“I’ve seen how/brutality becomes the rhythm to a kind of/song”
Saeed Jones may be one of the most necessary poets of our time. Our time, which, as of this moment, is ravaged by news of Ferguson, heartbreak in Gaza, Tina Fontaine, the murders of two transgender women in Detroit, a massive water shortage in California, earthquakes—to name a few things. As I type this, my news feed and inbox are full of letters and articles and tweets and comments and frustrations and fundraisers of all of the folks in my immediate community and their immediate communities and the vast global communities we occupy by sharing the same umbrella of identity, the intersection of race, ability, gender, class, occupation, illness. If it’s true (and I believe it is true) that our movements and traumas are reflected in the art that we consume, or that the art that we consume often tells a better story than any journalist, then Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise is an archive of resistance. (more…)
Etel Adnan is practically an institution. With writing that has been set to music, turned into plays, and used in political protests, her gripping lyrical style coupled with deep philosophical prowess has made her a literary giant for decades. So when her retrospective collection, To look at the sea is to become what one is was announced to be released from Nightboat Books, I was thrilled to get my hands on a review copy. (more…)
When I Was Straight, the newest book from author Julie Marie Wade (Postage Due, Small Fires, and Lambda Award winner Wishbone), is a slim little volume of poems chock full of insight and life. Published as the eleventh volume of A Midsummer Night’s Press’s LGBT-focused Body Language imprint, it offers a look into Wade’s “before and after:” the first half of the book tackles her life before coming out, and the second half details people’s reactions to learning that she’s a lesbian. (more…)
like a tunnel grieves a view of the sky:
all the emptiness between my teeth is a gift.
pray down the mirror our reflection says we
see through. your new lover on one side of the street.
your new bicycle. and then, therefore, you.
pray down a rope around the syllable
that haunts us. the narrative that continually takes
itself too seriously. a symphony of strangulated rests.
- From “On braiding hair already cut away from the scalp”
The opening poem in genderqueer poet TC Tolbert’s first book-length collection, Gephyromania, is a microcosm that, in many ways, captures the wide world of the entire compilation. Also titled “Gephyromania,” — a word which refers to an obsession with bridges, and a title exquisite in how well it captures both the themes and obliqueness of its surrounding offerings — the poem introduces us to the ever-present sound of singing, the wide open stretches of blank page evoking the airy freedom when one “remove[s] from the frame of reference the referent.”
From then on, the book’s musicality doesn’t let up, despite the consistent pairing of incongruous images and words. The ineffable right-ness of the word choices and structures, despite their apparent strange-ness, is an act of quiet resistance to being held down; as the speaker in “Ta(u)gt” explains: “I go back to that no and I sing from it.”
Gephyromania is a collection about undoing the work words do, and being careful with their rearrangement in ways that startle the reader into clarity. Tolbert’s poems hum with the joy of placing different kinds of language — for instance, the escalating repetition of hymn-like worship and the dissection of “referents” and “frames” familiar to gender studies classrooms parsing Judith Butler — into each other’s orbit and then gratefully appraising the new consciousness and utter oddities that can come forth in the practice.
Indeed, “Gephyromania,” encapsulates much of the entire collection’s vision and tone, much as some of its longer poems do too (namely, “Ta(u)ght,” “On braiding hair already cut away from the scalp,” and “(ir)Retrieval”). The book can read almost as one long poem, with Tolbert circling back to ideas, cadences, and words (particularly, the aforementioned “sing,” as well as ideas of rest, praise, and disembodied body parts, especially the mouth and hands) like a chorus.
The effect is of being asked to remember how words and phrases are taken unconsciously into the body and then called forward again; it is one of transportation, of being suspended within one speaker’s lifetime of private love songs written not just to lovers, but to common objects and past lives. This includes the disjointed thoughts that spring up behind whatever polished lyrics might eventually get put to the page; it includes the lines one feels compelled to write, even if they dredge up discordant memories, even painful, memories.
Tolbert’s poems often seem to throw out words buried within a psyche and use their sudden exposure to question the origins, uses, multiple meanings, and their gaps, as with these lines from “Gephyromania”:
The verb never agrees
with its heresy. Disbelieving.
In absentia. We dress.
the story of cleavage unwritten.
Erased. (perhaps.) but still missed.
There’s a push-and-pull going on here in the space between the body or the object and the language used to make it “real.” These repeated lines from “(ir)Retrieval” remained with me for days; I found myself repeating them subvocally like a tune stuck in my head until I came to sudden awareness:
(So that the chair has many permutations.)
(So that you move forward as if through a jump-rope.
The handles molesting your hands.)
In this collection, there is als palpable reckoning with narrative, especially with how it’s both caged and released trans-masculine people from realizing ourselves within and beyond medical transitions.
