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…)
A twenty-something named Annie Jump Navarro, known to fellow online poker players as “Nova,” is about to experience a life-changing event as All In begins. It seems as if everything is going Nova’s way. She’s just won big in on-line gaming and is about to use her winnings to buy a house, enabling Nova and her roommates to live at peace and away from a crazy, homophobic neighbor. However, the stars are not exactly aligned for Nova and her friends, and things start to fall apart quickly. (more…)
I first read Jon Macy’s comic Fearful Hunter as single issue floppies, but never saw issues beyond the first two. Now it’s expanded to a beautifully rendered 316 pages, with additional “fan fiction” takes of the story by other cartoonists, thanks to Kickstarter support and Northwest Press. (more…)
‘The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality’ by Suzanna Danuta Walters
The first thing that came to mind after finishing Suzanna Walters’ excellent and original piece was a quote from longtime social critic Fran Lebowitz from the 2010 Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking where she stated:
[...] I mean, do I think gay marriage is progress? Are you kidding me? This was one of the good things about being gay! I mean, I am stunned that the two greatest desires of people involved in gay rights movements are gay marriage and gays in the military. I mean to me, these seem like the two most confining institutions on the planet: marriage and the military. Why would you be beating down the doors to get in? Usually a fight for freedom is a fight for freedom, this is like the opposite…I mean people used to pretend to be gay to get out of going into the army!
As Walters argues, and I believe this is something Lebowitz herself would agree with, today’s gay rights movement and its allies who believe that “access to marriage and the military are the brass ring of gay rights” and that once we “have achieved these goals we will have moved into a post-gay America” are not only wrong but also doing an injustice to the gay rights movement by promulgating such rhetoric over demanding full equality, bar none. Yes, gay marriage and equal access for those LGBT individuals who want to be in the military are important, but they are in no way the be all and end all of the gay rights movement that has greatly changed its makeup from the individuals behind the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 to those of today. Undoubtedly Walters will not only receive an insurmountable amount of criticism for pointing this out but also, as a result of her excellent book, she’ll disillusion the idea of progress, as we see it today, as not progress but rather small steps in the “deep claim for full civil rights” that is still unknown to the LGBT community. Walters posits that the LGBT community needs to recommit itself to fighting for full civil rights rather than accepting whatever comes our way in small gradual steps.
The major crux of Walters’ argument is in her deconstruction of the popular battle cry “It’s not a choice.” Walters believes the “born this way” argument is harmful to the gay rights cause as it allows individuals to utilize substandard science that reduces human sexuality into normative categories and classifications. As Walters, whose bluntness throughout the book is a breath of fresh air, states:
Most gays and their allies believe that gays are “born that way” and that proving biological immutability is the key to winning over reluctant heterosexual and gaining civil rights. Most gays and their allies believe that the closet is largely a thing of the past and that we have entered a new era of sexual ease and fluidity. Most gays and their allies think that we have essentially won the culture wars and that gay visibility in popular culture is a sign of substantive gay progress. Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced….Most gays and their allies believe that we are almost there: we can see the end of the tunnel, where a rainbow world of warm inclusion awaits us. These people are wrong.
Walters pinpoints the scientific arguments behind the “born this way” argument to show not how gay rights activists are wrong but to express the tragic consequences behind historically categorizing and measuring people’s activities. There is no one way to look at sexuality and human nature and Walters does an excellent job of utilizing a type of reverse psychology, not to change the minds of anti-gay individuals but to ask members of the gay community and its allies to think how they argue for the “born this way” argument and how it may be a type of appeasement to the “accept us” agenda. It isn’t demanding full equality under the law, but only partial equality as seen in allowing LGBT individuals the rights to marry, file joint taxes, and even die for their country.
Although Walters is not the first person to critically lash the gay rights movement today, à la David Halperin’s How to Be Gay, her argument has caused me to reexamine the ways I not only accept tolerance but also how I continue to identify as a modern gay rights activist. Simple tolerance and acceptance is becoming a thing of the past and “as long as tolerance is [the] reigning ethos [and] as long as we deny our difference in the service of misplaced allegiance to gender and sexual norms, we [will ultimately] deny ‘the unique genius in being queer.’” While we have won many battles on the gay rights front in the past two years, the coming storm for full equality is looming in the distance. Regardless of how the outlook appears, a victory can in some ways feel like a loss and even when we think we are near the finishing line, we, gay rights activists and allies alike, will realize that we have miles to go.
The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality
By Suzanna Danuta Walters
Hardcover, 9780814770573, 343 pp.
