June 6, 2013
Dear Andrew Levy,
In my copy of Nothing Is in Here, on page one, a mark shaped like an upright rectangle with the top left corner shorn off at a steep angle sits between the words in the phrase “vanilla middle.” It looks as though it could be an inkblot. I found myself wondering if this stray mark had meaning, sitting as it did in the middle of the phrase “vanilla middle.” But why would the “vanilla” middle be black?
I made a mental note to return to the mark once I’d finished the book.
And then it appeared again on page four, between the words “can’t” and “write” in the phrase “can’t write a simple sentence.” I kept asking myself why someone would go back into the book to make these odd marks between words. And then it appeared again on the next page, this time blotting out the “t” in the word “globalization.” Was this some kind of Derrida-inspired conceit?
I compared the three marks. They were all the same size. They appeared in the exact spot on each page, and they appeared throughout the book. On some pages they blotted out individual letters, on others the white spaces between words, and on still others they just floated, lonely totems on a sea of white.
A printer’s error, I realized.
I am writing this before I go to work. Rain is pouring from the sky. Another tropical storm is headed up the coast. I can’t recall its name. My dog got soaked on our walk this morning. Anyhow, I was reading Goodnight Moon to my daughter last night when I remembered that you quoted it in your book.
In one of the weirdest passages in all of children’s literature, the narrator starts saying goodnight to everything in the room: the red balloon, the bowl of mush, the cow jumping over the moon, the mittens, the kittens, etc. Then a blank page appears, with the following phrase: “Goodnight nobody.”
It’s startling each time I read it. Why would Margaret Wise Brown put such an existential moment in the middle of a children’s book? Did she do it deliberately, a little nudge to keep the parents awake? Or was it an accident, a moment’s cleverness that got out of hand?
My daughter is too young to understand the concept of “nobody” just yet. I try to image how I might explain it to her. There’s something terrible about a blank page. Perhaps to a child it signifies a sense of possibility. Or just a place to draw pictures.
You write, “The sky, lover of the Empire State Building, of the entirety of midtown; I am never more satisfied than in its absence from sight.” I hadn’t thought about the Empire State Building in a long time. My memory is always of seeing it from a distance, like from the roof of my old apartment building on 4th and B, all lit up for Christmas or the 4th of July.
The poem must have planted something heavy in my subconscious.
The other day I took the train into the city from New Haven for a meeting. I arrived early, so I decided to take a leisurely stroll down 5th. I was dressed in a blazer and long-sleeve shirt. It was a lovely day, but in the sun it was just a little too warm to be dressed like that.
I tried to keep to the east side of the street, where the shadows of the buildings kept me cool. I looked ahead mostly, trying to avoid collisions. Then I was across from the Empire State Building. I looked up. I read the massive gilded letters of its name carved into the facade. I thought to myself that I hadn’t ever really looked at them before.
The sun glanced in my eyes. Your poem popped into my head. “For some time it has taken my breath in a way that feels like another urban mid-summer interrupted by rolling brownouts.” Actually, I did not remember the line. I just remembered that I had read something recently about the Empire State Building. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was your poem.
I looked up again, trying to see the top. I don’t know if it was the brightness of the sun or the dizzying height of the building, but I had the feeling of it literally pressing down on my forehead. I could feel its whole weight against my eyes. I looked away.
Before I knew it, I had walked all the way to 6th Avenue, eyes to the ground.
And then all those superheroes die and come back to life just before the end of the book.
There are no tickets available.
A soldier lies dead or sleeping in a ditch.
