A queer writer reviews queer writers.
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Review of For Every Girl: New and Collected Poems by Kate Gray.
Poet Kate Gray’s new book, For Every Girl, ends with a transcript of a conversation between Gray and Oregon poet laureate emerita, Paulann Petersen. “[T]his book is not arranged as we might expect ‘a new and selected poems’ to be arranged,” Petersen points out. “We might expect four sections. One section from each of your previous books…plus a fourth section of new poems…the new poems and older poems are all mixed together, and not in chronological order.”
Gray seems less interested in charting a clear evolution of her voice as a poet than in redefining how her work could be read in accordance to how her understanding of what’s important in life has evolved. In “Manifesto for the girl” she writes: “You are not a spoon. You do not have to curve / in service.” Consider how this idea of a manifesto has informed the purpose of the poems’ arrangement. Each of the three sections Gray has corralled the poems in is marked by a sentence declaring her intent:
Part I: “You write about the things that scare you to give courage to people who are also afraid—you go to the dangerous places first so others can feel less alone.”
Part II: “As women and men are empowered to tell their stories, the world is a lot richer from those stories and from the landscape that is created by the many voices speaking up.”
Part III: “We won’t be silenced. The more voices, the better. The more stories of survival, stories of community, the stories of siblings helping each other out—all of those stories will help us understand where we go next. And we need to go someplace.”
Gray has dedicated this collection “for my sibs,” and brothers and sisters appear often in these poems, sometimes as individuals (as in “We hear you” and “Coma”), but more often as a collective who help support one another through experiences of shared trauma, starting in childhood. “Drought” is dedicated “for my brothers” and intimates at the lasting effects of these damages: “Record rain / cannot restore what a fist / or hunger hollows.”
“Swimming in a thunderstorm” addresses the way these adult children are changed after their mother’s death. “My sister asks in a voice as soft / as water on water, Is it different, this place, / everything? Yesterday she held our mother’s hand / eggplant and black from weeks of needles.” The sisters float in a pool, aware of the threat of an approaching thunderstorm. “Mother used to sit under the awning / by the pool,” the narrator remembers, sinking to the bottom, “the rain circling on the water above me.” Now she and her sister “swim under threat / of lightning strike.” They feel bereft of a mother to say, as theirs once did, “Time to come out.”
If Gray is the narrator speaking in “Hand-me down,” she is the “youngest of six, I lived / in soft clothes, elbows bowed. Inheritance / smelled like hand-me-downs.” In “Dear sir, comma,” she listens to her mother taking a bath, “her voice, tired / from raising six children / in the ’60s, tired / from hacking herself away / from my father rooting / his madness in us all.”
Gray opens the collection with a poem about this father. “Pears” finds her in a Pacific Northwest coffee shop in winter. A pear scone is to Gray what a madeleine is to Proust. The fruit reminds her of learning to prune fruit trees from a Japanese gardener, and remembering her own father “barking” lessons and spooning out “canned pears soaked in syrup”—a sharp contrast from the sophistication of how “The scone, soft with the baker’s waking, holds / the sun of last summer.” Her thoughts of her father are painful ones to remember, “stuck in the place for speaking, beneath that cold V of skin.” She compares the pastry’s shape “of folded flags” to “The flag folded / from his coffin I never saw.”
“Rarely anymore do I wake myself calling” highlights a serious reason for that estrangement, suggesting sexual abuse by her father—he “slipped from my room”—and the damage it continued to inflict. “Year after year I kept quiet, growing / around my silence the way pine bark / folds barbed wire in its skin.” Gray is not alone with her father in this poem: “My mother never heard,” she writes. “And she didn’t hear.”
The mother’s deafness seems possibly willful, and appears in another poem, “Trauma brain: a love song.” Gray writes, “Mother shut / the door when she played Fats Waller, the piano crying / more than she did, her pain the score she settled / in our bones, what she ignored bored through.” Her father’s crimes are again catalogued: “Daddy isn’t supposed to do what Daddy / does, and let me live screamless for twenty-eight years.”
The mother in these poems (if indeed Gray’s) comes from Southern stock. Looking again at the poem “Hand me down,” the narrator visits the American South where her grandmother lives, “An azalea of a woman,” “her staircase a waterfall of wisteria,” and witnesses her mother accommodating the fierce tribalism of that culture, surprising her children when she “could suddenly drawl.”
