April Links Roundup: Let’s Talk About Anything Else

Week Three of my captivity: We have decided “The Magic Schoolbus” counts as homeschooling. I have a slight crush on Ms. Frizzle (that sultry voice!). Doing a 500-piece Harry Potter jigsaw puzzle despite not caring about Harry Potter or puzzles. Bought four pints of ice cream today, even though only weird flavors like Whiskey Hazelnut Latte were left. At least that’s what I think it’s called; I could hardly see because my face mask was fogging up my eyeglasses. For some reason I thought this was a good time to start binge-watching “Bojack Horseman”, perhaps so I’m not tempted to consume the alcohol-laced desserts too fast. Also have a slight crush on Mr. Peanut Butter.

If you want more coronavirus news, it’s at the end of the post. I thought we could all use a distraction.

Gay literary fiction author Garth Greenwell was all over the news at the beginning of 2020 for his new book Cleanness, a sequel to his award-winning debut What Belongs to You, about an American teacher in Bulgaria whose sexual encounters reflect his existential crisis of both wanting and rejecting intimacy. In this interview at Craft Magazine, Greenwell shares insights about, among other things, the connection between queerness and literary technique:

I’m interested in the way that the shapes we make in art can mirror or resemble or question or complicate the shapes we make in pleasure. One of the things that interests me about queerness in art is I do think that novel affective and sexual arrangements demand novel forms…

[T]he idea that I hear in fiction workshops espoused as an ideal of good narrative-making is that you have a story that has a dominant plot and subplots, and you have a story that has a through line, you have a story that has a center. All of those things are fundamentally monogamous, they’re fundamentally predicated on the idea of life as monogamous, as life being drawn to a single affective center. Well, what if life doesn’t look like that? Then it seems to me that your story could have a very different shape.

And yes, I guess I am interested in the idea, it’s a very old idea, that fundamental idea we have of ideal structures in art as gendered, and that they are connected to sex. That’s an idea I encountered first as a music student in the 1990s reading feminist musicology, that many of our ideas of musical structure basically seem to resemble male orgasm. Feminist musicologists and feminist music theorists [were] sort of asking, what would music look like if instead of taking the experience of the male orgasm as our primary experience of transcendence, we took the experience of female orgasm? What would that look like? How would that change what art might be? That seems to me a really profound question and one that it’s not the kind of question you answer, but that you might explore in art. To me, it’s a question that unsettles my sense of what art can do. The way that I feel like I grow as an artist is by seeking out questions that unsettle my sense of what art can do.

Greenwell also pushes back against the pressure to create unambiguously “positive” representation, saying that as a gay teen in “pre-Internet Kentucky”, even tragic literature about homosexuality was liberating because “it gave me a sense of my life as accommodating of dignity.” He concludes:

I think the relevance of art to our lives is always endlessly mysterious, and never corresponds to a one-to-one relation of “I need a story to suggest to me that my life can be bearable and I can have the life I want to have.” I don’t think that’s how art works, and I think it’s really important to remember that. Any time we feel, as I think as a culture we are expressing this very much, very often, that we can place those kinds of claims on art—we cannot. It is illegitimate, I think, to ever tell an artist they have a responsibility to represent reality in a certain way.

AU: America’s AIDS Magazine last month profiled 80-year-old artist and activist Jack Fritscher, a former Catholic seminarian whose eclectic projects included the 1972 book Popular Witchcraft. Fritscher said: “During the Sixties sexual revolution and the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council revolution, it seemed worthwhile to research witchcraft as another evolving theology in American pop culture.” I was struck by his description of creative synergy:

I am not a Satanist. I’m a journalist. I’m also a magician. As an erotic writer, I conjure sex magic to seduce readers into transformative orgasm by casting the ‘spell’ of words into erotic runes that burn the reader down.

Another gay elder, prolific children’s book writer-illustrator Tomie dePaola, passed away last month. His distinctive artwork, with plush rounded forms and gentle colors, was a fixture of our 1970s childhoods. I particularly remember cherishing The Cloud Book and The Clown of God. When Shane was a toddler, a friend gave us a board book of dePaola’s Strega Nona, about a witch with a magical pasta pot (#lifegoals). See his complete bibliography on his website.

