An Analysis of “Crooning,” a Poem by Indigenous American Poet, Chrystos

Depicted below is Chrystos's poem, "Crooning." All rights to the poem belong to Chrystos. 

Crooning                                                                                                          1
A soft old song for every lesbian who wants                                    
to go home
again & can't,
with her woman lover in her arms                                                                    5
holding hands in the street simple in our love
that they twist so.
No lies--
not cousins, not best friends, not roommates;
no second bedrooms for show                                                                        10
no pretend boyfriends
no custody cases
no hidden mouths, no grim smiles
at queer jokes on the job you'd lose if they knew
go home with joy and strength
go home                                                                                                           15
be received instead of tolerated
no anguished mothers afraid of father's response, or neighbors'
gossip,
or grandma's heart condition
go home to                                                                                                       20
a clean welcome mat
a double bed
no questions, accusations, or expectations
I croon an old soft song for us,
wrapping down to a kind place                                                                          25
we won't see in our lives
waiting for it, even when we're drunk in bars
because we can't go home
Crooning for us, my heart split.                                                                         29

--Chrystos

This poem is filled with depth and emotion, and it reads as a reflection of the experience of gay women in the United States during the middle of the 20th century, or perhaps more specifically, the 1960s. The first few lines of the poem introduce an almost smothering sensation of melancholy and regret with the reference to “a soft old song” and the detailing of a lesbian woman wanting “to go home / again & can’t.” I believe the setting of this poem is mid-20th century America, as the suffocating feeling, combined with the allusion in line 27 to gay bars as the prescribed location to “wait” for a “kind place,” lead me to connect the tone of this poem to that historically oppressive context. Chrystos is a Native American Two-Spirit activist who was born in the 1940s, meaning that they would have been in their teens and twenties during the 1960s.This was a time when the very idea of gay rights still remained a dream, when gay bars continued to be raided by police, when queer people of all backgrounds were regularly arrested and tortured at “psych wards” to cure them of their sexuality via electroshock therapy, lobotomy, and emotional torment, to say nothing of how much other forms of discrimination queer people faced. Chrystos came of age amidst all of this.

In the mid-20th century, gay bars were the hubs of everything to do with LGBTQIA+ culture in America. Queer persons sought out these places because here, they could meet and be around people living their same experience, all the while the rest of the country treated them like outcasts or worse. This leads in to the second major section of “Crooning:” the exposition of living a lie in order to remain safe within a heterosexist society’s constraints. Lines 7 to 23 illustrate the tugs and pulls of such a forced and restrictive existence. “Not cousins, not best friends, not roommates” is a reference to being forced to label a gay lover as some other excusable person to be around. “No second bedrooms for show” and “no pretend boyfriends” poignantly accentuate other aspects of a hidden life that aren’t necessarily labels per se, but are still lies created by the need for a gay woman to conceal her identity in order to preserve her place in her society, her workplace, and her family. The “hidden mouths” and the “grim smiles” and the “queer jokes” all further solidify the tone and the setting of this poem. However, and perhaps most importantly, the usage of the phrase “queer jokes” implies this particular setting of the poem more than anything else. Today, the word queer has largely been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community, but in the 20th century, queer carried much the same weight as f*g does today.

The three lines in the middle—lines 14, 15, and 16—mention a world where queer people don’t have to be afraid of going home. This section caps off the fundamentally sad but idealistic feeling Chrystos is evoking. The desire to be free and open with a same-sex romantic partner is the desire to have the same experience that straight people have. Straight love has always been accepted as the norm, and just like gay love, it too can certainly be beautiful, freeing, and emotional. In writing the phrases “go home with joy and strength,” “go home,” and “be received instead of tolerated,” Chrystos is drawing the reader into a hopeful viewpoint that imagines a future where a lesbian woman could be with her lover without fear of judgment from those they love, but also from a place of terrible pain—pain that comes from both how dim that hope was back then, and from how hard it was to be gay in America before queer liberation; even today, acceptance is not always guaranteed.

The last few lines of “Crooning” are the most heartbreaking of them all, because they represent Chrystos’s grief at how utterly inescapable the pain that comes with being a gay person in the 1960s was. As a reader today, I know that there is hope, but to Chrystos and the women they are writing of in “Crooning,” hope would have seemed like a distant glimmer. Like a dream of something they could only imagine. I am glad that Chrystos is alive today and can see all the progress we have made by fighting for our freedom over and over again. And while we still have so much more work to do, those who came before us have given us a fighting chance to finally bring to life the dream of a world without that same fear that grips at the soul of Chrystos’s poem.