Poet Minnie Bruce Pratt was born and raised in the South, and as a young woman, she put aside her own writing to raise two sons before coming out as a lesbian. The ensuing loss of her parental rights after coming out and divorcing her husband is the central narrative to her Lamont award-winning collection Crime Against Nature, making Pratt the first lesbian feminist poet to receive such mainstream recognition for her work and indicating a larger cultural shift regarding queerness. The poems collected here question the binary between “natural” and “unnatural”; the speaker is in constant dialogue with the very idea of “nature”: not only contesting the boundary between “lesbian” and “mother” but also between water and land, human and more-than-human. Several of the poems in Crime Against Nature are set at rivers—highlighting liminality of ecology, place, and sexuality—including “No Place,” which you can watch Pratt read at the Little Cahaba river here.
Though we often consider natural landscapes such to be stable, ecology, geology, and climate are always in flux. Rivers indeed are unstable, constantly fluctuating water levels, flooding seasonally, and changing their routes over time. A river is a body of water with the power to alter a landscape as both nurturer and destroyer. It is ever moving, connecting its origins to its eventual end, and yet it is a permanent part of the here of its banks.
A river ecology is a disorderly ecology: here, all of the elements meet, exerting their power while resisting the others. At any time, due to circumstances beyond its locale, a river may dry up or flood. A new channel may cut across the surrounding land, creating an oxbow lake. From the surface, there is so much hidden, a fluidity of identity reflected in the human as well: a person may be hiding a multiplicity of identities below their skin, and a family may be comprised of a seemingly odd collection of people.
To fully consider a river is to embrace such surprise, to be adaptable, and to be willing to concede control. Humans have tried desperately to tame rivers—building dams, locks, spillways, and shipping channels, to name a few methods of control—and yet the water will always resist.
Pratt’s poem “No Place” calls upon river ecology as a metaphor for her queer position as “boundary-creature.” The title immediately conjures a sense of liminality and displacement, and the poem begins with a speaker straddling a border: “One night before I left I say halfway down, / halfway up the stairs” and her husband screams for her to make a decision. This image reflects the speaker’s feeling of displacement within her own home and family, and therefore within society at large. “Choose, choose,” he yells, forcing her to decide between “man or woman, her or him, / me or the children.” Within the rigid expectations of society, only these binaries exist: she cannot be both mother and lesbian.
Pratt writes, “There was no place to be / simultaneous, or between,” the line break here indicating that the narrow confines of the binary do not allow her to “be”—exist—at all. The second stanza turns to a dream of a creek, as a way of bridging the binary between human and nature. This bridge allows for a moment of possibility, and the river becomes a space that Pratt can occupy with her sons, as mother and as queer woman.
However, hope and possibility are not idyllic: though there is beauty in the “milkweed, purple-bronze / wild hydrangea, and an unfamiliar huge openness,” there is also danger in this scene. Pratt must “warn the boys of danger, sharp drop-offs, currents, / ledges like knives” as they “search the water” with their feet. Literally, they’re trying to find their footing in an environment that is potentially harmful. Here, where danger and beauty cohabitate in river ecology, Pratt and her sons can find safety. She writes that this dream-creek is “the place, promised, that has not yet been, / the place where everything is changed, the place / after the revolution, the revelation, the judgement.” This is a queer place, liminal and open to new sets of relations between humans and nature as well as new queer family dynamics.
Though they have “come across” the great binary, the queer creek is actually a dreamed place and if the mother and her sons want to stay together, they now “have no place to go.” The fourth stanza brings us to another memory, in which Pratt and her family also “had no place to go.” In this memory, they are “crammed” in her vehicle with “no more room than a closet,” not only suggestive of the queer “closet” but also indicating that this is not a sustainable place in which her and her family can function.
This space, unlike the openness of the dream-creek, is full of objects: “suitcases, model airplanes, an ice chest with food, / my typewriter, books, a bushy fern in a pot.” This fern directly reflects the river ecology of the dream; however, the line ends with “in a pot,” emphasizing how it is contained. There is no way for this fern—not only potted but also trapped within a vehicle—can thrive because this closet-like environment does not allow for it. This scene is “no place” for flourishing, and yet once the speaker is displaced from her heteronormative family, it’s all she has.
Even though it is dark and she is confined to the closet-like Volkswagen, she can still name each river she crosses. This knowledge demonstrates a kinship with the ecology of these rivers as well as a yearning: water is always moving, unharnessed. A river’s current is also place-less in its inability to stay put: a river is always there and yet not there—it embodies queer ecology.
Indeed, the poem’s title “No Place” seems to indicate how Pratt’s work itself exists in a liminal space in the way it blends confessionalism and dream-like qualities with a distinct sense of ecology. Like a river itself, Pratt’s poetry is not a single place—it resists, subverts, and rushes ever forward. Like a current, Pratt’s work insists on uncertainty, refusing distinction and definition, while yet offering nourishment and the power to change an accepted landscape.
Removing the binaries means resisting control. Just as humans have desperately tried to tame rivers—building dams, locks, spillways, and shipping channels, to name a few methods of control—, society has attempted to control the queer body by upholding strict societal norms, especially regarding the family. People who attempt to resists, subvert, or even queer the expected nuclear family model are punished, as has happened to Pratt, indicted for “crimes against nature,” putting nature and the family on the same side of the anti-queer binary. However, like the water, humans will always resist. Pratt’s telling of her story is an act of resistance.
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/