Marianne Faithfull’s Cigarette

by Gerry Gomez Pearlberg
Cleis Press, 1998

Reviewed by Lesléa Newman

Poetry lovers of the world, rejoice! The gods have bestowed a fantastic gift upon us: the eagerly awaited first collection of poetry by Gerry Gomez Pearlberg, entitled Marianne Faithfull’s Cigarette. Pearlberg, long known as a fine editor for such wonderful poetry anthologies as The Key to Everything: Classic Lesbian Love Poems, The Zenith of Desire, and Queer Dog: Homo/Pup/Poetry can now take her rightful place at the table as one of our premiere lesbian poets.

It is said that when Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio to record his first record, he was asked who he sounded like. He answered, “I don’t sound like nobody.” The same can be true of Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: she don’t sound like nobody, either. I first came upon Pearlberg’s unique voice years ago, in a literary journal whose name I have long forgotten. But I never forgot the poem, “Sailor,” which has become one of her signature pieces. Here is an excerpt:


The girls go by in their sailor suits
They catch my eye in their sailor suits
Big or slight they all grin like brutes
In steam-ironed pants and buffed jet boots
They saunter right up my alley.

I study their easy, confident strides
Crew cuts and white hats capping decadent eyes
They shiver the pearl on night’s oystery prize
They shiver me timbers, unbuckle me thighs
This alley was made for seething
(page 27)

Whew! If that isn’t enough to make you run out and buy a copy of Marianne Faithfull’s Cigarette right now, this reviewer will swim the English Channel.

Pearlberg uses the sharp weapon of language to talk about things not often talked about in the Norton Anthology of Poetry: lesbian sexuality, violence against lesbians, gender-bending outlaws. And all this in one poem, entitled “For Brandon Teena.” As Pearlberg notes in the back of the book, Brandon Teena, who lived in Nebraska, was a biological female who chose to pass as a man. In 1993, at the age of twenty-one, she was brutally raped and murdered. Pearlberg immortalizes Brandon Teena in a stunning poem that addresses her life, and the reader’s life as well.

For Brandon Teena

Were you buried in your favorite slacks,
black cowboy shirt, and cowboy hat?
That’s what the papers said (at first).
Or were you laid to rest in a women’s
flowered print, a “ladies” blouse,
as your relatives insisted that
the Lincoln Journal print
in their “correction” of the “facts”
of how you dressedalive and dead?

Are any of us what our families pretend?
Our sex lives and the nature of our deaths
reclaimed, revisited, unread
unspeakable what we do in bed
and whom we love and how we dress,
encountering eternity in our favorite slacks,
cowboy shirts and vests and hats.
Confronting eternity undisguised.
Dressed to kill. To die for. Unrevised.
(page 45)

Clearly Pearlberg has mastered rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, the stuff of poetry. She makes us swoon, she makes us cry, she can also make us laugh: “The Boxerdyke/walks her boxer dog/wearing polka dotted/boxer shorts./The dog wears a collar/with metal spikes. The same is said/of the Boxerdyke.” (from “The Boxers and the Fisherdyke,” page 31)

Pearlberg’s delight in lesbians and lesbian sexuality combined with her delight in language, results in poetry that is nothing short of revolutionary:

First Date with the D.J.

We were in Brooklyn.
Her hand was on my thigh
when we pulled up to the stop sign.
The boys on the corner shouted,
“Bulldykes!” and in a flash
she pulled a gun
from her glove compartment
and waved it like a hand-puppet
till they were history.
“They need to know we’re armed and dangerous,” she said.
(page 38)

When Pearlberg leaves the realm of lesbian sexuality to write about other matters, her poetry remains just as strong. In fact, Marianne Faithfull’s Cigarette should come with a warning: animal lovers might do well to skip “Breaking the Elephant” and “The Bat Study.” These two poems steadily and quietly detail the way humans interact with animals in such a way, that the reader is left utterly devastated. Even readers who are not particularly fond of animals (I, for one, have never felt much of anything towards bats) will find themselves unspeakably moved at the noble sufferings of these creatures great and small.

From Marlene Dietrich to Superman, from “silver rocket-shaped dildoes” to Eveready flashlights and baseball bats, Gerry Gomez Pearlberg looks at the world slightly askew, inviting the reader to consider familiar people, places, and things in new and exciting ways. Marianne Faithfull’s Cigarette is a marvelous book by a marvelous poet. If we’re very lucky, we won’t have to wait too long for a follow-up collection (which hopefully won’t be called Bill Clinton’s Cigar). Kudos to Gerry Gomez Pearlberg and to Cleis Press for gracing the world with these utterly fabulous poems.

© 1998 Lesléa Newman