“Peony” is another poem that links flowers to the women in Gray’s family, this time to her mother. “You are a beautiful wound / loosening / like the bruises packed in a mother’s / compliments, her withered / blooms never deadheaded.” Perhaps this speaks to the generational impact of trauma. Her mother’s wounds, never excised, continue to hurt the next generation. It’s an idea that several of the poems seem to suggest: our stories of the past painfully wound us, yet we hold on to them—also painfully.
These connected ideas of women and flowers might speak to the collection’s prologue, a quote from Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Here we have this idea of opening, and one way this idea shows up in this collection is again connected to women, when Gray writes about her sexuality.
“My people” is Whitman-esque in its exuberant inclusiveness, each stanza beginning with the words “I claim” and then describing different “dykes”: “the dyke in the weightroom, puffing,” “the dyke in the barroom gloating,” finally opening up to embrace “all dykes honking and flocking.”
In “Beginning with the bang,” Gray writes of what she did with a lover—“With hands / passing from breasts to breasts, we try to hold what we / cannot grasp”—whereas in “Pleasure and need,” she addresses her lover directly: “Imagine your legs / are the river parting, the island / supple, a tongue.” These poems are deeply erotic and capture the heat and obsessive need of sexual desire.
“The moon on the tsunami” is more of an elegy. It mourns not only a lover lost, but the person herself:
the woman I loved
on the other side
of an ocean wrote daily
notes to say the moon
she saw was the same one
And then moves us with the realization that “After she / died, the moon was all / I saw of her.”
“Why I teach English in a community college” is a declaration that again speaks to an idea of a manifesto. “Their stories are my skin,” she writes. Here Gray again touches on her relationship to trauma—“In polite white / worlds, we spoke the only language we / knew: fine, everything is fine.”—this time discovering the solace she and her students experience in the work of finding a way to write their truths, ones that could not be expressed any other way.
Many of the poems (“Some sign,” “Something to wear,” “Someplace safe,” “Veni, vidi, vici,” and “Unlike other exiles”) highlight Gray’s experience in social work, combating societal stigmatizations, and advocating for social causes. “The frame of memory” recounts the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Once pinned with pink triangles, they perished.
Because they were slaughtered, they live on.
They are the only dead we can identify, whose gassed
and ghostly bodies we claim, whose lives resonate
in the walls of one of the few museums in the world
to call us by name.
If we read these poems autobiographically, For Every Girl not only takes measure of Gray’s work, but her life. In clear, simple language and understated prose, the poems show how Gray has lived, and also how she thinks it helpful to live: sensitively, urgently, responsibly. “I will die in Portland in the rain” she imagines in “Variations on texts by Vallejo and Justice” and there’s no fanfare, no remorse or regret. There is a sense of the rightness of everything being washed away. “And after a while the friends with their warm hands / pushed off from the doorframes, stepped past the oak leaves, / and walked into the rain, eyes soft and full.” The final chord sounds, and it’s ringing with acceptance—a fitting end to an extraordinarily fine collection.
I love the outdoors, yet I am not so outdoorsy that I would want to kayak up an Alaskan river, or even to read about someone who had—or so I thought before reading Lava Falls, the latest collection from Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Given the author’s bio—name-checking physical exertions in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Alaska, and Antarctica—somehow I feared these 11 stories and one novella would be vigorously good for the reader, like exercising outside at six in the morning in the middle of winter. I wasn’t prepared for how engagingly Bledsoe would write about the physicality of being in the wild. The thing that really struck me afterward, though, is the breadth of this collection. Each story was different from the one that preceded it. Different characters (with different sexual orientations); different struggles; different settings; different themes.
Many of the narrators and characters are in mid life: 50 and up. There is a weariness in their voices, and a longing, but something placid as well. Some understanding of the self has, at last, been attained. “Everyone relaxes when a woman reaches a certain age, and I find that very relaxing myself,” says the narrator in “Poker.” The stories aren’t always told in the first person, but when they are, as this one is, the narrator is often speaking to herself. Here she does that by mentally addressing an old lover. While there isn’t much outward drama in the story, the relative physical isolation of being “on the ice” in Antarctica heightens the wayward inner feelings.