Andrea Rexilius's 'New Organism'
MAKE SOUP but you are reading. Make your body from soup infused with poems. Read pages from NEW ORGANISM directly into the vegetables. My soup had parsnips, cauliflower, beets, and sweet potato, with sautéed brussel sprouts and garlic-filled polenta fritters. READ these marvelous poems INTO the parsnip, “Discontinuous residence of story / Aperture in the holding space,” then float it in the pot of heating water. The soup absorbing poetry and we will taste these poems. Read into the water just before it boils, “Society writes her desire, fucking, end-stopped, overflowing. / Her city as a system of time passing. / Autobiographical. Alchemical.” SING her poems as the soup boils. Eating poetry while reading it, chew slowly, carefully, the poems. Mindful digestion encountering the very best poems.
On TC Tolbert's 'Gephyromania'
TC Tolbert’s poetry collection Gephyromania plays with, problematizes, and bridges various subjectivities and concepts of the body, identity, and text. Throughout multiple readings, Tolbert’s language creates a sustained state of anticipation, evoking a feeling of bodily movement (in both reader and author) not inappropriate for a volume whose title refers to an obsession with bridges. A bridge both separates and unites, just like a long-distance communication. What follows here is a review in the form of an unsent epistolary blast. As a friend of the author, my own problematic subjectivities are candidly referenced here, and the distanced eye of critical writing has been deliberately abandoned.
Message 1 6/26/14 11:15 a.m. CST
TC, it’s Jay. I’ve got your book and I want to open it out and mate it with mine, what I’m working on now, but that can’t happen. You know what? I wonder about my discomfort with speaking/languaging from within my own subjectivity. There’s something I mistrust in that, in myself. Or is it fear, the fear of punishment? My obsession with self-correction as a way to forestall the aforementioned. And how I would insist that my own transitioning is not self-correction. Do you agree? You say,
I want to tell you about my body. About testosterone
as unwitting art historian. About recovery. Me(n). What it feels like
underneath there. The part you cannot know. but should. (42)
I want this too. How can I trust this want in you but not in myself?
Message 2 6/27/14 9:15 a.m. CST
So I’m reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power,and in her introduction she says, “[e]xceeding is not escaping, and the subject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound.” It seems to me that this is what Gephyromania is “about,” if you go for that word in talking of your work. The challenge of time is present here in these poems, living as/in/with a body through time, a body in radical transformation as the medium of time flows about you. And you, in transitioning, have exceeded (not escaped) the embodiment from/with which you began. I make this connection without implying that “escape” was ever part of the goal, which I can’t claim. But exceeding happens, whether intended or not. And you’re still a body, you still must live in the tricky enclosure of your body. Me too.
This “bridge” place you build and use in the book — one goes back and forth on a bridge and maybe that’s the point too, or part of it. Not that you would (or could) go back to the embodiment from which you started, but rather, that body is also still in/with this body. You say,
You have forgotten that I do so little
with the skin I’m in. You make me a ladder
and now I want you to make me more. (30)
I’m not imagining a person as the “you” every time that pronoun arises, but when it does, here, it allows me to imagine the “you” empowering the creation of the bridge you travel, perhaps the bridge you become. There is a way in which we become bridges, isn’t there? Still anchored to — bound by — where we began and what we were then/there. And this is not “failure.”
Message 3 6/29/14 7:40 a.m. CST
So are we casualties of good advice, the same advice delivered deadpan to us again and again as though it were scripted? How to be a poet, to be a queer trans wo/man of any/all gender — can anyone really claim to know how to do and be?
Yeah, yeah. Pound, whatever.
Goddamned well of loneliness. Make it new. (76)
This is where we come from. Does where we originate actually help us bridge? Help us move? Help us change?
If there is not here
there’s a line I crossed. Somewhere valence
got Prufrocked with the T. (30)
There’s much to be said for the problematized power of others — maybe peers of who we were, maybe anticipated peers of who we’re becoming towards — to help with deciding and discovering how we locate ourselves, how and where and to what/whom we connect. But it is also important to problematize the origin-point of the poetic body (the embodied poetics?) in a space of high-modern text experiment. It’s an origin, I mean to say; I read in these poems an acknowledgement that there must always be many origins to the becoming-bridging. If there’s a range of poetics that can be called trans and genderqueer (within which we met), can we also posit a range of poetics that can be called transitional? Or is that rather limited word encompassed by the “trans” of our understanding?
