[Full disclosure: Ari teaches with me in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. He signed my copy of this book.]
“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under / while rain skims the front of me.”
This is how one poem late in Ari’s debut collection starts, and I loved it because it’s so unlike how I feel. My name I did the good work to grow into, and any changes I made to it—going from David to Dave around 1992—I did because it felt faster, easier.
But such is the luck of being assigned at birth the gender I feel inside. From the position of the trans body Ari maps so movingly in this book, names mean more, and come packaged with more. “I admit it keeps me visible,” the above poem continues, “the agreement to call this that.”
I’m not a strong reader of poetry. It charges a part of my brain I don’t often exercise, a darker part perhaps that makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to the darker corners of Ari’s poems. “The Feeling” starts with a red cloud that comes annually up the Aegean—Ari’s people are Greek—and “covers the buildings, the cars, / in a fine red film of dust from elsewhere.” But soon the poem shifts to the moon, and then to the incarcerated, and throughout the field of war on which nations play.
It’s an unstable place, and this is a book that felt drawn to, or driven to understand, unstable places:
I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
I can mean surveillance,
or that the moon is a prison, it is daytime,
and in daytime no one sees the moon.
The poem reads like an essay with images that arrest me, which is basically everything I ask a poem to be. “This is not our poem,” it ends. “The poem has been privatized. Its flag will be a red feeling.”
I also loved “Hog”, late in the book, which is a kind of bestial/motorcycle/leather fantasy that reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg. Ari’s landscape here is blurred, or maybe tilled up is the better metaphor: “What’s a hog / but gleam of handlebars, leather, that roar speeding by. / The scared parts dressed up tough, saying / ah come on let’s go chop up the wind.”
“Narrative” might be the closest the book gets to a clear portrait of the young trans body before coming out, and it’s so good I want to just quote all of it, but instead I’ll point you to its initial publication in Verse Daily and quote this part I love the most. It’s one of my favorite images I’ve read all year:
In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern
girlhood that failed and failed
into the shape of a flute
I played only high notes on.
What else? Oh, what a joy it was to read this part from “Handshake”! I felt heard, understood. I felt like I could find the friends I need if only I could open up about the honest parts of myself I feel it would be better to keep inside, lest I scare off potential friends:
I know I'd prefer to misbehave
continuously. Any squirrel gets what I mean—anarchic revelry,
refusing to ever be still, such keenness.
They own no tree so they all own all of them.
I'd like to flick my tail too whenever I want as if to say WHAT.
But at any moment I'm wherever someone puts me—
then change my mind. I'll pick a side
when I need to
You can buy Anybody here.
…or black guys or latino guys or whatever you claim not to be interested in sexually. This letter isn’t going to scold you. I think that you’re wrong, that you are in fact racist, but I also think I know why you believe you’re not.
I think the racism everyone accuses you of you see as something different. You see it as being ignorant to your own desires. And I want to write about that.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to know yourself and then to be okay with it. The first time we gays reckon with this process is in the closet; it takes a lot of time and pain and then courage to take ownership of what you’re attracted to and to refuse to be ashamed of it any more.
In fact, we queers are stronger than straights in this regard: every out queer person has done far more sorting of their sexuality than any straight person has had to. You trust yourself, is what I’m saying, to know very intimately what turns you on and what doesn’t. You should trust yourself. You’ve earned that trust.
Now here comes somebody taking you to task for being clear about all this in your app profiles.
I get it. Some guy you want to hook up with is trying to tell you that this element of your sorting—I like men but not Asian men—is racist. Which then sheds light on the flimsiness of the hard work you spent all those agonizing years on. No no no I’m not racist I just know what I’m attracted to.
Here’s the problem: “Asian” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The only thing “Asian” means in a context of bodies is “from a certain racial background”—and even that is up for debate. An Asian body can’t be more or less attractive than a white body, it can only be more Asian.
Or, more accurately, less white.
So this is, I’m afraid, a sorting of your attractions that is informed by racism. And it makes you a racist. It’s okay. We’re all racist. You’re not the first person to look at somebody whose skin color is different from yours and erroneously bring in a whole bunch of stereotypes and associations. The best thing you can do is own up to this—accept it, the way you did your sexuality—and do the work to treat people better.
