TWO REVIEWS BY LUCAS CRAWFORD
The Rusty Toque | Special Feature | Review | August 4, 2016
A Review of Charles Theonia's WHICH ONE IS THE BRIDGE
Charles Theonia’s debut, Which One is the Bridge, comprises one part of Heliotrope Imprint’s debut quartet of poetry booklets. I say booklet because these short missives of about 40 pages leave me wanting more—but many would view this as an enviable position in which to leave a reader. The imprint (an arm of Topside Press led by poet and essayist Cat Fitzpatrick) coincides to some extent with a group called The Trans Poets Workshop NYC. Suitably, then, Heliotrope’s first offerings feature northeastern poets (from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York/Brooklyn). I mention this because place—specifically, Brooklyn—infuses Theonia’s work. In fact, I would say that this book develops what could be called a deep-Brooklyn aesthetic. By this, I mean that the author oscillates between 1) nostalgia and the pursuit of self-love, and 2) anxiety and an inclination towards wry self-loathing. This oscillation between nostalgia and anxiety captures one prevalent emotional pattern of today’s Anglophone American queer discourse, in which the meaning, experience, and currency of these feelings appears to be changing. One way to think about this turn to particular feelings in queer discourse would be to point out that trans, queer, and gender-non-conforming people have seldom had the chance to share such (or any) feelings in public, let alone in print. Another way to think of it would be to see it as both an inspiration for, and something inspired by, what researchers have called “the affective turn” in literature and scholarship—a new focus on feelings, their histories, their cultural cache, their cultural management, and so on. In Theonia’s poems, it is not the feelings per se that captured me, but the brilliant broken moments in which the speaker did not, or could not, or would not, tidy up the risky business of bodily experience into clear emotional categories. Below, I illustrate what I mean by this author’s deep-Brooklyn queer aesthetic, and ask where Theonia might take we fervent readers of Heliotrope next.
Nostalgia is a keyword throughout this text, and it’s the first pole of Theonia’s affective oscillations I describe above. The poet nears wistfulness about both recent and distant pasts: readers are greeted by an epigraph from The X-Files; the third stanza of the book describes listening to Springsteen’s greatest hits on the patio (11); Cool Hand Luke makes its appearance on the next page (12); later, we revel in 90s-montage bliss (38); and, what is more nostalgic than toasting with “Mike’s Hard” (20)? The fizzy remembrance of the latter occurs in a stanza that summarizes the book’s nostalgic pull:
The rent’s too high to live where I grew up.
If you have a personal connection to Brooklyn or imagine it as the vanguard of arts and culture, then this may resonate immediately. If, on the other hand, you live thousands of miles from your impoverished home-village, then two subway stops might not summon much pathos for even the staunchest of anti-gentrification thinkers. I want to connect to the author here, agreeing heartily as I do with the sentiment. I think Brooklyn’s magic (which I’m sure does exist!) would have glittered a touch more if the author didn’t take the borough’s magic or its import as self-evident. Throw us into the tiniest detail of a house party; argue with Paul Auster’s Sunset Park or The Brooklyn Follies or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; tell off reviewers who wrote racist reviews of Do the Right Thing; trace a micro-history of the borough’s ubiquitous brownstones and see how this connects to one’s experiences and politics. I’ve phrased those faux-tips in the imperative, but none of them are necessarily needed (or even good) ideas here. My point is simply that I’d love to hear the author’s feelings and experiences put into dialogue with Brooklyn pasts, Brooklyn conflicts, and, last but not least, other Brooklyn authors and artists (trans, queer, or not). If the book’s bent towards nostalgia is fuelled partly by a desire to reach out, to attain elusive connection with other imperfect people, then why not do so with the form and subject of some of the work itself? There is a beautiful loneliness to some of these pieces, but I still wanted to gather together other Brooklyn lit to sit with Which One is the Bridge, to have a cup of tea with it, to chat a bit. Maybe such conversations could provide a new type of “Bridge” to the reader as well, a series of alternate routes to pathos for those less engaged with the particular Brooklyn that is the setting here.
