Commentary, Other Rooms

From the Edge of the Inside: the Drama of Paul Killebrew’s “The Bisexual Purge”

by Jay Aquinas Thompson | Associate Editor

Welcome to the first installment of Other Rooms. In this series, Poetry Northwest will examine noteworthy work being published in contemporary poetry journals.

Paul Killebrew’s “The Bisexual Purge” is a unique and wonderful poem: a documentary work that keeps twisting back on itself, a poem of identity that admits the puniness and fragility of the author’s own political individuality, an Ashberyish linguistic haze that clears itself to examine honestly the “promiscuity” of language in the service of power.

“Purge” is long—at 80 pages plus a closing note (not counting additional online notes and citations), it’s more than a third of the hefty new fifth issue of Oversound. Its documentary aim is simple and ambitious: a month-by-month encapsulation, as Killebrew writes in his notes, of “the situation of LGBTQ+ rights during the year 2017, a time when those rights were expanding, and yet the LGBTQ+ community was under siege from the federal government.” Killebrew writes from the inside: he was and remains a lawyer at the US Department of Justice.

Killebrew is bisexual—“A few months ago I add a sentence to my resume: / I identify as bisexual”—in an institution that, in 2017, was pivoting to the service of a president whose agenda targets LGBTQ+ people. He acknowledges that he has no clear legal protection from discrimination based on his sexuality: “I think about sending an email to my boss that says, / Well?” Though “Purge” doesn’t spell out Killebrew’s position at the DOJ, his LinkedIn page identifies him as a Special Litigation Counsel working in the enforcement of consent decrees: agreements governing the federally-mandated reform of local law enforcement agencies found responsible for systemic abuse. Such work is being now being actively undermined, inside and outside the DOJ. The poem notes President Trump’s pardon of racist abusive bullying Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and then-Attorney General Sessions’ mandated re-examination of all federal consent decrees governing law enforcement. “Purge” also documents transgender students Ash Whitaker and Gavin Grimm’s pursuit of dignity against their schoolboards’ trans-exclusionary bathroom policies; the sentencing of the murderer of transwoman Mercedes Williamson; and the infelicities and contortions of linguistic logic needed to justify the “license to discriminate” sought by homophobes, transphobes, and business-as-usual bigots. The poem examines immutability as a basis for protection from discrimination—“it is abhorrent,” Killebrew quotes one legal scholar as saying, “to penalize individuals / for matters beyond their control”—and then looks past it. “What about things you can change but shouldn’t be forced to?” Killebrew asks in response. “What about changes that occur over the course of a life?” He reflects on his own experience of bisexuality (an identity that “is, practically by definition, mutability”): “I’m not halfway this and halfway that. / I’m all-the-way this…. I love my effemanance, my a little bit that way.” He positions his own weary small subjecthood in a history that feels sometimes like “actual events” and other times like “the blasted off echo of violence.”

Equal in importance to the poem’s material is how Killebrew treats that material. “The Bisexual Purge” recounts facts—the online endnotes cite more than a hundred briefs, rulings, public records and newspaper articles—in a “neutral” tone whose trustworthiness is itself part of the poem’s scrutiny. Halfway through, Killebrew writes:

The culture of lawyers is prone to many abuses
of language, among white-shoe types
you find a bizarrely mannered
plainspokenness woven into
archaic diction and construction,
an overall incoherence of tonal register,
or a register made coherent
only by the writer’s objective to appear
as one who draws in equal measure from
grand traditions and common sense
to arrive at the heart of the matter.

Killebrew is suspicious of these shifts of register but is also, unavoidably, curious about them. His own poems, “Purge” included, play in the shift between evidently transparent and opaque language, between factual recounting and a bewitching, intangible, magnetic glamour where referents float away into a glowing haze and one phrase’s metaphor becomes the next phrase’s felt reality. In “Purge,” Killebrew mentions having memorized John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended,” and the poem’s “high” register is unmistakably indebted to Ashbery, as in this reverie of an impersonal dread at our country’s equivocal commitment to “the enlightenment project”:

. . . [you’re] going back through the window
so far you’re going forward again
on a trapeze you make by thinking
into movements that emerge from you
like a gray sky in DC
manifesting monuments in textured monochrome,
a modest revision to pure invisibility
in service of threadbare epics
not old enough to be strictly historical,
almost too new, in fact, too soon
for the ambitious of which
they are both testament and prediction,
as reductive and inescapable as a destiny
that is a digest of flaws
held close to each individual heart
as it opens and closes to careless looking
at the garrulous summer trees.

Plenty of poets, possessed of a gift for linguistic enchantment like this, content themselves with it: they succumb sleepily to their own magic; the poet’s critical consciousness is left out, lest it wake the reasoning mind and break the spell. But in “The Bisexual Purge,” this gray semantic haze coexists with probing, plain lines such as these, quoting the then-Attorney General:

In his confirmation hearing back in January,
Jeff Sessions says, I understand the demands for justice and fairness
made by the LGBT community.
A lawyer’s wording.
I understand, not I agree.
Justice and fairness, not equality.
And the way he says L—G—B—T—
each letter on its own phonetic island
as he glances down at his prepared remarks
to make sure he doesn’t jumble the order,
slip an errant K in there.

Killebrew distrusts the apparent soundness and trustworthiness of Sessions’ evasion here. But he similarly makes no claims for the liberatory possibilities of language reverie—there’s no sliding-free-of-received-meanings-into-transcendence here. 

“The Bisexual Purge” achieves a similar neither-nor balance in its examination of Killebrew’s own position as a middle-class white state-employed professional. He writes at the edge of the inside of a massive institution; he’s working for justice from within a state apparatus actively fighting LGBTQIA+ rights, without making his fraught complicity a central drama of the poem. Inasmuch as the poem imagines an ideal, it’s not a revolution: for how could the poet imagine a thing so far beyond the “warrant” of his understanding, beyond the “limits on my imagination” constituting his privilege? (“I’m not representative,” he says plainly.) Instead, the poem gives brief yearning glimpses to an imagined polity without “domination or hegemony,” the true “cultural pluralism” June Jordan describes: one that honors, as one passage quoted by Killebrew has it, “the equal validity / of all of the components of social/sexual complexity,” or, as he quotes her elsewhere, “[a] society in which numerous distinct / ethnic and racial and religious groups / rightfully and equally CO-exist within one nation.” If this “rightful and equal coexistence” sounds modest, it’s as far as Killebrew’s imagination is willing to extend. In the poem’s account of a year, we live in its victories, fears, discoveries, and defeats; in its account of a sensibility, we follow it, skeptical, challenged, and dazzled.

Jay Aquinas Thompson is an Associate Editor at Poetry Northwest.