Poet and nonfiction writer J Brooke recently won Columbia Journal’s Womxn’s History Month Special Issue contest with eir excellent, nuanced essay “Hybrid”, about the many permutations of eir gender identity from childhood to middle age. Now the parent of a young trans man, Brooke reflects on the similarities and differences in how they both express their masculine sides. E describes an epiphany from reading Chas Bono’s transition memoir in eir 40s:

Born a boy in a female body, Chas eventually realized he needed to transition into a man. With such similar early years, I wondered, for the first time, if I’d denied myself my true gender. And, if I had, now what was I supposed to do about it?

…Exploring with a therapist whether I still wanted to be the male I’d wanted to be back in my teens, I discovered that while I would have blinked my breasts away at any point in my life, my aversion to surgery would keep me from an elective double mastectomy. As for facial hair, I’d outgrown my desire for it along with my silver spoon shaving years. Learning how testosterone alters the brain, I didn’t want that either…liking the wiring of my female-male brain, however it’s been fused and formed over the years. And, while I’d once perfected peeing while standing, I didn’t wish a penis appended to my body. I was born male and yet no longer felt wholly male; I had morphed into something other.

My favorite poet-mystic Ariana Reines lays down some astrological wisdom in her March 23 New Moon Report. Writing about our new default state of enforced solitude and quiescence, Reines declares:

In order to handle it, the luckiest among us—those of us who are staring down the barrel of nothing worse than boredom and loneliness—are going to need skills and commitment on the level of the great yogis and saints, of deeply committed artists—simply to remain sane, or rather to attain sanity.

What we are facing right now is death.

And somehow I wish neither to give comfort about this fact nor do I wish to scold you about those people and causes to whom and to which you should be devoting your copious spare time and, very likely, dwindling material resources.

There are things I could say about what artists know about being alone, about the transubstantiation of loneliness into solitude that has guided us spiritually since the Buddha first left his wife and kids to wander and sit under that tree . . . and long before that . . . I could preach to you about the touchless touch of the unified field, the negative space that unites us all, about the substance of our love and longing dilating like the auras all about us, about the immanence of God and the reality of angels, about how lucky we are to have the internet and how lucky we are to finally have a chance to learn how to use it for good instead of evil . . .

But I need to remind myself and you that what we are facing is death. It’s not just that people we love will die, but that every time we wash our hands and every day we don’t go outside, mathematically, fewer people will die. We have been drawn into a new calculus. But it isn’t just this either. I suspect we’re also moving into the death of the era in which any of us belongs sitting quietly alone in a room. Whatever America has been, and whatever we have been, we are facing its death.

And in another sense we are all pregnant and this is our lying-in…

…And what about solitude’s products? What about great works of art? These lonesome productions of genius seem to me now like melancholy miracles of an epoch that has devoured without pity the real genius of this place, by which I mean Earth—the cultures, animals, plants, and spirits—hundreds and thousands of spirits, of every description and disposition—that have lived and even thrived here. It has occurred to me that art simply returns to the world some of the abundance it has given us, in the same way that in elder cultures song and ritual would do, and it has occurred to me that art restores balance to the world, which is tilted on purpose, and that there is something about this gift—compelled as it is from us—that is especially hard to accomplish with things set up the way we’ve organized them since the Industrial Revolution.

We cannot live without art, but the Promethean force required to bring it forth is immense, is even sick, an index of our greater sickness. It takes a quantity of human grit to accomplish anything great that I don’t see how any school could teach. And now everyone gets to have a taste of it: what it means, and what it takes to be thrown back on yourself, and to summon out of absolutely nothing, less than nothing, some kind of treasure, some kind of nectar on which not only you but others might feed, something deeper than food and older than even ideas and without which your soul would die.

Need a laugh? How about art produced without tears? Janelle Shane’s neural networks are here for you. Neural networks are computer learning programs that look at large data sets to generate other possible examples of the same genre–sometimes accurately, sometimes hilariously off-kilter. Here, the AI has applied itself to in rem jurisdiction lawsuits, a/k/a “Court Cases That Sound Like the Weirdest Fights”.

One of the quirks of the US legal system is that in certain cases the court will set up a case against inanimate objects–something to do with the process of seizing contraband or dangerous goods…

Some of the strangest have included:

United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film
United States v. One Book Called Ulysses
United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton
United States v One Solid Gold Object In The Form Of A Rooster
Quantity of Books v. Kansas
South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats

Those are the real ones. The REAL ONES.

What would they be like when imitated by a neural net?

