In anticipation of the release of our Spring 2021 issue, “The Polymorphous per Verse Issue”—an issue dedicated to writing by trans, Two-Spirit, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people—we are reprinting guest editor Ali Blythe’s essay, “Fierce Inventory.” This essay first appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine 85, our Winter 2018 issue.
Children’s Prison Shower
Don’t tell me how it ends. The one about the boy who says everything twice and is therefore sent to children’s prison.
Especially don’t tell me he eventually stops saying everything twice because of good adult intervention.
Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler is a book that has haunted me for more than thirty years. I read it as a kid, and never since. In the original 1975 book, I recall there being a line drawing by Fritz Wegner of six-year-old Jacob completely naked in the prison shower. I found it frightening and attractive. What was happening to him? (I don’t even know for certain he was in a shower. I am forever placing people in showers.)
At ten, I find myself in a children’s prison called Grade 5, where I’m called Half & Half—I still pause, every time I put it in my coffee—and the kids sing a ditty about me being half-man, half-woman, to the tune of the 1985 Halsa Hair commercial. I can only dream of having an alarmingly sized, professional ex-wrestler in a silk robe called The Hooded Fang to guard me. After that, I spend decades putting myself in a different kind of prison.
We all have prisons. They can be places where we still work and drink nice coffees with people we love.
I have resisted the urge to track down the Mordecai Richler book again, as a small but reverent nod to disappearance. I write a lot about the kinds of creatures who tend to disappear. Mostly two-in-one creatures. To be truthful, I’m also nervous that my sketchy, dreamy resemblance to Jacob will disappear.
Though it’s decades between encounters, Richard Siken would be the next writer after Mordecai Richler to make me feel the shuddering whump of knowing something is happening, likely irrevocable, but not being able to quite make out what.
It happens seven poems into his first book, Crush:
You’re on your back in your undershirt, a broken man
11111111111 on an ugly bedspread, staring at the water stains
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 on the ceiling.
111111111 And you can hear the man in the apartment above you
111111111111111111 taking off his shoes.
You hear the first boot hit the floor and you’re looking up,
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111 you’re waiting
11111 because you thought it would follow, you thought there would be
11111111111 some logic, perhaps, something to pull it all together
1111111111but here we are in the weeds again,
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 here we are
in the bowels of the thing: your world doesn’t make sense.
11111111111 And then the second boot falls.
11111111111111111111111111111 And then a third, a fourth, a fifth.
Every time I get to the part where the fifth boot falls I’m absolutely terrified for the guy in the poem, for Siken, and for myself, too.
Two makes sense. Even four. But five? Where the hell did that fifth boot come from?
Bobby Pin Method
When I read Leslie Fienberg’s Stone Butch Blues as a teenager, I knew something was coming for me one day. It had to do with precariousness in the body. The chance you might be caught out. The brutish reality of changing form. Ultimately, death. But shit it looked good, too. That said, I never wanted to be Feinberg’s protagonist, Jess. Though at the time, I couldn’t have told you who I did want to be.
Harry Dodge is the first person I look at and say, Oh yes. There. Okay. I want to be like that. I come to know him because he is in Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Argonauts. Then I come to know him in his own right. So Maggie Nelson’s Harry Dodge then Harry Dodge’s Harry Dodge.
They are lovers, he is taking testosterone and undergoing chest surgery while she is pregnant with their son, his art has a “special focus on ecstatic contamination,” his hair is growing wilder in each successive selfie. And the lines around his eyes, his eyes, they are deepening. I see a trans male artist growing older. This is something I haven’t seen much before.
I have permanently altered a page of The Argonauts by pushing a bobby pin under one line. It’s about compatible perversities. I’ve done so because it immediately, and out-of-context, made sense as a go or no-go method.
Go or no-go method for what? When I make a decision about what form my body is to take. For instance. Who I want to let take it. I charged the line with this questioning: Are my perversities (both in its definition, “a quality of being contrary to accepted standards” and the more colloquial understanding) compatible with this choice, this moment, this movement, this other?
I pull it out and can still feel its creases, see its shadows.
Am I trusting my desires? Even if there is risk involved. In being seen for what I am.
Vessel of Bottom Smashed Off
If a woman who thinks they are a man
is mad, a man who thinks they are a man
is no less so — via Nelson, via Lacan.
The man slams the door in the wind,
a reverberation of unmet need.
The man is preceded by his substances
of use, the who-said-what to who.
The man’s hands are shaking
out masculinity, femininity in the air
—a woman fell from the man’s body
when he stood to leave.
She roams the place in a towel
wet, and unresponsive.
The man goes to the toilet.
Empties himself. Comes back.
The man should be working.
He’s working. Blinking out and waking up
on a silver and green recovery chair.
He took my glass to the fountain,
tried to fill it to drink. Tried to fill it
and drink. Wet footsteps
lead back to the chair.
The man’s chest is numb. Something
must’ve fallen asleep on it.
The man’s mouth paces, unacquiescent,
going through doors just to slam them.
I jump and the man’s
skin comes with me.
