More Than Organs is a Ferocious and Necessary Collection
Author: AD Tenn
November 17, 2020
Kay Ulanday Barrett’s More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press) is a ferocious work of necessity in 2020. This second collection bears witness to a tapestry of Brown and queer life in its most intimate environments, from the “halo halo brazenly melted onto soft oblong / palms” at family BBQs to the devastation of “hipdeep dank dysphoria” at the white doctor’s office. These poems are a kind of fearlessness that cannot be tamed.
Much of Barrett’s bravery springs from their experiences navigating simultaneous systems of racist, transphobic, and ableist oppression. They write powerfully of the experience of being searched by TSA and the fraught solidarity they forged with another passenger:
I lock eyes with a brown Sikh man who’s
also being searched. Our faces focused, we raise arms
up in unison like two birds frozen, as
white strangers’ hands touch skin
and sacred under some guise of freedom.
…We apologize to one another for this
system that scans our bodies until we’re checked out of skin.
— “You + Me = Anomaly”
And then, later, in “My Cousin Serves our Country,” the violence of U.S. imperialism becomes personal, as the poem compresses the tension between what is unsaid and the need to address “something we never seem ready to talk about.” Barrett’s intensely vivid imagery renders an inescapable reality, a heartbreaking dissonance, between members of a shared oppression (and family) and the decisions which divide: “Brown people have only two choices: be in front of the barrel or behind it.”
But Barrett’s poetry resists the pigeonhole of tragedy. And lest readers misunderstand a complicated family relationship for rejection of family entirely, Barrett paints a vivid interiority reflective of their ancestry. They describe the loneliness of their childhood—
As the half-blood born into a nebulous island hum, my
hands were sticky with wild raspberries. I’d only heard of mango, of lychees,
then. This is what happens when you are away from your own people, even
familiar turns fiction.
— “Notes from Brown People in Mackinaw City, MI”
as well as the joy:
Stoop stunners, all of us. Family be like, sacred songs sung from old
We be sand daydreamers to stay alive in this country.
— “Albany Park/Logan Square1993-2000, Chicago IL.”
To read poems like these is to read myself and my own “nebulous” existence, to find strength in another’s capacity to tell the truth about our lives. A queer/trans person of color is still rarely the focus of any story, of any genre, of any country. Barrett is among the first of our kind to find the poetry in a dysphoric body and call it home:
The body is a letter
folded backwards, all strange angles, confessions
bleeding through the surface. Like this, I am something
that feels like it’ll always be there but
manages to get lost somehow.
—“More than Organs”
The language of this stanza is particularly gorgeous in its illustration of a trans body as a communicable yet misinterpreted subject. Barrett’s line breaks wrap the metaphor in its own bodily feeling, allowing the relatively simple diction to form an ache where we might expect relief. It’s an utterly trans gesture: to move in the world somewhere between known and unknowable.
Later, “Love, Artifact” does splendid work in challenging the reader to “make a garden of the minute” and recognize the fragility in breath itself. The poem is hauntingly prescient of life during COVID-19 but more directly acknowledges the current global climate “catastrophe.” It ends with a request:
Take off your helmet.
Welcome the storm.
We can learn to breathe again or
let us just cherish this air,
let us inhale even if it breaks us for trying.
The poems in More Than Organs are filled with invitations to take off our self-protective defenses and welcome the storm. At the end of this collection, you can’t help but admire the raw audacity, the magic, of Barrett’s poetry. And we need more of it: we need Barrett’s complexity, we need their advocacy and authenticity as a Filipinx, disabled, queer/trans poet. I am so thankful for their collection and the way it has named our survival.
More Than An Than Organs by Kay Ulanday Barrett Sibling Rivalry Press Paperback, 9781943977741, 96 pp. March 2020