Lesbian Fashion Struggles by Caroline Earleywine
Review by Sam Preminger
In her first chapbook publication, Lesbian Fashion Struggles (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020), Caroline Earleywine brings a bright candle of queer artistry to the final quarter of 2020 as a guiding light, a warning, and a respite. Across 44 pages of narrative free verse, Earleywine explores the intricacies and intersections of lesbian identity while faithfully uplifting queer youth and sharing hard-won lessons from self-discovery. The result is insightful and bursting with sparks of joy, though never ignorant of the shadows which encroach on queer spaces and bodies.
The collection opens with “Where I Come from,” a scene of Americana wherein the poet makes a pledge to her queer Southern predecessors:
I have relatives long gone, women
from the Old South who never married –
who lived in their aprons and their closets
and I think of that Mississippi
swelter, that suffocating silence
and so I say I have a girlfriend
This is a commitment to closeted lesbians of the past which, on first read, I imagined the book had neglected to fulfill. After all, the poems that follow don’t detail a lineage of queer fore-bearers nor dwell on the oppression of generations long gone. Instead, the narrative shifts to focus on the author’s own journey and those of the queer youth around her. While I briefly considered this a failure to fulfill the book’s initial promise, on further reflection, I came to realize that these poems are precisely what our queer ancestors are needing: not to have their names gilded in floral language, but for us to celebrate those here today and forge a path for those to follow. We honor our queer ancestors by honoring ourselves and those to come, a truth Earleywine understands intimately and rises to time and time again, centering queer artists and youth.
In the poem, “GSA,” as a teacher helping to organize her school’s GSA, of its students she asks:
. . . Who better
to prepare me, to teach me how to live life outside
of a closet than the same kids who clap every time I say
my wife? Who gather around her picture on my desk
like it’s a holy grail, who are so desperate for heroes,
they wear pride flags tied around their necks as capes,
become the heroes themselves.
Stanzas such as these have the potential to grip gay, straight, and any other manner of reader alike as they push us to recognize the courage of queer youth, to question how much more we might learn from their example. And yet, while I found myself gripped by such moments, they couldn’t explain the impact of the collection as a whole. For some time I remained uncertain what it was that not only piqued my interest in Earleywine’s work, but what resonated in such a manner as to be more than relevant and well-crafted, to be essential to the present moment. This poet has presented us with a collection about identity — familial, cultural, and queer — a collection that offers comfort and confrontation and complexity as it grapples with these facets of self and yet none of this alone is what truly makes her writing shine.
What makes this book critical in our current times is how, underneath layers of nuance, Earleywine is offering us a collection of love poems. These works are far from the saccharine some may anticipate upon hearing the term, but they’re love poems nonetheless; writing love to family, to queer ancestors and youth, to the poet’s spouse, to clothing and language and to the self. They’re love poems which do not coddle nor for a moment forget the sinister realities which creep around queer relationships. They are love poems. And they’re lovely.
From “Femme Invisibility”:
Sometimes I disappear, but
on the car ride home
you reach for my hand,
your thumb grazing across
my palm and the car fills
with light. I am so seen
As demonstrated here and throughout the surrounding pages, Earleywine’s verse is as welcoming as a warm ocean and conceals an equal depth beneath. In poems neither simple nor obscure, she wields a multitude of techniques masterfully, with particular emphasis on cunning line breaks and subtle, charming musicality.
This is the book I wish I’d had as a child and I suspect it’s a book countless readers need right now. It’s a brief collection reaching far beyond the boundaries of its covers, marking the first perfect-bound publication of what promises to be an equally far reaching poetic career. A lesson in how to uplift love within the darkness, the cold, and the grey. A lesson many of us have needed our entire lives and from which we may all learn today.
Caroline Earleywine teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, NAILED Magazine, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs. Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is out now with Sibling Rivalry Press.
Sam Preminger is a queer, nonbinary, Jewish writer and publisher. Having completed an MFA at Pacific University, they’ve since moved on to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of NAILED Magazine while continuing to perform at local venues and work one-on-one with poets as an editor and advisor. They live in Portland, OR, along with their partner and stepcat.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.