David Emerson Smith (editor), I Promise You This

David Emerson Smith (editor), I Promise You This

25.00

A Collection of Poems for Harvey Milk

San Francisco: David Emerson Smith, 1979.

First & only edition. [iii] 29 pp. Staplebound pamphlet in blue wraps, title and illustration of a sunrise printed in a gradient of colours moving from orange to yellow to green, in very good condition.

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ABOUT THIS PAMPHLET

When Harvey Milk (1930-1978) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on 8 January 1978, he made national headlines as the first openly gay candidate in California’s history to have won a seat in office. It was dangerous work, being out and in turn advocating for LGBT rights from such a high-profile platform. Milk had received death threats since his run for the California State Assembly in 1976, and even made a tape in which he dictated the names of possible successors in the event of his death. That tape would come to be seen as prophetic, when eleven months after his election, on 27 November 1978, Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow city supervisor Dan White. White—a former police officer and firefighter—was only found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, rather than given a first degree murder charge. Such a verdict placed Milk’s death in league with the deeply entrenched homophobia of the time—the kind encouraged by the likes of Anita Bryant and John Briggs—and prompted angry protests to “Avenge Harvey Milk,” culminating in the White Night riots. This chapbook of poetry survives as both an expression of that anger, remembrance, and an attempt at self healing.

I Promise You This is powerful collection of poems by nineteen authors, including Smith, “in part a response to the homophobic murder of Marvey Milk and George Moscone (a passionate homophile.)” Various poems are illustrated with line drawings, and there are two collages made from a mix of newspaper accounts of Milk’s death and other media. The book opens with an image from a candlelit vigil held for Milk and poem that revives unleashes the full anger of the earliest days of the gay liberation movement after the Stonewall Riots:

I CAN BE KILLED WITH EASE

I CAN BE CUT RIGHT DOWN

BUT I CAN NOT CRAWL BACK INTO MY CLOSET

I HAVE GROWN

I AM NOT BY MYSELF

I AM TOO MANY

I AM ALL OF US

While the content tends toward the political and topical, the final sequence of poems turns to pagan spirituality for comfort, including “Ritual for Harvey Milk,” by John S. Connolly III, and finally, “From Artemis an Oracle,” by The Fag Nun Assunta Femia, which reads as a curse and gives the chapbook its title:

…i promise you this

if you get off because of insanity

i promise you this:

you will go stark

      raving

      mad.

FURTHER READING

Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2013).

Randy Shilts,The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982).