The writing throughout this collection is direct and the overall tone is unaffected and admirably plain. In “Wildcat,” a blind grandfather and his grandson hunt the animal that’s been stalking their suburban neighborhood. Reviewing the strained relationship with his daughter, the grandfather understands that “Years were like sand. They slid and dispersed. You couldn’t pick them back up again.”
This understated narrative quality nicely highlights Bledsoe’s subtle touches of beauty. In “The Antarctic,” two spinsterish sisters squabble about taking a cruise to the South Pole. Bledsoe describes the pivotal moment that they fight as “when the sky was flat and gray, and only a few red apples hung hard and near-frozen from the tree in the backyard.”
Then again, in a story like “Skylark,” about a talented teenage singer who runs away from home to discover her sexuality and find her voice, Bledsoe gets hold of her conceit like a dog with a tennis ball in its mouth, who noses you with it, yet won’t let go, and you wind up with slobber all over your leg. She does the same thing in “Life Drawing” and “The End of Jesus.” Both focus on the strangling chokehold of a Christian fundamentalist upbringing. Ironically, the “message” of these stories is obvious to the point of sermonizing. “The confusing thing about returning to a place that so warped your existence is that you simultaneously can’t believe you’ve let it have so much power over you even as it exerts its force all over again,” the latter story’s narrator realizes at the start. But there are no further surprises for the reader. I would have welcomed more nuance, and for at least one of the stories to offer a different take on things.
The title story, the novella, concerns a group of intergenerational women who see ghosts from both the past and future on their Grand Canyon rafting trip. Set in a dystopian near-future, what’s most terrifying is how ominous their present time—so close to our country’s present moment—reveals itself to be.
Unfortunately, the six main characters—names, ages, careers, relationships to one another—are all lumped together in one paragraph. It’s like being at a cocktail party where you’re introduced to everyone in the room at once. Wait, who’s Paige? Which one’s Kara? Mark that paragraph because you’ll need to come back to it. Is the novella not long enough for the characters to be introduced gradually? Or is Bledsoe just in a hurry to plop everyone in the boats and head on down the river?
There’s another couple in another boat, and something isn’t right about them, but the suspense doesn’t build. The action is confused and even the dialogue suffers in the end: too much exposition and speech-making. It’s especially a shame because the germ of this story is such a good one. It needed room to develop and grow. That said, I can definitely see this as a movie.
And oddly, the cover of this book shows a young woman underwater in a flowing white dress. The characters are nowhere near as fanciful as this image would suggest. They’re out in kayaks, in boats, in tents, on banks of ice. I see them in anoraks, in shorts and sports bras and tank tops and Teva sandals. In none of the stories does anyone dressed like this Ophelia appear. I don’t understand this choice. It’s confusing, and I really hope Bledsoe doesn’t lose readers because of this. (Anyone drawn to this book because of the cover is bound to be disappointed, or at least confused.)
Overall, though, the spare writing and subtle tonal shifts throughout make for a satisfying, varied collection. The final story, “The We of Me”—dedicated “with thanks” to Carson McCullers—is incredibly charming and comes off almost like a throwaway. It’s much more bonkers than the rest. I’d be happy if this was a direction Bledsoe decides to paddle in for her next collection.
The decision to transition late in life is a bold one. In Chloe Schwenke’s memoir Self-ish: A Transgender Awakening, which documents her own such choice, we meet Stephen, a married man, with a college-age son, a teenage daughter, and a flourishing career as a human rights advocate. But the pressure of another self demands to express itself. “When that dam breaks,” Chloe writes, “it does so with such intensity of thoughts and feelings that many outsiders misinterpret this as a radical life decision that is being rushed, or one that is irrational or bizarre—instead of being simply long overdue.”
Born Stephen, Chloe emerges a woman “who never had a girlhood” in her late fifties. “I still don’t know how to braid my hair,” she laments, and it’s a poignant reminder that despite her advancing age, Chloe is in some ways more emotionally a girl than a woman. It’s an idea that Self=ish reinforces so well: that what we present as may be a far cry from who we really are.
