Sappho’s Series of Lesbian Poets: Naomi Replansky’s Answer to Alienation

Coming out doesn’t make you at home in the world; nor, certainly, does sex. You need bonds beyond sex: a community, a culture, a shared set of obsessions.

“Love on the March,” Alex Ross, The New Yorker 11/12/12

When I was a young lesbian in rural New Jersey in the ‘70s, I was completely lost in a dark sea and sky—without stars, sun or moon to guide me. The word “lesbian” was only uttered, when it was uttered at all, with contempt and mockery. There appeared to be no place for me in society and culture, and to express myself would be dangerous. I wrote poems, and kept my poems private: a community of one. 

Then I saw two words in the Village Voice that pierced through the fog: Lesbian Nation. A whole nation of people like me! 

It’s 2020, and I’m still sharply attuned to Lesbian Nation, especially the poet part of the population. Where are the stars, sun and moon of lesbian poets? I look for you always. I love most those lesbian poets who are fearless and inclusive and complete, who don’t censor themselves. Let me share your voices with the world. So I did, starting Lavender Review and Headmistress Press. 

This year, Headmistress Press is proud to announce the inaugural Sappho’s Prize in Poetry, awarded annually for one full-length poetry collection by a lesbian. To celebrate and promote this prize, I’m posting a series of short monthly book reviews or interviews here on msmagazine.com

Full disclosure: I’ve published some of these poets in Lavender Review, though I haven’t published any of their books. Headmistress Press made Lesbian Poet Trading Cards for some of these poets. Some of these poets have served or will serve as judges for the Headmistress Press Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest.

In the first post of this series, I interviewed Vi Khi Nao. Here I review Naomi Replansky’s Collected Poems.

Do we read poems searching for answers? Do we write poems searching for answers? In the case of Naomi Replansky, yes and yes.

Replansky makes problems palpable in her poems, major world problems like the Depression, the Holocaust, the homeless. Then the gravity and force of her language answers those problems in the way that only poetry can. One reads Replansky’s Collected Poems and feels confident that a truly serious soul has given everything possible to the search for answers. 

Those searching for Naomi Replansky herself will find poems reflecting the following facts: She was born in the Bronx in 1918, her parents were Jewish immigrants, her background is working-class and she worked for years in a factory. Turning 102 this year, she lives in Manhattan with her ray, Eva Kollisch. 

Yet Replansky’s poems are far from autobiographical. This is most evident in her reliance on the pronoun “he” and avoidance of  “she.” Her poems don’t reveal that she loves women. However, in context, in Lavender Review: Lesbian Poetry and Art, where she granted me permission to publish “The Oasis,” her poem bursts through the pronoun barrier.

Chances are good that no one reading this post was born in 1918. How can we possibly know what it was like as a first-generation Jewish-American working-class lesbian poet living through the entire twentieth century? One can only imagine lack after lack, oppression after oppression, struggle, torment, fear, hunger, loneliness, danger. She was 51 the year of Stonewall; according to the year on “The Oasis,” she was 69 when she met Eva Kollisch.

Replansky is a master of meter and rhyme, an answer to alienation. There’s nothing like the heartbeat of meter and the answering call of rhyme, for company and courage through dark times.

Here are the first two couplets from her poem, “About Not Writing”:

Tongue-tied, I stand before
Myself as inquisitor.

I loved to mark time
With a beat, with rhyme.

About

Mary Meriam advocates for the right of women to love each other in their poetry and art, and strives to give their work a place at the table. She writes about and publishes such work in the journal she founded, Lavender Review, at the press she cofounded, Headmistress Press, and at Ms. magazine, The Critical Flame, and The Gay & Lesbian Review. Her poetry collections, The Countess of Flatbroke, The Poet's Zodiac, The Lillian Trilogy, and Lady of the Moon, honor a cosmos of strong, creative women. Her latest collection, My Girl's Green Jacket, was published in 2018, and her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Prelude, and Subtropics.