by DEBORAH BACHARACH
Pamela Sneed, Funeral Diva (City Lights Books, 2020), p. 148.
Pamela Sneed is a Black lesbian scholar, activist, poet, historian, and professor, and she brings all this expertise to Funeral Diva, her new cross-genre book. The first two essays offer an overall context for the work that the following poems illustrate, creating a circular structure and, therefore, a reseeing of key moments. Always, Sneed speaks in a clear deliberate voice about stories that still need to be told: stories about grief, Black queer history, and the men lost to AIDS. Sneed’s is a voice demanding to be heard about a time demanding to be reckoned with.
Sneed lived through the AIDS crisis as friend, caregiver, and finally eulogizer for her gay Black brothers. She pairs a wide overview of that devastation with intimate personal details. In the beginning of the twenty-three page poem “Funeral Diva” she writes:
like new homeowners watching a whirlwind tornado
destroy dreams of home, camaraderie, and friendship
Like the recent Black populous of Katrina and Haiti
through hurricanes and earthquakes
saw pillars, foundations, and platforms they’d built washed away
but in our generation it was young Black men who like babies
or children had begun to articulate, voice thoughts, ideas, and desires
that never in the world’s history had been spoken,
dying as soon as, moments of, or seconds after
pressing pen to paper.
By tying the AIDS crisis to Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, she demands the reader pay attention not just to the loss of human life and human potential, but to the racism and political culpability that took natural disasters and violently escalated their devastation. Sneed argues in her essays, and illustrates in her poems, that Black people died in droves in all these interconnected situations because the governments didn’t value Black — and gay — lives.
Sneed was closely allied with a writers’ collective of Black gay men coming out loud about their lives. These were her friends, her fellow poets and artistic leaders, and they were dying. Sneed says of herself:
I became a known and requested presence operating throughout the crisis
as an unofficially titled, “funeral diva,” called for
at memorials, readings, wakes, and funerals to speak
give testimony and credence to men’s lives
She’s clearly proud of her contribution but does not shy away from the times she failed, the days she was not there when a loved one died or the day she was not asked to speak. She claims the importance of the caregivers and their role in the story, the pain as “[t]he Black gay boys in the choir / became our disappeared” (“Twizzlers”).
Reclaiming the disappeared — not just the Black gay boys, but Sneed’s own erased identity — is a key theme in this book. She has a series of poems about the various mothers in her life: her birth mother, the mother that adopted her and then left the family, her step-mother. Their suffering and struggles are tied to her own. As she writes in “There is Me/ There is my Mother”:
There is me/there is my mother
As in a medical drama when you think the patient
has lost too much blood
Suffered too many wounds
there is me/there is my mother
It’s like an action drama
Where the hero fleeing a villain
Clings for life from a rooftop
Awaiting rescue/there is me/there is my mother
But in this poem, the two are actually separating. The speaker is doing what the mother could not do—leave abuse. The speaker is reckoning with this history, rescuing herself and claiming her space.
Yet, as Sneed bluntly states about a white woman friend, “there are repercussions for me as a Black woman making myself / visible that she could never know / that my entire upbringing and society silences me” (“Parable of the Sower 2”). Whether she’s not being respected in the academy or not getting equal treatment in the hospital—“Once when I’d been hospitalized at the same time as a white girl / she had pig-tails / we had the same thing but I saw how tenderly they treated her” (“I Can’t Breathe”)—she insists that readers be aware of how class, race, gender, and sexual orientation impact her space; and how they, themselves, may try to squeeze her out of it.
And that squeezing of her space is not just by one clueless friend or one rude doctor; it’s systemic, tied not just to political moments in the early nineties but political moments right now. She demands the reader pay attention to the present as much as the past. Many of these poems were written in response to the 2016 election and to the more recent COVID-19 pandemic. She makes the connection between political superstructure and the individual life imminently clear as she says in “Rope-A-Dope”:
I was just beginning to forgive deaths of my brothers
there should still be tribunals
for them and every woman abused
by the medical system
I had just begun to turn a corner on Mike Brown, Freddie Gray
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the massacre at AME
not think of it all everyday
Then the police kill this young Black girl in custody in Texas
claim she committed suicide
I remember we’re a war nation
in war times
I imagine how James, Bayard, Nina felt
seeing a nation turn it’s dogs, teeth, gas, hoses, bullets,
on children, adults, humans
I can’t stop thinking about Steve Biko
his battered face
they say he hung himself too
the world’s outrage
who will pray now
The anaphora creates a terrible tension. When she writes “I had just begun to relax” over and over again, it paradoxically ratchets up the tension. The reader knows there is going to be a horrific turn. In a poem that names so many names, grounding the poem in the real, Sneed picks an unnamed moment to make the reader realize we are a nation at war. The “young Black girl” killed by police is anonymous, and could therefore be any young Black girl, any Black person. By bringing in Biko, Sneed links the apartheid and violence in America to that of the notorious apartheid regime in South Africa, bearing witness to injustice and fighting it.
I wish I could have seen Sneed in her role as funeral diva, a woman chosen to speak “[b]ecause of my stature, writing, outlandish outfits, and flair for the dramatic.” But she has brought that intense presence to this book as well. She tells stories that bring back our precious dead, that bring back our crucial history. As Sneed so keenly points out throughout the book, her voice as a queer Black woman is often shunted to the side. Not here.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She has been published in Vallum, Poet Lore, and The Southampton Review among many other journals. She is an editor, teacher, and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.