While Stephen agonizes about hurting those to whom he’s made commitments, Chloe’s commitment is firmly to herself. “To be present in any relationship means first to be present to self,” Chloe argues. Hence the title’s conceit. As Chloe later explains, “[f]or transgender people…the decision to claim and own one’s authentic self is wholesomely self-ish…We’ve paid the most awful price for not being more selfish…without a “self” that [we] could love or respect.”
The consequences of the decision to transition are felt almost before Stephen’s even aware that a choice has been made. “It was quickly made clear to me that my decision—choice—to…transition gender was going to be turbulent and emotional for everyone concerned. ‘Everyone concerned’ turned out to be a long list with my name on the top.” Chloe’s conception initiates the gears of destruction on Stephen’s life—as if Chloe, not Stephen, had made the decision.
What makes this story compelling is this push-pull of perspectives: the emerging identification as Chloe and diminishing association as Stephen. We identify with and root for Chloe—yet it’s like a horror movie for those closest to Stephen. The scenes with Stephen’s ex-wife Christine and their children, the guilt and anguish conveyed, are some of the strongest in the book. As Chloe observes, “Christine was uniquely victimized by having to watch, powerlessly and without any control, as each change took place.” Each decision and act that brought Chloe more prominently into the picture was a swipe of the eraser to Stephen. The children each draw their own boundaries. Daughter Audrey, for example, admits she isn’t comfortable having Chloe accompany her to a high school football game. Chloe respects her family’s decisions, and yet between the lines, there’s a nagging feeling: Can’t they just be happy for me? And yet no one understands better than Chloe why they can’t.
Self-ish is a fascinating puzzle of identity. One of the most interesting pieces is Chloe’s faith as a Quaker. “Quaker listening is directed inward as much as it is upward; that essence of the divine is right there inside,” she notes. “I had only to open myself to its message, and listen.” Though the answers are not immediately forthcoming, Chloe’s faith never falters. She continues to engage herself in the quiet found within. ”Those answers were within me, once I knew how to access them—I surprised myself when I found that no one had to teach me to be a woman.”
Another compelling aspect of this book is Chloe’s direct assault against ageism. She’s in her late fifties when she starts to transition Shortly afterwards, she was made one of the first transgender political appointees of the Obama administration as Senior Advisor on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance for Africa at the US Agency for International Development. This high point is followed by a series of challenges which ultimately find Chloe living in a room in her ex-wife Christine’s house where she writes this book and looks for work and love.
As many people her age discover, dating’s no walk in the park. Discovering her attraction to men, Chloe is repeatedly rejected. We feel for her. One possibility for a new life is already foreshortened. Yet Chloe demonstrates resiliency and grace. “I have growing doubts that there exist many men of my generation who are able to accept me as a woman. Fortunately, my womanhood isn’t going to be defined by their acceptance of the same. I am what I am, and I am Chloe, a woman.”
One wonders if there’s been so much distancing from the man she was, that Chloe can no longer inhabit Stephen’s memories and recollections. The early scenes, flashbacks into Stephen’s youth, are dealt with summarily. Young Stephen may come across to some like a fledgling homosexual, but Chloe doesn’t seem to be introspective about Stephen when he was young. There is an awkward insistence on what a “dashing” young man Stephen was, playing his role of the “big man” during his stints living in Africa, yet these sections have very little life in them. Nothing is given of Stephen’s first wife’s perspective. Melanie doesn’t even get a name until the second time she’s mentioned.
Chloe’s experience as a public speaker is apparent and serves her well here. Her writing has a natural engagement, an easy way of letting the rope out--although there’s a somewhat annoying tendency to circle back and “land” her point at the end of each chapter. The book, a memoir, might have been better structured as a series of essays since there are overlapping details and themes. The repetitiveness leads to awkward bridging devices (“as described previously,” “That choice—as I relate later…”) which are clunky. One solution might have been to organize the material chronologically.
But perhaps it was Chloe herself who resisted. In many ways she’s like Athena, bursting whole from the split head of Zeus armed with her own ideas about what’s right for her. I’d have liked to have seen more of her gradual development. Why the name Chloe? We never find out. Stephen might have been able to tell us. But then, it’s refreshing that Chloe is there at the outset, on page one. It’s her story now.