“Yes, I Really Am This Vulnerable”: ‘Unthinkable Creatures’ has Heart
Author: M./Maybe Henry Milks
October 13, 2013
The first line of the first chapbook in the Unthinkable Creatures catalog declares, “THERE IS NOTHING CREEPY ABOUT HAVING FEELINGS”—a fitting entrance for a chapbook press that prizes the raw heart above all. These creatures are unthinkable not because they appear strange (although some of them, endearingly, do), but because they display open vulnerability, a position adopted by few creatures living in the world.
Edited and published by poet Kristen Stone, Unthinkable Creatures was founded last year, and its list is already eleven releases long, with two more forthcoming. While the press is not dedicated specifically to publishing queer and trans writers, its author list includes a number of new(ish) queer and trans voices; Stone, author of the potently visceral collection Domestication Handbook, is an exciting new voice in her own right.
“I love crushes more than real things,” a collaborative chapbook written by Stone with Maureen Murtha (from which the above first line is taken), is the first in a catalog that embraces the heart in all its moods. “I want you to have a crush on me / I want a subtext of mutual yearning,” the speaker(s) confess under heart-shaped images of deer. Less playful, more devastating is Kristen E. Nelson’s Write, Dad, which collects poems written upon the death of the author’s father. In a series of erasures, Nelson takes letters written by her father from an alcohol rehab center and strips them down to their bare confusion: “You want a father to be/ I want to be/ I want family/ I have to// I love you for 51 days…” Another singularly intimate text, Liz Latty’s Split chronicles the author’s search, as an adult, for her biological mother. The discomfort she finds is excruciating: “She said to me, This is wonderful! I’m so glad to know you! But she had to avert her eyes while saying this. She made sure we were never in a room alone together. // When we hugged, I felt my arms around her.”
Perhaps the most language-oriented of these creatures is j /j hastain’s mimetic-shameless, its shivering words as fluid in meaning as the ocean its speakers inhabit: “There is a subsection of the sea where this unevenness is keeping a we. Those who come from this sea are designed to provoke. To induce. To intimate words thighing lacuna.” hastain invents a cosmic world in which the dead are not dead and meaning is remade. This exploration of ephemeral possibility is reinforced by its design; the chapbook arrives in an envelope that preserves its glittery, fragile cover, which, we are warned, “will dissolve with use.”
Handmade individually by Stone, each chapbook is idiosyncratic in design. Jessica Otto’s Don’t—My Birthday is laid out accordion-style, one long sheet of paper folded into a square. Stone and Murtha’s collaborative poem extends across numerous cut-out images with the feel of the zine-iest zine. Most are small, pocketsize, with the exception of Oliver Bendorf and Selena Clare’s larger-format The Flying Unicycle. They vary in genre, too: The Flying Unicycle is an illustrated comic about Sparky, a genderqueer youth, and their trip, via flying unicycle, to a “FABULOUS ball” in a magical place named Botanic X; while Kari Larsen’s The Black Telephone is an experimental essay on the problem of telling.
More recent chapbooks include Tamryn Spruill’s Scratch the Bone and Madison Lynn McEvilly’s Rough Draft Daily. Wry and grotesque, the poems in Scratch the Bone do a tremendous amount of work in very few words, engaging, variously, with the territorialism of anteaters, Hannibal the Cannibal, Kids Incorporated, and cutting. McEvilly’s Rough Draft Daily collects poems written during a month newly sober, as the author attempts to relearn her mind in its raw, freshly scrubbed state. The poems shudder with a nervous, tentative optimism.
The newest release, Caelan Tree’s Quiet in the Body, is a powerfully contemplative poetic sequence interspersed with workbook exercises: “I lost footing for a while but I have come to understand/ that I have never met a bird who is a monster// tell me what agency means to you.” Tree’s instructions to the reader are quiet, gentle, followed by squares of lined notebook that invite response. For poems that explore violation and survival, this invitation to interact with the text seems important, granting agency to a reader who is vulnerable, too.
“You do not know how to stop tearing open wounds/ on your shoulders,” writes Tree. From Scratch the Bone: “Yes, I really am this vulnerable.” Tenderly written and tenderly housed, these chapbooks beat hard and bright. Theirs is a beautiful hurt.