“wooden brain grotesque ideas”: turning the table in transgender poetics
Author: TT Jax
January 6, 2014
And the people – ah, the people –
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone
They are neither man nor woman
They are neither brute nor human
They are Ghouls–
–Edgar Allen Poe, from The Bells
The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table of it. Yet for all that, the table continues to be the common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.–Karl Marx, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof
Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as everyone is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see….Of course [the art] is beautiful but first all beauty is denied it and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If everyone were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.-–Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation
[EXCURSION and AESTHESIS: “the rapture that impels”]
Despite three stiff drinks each with unknown quantities of gender—a mix of sharp and syrupy things, intersticed with ice and a single slice of orange—Ames stood at the bar in the absence of unoccupied tables. This was my second time meeting him—the first in New York, now in a sports bar on Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Most of my time in Chicago had passed in bars, excusing one anomalous trip to the zoo. I sat on a stool beside Ames; he stood. During the reading he had sat, as I’d sat, on the floor, although neither of us drank; not once did I look up as I read.
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.–Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
Two transgender poets walk into a sports bar. Despite three stiff drinks I didn’t vomit until the plane; I vomited for love and panic, I vomited because I remembered that my mother is dying. I think the right things at the worst times, thousands of miles removed from the ground, separate from the elbows and ears of strangers by a margin of inches. Irritating, stimulating, this entropy as epiphany; I radiated heat to odd ears and elbows; the man beside me reached to twist a dial for colder air. I am having a heart attack, I thought; I am having an attack of heart. I puked into a complimentary waxed bag that said SEAT OCCUPIED. They laid me down in the galley of the plane, a complimentary oxygen mask pinched round the moist and pallid features of my face. They laid me on a thin layer of complimentary blankets stacked on the cold rubberized floor; chills conducted freely through my spine. I discovered that some flight attendants wear brown crocs shaped like flats, with pantyhose. Like Ames, some soar best standing. Or have to.
[ALARUM: “in a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire”]
I was invited to read poetry at a reading in Chicago. So I read poetry, sort of. Ames also writes poetry, sort of. We are sort of poets. We are the sort of poets who are considered “experimental” because we exist and write poetry about existing. We are not considered to exist by most full-sort of poets, or most anybody else, for that matter. Thus I was invited to read at a reading that was considered experimental.
We—the sort-of poets—were the objects of the experiment. We read poems about how it is to exist and do things when no one considers us to exist to do things, and doing this regular reading of regular poems while existing made us radical. The full-sorts of people conducted the experiment on us, by considering what it’s like for us to exist.
The undoing of the regular doing was the irregular regularly doing it, or so I was to accept. But I refused. Instead of standing up and reading regular poems about how it is to exist and do things when no one knows you exist, as was expected of me, I sat on the floor and read weird-ass garbled poems about heart disease and black bears and tooth caries and rape, while I played country gospel hymns that my dead Grandma used to sing to her kids when she wasn’t beating them.
I didn’t mention (trans)gender once, which was my way of doing the undoing.
At stake, here, is a complex of weighted departure, of flight in seizure, of an emergent statelessness submerged beneath the state of emergency. There’s always a trace on the ones who want to go. Nevertheless, unacknowledged legislators sing diversion out of turn. They instigate small passages. Their envois more than strive to correspond.
Somewhere between being one of the elect and having been elected, the unacknowledged legislator operates on the edge of things, resisting that desire for inclusion that eviscerates politics-as-the-politics of escape. When brutal attacks on the simultaneously real and symbolic centers of brutal power constitute a reactive, reactionary chance to open the books of legitimate anti-politics, the unacknowledged legislator chooses to remain unmade and unacknowledged.–Fred Moten, barbara lee
[COUNTERALARUM: “the tintinnabulation that so musically wells”]
a convocation of unicorns
Of course not everyone attending the reading was the sort of person who was not also a transgender person. Some people (whom few know exist) came to hear other people (whom few know exist) talk about how it is to exist, despite and because of not existing. Ames was one of these people. We gathered together to explore our liminalities; it was a political act to share space and poetry together. To listen to our breath and bones and skins in time together, to knit new sinews of being and possibility. This itself was an experiment of our bodies and words convening.
