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Experimental Poetry and a Good Old-fashioned Mystery: Lesbian Staples to Live By

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Walk into any LGBT book store (those that are left) and you'll find two major sections of lesbian literature -- which may seem to have nothing to do with each other: lesbian mysteries and lesbian poetry. Some might describe these all high brow and low brow, but the fact is that both can enclose you in a lesbian world. In full disclosure, I tend more toward poetry than mystery but I was delightfully surprised to find that one can contain the other.

In reading Nicole Brossard's latest volume of poetry, White Piano (Coach House Books, 2013), I was drawn to the mystery, the unknown, the internal. Nicole Brossard is a French-Canadian lesbian-feminist poet, who has authored more than thirty books since 1965, and has an international reputation as an experimental poet and for her incisive lesbian thinking. She is quoted as saying:

"I think the wild love between two women is so totally inconceivable that to talk or write that in all its dimension, one almost has to rethink the world, to understand what it is that happens to us. And we can rethink the world only through words."

Nicole Brossard's native language is French. White Piano is beautifully translated by Robert Majzels and Erin Moure. As I read through White Piano, I was swept into the lyricism of her language, into the worlds beneath her words, and into cadences that were familiar, yet new. Consider, for instance:

"she'd had 20years to learn the slippage
between the words women and reality
between universe and room of one's own
several times her body became lodged
in the word @space

Initiating herself into enigmas and the living womb of women
twenty years to transcribe paragraphs of eternity
an intimacy of inkwash in the material of the present"

White Piano is aptly titled. I found my mind dancing across the ivory keys and resting in circular chambers. It made me think about mystery and rethinking the world through words.

"the power of questions
if you sit at the piano
amid whirlwinds designed
to make us vanish"

Joan Timberlake's lesbian mystery, No Corpse Is an Island, (from Blue Feather Books, 2013), is the opposite of experimental poetry in that everything in spelled out in language that is straightforward and accessible. And while this is Joan Timberlake's (who writes under the nom de plume Gato Timberlake) first lesbian mystery, she has long been an important figure in the lesbian literary community.

In her book, we met a private investigator who goes by her last name Taylor. who lives in a row home in Baltimore, Maryland, and is investigating the death of her roommates fiancé, Stan, a bit of a philanderer, who is a graduate student in botany who was writing his dissertation on the aquatic vegetation surrounding Grafton Island in the Chesapeake Bay. His research and demands for stricter regulations had put him at odds with many of the long-residents who finally could see themselves profiting from the sales of their properties.

She describes her lesbian identity cleverly:

"I refuse to use the seventies cop out, androgynous. But if I may be so bold -- because this could be construed as an ego trip -- I believe that I defy categorization, labels of any kind. Perhaps I'm a 'futch' or a 'bem' but I picture myself as yet to be identified, a gender transcendent or a gender mutt, a hybrid. And those who hold an attraction for me offer no revelations. Infinite varieties of women appeal to me, without exception."

Like most mystery writers, if not all, Timberlake, uses her plotlines to explore a backdrop of interest to her. Speaking from the point of view of the private investigator Taylor, she writes:

"I also researched the Chesapeake Bay website... It explained the sensitive balance of the estuary, of salinity and fresh water. Plants such as rice cutgrass, climbing hemp weed, and marsh hibiscus, and wildlife such as largemouth bass, great blue herons, and muskrats depended on the harmony of an environment being encroached upon many levels. Overfishing, too many recreational boats, and chemical water pollution had all taken a toll on the Chesapeake Bay or, to translate its name from the Native Algonquin, Great Shellfish Bay. The largest bay in the United States was struggling to survive."

In the course of unraveling and solving the mystery -- of this man who so many seemingly have motives to murder -- Timberlake adroitly takes us through the interconnected fabric of her lesbian life -- including her relationship with her detective brother (who she is close with); the numerous friends who she has made family with, the memories of her deceased parents, in particular her mother, and ultimately a love affair with another woman.

In weaving this tale, Timberlake shows us that everything is connected -- just like the fragile ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay. And she does so convincingly, with heart.

You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.