Someone like Stein, living a queer life though not perhaps a “trans” life, somehow still managed a transitional poetics by exploding the documentary or utilitarian function of language. I’ve come back to Stein lately, which actually shocks me, because somehow I carry this idea that an understandable poetic framework for my particular masculinity relies more on looking around at, say, Kenneth Goldsmith or K. Silem Mohammed than back toward a modernist icon like her. But what was Stein’s on-paper gender anyway? I don’t hold with the idea of masculine or feminine writing — this is a contradiction in me, as I clearly do embrace the idea of trans writing. That there can be such a thing that emerges in and from a text. Maybe what I mean is that there’s something about being trans that makes the word language into a verb. “And who wouldn’t/language in whose voice” (30).
I think this phenomenon is the manifestation of our exceeding the “good advice” we were given. We can no more escape the bonds of language than we can escape the born-in body. But we language ourselves anew, and our bodies force language to exceed itself. The question of whose voice is never resolved. The voice is multiple, and should be. This is why I never left Tzara behind, because he also languages. Makes a body with fragments of text, and calls it the approximation it is, calls himself the approximation any person necessarily must be. Perhaps not trans-identified, still he had the courage to bust the lid off of the idea that the self is singular and whole, proposing that whatever we are, we are not born but made.
Message 4 6/30/14 10:20 p.m. CST
It’s storming; fat waves of rain pound down on the roof, against the windows. Thunder coughs in the distance. Tomorrow early I have to go to diabetes school; I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago, after my latest bloodwork for T levels. Transitioning has saved my life, in more ways than one, but often when I get healthcare I’m putting my head in the lion’s mouth. Someday I’ll tell you about my mammogram.
The thunder is closer now and the lightning more violent. I’m glad for your “A Love Note for My Breasts (Abridged).” Here’s the whole thing because I love it so much:
Thank you for the joke about Tokyo. I’m cutting you off now. For my grandmother and the way she talked about my grandfather. She said he liked her for her big brown eyes.
Thank you for protecting me from straight women. I’ll miss that. For making me think long and hard about why there was a marriage I was leaving. For the 1997 I never had. (28)
I think this gets me because of the way it speaks of forbidden things, or at least speaks of things in a forbidden way. I want to claim more of the not-nice; you know, the things not said or done in polite company, whatever or wherever that is. “I’m cutting you off now,” said in a poem for one’s breasts — but of course, that’s only shorthand, dancing with the popular idea of what embodiment is, means or entails for transmen. This phrase bridges the vast space between “mutilation” and liberation, a space made public in a process of dubious consent, by other people’s publicly expressed affects: revulsion, acceptance, hostility, pride. But “cutting off” is also a way to describe ending a toxic or abusive relationship. I hear liberation in it, ambivalence too, or irony — “protecting me from straight women.”
Is it your actual body that’s written in — or into — these poems? Is this something you can say came with or out of subjective experience? Because I find myself responding to your words more literally than I usually do for poetry, as though the narrator’s voice is your own, making a claim for the bodies contained in the book. I find myself doing that thing with your work that I do not want people to do with my work — I’m identifying with the poet. But I am also wondering about the question turned inside-out; that is, do you see the writing of the poems as part of the process of forming your actual body, beyond just reflecting it?
Weird question, and one I can only ask another poet.
April 16, 2013
Dear Aaron Shurin,
I started reading Citizen on a train from Grand Central Station to New Haven last Friday. I’d had a meeting in the city in the morning. Afterwards I met my friend Paul for lunch. I caught the 1:34 train. It was raining. On the way into the city, I finished reading C, a novel by Tom McCarthy. I had figured this would happen, so I brought your book for the ride home.