One way in which the author has indeed staged dialogue with current queer/trans discourse is to name injustices and to acknowledge their role in harmful systems. This is a great aim, full stop. Yet, when Theonia leans in this direction, the emotional oscillations and their resultant energy and novelty settle down, even become still. Witness these lines from “Embrace”: “I am / a quiet, unknown neighbour to these boys: / a slow and unremarked-on violence in itself.” (20) or these from the titular poem: “I guess I wish the world around me / were just really, really different than it is” (36). Some readers may enjoy these parts the most. I find such moments too tidy, given the extreme messiness of the self’s imbrications in capitalism, gentrification, patriarchy, etc. Theonia is deft, and, as I’ll highlight below, can turn a great phrase. As such, I want to read their accounts of their desires and contradictions, their tender bridges into histories and the present – rather than their self-admonishments. I hesitate to include this idea, because it is as much a comment on the current state of queer and trans public conversations as it is on Theonia’s work. My questions would be: what do we conceal from ourselves in our quick skips to public self-flagellation? What emotions are produced in these confessional moments? What is the economy of “good” and “bad” that implicitly structures a poetic voice’s public performance of self-critique? Are we to read such a tone as a sign of an anxious and “unreliable” narrator? Or are we meant to nod along with our own warm feelings against that which we find cold in the world? Instead, what could come of lingering in the desires that repulse us (such as living in a “nice” apartment, or neighbourhood, or identifying partly with white gentrifiers from Connecticut) – of getting to know (rather than verbally cast out) the parts of ourselves that scare us? After all, as Henry Miller writes in Tropic of Capricorn – another queer Brooklyn book – “down this street no saint ever walked.”
Theonia reaches the level of effective and moving confessional and political poetry at times (the imagery of cops driving an ice cream truck is one such outstanding moment ), but very often the voice of the text constrains itself precisely because it is so aware of its own self-awareness. This is in no way to intimate that any author should keep their feelings, politics, or interior monologue to themselves; on the contrary, I think that Theonia’s antagonists (eg. gentrification) need to be hit with stronger stuff that involves but does not end with the feelings of the conscious self or its morals. And luckily, Theonia has tastes of this on offer, below.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I am drawn towards the second pole of this book. Here are beautiful ambiguous lines into which negativity or self-absence slips without the author’s voice rising to overtly commemorate its ambiguity or painfulness. We get a hint of this in the stanza cited at length above, in which drinking and worrying are the ends of a short narrative arc. Similarly, in “Why Not Love,” the voice of the text discusses returning home after grocery shopping in a way that makes fun of its own pull to self-improvement:
The chard is rainbow: I imagine a bright field
The capital “W” of “Wellness” seems to suggest the voice’s awareness that “Wellness” is an industry and watchword tied very tightly to capitalism and the seemingly interminable quest for self-betterment. These lines are great—partly because the voice of the poem remains attached; desires are not “sway[ed],” like chard, by ‘knowing better.’ This is an image of a person’s desire persisting despite the desire to desire otherwise. What is desire, if it does not bend to will, if it persists, if it mars our attempts at morality, if it survives our decisions to not choose it? What, the author asks, is a desire that one doesn’t, well, want? This is one of several clues in Theonia’s book that our conceptions of agency, morality, and desire deserve rethinking.
Even in this poem, however, mixed feelings are disciplined. The next line: “Why not love my own groceries for a minute?” (21). I like this question, and it’s not just once that I’ve looked at my mismatched groceries and thought, Yeesh, I don’t even like these oranges and I bought them again goddamn it oranges are not the only fruit you should know that!!! So I admire Theonia’s question. But what is lost in this disavowal of negative feeling? If vulnerability has become the slogan for queer and trans communities to an extent (as Theonia puts it, “#vulnerability2014” ), what is vulnerable about making our “bad” feelings and politics into “good” instances of vulnerability? When I sift through myriad queer histories, art, and activism, I wonder: have we unwittingly surrendered the ability to be both committed to justice but also be… bad? Of course, queer and trans histories are built through and through by badassery, reclusion, anti-respectability, dissent, and staunch refusals of normative moral systems and alternative ones. (This is a point that Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist makes in a different way.) Could it be enabling, even temporarily freeing, to opt out of the relatively new speech act of queer political self-admonishment? Might it even be an act of what is often called “self care” to dig deeply into one’s “badness”? This is a matter that Theonia’s work opens with verve.