When philosophers speak of “doing things with words”, they also remind us that the success of the locutionary act is tied to the conditions in which it is performed. This is another way to say that any speech act is highly contingent—its success only occurs in particular circumstances, and even then, its success is never a given. Success, if it is to occur, happens only in the doing of it. -–Elliott Colla, The Poetry of Revolt
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure. –Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, Fragments
Yet what if we lack coherency? What sinew strength provided by dead grandmas, gospel hymns, black bear nightmares? What cohesion or fracture afforded when sort-of poets gather to speak of our disparities instead of our commonalities? If a tree splits root to crack and splinter in the woods, who then will understand the loud shatter of a rape poem sung by a sort-of poet into a country gospel hymn?
[EXCURSION: “what a liquid ditty floats”]
The word thesis originally meant (in opposition to arsis, or the raising of the foot) “the setting down of the foot or lowering of the hand in beating time, and hence (as marked by this) the stress or ictus; the stressed syllable of a foot in a verse; a stressed note in music.” Later, this meaning came to be reversed; thesis meant “the lowering of the voice on an unstressed syllable, thus practically reversing the original meaning; hence in prevalent acceptation (from the time of Bentley, 1726): The unaccented or weak part of a foot in verse (classical or modern), or an unaccented note in music.” In the musical world, a thesis is an inversion of the dominant melody. Only in the last few hundred years has a thesis become the stamp of assertion, an insistence of thought to be proven and defended against attack.
[ALARUM: “on the bosom of the palpitating air!”]
Thesis used to mean rhythm, the beat of a heart or poem or song, an intention riding breath between lips. Thus a thesis was a thing of art and the body, formed by the pharynx and expired air. What then is the thesis— “specific, debatable, and often counterintuitive or provocative (‘things I believe, or would like to believe’)”—of this essai? The thesis is that there is no thesis. The thesis is that we are here and hear and breathing, and that means something. The thesis is that merely existing—even despite the rigorous attempts of erasure enjoyed by hegemony (“ladies and gentleman!”), even despite the murders and rapes and homelessness and poverty enjoyed by the erased—merely existing isn’t enough.
Merely existing isn’t enough.
To pin the meaning of my art to the stupendous anomaly of its frictive existence is to predicate my art on the violence of erasure.
[EXCURSION: “in the clamor and the clangor”]
In Zong!, M. Nourbese Philip tells the story of hundreds of people enslaved for profit, then slaughtered for insurance coverage. Through pages of free-form poems, lists of marginalized passenger names, glossary words, and historical court documents excised, re-interpreted, and reproduced, Philips fragments and convolutes language to “not tell the story that must be told.” Trauma, both lived and historical, breaks meaning and expectation; the form of her poems mimes the content. Further, coherency around narratives of racism and slavery become slippery, when white people (inherently socialized to maintain or deny white privilege) factor in as publishers, editors, or projected consumers. To receive what cannot be accepted, minds must be broken or tricked. Layered and calculated incoherency is the ruse Philip slips to tell a story that can’t be told.
Evergreen faculty and experimental mixed-media artist Naima Lowe opened her recent artist lecture with a quote by Roland Barthes:
“…Language is never innocent.”
The trick, then, is how we intentionally employ the mischief or menace of language. How have other sort-of poets and artists bucked coherency to make meaning for themselves? Can incoherency be a site of possibility, an interstice between gender, race, sex, class, and body to implode the ruthlessly senseless coherency of systems of oppression and privilege? For whom is this question not rhetorical, and where are they whetting their witless sense of vivid possibility, in what wood, against what odd elbow and ear?
I went to the reading hoping to find them. Instead I found myself muttering to a record on the floor. Sometimes Queer performs alone. So I shared language skins in a sports bar and drank too much; I puked in panic on a plane. Survival is sometimes enough. It has to be. But still it isn’t.
GHOULS’ GLOSSARY: grotesque ideas
Liminal, adj. a. gen. Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process. rare. b. spec. in Psychol. Of or pertaining to a ‘limen’ or ‘threshold.’
