“Who will care for our caretakers?”
At the height of the AIDS crisis, the poet Craig Harris spoke at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, not to mourn the men who were dying but to eulogize a woman: Pat Parker, a writer and a Black lesbian activist who had worked alongside them.
The poet Pamela Sneed was in the audience that day. Her new book, “Funeral Diva,” a blend of poetry and memoir, arrives as a bleak and blunt response to Harris’s question, some 30 years later.
Who will care for our caretakers? No one will care for the caretakers. Few, in fact, will remember them. Like Parker, many died “silent invisible deaths,” Sneed writes, their work expunged from the official narrative of AIDS history, which features “white men constantly at the helm.”
Sneed was vigorously involved in AIDS activism and performed a particular service, from which her book gets its title. “Because of my stature,” — Sneed is about 6-foot-2 — “writing, outlandish outfits, and flair for the dramatic / I became a known and requested presence operating throughout the crisis / as an unofficially titled, ‘funeral diva.’”
How obscured are the contributions and leadership of lesbians in AIDS activism. In “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers,” a history of 20th-century lesbian life, the historian Lillian Faderman describes how the community “undertook the battle against AIDS as though they were fighting for members of their very own family.” Lesbian medical professionals would “run interference” for men. (Two recent documentaries — “We Were Here” and “Quiet Heroes” — document the role of lesbian doctors and nurses.) Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s ACT UP Oral History Project features over 100 testimonies — half of which are from women. This is the world that “Funeral Diva” recalls, where Sneed and her friends, “oblivious and unprepared” when AIDS hit, organized themselves frantically into ad hoc committees, with lesbians serving as “teachers, nurses, soldiers, working long hours / mostly without vacation or pension plans, retirement or a leave of absence.”
It’s not just that the labor of these women has gone largely unacknowledged, it’s that their grief has counted for so little. All those beloveds Sneed names who withered, went blind or “disappeared like thousands of bits of paper,” friends who were her family as well as her education.
I learned more about being an artist in the early ’90s than any
ever taught me
It was from little boys with baby faces and death sentences who spoke
and forced themselves into the world at all odds I learned
On every page she resurrects them. Craig Harris, smoking his long Virginia Slims. Donald Woods, who regarded Sneed as a little sister, who would wrap her up in his arms and say, “God bless this woman, / bless her.” They goad her across the finish lines of poems in this book, poems she has struggled to complete for 15 years. They appear to her as sudden visitations, reminders of all she once possessed. Out dancing, she hears:
an updated disco remixed version of Patti Labelle’s “You are My Friend,”
and me getting the holy ghost
feeling as if it was early 1991 all over again
all my brothers were still alive
they really all didn’t just die on me
I really did belong once to somewhere, something
I’ve heard sniffy criticism of Sneed’s poetry — that it is powerful but not “well crafted,” which strikes me as strange, as if its jagged, rough-hewn, collage effect weren’t very much the point, a deliberate style, an approximation of memory. I’m inclined to invoke Rita Mae Brown: “If Michelangelo were straight, the Sistine Chapel would have been painted basic white with a roller.”
Sneed is an acclaimed reader of her own poetry, and the book has the feeling of live performance, never mind a wrong note or two (the dull poems on Donald Trump, for example). Its strength is in its abundance, its desire for language to stir body as well as mind. As the chapters wind back into Sneed’s early years, we realize how hard-won is such rawness on the page. All her earnestness, wonder, rage — the plain innocence of feeling — was denied to her in childhood.
“Size color class I was never allowed to be little,” she writes in the poem “Twizzlers.” “By little I mean innocent / by little I mean allowed to play / make mistakes.”
Sneed grew up in the suburbs of Boston. She was adopted as a young child and brought into a loveless, violent home. Her new mother left shortly after, leaving Sneed irreparably traumatized, she says. For 18 years Sneed would find herself peering out the window, waiting for her mother to return. In the meantime, Sneed’s father had married again. He would wantonly abuse his new wife in front of his daughter, and when Sneed fell in love with a woman, he attacked her too. She fled for good.
In her first poetry collection, “Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery,” Sneed writes that from childhood she was “trained for docility, factory work.” Instead, she became a downtown darling, modeling for magazine covers, turning up in the occasional independent film and on the public access television show “Dyke TV,” a crowd-sourced effort to boost queer visibility — and the apotheosis of a very ’90s D.I.Y. lesbian aesthetic. That’s where I first encountered Sneed, with her shaved head and boxy suit, looking gallant, shy, flirtatious — already a star.
Sneed has lived countless lives within this one. The book swoops through them all: the young poet in New York; the pilgrim traveling the world, hunting for a home; the lover made miserable by her attraction to deeply chaotic women; the years of work and joyful collaboration; the years lost to trauma. She writes to the very edge of the present day, the present pandemic, marveling at the naïveté of the headlines: “A Tale of Two Pandemics: Shocking Inequities in the Healthcare System” — “shocking” to whom? She writes of heroic Black and lesbian history and activism but also of shame, of the ignobility of the years when her friends were dying, when she felt incapable, when she would run away. Always, this writer, so haunted by her unknown origins, diligently fills in the silences she can. I recall an early poem of hers, “Sweet Dreams.”
I was working on a play once with a dancer
and she looked at my long arms outstretched and she
said, “My God, Pamela, your wingspan.”