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The title of Joy Ladin’s 2009 Transmigration suggests the collection’s key themes: death, rebirth, the soul and its passing in and out of the body, transition. Written, as the introductory note explains, “during the hardest part of [Ladin’s] transition from living as a man to living as a woman,” the poems cohere into a narrative divided into thematic sections that take the reader through “Marriage,” “Transmigration,” “A Difficult Birth,” and “Maiden Voyage.” The book is an autobiography in verse; Ladin takes us through the complexities and difficulties of the death of her male existence, the wandering of her soul between genders, and the birth and growing pains of her embodied womanhood.
Like many transsexuals when they transition, finally deciding to embody the previously disembodied gender, to claim her Self, caused immense upheaval in Ladin’s relationships, particularly her marriage. Ladin writes in an article from Lilith, a popular Jewish feminist magazine, in Winter of 2010 that, “The best moments of the life I am making will always be intertwined with the worst moments of the lives of those I love.” The “Marriage” section of the collection describes the agony that Ladin feels for the breakup of her marriage with a wife who refuses to accept a transsexual spouse. Ladin recounts in “Separation Agreement” how she is “Exquisitely sensitive to the fact/ That I will never touch you again,” and in “Valedictory Enjoining Mourning” (a play on Donne’s famous separation poem) she offers her wife, instead of her death that Jewish law will not permit her to give, instead, a “beating heart/Etiquette defines/ As the only altar/ At which to mourn/ The love we killed/ together.” The “Marriage” poems entertain the duality of selfishness/selflessness, interior/exterior, as they are both about the break-up of Ladin’s marriage and also a sort of suicide note explaining the reasons for casting off her identity as a man. There are intense moments of self-loathing, as in “Steam” where Ladin begins every stanza with “I never meant to live,” moments that occur throughout the text. Ladin is not the S. Bear Bergman of “Sing If You’re Glad to Be Trans,” of “I want to talk about what’s great about being trans.” In the Lilith article, Ladin states:
everything I could to give up on life. Instead of struggling heroically against the rejection, hatred and ignorance that surrounds transsexuality, I devoted myself to quarantining and killing my desperate craving to become. But though I tried for decades, I never managed to die inside. Against my will, beneath my awareness, life grew inside me, shower by despair-soaked shower.
There’s a difficulty of hearing the words of the marginalized—to listen to an individual voice and yet not to make the mistake that Ladin’s voice is singular, and yet not to fall into a trap of believing that her experiences are true for every single transsexual. As my best friend A. often says, “Specificity is a good thing.”
Ladin highlights her capabilities as a religious poet in the section “Transmigration,” where she describes the location and state of her soul during her transition. “If you want to find the soul,” she suggests in “How to Find the Soul,” “Fall and keep falling/ Nothing is lower than the soul…The soul is saturated with God/ And still God trickles.” She paints the soul in sparse, simple metaphors that gesture towards the ultimate intangibility and unknowability of the soul. The knowing Jewish reader will pick up on the influence of Kabbalah and Hasidism on her choice of imagery. Particularly striking is the idea of the holy spark of the Jewish soul, a fragment of God’s radiant light that shattered and scattered throughout all materiality during Creation, being wrapped in the material, in the body, waiting for human action to redeem the spark and incorporated it into the Divine whole. As the Maggid of Mezeritch cleverly remarked, “adam (“man”) by himself is only dam (“blood”)…Only when he is in devekut with the Holy One, who is the Alef of the world, does he become fully an adam” (Lamm, The Religious Thought of Hasidism). Ladin maps gender onto this schema; in one way, her book documents the redemption of the holy spark, stripping away the physical material of man to reveal woman beneath. Engaged in the dialectic between body and soul, these poems struggle to express the physical as it is lived, in a spiritual way, as in describing self-aware love for the body becoming female as “Like a soul/ Stretched thin,/ Surrounding your body,/ Numinous skin/ No one can touch” (“Waking”), and the spiritual understood only as we can, with the aid of images of the world around us, as when Ladin describes the soul as “Criss-crossed with scars/ Male scars and female scars/ Breast scars and testicle scars” (“Somewhere Between Male and Female”). We come to realize that one without the other is hollowness, an impassible impossibility.
After the soul spends sometime under the poetic microscope, Ladin sheaths it with a new physicality in the section “A Difficult Birth,” full of metaphors shaped by female anatomy and function, breasts and blood, and the issue of motherhood. The poems of this section are hard and full of suffering and difficult choices, as embodiment for Ladin is neither a swift nor a straightforward process. Death and pain confront the poet often and she struggles with alienation and self-hatred. The last poem of the section, “Finding Your Female Voice,” of course plays on the double meaning of voice—“The voice you want. / The you you voice. / The want that voices you” and points to the resulting creation of the Difficult Birth, a female body. Which leads into the last section of the book, “Madien Voyage,” comprised of poems written from words culled from the pages of Cosmo Girl. This section enacts the embodiment Ladin has been describing all along while simultaneously pushing against some of the notions of girlhood/womanhood offered by Cosmo and making way for a transsexual woman “Taking on tough roles…Identity and kindness,/ A new year, a new body/ Lifting your roots to your crown” (“New Year, New Body”). Her narrative is shaped by a religious language grounded in modern poetic form wrapped around a very personal, confessional story. Like the phrases and words repeat and reshuffle, whose contexts emerge and reemerge with context, Ladin’s poems describe the soul reordering itself and the body without to express the true woman, the true human being, the true holy spark, within.
by Joy Ladin