A couple of months ago, the AI’s United States v. Two Packs of Filthy Watermelon Pretzels sounded like a farce; now it’s a description of the stripped shelves at Walmart. What a world.

I’ll give the last word to horror novelist Chuck Wendig, whose funny and foul-mouthed writing advice brightens my Twitter feed. He wants to remind us that “None of This Is Normal”:

You cannot meet abnormality with increased normalcy. It just doesn’t work. There’s no countermanding it that way. We’re told we can be more productive, that we’re all work-from-home now, but lemme tell you: this isn’t your average way to work-from-home. This isn’t how to accelerate productivity. It’s like being told to work-from-home during a locust plague and a forest fire. “Just sit there and do the work, head down, don’t look outside, definitely don’t match eyes with Baalzebub, who is currently stalking the neighborhood next door with a SCYTHE made of BITING FLIES. It’s fine! Ha ha ha! Haven’t you always wanted to learn how to crochet? Now’s the time! Just ignore the screaming!”

It’s hard to concentrate when everything is so strange, so broken, so dangerous. It’s like being told to paint a masterpiece while on a turbulent flight. It’s just not the time.

And so, I want you to know, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be somehow a better, more productive person in this time. You can be! If you are, more power to you. That doesn’t make you a monster. But if you’re finding yourself unable to concentrate, that’s to be expected. That is normal. Normal is feeling abnormal in response to abnormality. You must be kind to yourself and to others when it comes to what we think people can and should be able to accomplish during this time. Ten million people are out of work, suddenly. People are sick and dying. The thing we crave at a base level, human interaction, is suddenly fraught and fragile. Hell, everything is fraught and fragile. We’re only realizing now that it was fragile all this time.

Maybe I won’t try to finish my novel by Easter.

Not Business as Usual: Our Forced Lent in a Non-Liturgical World

The symbolism is too on-the-nose to be good fiction: America in the time of COVID-19 is observing Lent whether we want to or not. We are anchorites (if we’re being responsible, that is), sequestered for contemplation and mourning.

This can be especially hard because we don’t have a cultural template for nonresistance. Everything is supposed to be a battle. Obituaries say that someone “lost their fight against cancer,” as if we’re all obligated to treat the human condition of sickness and death as an adversary. The United States is rhetorically at war against drugs and terrorism, all the while exporting both of those misfortunes to countries that our leaders don’t care about. After a hate crime like the Orlando gay nightclub murders, the queer community shows our undefeated spirit by marching, celebrating, and coming out.

When I was living in NYC during 9/11, I remember it was scarcely a week before the banners went up along Seventh Avenue: “Fight back New York, go shopping!” Every tourist kiosk was hawking American flag pins and Death-to-Osama shirts within days of the attack. With the exception of a few anti-war protesters, as a culture we somehow decided instantly that the best response to a paradigm-shattering event was denial or aggression.

But the virus doesn’t care about our indomitable spirit. We aren’t proving anything, except our ignorance of biology, by tweeting defiant pictures of ourselves in a crowded bar. Stay the fuck home.

I’ve noticed a change in my attitude toward time and routine this week. The first couple of days I was panicking: holy shit I’m alone with my feelings and my 8-year-old. I don’t have regular TV and all my appointments are cancelled, how am I going to remember which day of the week it is? Then his wonderful hardworking teachers who should be paid a million dollars sent home a huge packet of homeschool curriculum ideas, and I realized, it’s too soon to return to the “normalcy” I thought I wanted. (Obligatory privilege check: I’m insanely lucky to have a work-from-home job already, and a yard to run the Young Master around in.) Let’s savor having nowhere to rush to. Let’s allow our brains to work only at half capacity because anxiety attacks are screwing up our executive functioning. Let’s tune in to springtime and the awakening earth. We’ll need that refreshment and spiritual strength when the news is scary, i.e. every fucking day.

Make a shit ton of art.

Stay Home, Read Things

Greetings from week one of the pandemic. As I’m a self-employed introvert, the cancellation of everything has only slightly intensified my normal sessile lifestyle, but (like everyone else) I’m too stressed to concentrate on writing my novel. Wish me luck at homeschooling the Young Master.

The next month will be crucial in slowing the spread of the disease. Stay the fuck home, people! Here are some good book recommendations for you to pass the time.

Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (Tin House Books, 2019): My favorite contemporary poet just won the Kingsley Tufts Award for this visionary collection, which pursues sublime self-transcendence through radical honesty about the messiness of the flesh and the addictive ephemera of “the age of spectacle”. Reines can write a deadpan account of the nightly ritual of squeezing pimples and changing tampons, and in the next breath, proclaim “I had an idea of symmetry/Bordering on theology/That dictated I consume/Darkness in proportion/To ‘the world’s'” (a mission statement reminding me Johnny Cash’s vocation to “carry off a little darkness on my back”). This is a book to support you through the apocalypse.

Cynthia Lowen, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (University of Georgia Press, 2013): Elegant and unforgiving as equations, these poems hold us accountable for living in the nuclear age. Persona poems in the voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, reveal self-serving rationalizations and belated remorse, while other poems give voice to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This collection is notable for exposing the emotional logic of scientific imperialism, rather than revisiting familiar scenes of the bomb’s devastating effects.

Rachel Cline, The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019): This slim, incisive, timely novel of the #MeToo Movement explores the long aftermath of a popular teacher’s serial predation on tween girls in a 1970s Brooklyn private school (which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to St. Ann’s, which Rachel and I both attended). Two middle-aged women, once childhood best friends, find themselves on opposite sides of another sexual misconduct case because of the different psychological strategies they employed to cope with their victimization. I’m currently trying to get through the movie “American Beauty” on DVD and feeling disturbed by the high school cheerleader’s confident pursuit of her friend’s sad-sack father, which doesn’t ring true to the complex power dynamics in real-life “Lolita” situations. The Question Authority fearlessly examines the gray areas of consent, understanding that young women routinely overestimate how much choice and objectivity they could really bring to a relationship with an older male mentor.

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): This novel about the last day in the life of a corrupt real estate developer in New Orleans is an insightful, morbidly funny story about how tragic choices reverberate through the generations. One could call it a Jewish version of “The Sopranos” but where that show was cynical and bleak, this book is full of compassion and even a kind of poetic justice at the end. I loved the unusual technique of shifting perspectives suddenly to the thoughts of a minor character in the scene, like the ferryman or the drugstore checkout clerk. It reminded me of the moment in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch where Theo discovers the truth about the contraband he’s been obsessed with protecting–a refreshing turn from the claustrophobia of tragedy, to comedy that humbles and reconnects us to the mass of humanity.

Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, 2020): Journalist, public speaker, and science fiction writer Mikki Kendall’s new essay collection combines personal anecdotes and thoroughly sourced data to argue for a more intersectional feminism. She explains how race and class analysis gets left out of mainstream white feminism, and makes the case for treating issues like gun violence, food insecurity, and educational access as specifically feminist issues. Follow her on Twitter @Karnythia.

Courtney Milan, The Brothers Sinister box set: Four books and three novellas of delightful Victorian romance with a social conscience. Milan’s heroines are suffragettes, scientists, a chess champion and more. Her heroes are the kind of aristocrat who wants to reform factory conditions and give the vote to commoners. The main pairings are all M/F but there are a few queer side characters including two lesbian couples.

Suanne Laqueur, A Charm of Finches (2017): This gay romance novel about male survivors of rape handles brutal material in a responsible, compassionate way, with a hard-earned and believable happy ending (or the beginnings of one) for its wounded characters, and no bullshit about forgiveness. I discovered the first book in this series, An Exaltation of Larks, because it was submitted to our 2019 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published books. We awarded it first prize in the Genre Fiction category! I do recommend reading the books in order because “Finches” gives away all the major plot revelations of the preceding book.

That’s all for now, folks. Make sure you have enough lotion for all that hand-washing and…whatever else you thots are doing since you can’t go on Grindr.

March Links Roundup: Uptown Rat

Uptown rat…You know I can’t afford to buy her trash…

The quintessential New Yorker, the subway rat, turns out to have distinctive neighborhood populations just like the Big Apple’s human residents. According to The Atlantic, “New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats”. In 2017, a genetics grad student at Fordham sequenced the critters’ DNA, with the goal of controlling the vermin problem by understanding their migration patterns.

Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It’s not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don’t mix much.

When the researchers drilled down even deeper, they found that different neighborhoods have their own distinct rats. “If you gave us a rat, we could tell whether it came from the West Village or the East Village,” says Combs. “They’re actually unique little rat neighborhoods.” And the boundaries of rat neighborhoods can fit surprisingly well with human ones.