Liminality, n. A transitional or indeterminate state between culturally defined stages of a person’s life; spec. such a state occupied during a ritual or rite of passage, characterized by a sense of solidarity between participants Etymology: < Latin līmin-, līmen threshold + -al suffix1.
Marginal, n. 1. Written or printed in the margin of a page. 2. Relating to an edge, border, boundary, or limit; situated at or affecting the extreme edge of an area, mass, etc. Of a plant: growing at or near the boundary of a habitat, esp. at the edge of woodland or (spec.) a body of water 3. Bot., Zool., and Pathol. Situated at or arising from the edge of a body or part. 4. Psychol. Of, on, or relating to the edge or fringe of the field of consciousness.5. That is on or close to a limit below or beyond which something ceases to be possible or desirable; borderline. In Econ.: showing, representing, or achieving a small margin of profit; close to the limit of profitability or sustainability. 6. Econ. Of or relating to the extra cost, revenue, or utility involved in or deriving from the production or consumption of one additional unit of a product. 7. Econ. Of land, ore, etc.: yielding or likely to yield little or no profit. Of a farmer, etc.: working such land. 8. Sociol. Of an individual or social group: isolated from or not conforming to the dominant society or culture; (perceived as being) on the edge of a society or social unit; belonging to a minority group (freq. with implications of consequent disadvantage). Also: partly belonging to two differing social groups or cultures but not fully integrated into either. 9. Of an aspect of culture, the arts, etc.: unorthodox; removed from the mainstream; having a limited following. 10. Of minor importance, having little effect; incidental, subsidiary 11. Zool. A marginal part or structure, usually one of a set; esp. (a) each of the plates along the sides of the arm of a starfish; (b) each of the scutes forming the edge of the carapace of a turtle or tortoise. Etymology: < post-classical Latin marginalis littoral (earliest c1170 in a British source), written in the margin
trans-, prefix 1. With the sense ‘across, through, over, to or on the other side of, beyond, outside of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another e.g. transcolate, transcribe, transcript, transcription, transport, transportation Etymology: The Latin preposition trans, ‘across, to or on the farther side of, beyond, over’, also used in comb., (1) with verbs, and their derived nouns and adjectives, e.g. transīre to go across, transitio, transitor, transitus, transitīvus, transitōrius; transferre to bear across, transfer, translātus, translātio, translātor, translātīvus, translātīcius; (2) with adjectives derived from nouns (more strictly with noun + adjectival suffix), as transfluviālis beyond the river, transfluvial,transmarīnus beyond sea, transmarine, transmontānus beyond the mountains, tramontane, translīmitānus beyond the boundary or frontier
Gender, v.1, 1. intr. To copulate. Freq. with with. Obs. 2. intr. To beget, engender; to give birth. Obs. 3. trans. a. To give rise to (a physical phenomenon or material object), esp. by natural processes; to produce, create. Now rare. b. To give rise to, bring about, produce, engender (a feeling, state, etc.). Now rare 4. intr. To form, come into existence. Obs. rare. Etymology: <Anglo-Norman and Middle French gendre (Anglo-Norman and Middle French, French genre) kind, sort (c1125 in Old French), sex, quality of being male or female (second half of the 12th cent.; now obs.), race, people (c1200, originally and chiefly in Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French humain genre, Middle French, French genre humain ‘mankind’; second quarter of the 13th cent. used independently; obsolete after 1660), (in grammar) class of nouns and pronouns distinguished by different inflections (c1225) < classical Latin gener-, genus race, kind, also grammatical gender (see genus n.). In sense 2b either influenced by, or perhaps independently < , either Anglo-Norman and Middle French gendre progeny, offspring
Gender, noun 1. A class of things or beings distinguished by having certain characteristics in common; (as a mass noun) these regarded collectively; kind, sort. Obs. 2. That which has been engendered; product, offspring. Obs. rare. 3. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups. 4. Psychol. and Sociol. (orig. U.S.). The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex. Also: a (male or female) group characterized in this way. Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French gendrer, Old French, Middle French genrer to beget, engender (offspring) (c1165 in Old French), to give birth to (a child) (first third of the 13th cent.) < classical Latin generāre