One of the last poems of the book, “Grass,” brings together the two emotional poles of the book, illustrating clearly the voice’s oscillations between love and loathing:
Sometimes I depart
This excerpt acknowledges that the self is not the sole arbiter of human experience – we do things even when our self has “depart[ed]”. Yet, the self yearns to be recognized by others. In her book Beyond Recognition, Kelly Oliver argues that the desire for recognition is second-level oppression: by making ourselves dependent on others seeing us for who we’d like to be, we give ourselves to them again. The stanza above seems to acknowledge that this is an inescapable part of what it means to relate to other humans. Here, the self departs, but still wants. It leaves, but it needs you. What a painful and beautiful statement (all the more so because the author lets us sit in this paradox instead of recouping it as vulnerable/moral).
Another strength of the short stanza cited above is its economy of language; much is said in these short lines, and no word or syllable is superfluous. Far be it from me to suggest that writers ought to condense maximally, especially in a review of this length, but the tightness of the stanza above has an effect on the reader; its concentrated quality gives it clout, hitting the ear of the reader like an aphorism that traffics nonetheless in deep emotion. More of this concentrated economy of language throughout might give Theonia an enabling and challenging corral in which all of their energy and feeling could be intensified. The ending of “Fire Island” is one such example of a passage that may need some pressure:
Now on the boat home, the air is cold.
We learn earlier in the poem that the speaker is returning from the famous LGBTQ summering spot, on a boat, and it has suddenly started to rain. The above excerpt is the closing stanza of the poem. It seems almost to restate the general ambiance of the poem’s setting. These lines don’t feel as intense or crucial as earlier ones, such as those that tell of the speaker’s former lover and their use of a chest binder: “the terrible crush of rib and lung” (24). What would the poem be if this were the first line, I wonder? Theonia has a habit of setting scenes not of action but of reflection; what form might this poem take if it were set in the very moments of crushed ribs or of sexism on the shores, instead of in the reflective aftermath? This is all to say that the reflective framing of some of the poems takes the reader out of the action and away from the tight economy of language employed in Theonia’s best lines.
A few of these are certainly worth mention here. In “Embrace,” for instance, so much is said about place in just this one line: “a dirty white cat ducks under a dirty white van” (20). The line’s concision combined with its precise repetitions is less descriptive and more metaphorical or symbolical while still retaining its firm basis in the grunge of materiality. Similarly, the opening of “Figs”--
April means it’s almost time
—doesn’t match the intensity of the lines that follow. The opening reflections given here are evoked in a subtler but more moving way in the following line: “A yellow beetle inches upside / down along the edge of my desk” (14). Later in the poem, Theonia scores another aphoristic yet grounded line: “loss isn’t some inlet we rush / into, then out of” (14-5). In “The Bath, The Journey,” a tale of a gender-loaded break-up is relayed in minute details and acts. Some of the lines (“It is very late. / I am drunk and wrecked, crying in bed”) don’t match the vitality of others: “In the morning shower we wash each other briskly, / brother cats in the wet air, and then we part (16). The genius metaphor of soon-to-be-exes washing each other like “brother cats” deserves to come to the forefront even more, stripped of the adverbs and set-up around it. These lines that say much with little are Theonia at their best—reflective yet immediate, literal yet evocative, a tight economy of language that aims to loosen the world.
Before I conclude, please permit me an aside to contextualize this review. There is a trend in reviews of queer and trans literature to pack the page with praise exclusively. While I hope I’ve shown you clearly why this book is worth picking up and thinking with, I want to acknowledge that my reviewing practice is more along the lines of respect as deep and honest engagement. Do I think any of the tips or questions I’ve asked here are necessarily vital to Theonia or their readers? Well, I hope so—but the review’s main purpose has been to show some of the fascinating questions Theonia opens up, contextualize those questions a bit, and to model the kind of author-to-author or author-to-activist or author-to-history kind of engagement I’d love to see more in Theonia’s future work. There is an inherent sense of judgment and appraisal of value in the act of reviewing, but I hope that this long-form essay speaks for itself in terms of how much time I feel the author deserves.