(True New York rats understand Times Square is just for tourists.)

Rats get a bad name, but humans right now are casting doubt on the superiority of our species. Last month in #MeToo news, the Christian humanitarian organization L’Arche disclosed that their revered founder, the late Jean Vanier, had sexually exploited a number of women under his spiritual direction. Founded in France in 1964, L’Arche is a network of intentional communities where non-disabled people live in fellowship with those who have intellectual disabilities. Catholic theologian and popular author Henri Nouwen had a spiritual awakening there and was pastor of a L’Arche community in Ontario for the last 10 years of his life. The Catholic magazine America reports:

Mr. Vanier is accused of sexual misconduct with six adult, non-disabled women who sought spiritual direction from the late activist, author and philosopher. According to a press release from L’Arche USA, the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

According to the release, the inquiry “has found the allegations to be credible.”

…The L’Arche founder’s behavior seemed to repeat the pattern of abuse initiated by his mentor, according to the investigation. Father Philippe had been Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” who inspired him to begin his ministry with disabled people. The pair met in 1950, when Mr. Vanier, then in his 20s, joined L’Eau Vive, a community for theology students in France founded by Father Philippe. Two years later, Father Philippe was called to Rome and removed from ministry, ostensibly for unspecified health reasons.

Some scholars suggest that Father Philippe was removed from ministry then because “for his unorthodoxy and exaggerated Marian mysticism, which was based on an experience he had in prayer in 1937.” That theology appears to have been used in Father Philippe’s promotion of sexual practices in his spiritual counseling.

According to L’Arche: “At least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe’s spiritual direction in 1951/1952.”

Mr. Vanier had maintained for years that he did not know why Father Philippe had been removed from ministry in 1952…But the new investigation reveal[ed] that was not true.

Followers of the clergy abuse beat may notice similarities to the late Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, a similarly revered figure in progressive Christian circles, who is believed to have harassed or abused some 100 women in the guise of intimate spiritual counseling, as summarized in this 2015 article in The Mennonite.

For a broader analysis, The Revealer magazine’s March 2020 special issue examines “Religion & Sex Abuse in and Beyond the Catholic Church”. I found the article “The Guru-Disciple Relationship and the Complications of Consent” especially thought-provoking: can there even be “nonconsensual sex” in the context of a relationship where the disciple has voluntarily sworn complete submission to the guru? When does victim advocacy become an imposition of our own values on someone else’s religion? Personally, this is the point where I feel we’re making an idol out of tolerance and pluralism. But radical feminists might say the same thing about kink. The piece left me wondering if there are any formal checks on a guru’s power in this system, like a safeword in BDSM. I don’t think it’s cultural imperialism to advocate for accountability structures within the guru-disciple relationship, just as we (theoretically!) have rules against abuses in the military, despite the expectation of obedience to your commanding officer.

Queer Christian activist Kevin Garcia brings the clarity with his new blog post “We Consented to Our Own Abuse”, about how non-affirming churches gaslight LGBTQ people into believing that suffering and exclusion are “loving”.

I called myself disgusting. I called myself sinful and gross. I thought these things about myself. And it made me cry that I tried so hard but couldn’t change.

But I was told, if I would just hold on, hold on and wait for God’s best for me to show up, then I could stay a part of this beloved community.

In my community, uniformity of thought was so important. Uniformity of feeling was also fairly important. We had to all show this outward sign of God’s work in our lives. JOY! PEACE! KINDNESS! That was the fruit of the spirit. But if your joy didn’t look like their joy, if your peace didn’t look like their peace, then they would apply their own form of “kindness” in order to get you there. They’d wanna “love on you.”

I was made to believe that if I didn’t belong, I would never feel happy because I’d be outside of God’s presence. On top of that, I was also told that I’d go to hell if I chose to live outside what they said was God’s will.

And anytime I got “loved on,” to be honest most of the time it hurt.

Love shouldn’t hurt.

But I didn’t know that. I was taught that I had to make a sacrifice for the kingdom of God. I was told that what I had to offer was not acceptable to God, who I was, the way I loved and the way I connected with others was sinful. What was weird is that I wanted this thing I was told was sinful. “A king gets to make demands that seem unjust to us, but He’s the king. We don’t get to question that sovereignty.”