“How has the no drinking plan gone?” my editor Phil Hall writes to me in larger-than-normal font, “It does change everything, in some very subtle ways, eh?”
I remember tilting the first vial in the sun. Two years after starting testosterone, I’d be sober. The statistic for trans men getting sober is high. High enough someone joked, you aren’t going to stop drinking are you? when I told them I was transitioning.
I do wonder about an experiment. ‘Men’ take a six-month course of estrogen and ‘women’ of testosterone. To feel the changes in how people react to you. In how you react to others. To learn the codes and to forget them. To experience the subtle shifts. “Subtle” being Phil’s subtle code for the also not-so-subtle.
E.g., I used to feel anger and fear in my chest and stomach. After transition, I thought these feelings had largely disappeared. But no, I now realize what the new jolting flashes in my hands and arms are. The feelings snaking outward. And what to do with the eyes is completely opposite now. I relearn when to look. When not to. At who. For how long. But mostly, I’m let alone now, to do and say as I please. Or not to do or say anything. Let him be, everyone seems to say to me with their words and bodies.
In “Bottom,” a long poem and essay on drinking and recovery I carry with me everywhere, Phil writes about why, to him, “sobriety is a matriarchy.”
“I was a drinking ‘woman’ and now a sober ‘man’,” I reply to him, in a more affordable font size. “So sober feels very attached to my masculine being. Testosterone/masculinity drew a line down the centre of me to the earth, which allowed my sobriety, which allowed openness, honesty, the feminine. Anyway, I take a step and it’s in my feet.”
The right hand of his margin in “Bottom” replies:
I wish to write here about masculinity. It doesn’t exist. And yet. I take up its space and it takes up mine.
What does it mean that people read me as masculine because of all the gestures that are both completely mine and completely learned? (This is your life, to do as you please, I sometimes tell my dog, though he lives within the strange set of rules I create for him.) When I balance this teacup on my thigh it is a masculine gesture because I perform it. I perform the gesture because many years ago at a lecture in Abkhazi Gardens I saw a man who widely and serenely balanced a teacup on his thigh and in that moment I flashed forward to my own possible manhood. It is masculine because my thigh is a location of possible manhood, having hovered over it then jabbed upward of 200 times. This is just one gesture.
And what does masculinity mean in relation to my lifelong attraction to femininity? And what is that? Because certainly it is the charge of the connection between the masculine and feminine to which I also say, Oh yes, there, okay.
With transition, too, all the private rivers of my own femininity that I had largely abjured (quit dancing around in your little long johns, Blythe) are given new freedom to flow in the channel of masculinity. If I were the evangelistic type, I would quote Chapter 28 of the Tao, before wishing to lightly flick the vice versa switch and see what happens.
How do I make masculinity three-dimensional so I can peer at it? I clear a shelf in my bookcase, already seeing the myriad ways this will go wrong, and start moving books over to it. The condition for being moved to the shelf is the book must enact a kind of feeling in me that is here. That here is masculinity. Greogry Scofield’s prayer for the peace of stars. John Ashbery’s thing that is prepared to happen. Raymond Carver’s boat tugging against its rope. Dean Young’s one last wild enjambment.
“You need an edge,” Michael Cullen tells me, after reading my earliest poems. An edge. I feel in that moment the convergence of the poemself and bodyself. He tells me a Johnny Cash story. The sun is setting and Cash is at the microphone introducing his last song: “If you just keep walking into the sunset, it’ll never go down,” he says, then starts to sing.
Michael once declared the perfect sentence to be this one, from the insanely attractive messenger of popular music: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.” The commas sound more like periods when he says it. He is big on sentences. Sentences with silences at the beginning and end. White space. Michael would be dead of a brain aneurysm a couple years later.
In transition, I enter my body. With sobriety, I start to feel my edges. And with those, a fear of death. You can’t leave the party until you’ve arrived.
One moment ago, the exact moment my mind and body put together the words mortality and masculinity a bird flies in through the window, bangs into the mirror, and flies out.
I am walking in the mountain woods with Tim Lilburn. Not a dream, remarkably. He is talking about a small change he is making in his poetic form, how it will change everything.
I go back to the hotel. I give myself exactly four poetic feet and then I have to return to the left-hand margin. I give myself four lines and then I have to take a stanza break. I’m in a small, beautiful box. Maybe the kind in which a body gets sawn in half and brought back together.
I’m so busy with the sawing I don’t see what’s going on with the other hand. These are the first poems I will read aloud to people with my new voice. One I have been writing toward. It is felled. It also mispronounces “Ovid.”
At the same reading, I meet Betsy/Oscar Warland for the first time. (I keep accidentally retyping a ? instead of a / within their name. I think they’d like that.) They are a reinvention of form, having lived up against constraint in gender and genre. Their kind of masculinity and age is like taking a drink from a fountain you’ve been walking towards for a very long time.
I am surprised to meet a woman with flowing grey hair and a silk chemise. She too, in the process of transition. Autumn Getty admits she thought I’d asked her to do a reading with me because I somehow knew, before she’d let the cat out of the bag. I hadn’t.
