Featured photo credit: Libbie Early.
There’s a particular invisibility to queerness between women, due not only to a lack of cultural representation, but also to the underlying conviction that anything women do without men is inherently dumb, pointless, and boring. Those of us who orient ourselves toward women know otherwise, of course, but we’re so accustomed to this lack that when something actually speaks to our experience, it takes on outsized significance, like a gold coin glinting in a handful of dirt. High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press, 2018) is one of these texts, a work that delights in the rich, nuanced connections between queer women while illuminating how we negotiate society’s derision and diminishment.
This collection speaks to “a vestigial light in the hiding places” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), the beautiful, bright worlds queer women build amidst society’s homophobic, heteropatriarchal darkness. Alicia Mountain beautifully illustrates the tension between wanting to be seen and needing to be hidden; her speaker will “steal a red Sharpie from Rite Aid / and write fagz run this town on walls / in plain view” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), but also “never told / until someone / in the crepe paper dark / of a dorm room / sighed and said, / all your desires are sacred” (“Drive Thru”).
One way that Mountain personifies this specific queerness is through doppelgangers or twins. Of course, all marginalized people code-switch to a certain degree, especially in the rural communities where this collection takes place, but I’ve never before seen a collection so deeply engage with this doubling and how it ruptures the self, even while keeping it safe. Mountain’s poems are full of twins, who will “press me against the kitchen counter, / borrow my shirt for an interview, / betray very little to the houseguests” (“Solitary Tasting”). These shadows are simultaneously self and other, as in “On Being Told to Do Whatever I Want,” where “the twins of us are in love / but won’t say it / and the sound of their sleeping is ice melting in a jar.”
Desire also pulses through this collection like a heartbeat. Queer folks, especially when they’re women (whose sexuality is imagined as passive, an afterthought or myth), are forced to thoroughly investigate their desire, and ultimately, come to a deeper understanding of it, given that they must weave it from whole cloth. As Mountain says in “The Book Is a Hungry Darkness,” “My desires are berries because they are small and many.” Mountain draws attention to “the growing mole on my left breast, in the way a woman / puts her hot tongue to it long enough that I forget / my grandfather’s melanoma, my Aunt Barb’s mastectomy” (“Number Love, My Taxes”). There’s an intimacy that feels exclusive to those moving through the world as women in poems like “Orange Grove and a View of the Pacific,” with “Lily in a belly shirt before / one of us took it off. / This used to be a dress, / she said, I made it.” In some ways, desire is the animating force of queerness, what first tugs us toward a different life, a new community. And there’s a language of desire spoken in our communities, alongside a language of mourning, as in “Deadbolt Door Syndrome,” wherein the speaker asks, “Who am I / to carry loss like a back pocket flag?”
One of the collection’s most affirming threads is the assertion that tenderness is an action—something we give and do—not just something we feel. As Mountain’s speaker says in “Almanac Traction,” “I am trying to show you there is nothing outcast about you.” Even lust expresses itself as tenderness in poems like “Remember Driving to Salt Lake City,” “you remember waking up in Salt Lake City / you remember me undoing your seatbelt in the driveway / how there was no undoing then.”
Ultimately, High Ground Coward reads like a survival manual, a bulwark against a society that would flatten and silence queer women and deny the connections we forge. Mountain rejoices in those connections, showing both how strong and gentle they can be, as in “Upland Honest,” where “My belly hunger-moans when / you lean your head against it— / ferocious, even the softest part of me.”