Relationships, friendships, fleeting acquaintanceships, sexual encounters–throughout Casey Plett’s debut short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, none end in a way that’s neat or satisfying. Shards of them–of the tiniest moment of letdown, words unsaid, a fumbled revelation–become lodged deep in the protagonist until they work themselves up to the surface again, often coming out sideways. The pain and the lessons cycle through heartache, awareness, perhaps something resembling peace, until the next encounter that sets off the balance again. Stumbling towards love–from others, from the self–is a messy affair for the twenty-something not-children yet not-quite-adults of Plett’s worlds. (more…)
‘State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties’ by Judith G. Poucher
I approached Judith G. Poucher’s State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties with a degree of skepticism. It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed Stacy Braukman’s masterful Communists and Perverts Under the Palms (2012), also about the Johns Committee, and I had my doubts that a second book in three years would reveal much more necessary information about the post-McCarthy witch-hunts that the committee launched in Florida. Fortunately, Poucher has found a different approach to the material, emphasizing the contributions of five individuals who, when confronted by the committee, fought back through lawsuits, cleverly combative testimony, and, in the case of gay individuals, refusing to name names. (more…)
Kara Walker—the protagonist of Abdi Nazemian’s first novel The Walk-in Closet—is ready for a new life. And she’s not exactly picky. On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, still reeling from an old break-up and stuck in a dead-end Hollywood job, Kara is ready to make some compromises if it means she’ll experience something close enough to happiness. But close enough, we learn, is intolerably far from the real thing. (more…)
‘The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’ by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy; Edited by Katherine Bucknell
Christopher Isherwood died in 1986, his legacy as an author and gay trailblazer assured by works such as A Single Man, The Berlin Stories, and, most recently, the publication of his diaries–a treasure trove of insight into one of the 20th Centuries most fascinating figures. It’s only been in recent years, however, that Isherwood’s love life has drawn public attention on par with his literary achievements. The Animals, a collection of love letters between Isherwood and his surviving partner, the artist Don Bachardy, aims to correct that imbalance. (more…)
As And a Time to Dance opens, Corey Banner and Judy Wagner meet at a softball tournament for the first time. Without hesitation, the two women begin a romantic dance punctuated by everyday life. The relationship lasts for six years, and Corey and Judy are still in love, although Corey is somewhat frustrated at the long hours Judy’s job demands. When tragedy strikes unexpectedly, Corey is devastated and set adrift on a tumultuous sea of loss and uncertainty. Even an attempt to return to normalcy by engaging in a new relationship two years later ends in disaster, when Corey is accused of living in the shadows of her past. The end of a relationship Corey was never sure she wanted in the first place leaves her jittery and forces her to take a long look at where her life is headed.
In an impulsive move, Corey decides to head off from her Michigan home to explore the Rocky Mountains, something she and Judy had talked about doing together when it seemed that life, and their relationship, would go on forever. She strikes out for a stay in Grand Lake, Colorado, hoping to find work as well as healing. At her destination, she meets Erin Flannery and her Aunt Tess, co-owners of the Rainbow Lodge, Corey’s initial destination. Tess quickly takes Corey’s measure and offers her a position at the lodge as head of the maintenance department using her expertise honed working for her dad’s construction business. Erin, however, is not as quick as her aunt to trust Corey’s abilities—or her friendship.
Erin has had her own hard knocks. Abandoned years before by someone she thought she’d be with for the rest of her life Erin now runs from any kind of commitment, playing the field in order to avoid heartbreak. She beds one short term resident at the Lodge after another and tries to think it’s enough. Her aunt is concerned. Her mother is appalled. Erin thinks she’s happy; but denial is a poor cover for the sadness and loss she feels.
As the two women are thrown together in their work and in their personal lives, walls start to crumble. But crumbling walls are difficult to clear away and the rubble makes joining in a romantic dance difficult. Miscommunications come across as unfeeling, even uncaring, as Corey and Erin battle their way toward making tentative advances trying to find a dance steps they are willing to take together. If they can’t find their way, they may be destined to dance alone—or not at all.
In And a Time to Dance, Paynter portrays the beauty of the Rocky Mountain scenery without taking us out of the story. She has given us a heart-wrenching story of love and loss and the journey of two women who long to find their way to the healing and romantic possibilities of their lives Corey and Erin are likeable and the story has a background melody that makes us long for them to reach out to one another before it’s too late. In a plot tinted with melancholy and longing, these two women try to over and over again to trust their hearts and reach out to one another toward wholeness, life, and the promise of love. However, they will only get there if they’re willing to take a risk, and sometimes even the promise doesn’t seem like it’s enough, especially when Erin’s so-called relationships keep getting in their way, trying to cut in on Corey and Erin’s dance. In the end, it is confronting and overcoming fear that may finally these two open their hearts and allow them to stop running. And a Time to Dance tells a story of two women working to get beyond confusion and tumult. It’s an achingly beautiful story set in the splendor of the Colorado Mountains. Who could ask for more?
And a Time to Dance
By Chris Paynter
Blue Feather Press
Paperback, 9781935627647, 202 pp.