Karen Finley’s Black Sheep Poem

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. From KarenFinley.com

Very ’90s-Womanly author Lily Burana posted this poem of Karen Finley‘s on Facebook this morning. And it’s from 1991 so we have an obligation to repost it here.

Every time I try to talk about Karen Finley at a party and someone hasn’t heard of her I feel sad about American cultural education. She is so important. (Her book A Different Kind of Intimacy is a good start for newcomers.)

I wrote a profile of her for New York magazine in 2003. Neal performed with her in the play George & Martha, which is now available in book form. We have a picture of hers hanging over our bed. So I am a little biased. But I think it’s safe to call her a godmother of ’90s women everywhere.   

Here’s the poem: 

The Black Sheep
by Karen Finley

After a funeral someone said to me
You know I only see you at funerals
it’s been three since June–
been five since June for me.
He said I’ve made a vow–
I only go to death parties if I know someone before
they were sick.
Why?
’cause–’cause–’cause I feel I feel so
sad ’cause I never knew their lives
and now I only know their deaths.
And because we are members of the
Black Sheep family.

We are sheep with no shepherd
We are sheep with no straight and narrow
We are sheep with no meadow
We are sheep who take the dangerous pathway through
the mountain range
to get to the other side of our soul.
We are the black sheep of the family
called Black Sheep folk.
We always speak our mind
appreciate differences in culture
believe in sexual preferences
believe in no racism
no sexism
no religionism
and we fight for what we believe
but usually we’re pagans.
There’s always one in every family.
Even when we’re surrounded by bodies
we’re always alone.
You’re born alone
and you die alone–
written by a black sheep.
You can’t take it with you–
written by a former black sheep.

Black Sheep folk look different from their families–
It’s the way we look at the world.
We’re a quirk of nature–
We’re a quirk of fate.
Usually our family, our city, our country
never understands us–
We knew this from when we were very young
that we weren’t meant to be understood.
That’s right. That’s our job.
Usually we’re not appreciated
until the next generation.
That’s our life. That’s our story.
Usually we’re outcasts, outsiders
in our own family.
Don’t worry–get used to it.

My sister says–I don’t understand you!
But I have many sisters with me here tonight.
My brother says–I don’t want you!
But I have many brothers with me here tonight!
My mother says–I don’t know how to love someone like you!
You’re so different from the rest!
But I have many mamas with me here tonight!
My father says–I don’t know how to hold you!
But I have many daddies with me here tonight!

We’re related to people we love who can’t say
I love you black sheep daughter
I love you black sheep son
I love you outcast, I love you outsider.
But tonight we love each other
That’s why we’re here–
to be around others like ourselves–
So it doesn’t hurt quite so much.
In our world, our temple of difference -
I am at my loneliest when I have something to celebrate
and try to share it with those I love
but who don’t love me back.
There’s always silence at the end of the phone.
There’s always silence at the end of the phone.

Sister–congratulate me!
NO I CAN’T YOU’RE TOO LOUD.
Grandma–love me!
NO I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE
SOMEONE LIKE YOU.
Sometimes the black sheep is a soothsayer,
a psychic, a magician of sorts.
Black sheep see the invisible–
we know each others thoughts–
we feel fear and hatred.
Sometimes some sheep are chosen to be sick
to finally have average, flat, boring people say
I love you.
Sometimes, black sheep are chosen to be sick
so families can finally come together and say
I love you.
Sometimes, some black sheep are chosen to die
so loved ones, families, countries, and cultures
can finally say
Your life was worth living!
Your life meant something to me!
I loved you all along!

Black sheeps’s destinies are not necessarily in having
families, having prescribed existences–
like the American Dream.
Black sheeps’s destinies are to give meaning in life
to be angels
to be conscience
to be nightmares
to be actors in dreams.

Black Sheep can be family to strangers
We can love each other like MOTHER
FATHER SISTER BROTHER CHILD
We understand universal love
We understand unconditional love
We feel a unique responsibility, a human responsibility
for feelings for others.
We can be all things to all people
We are there at 3:30 a.m. when you call
We are here tonight ’cause I just can’t go to sleep.
I have nowhere else to go.
I’m a creature of the night
I travel in your dreams
I feel your nightmares.

We are your holding hand
We are your pillow, your receiver,
your cuddly toy.
I feel your pain.
I wish I could relieve you of your suffering.
I wish I could relieve you of your pain.
I wish I could relieve you of your destiny.
I wish I could relieve you of your fate.
I wish I could relieve you of your illness.
I wish I could relieve you of your life.
I wish I could relieve you of your death.
But it’s always
Silence at the end of the phone.
Silence at the end of the phone.
Silence at the end of the phone.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Karen Finley’s Black Sheep Poem

  1. Mandy Brigwell

    It’s such a strange poem, and it resonates somewhere inside me, but there seems to be no poetry to the words – it’s just prose with funny spacing.

    I can see the potential, and why people like it, but it seems almost stream-of-consciousness outpourings rather than moulded, shaped words, which twist and stream in the light.

    It’s interesting, but it’s not good. With a little work, I think I’d find it brilliant.

  2. Sylvan Sheep

    I can see the brilliance in Karen’s words. Sadly, many people think poetry must rhyme at every way. However; what is unique of poetry, especially this run on form Karen exhibits; it begins as story, and into even dialogue and, monologue, compare and contrast, analogy, explanatory, and peppered through this, is the revelations of a much restrained form of describing the pain of being a Black Sheep. Surely not a story by any means as there are truly no formatting that would suggest beginning, climax, and ending, yet; although hard to navigate, the words are powerful in some aspects, yet, undefined in other manners. I would say that Karen’s creation leans more to a monologue that would be a great foundation for a one woman (person) play. This reminds me to a degree of the free and open prose that was once displayed in the “Beatnik” era. There is no rhyme or reason in this style, yet, there are profound thoughts and words shared as there are also a sense of detached thoughts that otherwise fail to connect to a focus point or nucleus of subject that most all the lines could relate.

  3. I simply love this poem. It’s almost creepy, like she spied on my life, and wrote this. I guess we are Black Sheep after all! She, Karen F. once said in an interview about this, that it was made into a public art piece, a bronze plaque, I think. Homeless, or just plain broke people would do rubbings of it on paper, and they would sell them for a buck. She said she loved this sort of activity. This poem doesn’t need to be picked apart to much, it is what it is and to me, it’s extremely healing. Anyone who has insomia, loneliness, and a habit of reflecting on one’s friendships, and losses in life can relate to this. Thank you Ms. Finley, thank you very much.

  4. Joan Bond

    Yes, this is about artists who are ahead of their time, and the unlucky family member in a dysfunctional family that is the psychological scapegoat for the parent’s dysfunctionality and abuse. I can relate to that. I had tears reading it. The loneliness of being on the outside in my family, my school, my community… just for being more sensitive, more culturally exposed having cross-cultural parents, more intelligent, more outraged by injustice, and for being different in the length and breadth of my thoughts, connecting with animals others think are scary or wierd… its a lifetime of that. I saw Karen Finley’s bronze plaque with this poem at MOCA museum in Los Angeles. I cried reading it, as I identified with it so strongly. There was unfortunately a spelling mistake on the word ‘Congratulate’ as ‘Congradulate’, which is sloppy editing for a museum. Thank you Karen Finley for your poem which echoes our feelings too!

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