980: Villanelle

20231019 SD

980: Villanelle

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Shira Erlichman.


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

At 16, I came out to the girl I had a crush on. Well, I told the girl I had a crush on, “I like girls.” But I didn’t say “you.”

When I came out to my parents a year later, I said “bisexual.” I didn’t know how to say what I really felt I was, which was “gay.” So I planted a foot in the territory of heterosexuality––a way of keeping the hope alive for everyone that it was “just a phase.” It was a combination of more-than-a-dash of internalized homophobia and my people-pleasing streak.

Half-way through college I began to say “gay,” which felt more like a matter of accounting: look, I’ve dated only women, I’m gay. But as I claimed one word, I hedged away from another brimming in my throat. “Queer” –– a word which felt too outsider, too much of a vintage slur. Yet, full of possibility, “Queer” would wink at me, but I’d look away.

A decade later, living in New York City and steeped in my independent, adult life, “gay” started to feel like it really belonged to men, so I tried on “lesbian.” Cute; except, sometimes it rang alien, or clinical. Its clunkiness made me shy. On bold days I tried “dyke” –– and what was that new feeling that arose with it? Pride. Dyke sounded like worn leather, or a star-drenched night, or a car pulling screechy figure-eights in a parking lot as heavy bass rolls out of the windows. Dyke is guts and heat; but I am not always the sound of bravery.

The more “Queer” left my mouth, the more it brought all of the other terms along with it. It was no longer a historical bruise. “Queer” collected all of me into its open arms––dyke, lesbian, gay, tomboy, wholesome, freak, femme, possible, & evolving.

Through the journey of these words I’ve come to see that expressing who we are becoming rightfully obsesses us. What we can’t say takes up as much space in our mouths as what we can. We fold and unfold language so much that we think we may have ruined the paper. But the task is learning to love the creasings.

Today’s poem centers around the defining relationship of a mother and child. To bring obsession into language, Lin masterfully uses the repetitive poetic form of the villanelle. They fling open doors only to quickly shut them. I know this dance well. The dance of longing and revelation.

by Michelle Lin

Because it is what mothers do,
you unlocked doors for me to follow, though
I wish I never had. You

took baths only after dinner was through,
all plates and forks cleaned and stowed,
because it is what mothers do.

And in that tub of water you drew—
I was only four when you let me know
I wish I never had you.

Because you took that ticket and flew
to America, full-bellied, when told
because it is what mothers do,

I hid sharp things when it was time to,
brushed your hair with such control
I wish I never had. You,

your love of windows, skies, and bruise,
Mother, I am letting go
because it is what mothers do—
I wish. I never had you.

"Villanelle" by Michelle Lin. Used by permission of the poet.