I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to trans people who are not avid poetry readers, who relate to nostalgia, Brooklyn, and grappling with feelings, as well as to young people looking for alternative ways to picture relationships. In the end—and I say this as both compliment and complaint—I want more! I want to see what Theonia will do with a full-length collection (Which One is the Bridge is 17 poems over 28 pages of text); I will read future work, hoping for the tighter economy of language that Theonia’s best lines predict; I can’t wait to pore over their work when it takes its best images and metaphors and pressures them into something better than diamonds. The last lines of the book—“You say / what I am, and I / have a chance / to become it.”—are tender but I reject them here. I hope this poet becomes something neither others nor I have yet said or imagined. I hope the same for Topside Press’s Heliotrope imprint, which has introduced itself well, and has acted tenaciously by finding a way to reach the audiences that mainstream publishers (and a wide slice of indie print culture) do not yet have the savvy to entertain.
A Review of Trish Salah's LYRIC SEXOLOGY, VOL. 1
Prelude to a Review
Let’s begin with the expected. There are many ways to discuss Trish Salah’s ambitious second book, Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1, in terms of its valuable interventions in notions of transgender and gender.
First, the text’s complex form and its many voices (speaking as and to a variety of historical figures from Freud to Tiresias to Woolf and beyond) suggests that while trans people must navigate psychiatric gatekeepers, aesthetic histories of trans have been ignored: “Becoming sexes are as rarely, is so rarely acknowledged, art” (24).
Secondly, the text addresses a number of (variably shared) trans experiences and gives us new ways to think about them; see “Portrait of Electrolysis as a 19th Century Technology of the Self” for a fresh take on the ‘Frankenstein’s monster as transgender’ trope (for which we may thank inimitable trans scholar Susan Stryker). The ways in which genre operate with force in trans lives is keenly acknowledged in this poem: “You are growing in the direction of an autobiography. Grafting, he would say” (32).
Thirdly, Salah moves us from today’s mainstream emphasis on state-granted rights to considerations of trans-centered sexual violence, economic injustice, racialization and whiteness, and sex work. No neoliberal fantasies of social harmony here; while “Even the cops are proud on Pride Day; hurray for Divers/Cite!” (18), a “cruiser” later “pulls up” to the poem’s speaker, “hail[ing]” her over for an (attempted?) sexual encounter. Still later, “a room full of cops” enjoys “speedy acid [that] lets you dance for hours” (87). Likewise, “White lady feminism” (75) will not work as anyone’s interpretive code here. What my students call “heritage hipsters” are rendered here as the “[C]ool white of a ‘benevolent enthusiasm’ for culture / cafes, and newly minted old fashioned things” (130).
Finally, non-trans (or cis) readers are (thankfully) asked to do far more than ‘celebrate,’ ‘include,’ or ‘learn from’ Salah’s text. Indeed, cis patterns of interpretation are put on notice! Witness the following passage from “Out of time”:
People at parties are reassured when they see a transsexual in a dress. […]
What would be the interpretive equivalent of receiving Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 in this mode of cis-reassurance? Thinking this text is ‘not about you’ might be one pitfall to avoid. Salah may agree; speaking of and as Tiresias’s gender transformations, the speaker says: “So, impersonation doesn’t begin to describe it, but suppose it did. Suppose I began to describe you” (11). This “you” is suitably not tethered to any one subject. Cis readers wanting to labour with difficult trans ideas might take this floating “you” as an invitation (not to vicariously identify with Salah or Tiresias, but rather,) to find themselves thrown as far and regrouping as often as the poems’ speakers—to, in Salah’s words, “be in the bent of the Other’s speaking” (51).
What would it mean for a reader to be in the bent of Lyric Sexology’s words?
Body of a Review
Likewise, there are many ways to discuss Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1, in terms of its valuable interventions in notions of the self, of narrative, and of time—a trio of matters that (sometimes forcibly) order trans and cis lives.
The first poem, “Prelude,” announces these interventions with a question: “How do you narrate the end?” (9). The poem’s implicit answer is to begin with ending. On the plainest level, then, the reader begins Lyric Sexology by encountering impossibility. Admissions of the impossibility (and necessity) of narrative are punctuated by a book-spanning repetition of the word “so.” “So” is probably the word of causality in the English language: one thing happened, so another thing happened. “So” is a word of anticipation, consequence, and perhaps waiting. In this first poem, we get a sparse one hundred and eleven words, and six of them are “so.” Three of these hang together in italics in the middle of the page, unmoored, as if to remark upon the force of sequential narrative itself.
