“Crime Against Nature”: A Lesbian Mother’s Poetic Manifesto

Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Crime Against Nature is everything a poetry collection should be. Politically urgent but never one-dimensional, in language that’s always clear but never pedestrian, this groundbreaking book recounts how the author lost custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian, then forged a beautifully honest relationship with them later in life.

The speaker grieves, rages, yet bravely refuses to take the blame for the impossible choice forced upon her. “This is not the voice of the guilty mother,” she writes. Connecting her loss to other forms of oppression and violence against women, she dares to dream of a world that “will not divide self from self, self from life.”

Crime Against Nature was originally published in 1989 by Firebrand Press and won the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize, a second-book award from the Academy of American Poets. A Midsummer Night’s Press, in conjunction with the lesbian literary journal Sinister Wisdom, reissued it this year in an expanded edition with historical notes and an author essay. It is the first book in their “Sapphic Classics” series reprinting iconic lesbian poetry that is now out of print. Subscribers to this excellent journal will receive future Sapphic Classics (one a year) as the equivalent of one magazine issue. Crime Against Nature does double duty as Issue #88.

Sinister Wisdom editor Julie R. Enszer has kindly given me permission to reprint a sample poem below. I chose this one because I could relate to the speaker’s dilemma between speaking and not speaking about trauma. In the end it is better to speak, even when it hurts. It sets free others’ “tongues of ice”, as well as your own. Thank you, Minnie Bruce Pratt.

Justice, Come Down

A huge sound waits, bound in the ice,
in the icicle roots, in the buds of snow
on fir branches, in the falling silence
of snow, glittering in the sun, brilliant
as a swarm of gnats, nothing but hovering
wings at midday. With the sun comes noise.
Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter,
splinter, speak. If I could write the words.

Simple, like turning a page, to say Write
what happened,
but this means a return
to the cold place where I am being punished.
Alone to the stony circle where I am frozen,
the empty space, children, mother, father gone,
lover gone away. There grief still sits
and waits, grim, numb, keeping company with
anger. I can smell my anger like sulfur-
struck matches. I wanted what had happened
to be a wall to burn, a window to smash.
At my fist the pieces would sparkle and fall.
All would be changed. I would not be alone.

Instead I have told my story over and over
at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life
clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass.

Ashamed, people turned their faces away
from the woman ranting, asking: Justice,
stretch out your hand. Come down, glittering,
from where you have hidden yourself away.

 

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