Poem: Ladies of the Sarasota Sewer

Jackie Wang’s poem draws its title, in part, from Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel of queer love, “Nightwood”: “ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row.” The poem’s rhythm echoes the rhythm of the life the poem describes. Some readers will already know this life. For them — for us — the poem is a recognition, one I don’t often see in contemporary poetry. Poets, however, were once experts on the ecstasy of the gutter. As Francois Villon or Charles Baudelaire did before her, Wang writes poetry that reminds us that life is more than the grim fatalism of to-do lists and bank accounts. The poem rushes forward, headed toward the edge. Then the lover-thieves get caught. The bill comes due. The poem slows. The heart breaks. This was, after all, an elegy. Despite the living thrill of its cadence, “those days,” those lovers, are gone now. What’s left is poetry.

Ladies of the Sarasota Sewer

By Jackie Wang

in those days
we ate garbage for every meal
i dove in the dumpsters with
the atlanta boys
got chubby on a bucket
of expired breakfast bars

fine dining was stealing
continental breakfast
at all the nearby hotels
filching lukewarm dannon
yogurts and bananas
from the mediocre spread

only once we were caught
they gave us a bill
we had no money
i said i would go home
to try to get some money
and when i left
they let you go without paying
thinking i had left you in the lurch

all the love i see is gone

we lived on fumes
the adrenalin of our
breaking bones

Anne Boyer is a poet and an essayist. Her memoir about cancer and care, “The Undying,” won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Jackie Wang is a poet, a scholar, a multimedia artist and an assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where she researches race, surveillance technology and the political economy of prisons and police. She is the author of “Carceral Capitalism” (Semiotext(e), 2018), the poetry collection “The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void” (Nightboat Books, 2021), which was a National Book Award finalist, and the forthcoming experimental essay collection “Alien Daughters Walk Into the Sun” (Semiotext(e), 2023).

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