‘I pardon all your sins, but two I can’t abide: you read poems in silence and kiss aloud’, wrote Sophia Parnok, the poet known as the Russian Sappho, in 1931. A daring queer writer of her time, she wrote openly about her (female) lovers in a unique style that was both independent of her Romantic predecessors in the ‘Golden Era’ of 19th-century Russia, as well as combining everyday language and playfulness with intense passions.
Although Parnok’s quote may be anaphoristic wink at a bad kisser, within it lies a weightier reflection that might also extend to queer presence in literature: where and how to affirm one’s sensuality through self-expression. It is a question of both a lyrical and political nature. By mischievously comparing poetic and prosaic forms of pleasure, Parnok also raises the issue of blatancy in one’s delight. Whereas the loud kisser is seen as uncultured, or lacking authentic depth in their practice, the silent poetry reader is seen as melodically restrained, lacking the capacity to experience the sublime. There is something quite queer in finding just the right tenor of expression, in part à la Gloria Steinem, where the personal is political (absolutely), but also where the demonstrative is sensitive.
Queer presence in literature has greatly evolved since Parnok’s time, when homosexual sentiment had to be strictly implicit or symbolized, or cloaked with social or artistic affluence, or a bohemian demeanor. However, the structural changes that occurred between the East and the West at the end of the 20th century, including the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, incited significant immigration and cultural fluidity, which helped to cultivate a sense of unity and persistence across the global queer community.
Now, though, the current rise in populism, censorship, nationalistic isolation and disregard for human rights, mean that queer writing across the East and the West has never before needed such acuteness and precision in terms of both form and lyricism.
LGBT+ writers have historically fought to maintain privacy and discretion around their queer identities in their creative work. While their literature has been important and has served us, and they deserve our gratitude, this 21st century of queer writers may have a different eloquence to labour over and legitimize. Perhaps Parnok’s unforgiveable sins are now our points of reference, as we conjure narratives of mouth-watering volume, compassionate confidence and lyrical abandon.
By Yelena Moskovich
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Yelena Moskovich was born in the former USSR and emigrated to Wisconsin with her family as Jewish refugees in 1991. Her plays and performances have been produced in the US, Canada, France, and Sweden. Her first novel The Natashas was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2016. She has also written for the New Statesman, Paris Review and 3:AM Magazine, and in French for Mixt(e) Magazine.
Photo of Yelena Moskovich by Inés Manai