Images of the female chest are recurrent, evoking the body part as both present and absent forever, for even after its removal it remains lodged and brought forth from the subconscious in unexpected moments.
In this, Tolbert’s spare, taut poems become subtly political, and ultimately interrogate the pressures a genderqueer or non-binary person may feel to abandon those parts marked “female,” along with their multiple meanings and pleasures, once s/he has embarked on a transition that others can only see as ending in an unequivocal “male.”
But “cleavage,” like much of Tolbert’s words, carries more meanings. It also refers to splitting, and Tolbert’s multi-vocal poems often ask us to consider who is split, and what parts of us are talking when. Do we hear the speaker addressing a lover (often educed in reverential imagery of bondage/S&M), or the speaker addressing multiple versions of the self? Consider this line from in “(ir)Retrieval: “She is a prologue. And simultaneous. She is domicile.” The intimacy of the words, combined with those careful, almost teacherly reminders about how the language is always performing more work than it seems, suggest either and both.
Taken as a whole, the pulse behind Gephyromania is that of a seeker who finds meaning not in what is found, but in the act itself. These are poems to assess where (and how, and of what gender) one has been, to praise it for what it was, but to always move onward and into one’s potential to make the self anew. Language, we learn, is perhaps the first–or, at least the most constant and, at once, confounding–way to build these new realities.
By TC Tolbert
Paperback, 9781934103524, 96 pp.
Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hosting Journal Launch Readings in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco this September. Below is information regarding event details (click here for a list of readings taking place in August as part of our Nepantla summer reading series). We hope to see you there! (more…)
This is how it happens: I arrive early at the airport in Greenville-Spartanburg only to learn my flight is delayed. This small, homey airport feels like someone’s living room–with plush carpet and tall windows and lots of cushy chairs for semi-private conversations and prime storm viewing. I am traveling alone and haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I take a seat on a high bar-stool at Windows Restaurant–the diner side. A seasoned waitress, named Sandy, with a fabulous, frosted perm recommends the mushroom-swiss burger with all the trimmings. We get to talking. She grew up in south Florida near where I live now. “Sometimes I miss it,” she says, pouring my refills from waterfall heights. “But then of course, sometimes I don’t.” She seems like a very balanced person. (more…)
Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hosting a Summer Reading Series in NYC this August. Below is information regarding event details. We hope to see you there! (more…)
The speaker in The Possibilities of Mud roots down and out in the Texas Gulf. He puts himself in league with the deer of the arroyos and the other animals in the world. “The cattle egret is a golden life as much as she is white”–each creature seems a lesson in how to let the world be enough. The speaker’s insistence on likening animal and human bodies is wonderfully devastating: in “By the Arroyo We Asked For Water and Survived” we begin simply with the speaker observing a coyote search for water, then comes the merciless sun on this tableau, all elements and creatures arranged in congress with each other, literally at eye level. The “us” in the poem’s final line, which names the coyote, the speaker and the mesquite pods, feels true to the poem’s world and the speaker’s want to value, to love, everything living. (more…)
Tiger Heron, Robin Becker’s eighth collection, tells the “understory” of a constellation of intimates: parents and lovers, friends and animals—what deceives us and what we miss altogether. In “A Last Go,” we find a daughter trying to serve her long sacrificing mother, pleasure by cake in her last days. In “Understory” “the forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,” a meditation on how the natural world (when left to its own devices) makes just the right amount of room for beauty and decay, and why, the speaker wonders, can’t we? In “Her Lies,” she renders her lover’s dishonesty as carpenter bees, “Humming above me they debride/ the gallery, disappear inside,” where they eventually take down the house. One of Becker’s particular talents is an ability to make an anvil of one word the rest of the poem then bends around, as in here with “debride.” In “Dyke” she chronicles her personal history with the word and speaks back into that history, “…first/ I had to hate her;/ then I had to hurt her; the rest of my life,/ I ate from her hand.” In “Rescue Riddle” and “The Dog I Didn’t Want” she explores the relationship between rescue dog and owner—asking who really does the saving in the end. (more…)
How do you sleep
when the siren
is your own exhaled cry:
–From “Only Kissing”, by Suzanne Parker
As a queer literary community, we often are tasked with the responsibility to address collective trauma: coming out, dysfunctional family dynamics, the AIDs crisis, hate crimes, suicide. The list is longer than we can imagine, and we continue to come up with new narratives, new ways of talking about silence, new ways of making personal globally accessible, reclaiming histories lost/erased/stolen/never told. Some of these narratives are legendary: Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amor. Mark Doty’s Tiara. Nikki Finney’s “Head Off & Split. D.A. Powell’s Chronic. And now, Suzanne Parker’s Viral.