It’s her first reading as herself. She reads some pre-transition poems about living in women’s shelters as a kid, poems that conceive the feminine as object of desire, the feminine divine—poems that some folks used to deeply question when they looked at her and saw a man.
It took forty years for me to take up the word Him in public.
With sobriety, with being trans, my edges sharpen as the world’s do. Inhabiting the body without the gauze. Take care, take care, I want to tell everything. But live at risk. But take care.
It’s 4 a.m. after the reading in my hotel room. “Sometimes you just have to leap,” she says to me, right before I do.
In the first four months of sobriety, the ones I spend in a circle looking at the same solid boots, I imagine lying in the desert at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with my shirt off. I also imagine a man in white pants coming to check on me once a day, bringing his medicines, before leaving me to it. A little Man Needs a Maid-y, I know.
When the program is done, I say goodbye-for-now to loved ones, and pack up the pup for the four-day drive. I also pack thirty poems, having written one a day through one of the tougher months. I take up my unmanageability harmonica to begin to try and talk about it all.
Along the way, I’m invited to not return to Oregon for a good while, due to the speed at which I drive through their state. The extortionate ticket says I’m a six-foot-one man who weighs in at one-eighty. I’ll take the ticket. Praxis is expensive.
I pull over at the beginning of the Taos Pueblo Land to take in the landscape that is my every imagining, and chew sage, and let my dog pee. In a field of cactus and jackrabbit. Whoops. He hates the cold water I use to wash the blood away more than the hundreds of quills I have to pull. But he’s happy. We’re here.
Every sunset the mountain turns gold then rose before the shadow of the earth runs up it. The nights fall well below our zero. It snows and stays. Here is where I will spend half a year, letting my body be.
Once a day I walk the loop in the mesa with my new neighbour and our pups. We talk about our daily projects, whether the mice have hantavirus, if I need a toaster, if she heard the coyotes last night, what will happen to us all now… it’s just after the 2016 US election. Her wife takes me up Gold Hill—I climb mountains now. On my one-year, they give me Out of the Wreck I Rise, a book of quotes from writers about their relationship to alcohol and being.
I read Eileen Myles’ Snowflake / Different streets, enacting a kind of two-thing in the form, with one book headed one way and the other flipped over and headed the other. Myles is gorgeously present throughout. They leave breadcrumbs of themselves down the page and I fly down it hungrily.
I read Lisa Robertson’s Three Summers, in which I am ravished with her thinking about time and form, hormones and pronouns, and the “narrative of femininity” as she explains it to the dog. At some point in the province of opposites I begin to switch the pronouns to he and him in my head. I start thinking into my lyric of masculinity. The sketch of my beard grows in and I might look a little like Harry. I lie in the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I start to dream in my own body.
Invisible Deck of Cards
I dream that I enter Matthew Zapruder’s apartment. Though displeased I haven’t knocked, he asks me to sit. His hands are folding together an invisible deck of cards to play a game of solitaire. I realize he can not only memorize a deck that doesn’t exist, but shuffle and play.
These mornings in Vancouver, I take his gambolling associations to the dog park and watch my tailless dog play. I wish to give a copy of his Why Poetry to every kid who bravely sends a poem to the youth literary journal I edit.
Zapruder says what makes a poem an undependable vehicle for advocacy is that it is easily distracted:
It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.
The Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince says that if he were given a pill that saved fifty-three minutes a year because he would no longer have to drink water, he would use those fifty-three minutes to walk very slowly toward a water fountain.
Now that I’m thinking, it was the French version, Le Petit Prince, I read, probably around the same time as Jacob Two-Two, and I only had rudimentary French. Makes for some translation surrealism. But what immediately mesmerized me was Saint Ex’s drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant in Chapter 1. The hat-like creature the two make. I can’t stop looking. If it were to come to life, how would that two-thing feel about my particular kind of looking? I wonder.
“Hi Lao,” I say to my little desk cactus, which I dreamt I pulled from the flesh of my own left hand, its green protuberances. The quills come with it.
As I’ve sat here writing this, a book has arrived. Nico Amador’s Flower Wars. It has a luminous yellow cover—which I’ve already mistreated—with four types of scissors on it. The ones for cutting hair are larger and inverted.
Inside, someone will transform. He’ll tell you what changed, exactly, if you let him. Ask me about mazes, says the button pinned to the business suit of a Minotaur in the pages of The New Yorker. Transformation is a disappearing act, where sometimes you get to reappear.
At some point, I looked in the heretofore-evaded mirror to see I’d become my childhood taunt of Half & Half. There must be some kind of celebration for when you finally become your childhood taunt. And then I slipped past that.
I do hope I’ll always be able to write like that drawing. Of the boy who says everything twice. Naked. In the shower. Afraid is implied all over the place.
“There is the dream of exposure and then there is the act of it—” Amador begins. I turn the page and it’s blank.
Ali Blythe is the author of two critically acclaimed books exploring trans-poetics: the debut collection, Twoism, and the follow-up, Hymnswitch, which was named a Walrus top ten book of the year in 2019. His poems are published in literary journals and anthologies in Canada, England, Germany and Slovenia. He lives in Victoria, BC.