Read the whole thing and prepare to cry. Kevin is so right: “it is worth everything to be free. It is worth everything to rediscover your infinite connection to Love.”

Sorry to beat a dead rat–er, horse–but stories like this February item from Raw Story cement my conviction that evangelical Christianity has lost all moral credibility: “White evangelicals are set to undermine Native American adoption protections”. In 2016, a Cherokee/Navaho toddler was placed for adoption with a white evangelical couple in Texas, but the federal Indian Child Welfare Act first requires authorities to search for a Native adoptive family from the child’s background (though not necessarily related to him). Only if no such placement can be found, is the child eligible for adoption outside the tribe. The white couple is challenging this law:

By this point, the tribes have relented and allowed the adoption to go through. But the Brackeens are now pushing for the invalidation of the ICWA altogether — a law that was meant in part to rectify the long and brutal history of the U.S. government separating Native families. A district court has agreed the ICWA is unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit partially reversed the decision. The Fifth Circuit is now rehearing the case en banc, and it may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Another Supreme Court case to watch this term is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which could potentially create a huge “religious exemption” to anti-discrimination laws. Vox reports:

Fulton asks whether religious organizations that contract with Philadelphia to help place foster children in homes have a First Amendment right to discriminate against same-sex couples…The plaintiffs in Fulton include Catholic Social Services (CSS), an organization that used to contract with the city to help find foster placements for children but that effectively lost that contract after it refused to comply with the ban on discrimination. CSS claims it has a First Amendment right to continue to do business with the city even if it refuses to comply with the city’s anti-discrimination rules.

…A decision for the plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, could have implications that stretch well beyond foster care. The Fulton case involves an especially sympathetic plaintiff: a Catholic organization that helps vulnerable children find homes. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of that plaintiff, it could potentially establish that a wide range of government contractors, from social service providers to military contractors, may discriminate if the company’s owners claim a religious justification for that discrimination.

As the article explains, the plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn their 1990 precedent Employment Division v. Smith, which held that the “free exercise of religion” provision of the Bill of Rights isn’t a broad license to opt out of any laws that incidentally burden but don’t target religious practices. The difference seems to be political rather than legal–Smith was a Native American fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ritual.

In secular rat news, the website Follow the Money reports that “between 1989 and 1998, Dutch multinationals paid over one million guilders (close to half a million euros) to prominent climate sceptic Frits Böttcher (1915-2008), with the explicit goal of sowing doubts about climate change and humanity’s role in it. Böttcher used the money to set up an international network of climate sceptics…The doubt created led, among other things, to a lack of political support for regulatory measures with regard to CO2 reduction during the 1990s.”

Image result for gay rat images

Take over the planet, boys. The humans are done.

 

Two Poems by Spiel: “the procedure” and “mixed intentions”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has been sharing his outsider perspective on politics, sexuality, and disability for nearly 70 years in his raw poetry and passionate, psychedelic visual art. Read my review of his retrospective collection Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). As a child, he suffered from headaches and seizures that were treated with invasive medical procedures, such as the neuroencephalogram described in the first poem (TW for medical trauma).

the procedure

give me
catastrophe
give me
wailing
give me
bobbleheads
with hair on fire
and toothpicks
poked
into their eyes

i want
to make a scene
and paste it
to a table with
screaming wheels
i can drive back
to my youth

on the day
they shoved
that needle up
the base
of my spine
to extract
any trace
of comfort
from my brain

****

mixed intentions

from so far away, he’s left behind
(but not without concern)
in hands of others who may find the mystery of why he suffers so.
it may be something like a tumor on his brain;
it might be tangible.
and wouldn’t it be nice to find something seeable, just something one could grasp,
even if it’s something terrifying,
like a tumor on the brain of this child who’s shown such promise to become
the special child in the family of this farmer.

so the child is tendered
by the hands of nurse lola
who has hands of black, like hands
that never have touched him before.
lola comforts him.
she daily soothes his body with her lotions
and her humor and he wonders at her blackness —
how it is that she can be
so tender, be so comforting,
as all the doctors study him.

doctors do their tests and fill their clip boards with notes;
then, they confer while lola tenders him —
his headaches never hurting
while her black hands touch him,
while his mother and his father are so far away
(but not without concern)
and having left him in the hands of others
who, they pray, might find the mystery
of all his suffering.
but, in fact, they come to learn there is no tumor there
and further steps must be explored.

