This year has tested our energy, tested our strength. So many of us are feeling burned out, wrapping up semesters and holidays and other end-of-the-year tasks. We’ve faced a pandemic, hurricanes, and even an incredibly stressful election cycle. I’m beat. I’ve been in search of power, resistance, and love, and thankfully found all of it in Sharon Bridgforth’s Lambda-award winning collection The Bull-Jean Stories. Back in October, as the end of the year came slowly into sight and Hurricane Zeta blew through, I hunkered down with bull-jean, hoping some of her strength would rub off on me.
When I first encountered this book of poetry this summer, I was struck by the happy accident of my particular paperback copy. Purchased used online, a two-part receipt fell out when I first opened up the book. The first was an itemized receipt from Charis Books in Georgia, indicating that my copy of The Bull Jean-Stories was purchased along with The Vagina Monologues on Dec 12, 1998; the second half was an old credit card receipt slip charged to a Stacey with an “e”! This coincidence allowed me to feel strangely connected to a queer history of Southern writers, at least once I looked up the bookstore and learned that Charis holds court as the oldest independent feminist bookstore in the South.
I love that my copy of this book has such a history! I also adore this volume in its own right. Bridgforth has such a unique, independent voice, and it’s so easy to just breeze through these poems, loving the characters and narratives as they both grow.
As a reader, I appreciated how Bridgforth begins with a preface describing her work in her own words. Often, in the creative writing world, we adopt this policy of “the work should speak for itself,” which, though isn’t not true, neglects to recognize the potential of a preface as a useful tool for framing a work. I found it so helpful to imagine these poems as performance, as “a blues quilt,” a dance, and a “taste of creating-remembering.” I love how Bridgforth names the act of “creating-remembering”: this term may seem duplicitous and yet it is incredibly accurate. These poems create a voice and a story, but they don’t actually make anything—they’re memory; or spirits speaking. they’re lived moments, remembered and sutured into a performance of strength.
The Bull-Jean Stories are poems of love, resistance, and growth. I love watching bull-jean through our speaker’s eyes, and I love even more when her own voice takes over. Chapter 1 ends with the poem “bull -jean & the power of no mo,” which is equally heart-breaking and sassy. The poem resonates with loss—“silence holds me na/ and keeps me / restless / in the absence / of you” yet it resists the traditional road a heart-aching speaker would walk down. Instead of having nothing left, our speaker says she “put sweet out / myself / sweet / ain’t got me / nuthn / but left.” Here, she twists the language: it’s not that she has nothing left; she is nothing but left. I can just imagine this line being performed; the audience must go crazy for such a play on words when enacted out in performance, especially as the poem gathers its power, ending finally on “it’s time / i / settle down / wid me!”
This poem really resonated with me personally, as this year has brought such trials (to us all). I find “bull-jean & the power of no mo” (and Bridgforth’s whole collection) so refreshing and energizing. Shay Youngblood’s praise on the back cover calls this volume a “passionate tribute to a fierce woman-loving woman” and there’s truly no better description. Bridgeforth’s Bull-Jean burns and stomps with the resilience and strength we all need right now.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/