Here’s a quick story. I used to be A Guy Who Wasn’t Racist, I Just Wasn’t Into Asians. When I clicked on the “Asian” porn category in the websites I’d visit, I wouldn’t want to watch any of the videos through to the end. I wasn’t very attracted to thin men with little to no body hair, and when I thought of Asian men, this is what I saw in my mind.
Then, I was lucky to get to move to San Francisco, where men from all over the continent of Asia are everywhere, and I thought, “Oh, it’s not that I’m not into Asians, I’ve just been racist.” Some I wasn’t attracted to, but many I was. The same with all the white people I’d been living around in Alabama.
I know you know yourself, and that you’ve worked hard to understand what attracts you. But this categorical exclusion you’ve made is built on the lie that there’s one physical way to be Asian. Or Chinese, or Korean, if you want to get into it. Variation in human bodies is as wide as your imagination, and saying no to a whole group of them shows your imagination to be very small.
So just decide to stop. I know you can’t choose who you’re attracted to, but you chose to be gay. You chose to take on that identity. Choose to be the guy open to someday finding the Asian—or black or latino or redhead or whatever—guy of his dreams.
Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.
Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.
Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.
I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.
The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.
The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:
She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.
The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.
“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”
MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”
I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.
You can buy Sweet & Low here.
I can’t imagine what it must be like not to feel unusual every waking day, and whether or not I ought to believe such people exist, I do. Maybe they’re not online. Or maybe they make online unbearable. The Internet is good when the loneliest person who feels like a freak clicks somewhere and reads someone else also lamenting the same lonely freakishness.
For years I’ve convinced myself that I’m the only person on the planet who, when writing by hand, leaps ahead a letter or two before they’re supposed to. I’ll start on “the” and go “t” and then “e” and then stop, rewrite an “h” over the “e”, and then go do the “e” again. I do this on the board when I write on the board in classes, and I know my students notice and I always pretend I’m not freaking the fuck out.
I do this when I speak, too, in that my thought comes to me faster than my mouth can form it, and so I rarely enunciate. My brain moves too fast. What an arrogant problem to decide I have! And yet: what else is the Internet for than googling one’s shameful arrogant problems?
Last night I found this forum discussion: Does Your Brain Go Faster Than Your Mouth/Hands? That I found it on a discussion board for people on the autism spectrum is something I’m continuing to ignore. Here’s what I was made to feel less lonely and freakish by:
I can’t sort out my writing though – I’m constantly thinking way ahead of myself when I’m writing, and sometimes I find that because I’ve been thinking about a particular word I’m going to write a bit later, I’ve actually half-written one word and merged it with the word I was thinking about. My handwriting is a terrible mess.
My handwriting is a terrible mess. I think of all of these things—my clumsy leaping ahead while writing, the general mess of my penmanship, my froggy voice that fails every time to be clear and project—as failings. They are ways I disappoint and come up short.
Whether or not this is a good way to see my behaviors, the Internet, when it’s good, shows me that other people struggle with the same problems. Solidarity. Solidarity gives me objectivity. These aren’t necessarily failings if successful people manage them. Now: what do I want to do about these features, if anything?
It struck me that one useful project might be to start writing into or about the things that make me feel alone and freakish, because I have to believe from all the evidence shown that I’m going to reach someone like me, and maybe we in our distance can help each other out.
Incidentally, on looking around for voice specialists (yes, it gets this bad sometimes that I’m willing to pay another expert to fix me in this other way), I came across what speech pathologists call the “Rainbow Passage” which from what I can tell comes from an old voice articulation textbook from the 1960s. I’m becoming obsessed with it:
When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow. The rainbow is a division of white light into many beautiful colors. These take the shape of a long round arch, with its path high above, and its two ends apparently beyond the horizon. There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People look but no one ever finds it. When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.
While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:
- Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
- Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
- Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
- Less – Andrew Sean Greer
- The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
- Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
- Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
- Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos
I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.
Today, I’ve got an essay up at Lithub about the choices I made to become queer, an essayist, and an artist. Its title was taken from a panel at last year’s NonfictioNow Conference, which got me thinking about how these three words were related in my own life. Thanks to editors Tim Denevi and Emily Firetog for shepherding it out into the world.