‘Gephyromania’ by TC Tolbert
Author: Mitch Kellaway
July 29, 2014
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.