’s diaspora outlined in Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporic and South Asian Public Cultures as she centers a femme queer in the subject position. Piepzna-Samarasinha writes in her poem “diaspora,”
to be in diaspora, maybe you are always a ghost
always missing something…(Piepzna-Samarasinha 2)
In this poem Piepzna-Samarasinha posits Gopinath’s hypothesis: that the queer immigrant woman is not present, and if she is present she is not legible in the normative constructions of the hetero-patriarchal subject position of male, straight, and white. Gopinath excavates a queer South Asian archive (Gopinath 22) to wage a claim that despite nationalist imaginaries of “home” and “nation” pervade, queerness operates to trouble the divide between nation and diasporic nation.
Readers and lovers of Gopinath would benefit greatly from delving into Piepzna-Samarasinha’s collection, which postdates Gopinath’s Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. In the second poem of the section “i. somewhere to run,” “my city is a hard femme” the poet writes,
My city a broken
beautiful bitch with
a necklace of junk trees blooming
from her throat. (Piepzna-Samarasinha 3)
The queer female subject is “impossible” to construct without notions of hybridity that seek to excoriate the subject of “authentic” national belonging or inclusion. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s city is a hybrid femme, unrecognizable to some who cannot read her femme signs: “a necklace” that she wears. The city of Piepzna-Samarasinha is an impossible citizen in the country too. Gopinath states that the figure of “woman” has been employed by the Hindu right as an ethnic marker “within the patriarchal logic of Indian immigrant bourgeoisie, a ‘nonheterosexual Indian woman’ occupies a space of impossibility” (18). The poet Leah Lakshmi Peipzna-Samarasinha’s city as femme – and most certainly the poet herself – embodies all of these sites of contradiction.
Throughout Bodymap the speaker speaks despite constant erasure thundering around her. The poet resists the erasure of the imaginary homeland, the host(ile) country, and ableism. A speaker like Piepzna-Samarasinha’s troubles the lines of state, capitalism, and queerness’s de facto able-bodied subject position. Piepzna-Samarasinha is a poet who wants to change the able-bodies from the de facto positions in subject formation. For Piepzna-Samarasinha, these oppressions are linked to late capitalism—indeed its very fabric.
As such Piepzna-Samarasinha challenges the vapidity of the able-bodied, mainstream, gay “It Gets Better” and its capitalist implications in her poem “evidence: anti-capitalist love poem 2012.” In her poetry of assemblage and intersections she lists her lived horrors of poverty: “a cedar shack” “black mold,” “nine roommates.” The poem’s volta appears by line twelve into a list of joys that the poet lives mapped through her body: “I fucked you so good,” and “I have made love to you in the front seat of your truck.” The poem ends with survival through this economic dispossession,
that we grew up, we survived to have this
that we were rich. (Piepzna-Samarasinha 15)
Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem is far from an “It Gets Better” missive, it is more of a “fuck you, I survived the capitalist hetero-patriarchy with my body’s pleasure in tact,” flying in the face of people like Dan Savage. The poet shows the reader her map to surviving the intersections of capitalist exploitation—how exactly the “impossible” subject’s bodily joy liberates.
This unapologetic look into the workings and struggles of the disabled, queer, femme of color, illustrates an emotional terrain often neglected. Reading this collection with Jasbir Puar’s scholarship on affective turn troubles the binaries constructing bodies as either able or disabled. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem “crip non haiku” does this same work through lyric interiority as the speaker’s body and plastic consciousness inhabits both spaces and all of the spaces in between. The poet writes,
he said you didn’t seem like yourself that day
I said this is my self (Piepzna-Samarasinha 22)
This is a moment of resistance of the speaker who refuses to be seen as a static subject. By claiming “this is my self” the poem’s speaker illuminates the way a body can be both things.
For Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha class, race, ethnicity, disabiliy, and body sense come together to lay bare a queer subjectivity whose intersections and assemblage of identities cannot be disaggregated. In fact to try to parse each thread will deny the reader of the beauty and stakes-made-poem for this radical queer of color. For this poet, the queer is in the nexus of all these things, including her state of disability—which pertains to the body and not necessarily gender or sexuality. It represents a queer position in itself: a body that is different and operates differently from expectations of the norm. And the word beautiful is the wrong word to describe it as it is all things testament and supernova. Read it to fuck yourself out of normative thinking.
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.
Piepzna-Samarsinha, Leah Lakshmi. Bodymap. Toronto: Mawenzi House, 2015. Print.
Puar, Jasbir K. "Coda: The Cost of Getting Better: Suicide, Sensation,
Switchpoints." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18.1 (2012): 149-58. Web.