Two Poems: Occupying Memory
Snow is a notorious memory stimulator. Last Saturday, when we experienced what felt like winter weather for the first time in a long time, I was having dinner with a gay female friend who works mostly in Los Angeles. We were just catching up, and had yet to order, when my friend received a text from a woman friend, also gay, in Los Angeles. Whitney Houston was dead. There was nothing to say. We looked out the restaurant window, and the snow began to fall. So did the memories, not in droves, but in flakes. Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness. Indeed, the gorgeous star who had been circumspect about her personal life until she married the already played out but seemingly indomitable teen performer, Bobby Brown, in 1992, was less the author of a touchingly open, gospel-trained voice trying to find meaning in frequently meaningless lyrics, than the beloved friend of a woman named Robyn Crawford, who had been Houston’s closest companion since the singer was sixteen years old. (Crawford was also Houston’s longtime executive assistant.)
In the early 1980s, one sometimes saw Crawford in those places where women of color then gathered—the Duchess on Seventh Avenue South, say, or the Cubby Hole. In those small, self-protective-by-necessity worlds, everyone knew what everyone else did, and with whom, and Crawford was often spoken of in the same breath as the lovely Houston, who had modeled for Essence, and was the daughter of Cissy Houston, herself the cousin of Dionne Warwick. That was all we knew. But as Houston’s career overwhelmed her personality—every significant pop star suffers this fate; often they don’t live long enough to reverse the order—she was still “our” Whitney down there, near Christopher Street, in the West Village: a perforce closeted superstar who had to make a living because she knew gay didn’t pay.
This was familiar to us, particularly when it came to those black female performers, ranging from Bessie Smith to Ethel Waters to Billie Holiday, who skipped over the gay parts of themselves, let alone their milieu, in order to be someone’s idea of femininity, but whose? Whitney Houston always looked like a “femme”: coiffed and sleek, a Jersey girl who could be tough, but she had an even butcher personal assistant who could deal, if it came to that. Houston grew up musically and otherwise in a black Baptist church, where sin hangs heavy in the air, and on the heart, and queerness is the last thing an intolerant population cleaving to Jesus and “correctness” wants to deal with. To be queer is to question if not sully black conservatism, with its rather complicated relationship to heterosexuality as the paradigm of “real” love, while homosexuality is viewed as a white-bred or “European” perversion. And black conservatism shuts its eyes to uncategorizable flowers. That Houston was able to walk in that field as long as she did is a testament to her strength in her difference.
But the pop world is just as conventional as the black universe Houston grew up in; in both, appearances are considered deep because the world responds to the shallow. As Houston’s fame increased, and she was sanctified by marriage, she drove a wedge between the world she and Crawford inhabited together, becoming a martyr to heterosexuality. (At one point it was said that Houston would appear in a remake of A Star is Born, co-starring Bobby Brown. How much would the film have meant if it were about a female superstar who came out about her gay past without offing herself?) Still, Crawford, and what she symbolized, would not leave Houston alone. In 2002, Diane Sawyer interviewed the singer and her then husband in their Atlanta home. Sawyer asked about Crawford, and Whitney, looking double-crossed and angry, said to the camera, and presumably Crawford: “And I love ya. Get over it.” It’s interesting that Houston thought of the camera eye—her most consistent companion for decades before her death, and now forever—was Crawford, her no doubt most steadying love, and honest influence.
He was the first living poet I knew of who wove his queerness into the poem instead of making it the subject. The world was larger than whom he loved, and he showed it by writing about a world we could not see. His masterpiece, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” showed me what life was like on the other side of so-called reality. He lived in a sphere I was familiar with—the spirit world—but I had never known it effected others as it effected the obeah woman, dream book writers, and numbers runners, of my youth. And if he could do that, then it was our job—the young writer’s job—to “persevere,” a word he uses in this poem. Also, how could one limit one’s writing to flat facts? The soul was not a fact. It moved, changed shape, became something else. Once, sitting in Indochine with the photographer Darryl Turner many many years ago or just a moment ago, I saw James Merrill, dressed as one would imagine a poet would—in something lavender, or blue. Darryl encouraged me to tell JM how much I loved him, and to get his autograph, you never knew. I didn’t. I was crippled by my humility, and writerly insecurity, too, which can be a kind of arrogance: Why was I not him? How could one achieve that on one’s own? He had done it all. Months later James Merrill died of AIDS, and, with him, the fantasy that I would thank him after I had become more myself. I have since become—I hope—more myself, but I have yet to finish thanking him, and, so, here we are.