At first I worried that it would take a long time to read Citizen. The poems are so dense. I had to read the first few more than once before I felt comfortable moving on. I also had to shake off this weird feeling you were somebody else. I saw your photo and realized I had been confusing you with Aaron Kunin, who I saw read once. He looks nothing like you.
I love reading on trains. Hurtling forward while pushing through language reifies the experience of reading. I find myself chasing down the traces of my thought in much the same way my eye follows a passing object through the window. I get a glimpse, then it is gone. I try to record what I saw, but it’s always a distortion.
I started drifting in and out of sleep as I read. I underlined the phrase, “how you scratch the page to let in light.” I drew a line to the top of the page and wrote, “No.” I must have drifted off to sleep again, as I have no recollection of writing this.
Later I woke up and looked out the window and thought I saw a hillock beside the tracks covered in snow. I closed my eyes again and thought, “The snow should have melted by now.” I opened my eyes and looked again. No snow. I got as far as the poem “Helios Cream” before arriving in New Haven.
That night my wife Lori and I watched Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Afterwards I sat on the couch reading Citizen while listening to the Blue Mars Cryosleep ambient Internet radio station. I read to the end of the first section of the book. I made a note to myself about making notes to myself.
It says: “I no longer trust myself to remember.”
I wrote something about David Lynch and something about Tom McCarthy riding his skateboard over the line demarcating the GMT in England. I wrote that I was too tired to continue reading. I wrote that I’d read a few of your poems aloud.
The next night I watched Fear by Roberto Rossellini, which stars his then-wife, Ingrid Bergman. The northern lights were rumored to make an appearance around midnight. I started reading the second section of your book after the film, on the couch next to Lori, listening to BBC Three. I got as far as “Station.”
Lori had found a website tracking the probability of seeing the aurora borealis on a given night and was checking periodically on her iPad and outside to see if they were visible. She stayed up late waiting for them. They never appeared. Just as she dozed off to sleep, our daughter woke crying and stayed up most of the night.
I wrote that if I were ever to publish a poetry magazine, I would ask you to submit.
Sunday we ate brunch at our new neighbors’ house. I started reading again after we put my daughter down for a nap. I sat beside the picture window in the Ikea Poäng chair, my feet up on the footrest. I could hear the washing machine hum as it washed my work clothes for Monday morning. I read to the end of part 2.
I finished the book late that night, after putting my daughter to bed, eating dinner, watching six short films by David Lynch and the newest episode of Mad Men. It was late. I made a note about “dishes” and “lunch.”
I wrote down a question regarding the experience of reading Citizen. “Did the poems become more transparent as the book progressed, or did it just seem that way because I had learned better how to read them the deeper I got into the book?”
I did not answer the question. I drew a line next to this one by you, “... what do you read, how do you read it?” It made me think about the way I planned to write about your book.
Rachel Glaser's 'Moods'
Find a book at Flying Object you love, like Moods by Rachel Glaser. Slip it under your shirt and hold it in place while extending your belly, feeling for the poems to kick with a muffled laugh. Walk through the building singing lullabies, rubbing your book baby growing beneath the folds of your shirt-vagina. Give birth on the floor or couch, or privately in the bathroom. Be careful not to tear or bend its little cover or pages to prevent costly surgery and recovery. The hunger is immediate, just like little deer in nature documentaries, and while some still believe baby formula is the way to go, there is a movement to return to the nutrient-rich breast milk. Breastfeeding also cuts down on wasteful bottles and packaging; in short, breastfeeding your book can secure a sound future in multiple ways.
Taking notes for your poem, open the baby’s belly and read its organs aloud, for instance in opening Moods, “Our Husband arrives to little applause / his handsomeness is wasted / he bikes uselessly towards us in the rain.” Studies show that reading babies to themselves is more beneficial than teaching them to anoint pets or spear fish. The spine the book rests on will remain decades after we have been ravaged by the crud and stench of the soil.