When I Was Straight by Julie Marie Wade
A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014; 48 pp
Reviewed by Karissa Morton
It’s best said bluntly: Julie Marie Wade’s When I Was Straight is powerful.
I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning, reading it straight through for a second time. The book—barely larger than an iPhone—is small, but wow, does it pack a punch. What speaks to me most about these 23 poems is their absolute necessity. They’re visceral, they’re hysterical, and they hurt. Via two sections entitled “Before” and “After,” Wade’s “I” reflects on life throughout the coming-out process. For her, though, there’s no clear pre- and post-. The “Before” poems, each titled “When I Was Straight,” are fraught with tension and secrecy. It’s not just her realization that she may be a lesbian that’s held in secret—it’s her feelings about sex itself, about what constitutes gender, desire, home, and more.
The “Before” section closes with the line “No one had been told another story,” already shadowing the reader’s feelings about the plethora of characters she meets in the “After” section. The parents, coworkers, friends, and strangers who react negatively (and sometimes bizarrely) to her coming out aren’t painted as one-dimensional villains or homophobes. Instead, they simply had never been told the story of what it means to be queer. Because of this, the mother who invokes “God’s laws,” the ex-roommate who accuses the speaker of being a liar, and the airplane seatmate who asks “Now whaddya wanna go & do that for” receive the reader’s pity and patience. It speaks to Wade’s skill in crafting these short, minimalistic scenes, that the reader comes out the back end of the book feeling nothing but compassion.
One of the most interesting moments in When I Was Straight is when, in “When The Whole Office Learns I Am a Lesbian,” a shocked co-worked responds, “Really? You don’t look it.” As most of us in the queer community can attest to, you’re never finished coming out—especially if, like Wade’s speaker, your appearance doesn’t make people wonder about your sexual orientation right off the bat. This collection speaks so thoroughly to that fact, with each of the 11 “After” poems being titled “When (X) Learns I Am a Lesbian,” and each presenting a completely different experience. There are the expected tears and religious rhetoric and charming indifference, but there are also hilariously awkward attempts at relation, including “The Indigo Girls are the best group / I ever saw in concert” and “My high school English teacher was gay. She loved / Edna St. Vincent Millay. […] Do you love Edna St. Vincent Millay?”
Rarely does a collection full of the first-person “I” speak this fully to such a wide swath of experience, but Wade does it masterfully. These are poems not only for one person or one “kind” of people. They’re poems for anyone who’s ever felt need—whether for person, place, or emotion. These are poems full of desire, both understated and exclaimed, and in spite of—or perhaps because of—the intensity of the subject matter, any reader will close the cover of this book feeling as though he or she has really learned something important about her own world.