‘Butch Geography’ by Stacey Waite
Let us make the sounds we were never meant to make.
Let us curse. Let us drive. Let us grill steak in the yard.
Here I am, gender. Tell me again the girl I should be,
please, just say it quietly, so no one will hear.
First, a confession. I will say this quietly as if no one could hear. Waite’s last book, the lake has no saint, winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series Chapbook Award, left me cold. This coldness—my frigidity—made me sad; I was a fan of her earlier chapbooks, Choke (Thorngate Road, 2004) and Love Poem to Androgyny (Main Street Rag, 2007). I want to be very clear: my dissatisfaction with the lake has no saint was—and is—my limitation as a reader (and ultimately as a writer). Waite bears no responsibility for it; she is a skilled poet: deft, careful, engaging, challenging. Here is one truth: the lake has no saint is more bold, more daring, more innovative on the level of language than I comfortably tolerate as a reader. I am, I must confess, the frumpy lesbian in the back of the bus, carrying postcards, comfortable in my womanhood, talking about revolution. A revolution that is material, not on the page, not in the realm of language. A revolution that brings equality, but does not necessarily recalibrate the entirety of sorority. At the front of the bus are poets like Waite, hip and svelte, fashionable and endearing, politically and rhetorically revolutionary.
Waite’s newest book, Butch Geography, invited me to join her up front. Butch Geography is deeply narrative in its orientation. The structural and linguistic innovation in this collection, while still present, are muted. The poet of Butch Geography tells me a story, quite beautifully. A story that I want to hear; a story I can hear.
Like Waite’s early work, Butch Geography is deeply concerned with questions of gender and sexuality. Woven throughout the collection are sequence poems titled, “Dear Gender” and “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by. . . .” The misapprehension of gender comes from umpires, cashiers, waiters, security personnel, pregnant women, and therapists. The catalogue itself highlights the pervasiveness of gendered assumptions in daily life. This pervasiveness of the gendering of our lives, however, is not a discovery. Omnipresent gendering is a basic insight of feminism. The discovery in Waite’s poems that dazzles is how she carefully maps the terrain of what it is like to live on the edges of genders. I use the plural consciously. Waite’s poem challenge singularity. They challenge binaries. Waite brings to life the cracks and crevices of genders in Butch Geography.
Waite also demonstrates the centrality of gender in our lives; she explores and the intimacy and uncertainty of gender. In one of the “Dear Gender” poems, Waite writes, “Dear Gender//When you cry, the moon doesn’t stand a chance./Our faith in you—we don’t lose enough sleep/over it.” Characterizing gender as sad, as crying and possibly mournful, Waite infuses it with new significance as though it were not already significant enough. While gender is so present it seems to disappear like oxygen, Waite tinges it with odor, so that we know we are breathing it in, interrupting the unconscious, or subconscious, embrace of inhalation, exhalation. In “Dear Gender,” Waite concludes by reassuring gender, “you’re going to be all right.” She confides that what she means is:
the heart is the most overworked muscle
in the body, that you won’t drown out there. Forgive
yourself. Write your name in water. I will make you
into God. I will let you answer prayers at last.
Waite’s reconfigures conventional images about love, working with the tropes of the heart, water, and prayer, reminding us how much love is about, and shaped by, gender. It is dazzling.
Waite’s interrogation of gender is informed deeply by her lived experience but also by contemporary science, feminism, and dialogues within LGBTQ communities. In the poem “XY,” for instance, Waite explores the possibility of being “chomosomally mismatched.” Waite says, “The doctor is careful with me, knowing how my being XY makes me a bad example of a woman: an XY woman is an ex-woman, whose blood has been infected by Y—the testosterone an uprising, a fire in her blood.” She then proceeds to imagine the man she could have been. She names him Michael, “after my father, who did not love me.” She says, “Michael is the easier version of me.” Do you see how devastating and difficult and beautiful these poems are?
Near the end of the collection is the poem “Butch Defines Feminism under the Following Conditions.” This poem captures, for me, a wonderful perspective on the ways that gender has changed over the past twenty-five or thirty years, years that correspond, not incidentally, with Waite’s consciousness. She writes in the second stanza,
And what’s so wonderful about equal anyway, or
so equal about wonderful? And moreover,
men are not wonderfully equal nor are they equally
wonderful as I am full, full of sand, full of gender-contraband,
full of what I am, which is, I admit, part man if you
want to look at it that way, which is the only way you can.
This playfulness of language charms me; the way Waite morphs the word equal through the stanza, the carefree, almost throwaway rhyme of sand, band, man, and can. Sonically, this poem sings, but the message—the messiness about feminism and gender and Waite’s fierce unrelenting analysis of it—makes me love the poem. Waite concludes with these lines,
I’ve got feminism between my legs
and she is as fierce and tender as a lover.
I’ve got feminism, but feminism keeps
turning me over on my back in the bathtub,
has me pinned, has me woman-ed.
And this is where the definition begins:
there has to be something in there about rights and dykes,
something in there about eating meat, about dating cheats,
about calling them tits, about getting hit, about the rules
and tools of the patriarch because we hate that arch,
the one above us, as arches usually are, as we walk
through and under, through and under.
I love walking in a world with Stacey Waite, a world that is feminist, a world with butches carefully mapping their geography, singing “the anthem/of those places we’ve always been,” a world that troubles feminist, a world that finds our backs arched as hands move through and under, through and under.
By Stacey Waite
Paperback, 9781936797257, 88 pp.