So, how is a reader to experience time in a world where cause and effect are jumbled, and the poems’ voices skip between centuries? Salah’s speaker answers almost directly, if paradoxically: “Fast, don’t ask me about time” (41). Earlier, however, the speaker seems to have sage advice: “Slow down, go slowly down and quell your doubts about becoming. / Others felt them before you” (22). Near to the end of the text, memory itself is cast as a way of forgetting; the speaker advises the listener to “Remember over it with tape” (126). What do we—all of us--do when we remember our genders, their purported beginnings, or their purported early signs? If, for Salah, a “beginning” is an attempt to narrate the “end,” then what do our memories of gender beginnings force us to “remember over…with tape,” if anything? I wish I had an answer, but “i don’t know much about how / time takes its way into the ground” (76).
Time has a tendency to be figured spatially in Salah’s text. In the book’s long last poem, “Revenant Forms,” the speaker locates time “inside” one’s head: “i wait still for your voice inside my head, like a beloved / and long absent colonizer” (131). To be “still” waiting could mean that the speaker has been waiting a long time (temporally) and also that the mind of the speaker is not moving (spatially). As readers, we too “wait” after the enjambed line; the first line leaves us with “beloved” but is adjusted to “colonizer.” How quickly things morph with a word. This is not surprising in a text that describes the passage of day to night as “the daynight partition”—again, a spatial metaphor for time. Even cities have temporal characteristics here: “conformity haunts narrower days in an inconveniently belated Montreal.”
Space is not a simple matter in Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 either. In “Hoard ‘ours’ and historical circumstance,” the speaker says: “You make your house of body and a body always = bodies, / calls upon the bodyless / You make your house confession” (20). A home of multiple bodies may sound impractical, but Salah has advice: “Confuse your houses. Confuse your children. Don’t / Hold houses hostage. Don’t hold hours. Give them up” (20). If your house is a body, what does it mean to give it up? In this text, what is called night may be a vital time to bring back from the dead: “Squeaky the dreams fitting into daytime contours” (21).
What would it mean to create a new timetable—and home—for (one’s) gender? When is gender? Where is gender? Why? When and where else could it be?
"End" of a Review
Salah’s text works on a number of registers; one could read for explicitly trans content and activist impulses, if one were so inclined. For me, Salah’s querying of time, self, and history are central to the more obviously trans content of the book. How can reviewers of trans-authored texts navigate the dual imperatives to neither elide trans content nor focus exclusively on transgender author-selves with fetishistic fervor, in a way that disregards much of the book’s singularity? Having tried to do so here, I can only say: with some difficulty.
What was easy, however, was my enjoyment of Salah’s book. While it is a very challenging text (this is nobody’s Trans 101 text, or even 401), its wit and its sudden nuggets of wisdom often made me smile, think, and rethink. Salah’s precursors are a diverse crowd, but I cannot help but think of Samuel Beckett’s wry one-liners that are so often misunderstood as unredeemable in their nihilism. Here are a few of my favourite Salah-isms, each of which insists that life, if unfeasible, is both funny and necessary:
“You’ll get tired of any body, but all of them?” (59).
We do not, after all, choose to become an “I,” no matter how much agency we manage to wrest for ourselves. Given this, we need more texts (like Salah’s) that don’t take gender-selves as given, obvious, and beyond re-creation or rethinking. Trish Salah’s Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 goes a step further by trying to imagine gender as existing beyond the constricting forms of knowledge and being. We can, the book seems to suggest, undertake these lines of thought/experimentation/art while also working hard against immediate and concrete injustices.
What could possibly be the spoils of committing to such difficult and seemingly impractical questions?
Salah answers: “fuller ways of becoming fuller ways of becoming fuller ways of becoming fuller-“ (84).
LUCAS CRAWFORD is the outgoing Critic-In-Residence of CWILA and incoming Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. Lucas’ poetry book, Sideshow Concessions (Invisible Publishing 2015) won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Lucas’ academic book is entitled Transgender Archtectonics (Routledge 2016). Find some of Lucas’ poetry at the following links: Rattle, Subterrain, and Plenitude Magazine. Lucas is from rural Nova Scotia.