The electrifying self-reveal has long been a favorite trick of the gods. An amiable companion on horseback uncloaks himself as Odin, deity of wisdom, poetry, and victory in battle; in Genesis, Jacob rises from a wrestling match to find the challenger was Yahweh in human form. And on The Road to Emmaus, as depicted in a garish postcard in Sister Annâs office, where Spencer Reeceâs speaker remembers his older mentor and would-be lover in the title poem of his latest collection, two travelers from Jerusalem are joined by a third, who listens intently to a description of their savior before revealing himself as Christ. (more…)
âIâve seen how/brutality becomes the rhythm to a kind of/songâ
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, earthquakesâto 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 itâs 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 Jonesâ 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 winnerÂ Wishbone), is a slim little volume of poems chock full of insight and life. Published as the eleventh volume of A Midsummer Nightâs Pressâs LGBT-focused Body Language imprint, it offers a look into Wadeâs âbefore and after:â the first half of the book tackles her life before coming out, and the second half details peopleâs reactions to learning that sheâs 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 âOn braiding hair already cut away from the scalpâ
The opening poem in genderqueer poet TC Tolbertâs first book-length collection, Gephyromania, is a microcosm that, in many ways, captures the wide world of the entire compilation. Also titled âGephyromania,â — 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 âremove[s] from the frame of reference the referent.â
From then on, the bookâs musicality doesnât 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 âTa(u)gtâ explains: âI go back to that no and I sing from it.â
Gephyromania is a collection about undoing the work words do, and being careful with their rearrangement in ways that startle the reader into clarity. Tolbertâs poems hum with the joy of placing different kinds of language — for instance, the escalating repetition of hymn-like worship and the dissection of âreferentsâ and âframesâ familiar to gender studies classrooms parsing Judith Butler — into each otherâs orbit and then gratefully appraising the new consciousness and utter oddities that can come forth in the practice.
Indeed, âGephyromania,â encapsulates much of the entire collectionâs vision and tone, much as some of its longer poems do too (namely, âTa(u)ght,â âOn braiding hair already cut away from the scalp,â and â(ir)Retrievalâ). The book can read almost as one long poem, with Tolbert circling back to ideas, cadences, and words (particularly, the aforementioned âsing,â 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 speakerâs 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.
Tolbertâs 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. Â Â Â Â Â (perhaps.) but still missed.
Thereâs a push-and-pull going on here in the space between the body or the object and the language used to make it âreal.â 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 itâs 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, Tolbertâs spare, taut poems become subtly political, and ultimately interrogate the pressures a genderqueer or non-binary person may feel to abandon those parts marked âfemale,â 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 âmale.â
But âcleavage,â like much of Tolbertâs words, carries more meanings. It also refers to splitting, and Tolbertâs 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 â(ir)Retrieval: âShe is a prologue. And simultaneous. She is domicile.â 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 oneâs 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 ColorÂ (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hostingÂ Journal Launch Readings in NYC, Chicago, and San FranciscoÂ this September. Below is information regarding event details (click here for a list of Â readings taking place in AugustÂ as part of our NepantlaÂ summer reading series). We hope to see you there! (more…)
‘They Donât Kill You Because Theyâre Hungry, They Kill You Because Theyâre Full’ by Mark Bibbins
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 someoneâs 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 havenât 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. âSometimes I miss it,â she says, pouring my refills from waterfall heights. âBut then of course, sometimes I donât.â She seems like a very balanced person. (more…)
Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of ColorÂ (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. âThe cattle egret is a golden life as much as she is whiteâ–each creature seems a lesson in how to let the world be enough. The speakerâs insistence on likening animal and human bodies is wonderfully devastating: in âBy the Arroyo We Asked For Water and Survivedâ 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 âusâ in the poemâs final line, which names the coyote, the speaker and the mesquite pods, feels true to the poemâs world and the speakerâs want to value, to love, everything living. (more…)
Tiger Heron, Robin Beckerâs eighth collection, tells the âunderstoryâ of a constellation of intimates: parents and lovers, friends and animalsâwhat deceives us and what we miss altogether. In âA Last Go,â we find a daughter trying to serve her long sacrificing mother, pleasure by cake in her last days. In âUnderstoryâ âthe forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,â 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, canât we? In âHer Lies,â she renders her loverâs dishonesty as carpenter bees, âHumming above me they debride/ the gallery, disappear inside,â where they eventually take down the house. One of Beckerâs particular talents is an ability to make an anvil of one word the rest of the poem then bends around, as in here with âdebride.â In âDykeâ she chronicles her personal history with the word and speaks back into that history, â…first/ I had to hate her;/ then I had to hurt her; the rest of my life,/ I ate from her hand.â In âRescue Riddleâ and âThe Dog I Didnât Wantâ she explores the relationship between rescue dog and ownerâasking who really does the saving in the end. (more…)