My introduction to the powerfully-tender and lovingly-fierce words of Topaz Winters’ poetic oeuvre came about by stumbling upon her self-published chapbook Heaven Or This, which created quite a stir on my Tumblr dashboard. And for very good reason.
To call Heaven Or This merely a book of love poems is to do a great disservice to its sharp, courageous, and unapologetic nature. Winters takes the beauty, the fear, the anxious hopes, and the soft rebellion of girls loving girls to fistful heights, framing love songs within battle cries, and holiness within sacrilege. Such contrasting imagery, between the soft and the sharp, are especially salient in “Cherry Blossoms,” which showcases delicateness as a means of reaffirming the beauty of sapphic love.
“We are holding hands in the barrel of a gun. They pull the trigger, but when she is kissing me / only cherry blossoms come out.” The violent and the harsh against the soft and the soothing marks such tender love as something to be preserved; kept steady and true in the face of those who oppose it. Unfortunately, such opposition and fear of sapphic love runs throughout Heaven Or This, as evidenced in “The Remembering.” “Two girls kissing, but / only if one of them ends shattered in tears” Winters mournfully writes, compelling the reader not only to confront the “bury your gays” trope, but to acknowledge, head on, the cost of such harmful representation. The belief that love can only exists in one, predetermined mould, and that deviations are to be punished, constricts the giving nature of love itself, for how can we control what love is when love begs to be given and taken and shared?
But Winters, though she confronts such societal suppression of sapphic love with the clarity of one who is painfully aware of its existence and lives within it, refuses to submit. Instead, she implores the reader to “picture this: a film where two girls / drown in each other’s eyes, / and drowning is only a metaphor. / Alive and fathomably whole.” She encourages us to understand that the love found between girls is not only worthy of validation, but celebration. That though sapphic love is both defiant and political, it is also soft and beautiful. That the little things, like watching her make pancakes, is also “heaven / or this.” That there should be no need for explanation, no need to answer why they should be “allowed” to kiss on public transportation, or hold hands where others can see them, for why should love be explained anyway? Love, and who one loves, needs no explanation, for rarely can we ever explain why we love another person or why they love us—we just do.
“...we are all just searching for the ones who make us feel like remembering” Winter writes in the last poem of the standard edition, “Aquiver,” and perhaps that’s all the reason we want to give and receive love. The need for human touch is universal, the longing to be held until it feels like the earth has stopped moving transcends all societal constrictions of what love is or is not. Those small moments of clarity, of knowing why you love another person or why it feels so right when you rest your head on their shoulder is a celebration of the human capacity of knowing the incorporeal and the beauty of love.
“I know nothing of love, but I know everything of softness,” Topaz admits, but it is a admittance that holds true. How do you explain love if not by what it does to us? Of how it shows itself to us in how people feel about us and how we feel about them? To be soft is to open yourself up to the possibility of love and knowing love, and maybe that is what we all need right now; to render ourselves sure but soft, unapologetic but open, to happiness, validation, trust, or Heaven on Earth.