the steps will be drastic because
his doctors must remove the fluid
from around his brain
to visualize it better.
this will be painful for the child.

now, he must be moved to a private room
with new nurses at his side.
he is so sad to bid
his lola, tender lola, a goodbye.
he will cry in secret for her hands of black
with pearly lotions and her humor soothing down his suffering.

the procedure is a hideous one.
from somewhere at the base of this child’s spine,
they drain his brain of natural fluids
but with the outcome yielding not much at all —
yet, more pain than any pain
this child has known —
his brain now hanging, unprotected,
by its natural pillow of the liquid
that nature gave to balance it —
an unnatural state of being.

this is a crime against the nature of his body, now causing a level of pain
beyond the combine of all the pain he has ever known.
and what’s more, this crime has yielded next
to nothing in the search to learn the reason
for the suffering in the innocence of this special child of promise.

now, his father on his long distance visits from the farm,
must bear down upon his head,
his nurses pressing firmly at his feet each moment as he tries to cry,
because each movement of his body
causes movement of his brain
that no longer has a pillow of the fluid they have robbed.
so, when he sees someone has sent him a bouquet of pretty flowers and his tears
come out in gushes,
his entire body has to be restrained to prevent his brain
from banging in his head — unshielded there by nature.

and from far away, the place where he was born,
comes the preacher of the church his family attends,
and the preacher waits his turn
out in the hallway while nurses change his sheets and dose his medicines
to help him bear his grief.

and just then,
while the preacher waits,
so also comes from far away,
the mother of his dearest friend,
and she also is a dear friend of this child,
this woman who is not a preacher
but in practice of the christian science church.
the preacher and this woman sit out in the hall,
waiting to take their turn in speaking to the child,
his pain so great, he hardly knows his name —
let alone a reason to receive
these patient guests.
but come they have, and the preacher
is first to read his scriptures,
say his prayings,
dismiss attention to the nurses
holding down his head and feet,
shove a silly get-well card into his hands
with names of every person at the church
the day the card was signed;
and then be on his way.

the child is edgy. he feels confused
and wants to be alone.
wants things back the way they were
and hiding in his barn, back home, alone,
with no one knowing,
no one paying any mind at all,
just leaving him alone — in hiding.

but then, he tries to shift,
to change the way his body lies
and suddenly, a scream comes from his gut;
his brain bangs back against his skull.
he’s dumbfounded as his nurses grab his feet,
then press his head against his bed to steady him.
he’s come to think this trauma will not end —
that what the doctors robbed from him
will never be replaced
and he will spend his life in agony.

his best friend’s mother now steps in to visit him,
to speak of how one’s ills are understood
by means of spirit teaching, by believing.
but the only thing of meaning to the child
is that he’s always wished
that she was his mom,
that he could replace his own mother
with her and that he’s wished her son
could be his boyfriend
(though he’s too young to think this way and knows that this is wrong).

it is her son who is the only child
he’s had a bond so strong that it could make him wish to live and not to hide.

even now, within this torture,
he can think of how he wishes for the comfort of her son to come,
to hold him at his side.
she tells him that her son and others
at his school have gathered coins
so that when he comes back home,
he’ll have a record player all his own
so, when he burrows in his attic room,
he can play his favorite music at his will.
and this will be a gift, because
he has so many friends and they are praying,
just as she has come these many miles
to deliver her teachings and her gift of spirit.

some six months it takes for nature to replace
the cushion round his brain.
and through this time,
and even though the child is back
within his realm; he’s so careful as he walks.
he must take each step to sense the liquid round his brain
as it, by nature, fills the space the doctors vacated
and the crazy torture they have put him through,
yet finding nothing to report —
nothing
anyone
can touch
nor see.

but he’s left with thoughts of lola.
thoughts of friends he never knew he had,
who’d gathered money for a gift
that he can touch and see and hear.
now, he can choose what he hears.
but he holds harried thoughts within his brain,
that he will just remain a “something”
that cannot be repaired
and he will always hide away in the darkness of the corner of his barnplace,
where there are no windows, no one prying in.
where he slams the barn doors shut;
where the freak is hidden in a jar
that no one sees.

he tries, again, to think of lola,
tender lola,
her black hands,
same as the blackness
inside his barn.

February Links Roundup: Doll Dick

I don’t feel like taking life seriously this month. We all know what’s going on in the world. Let’s take a break to focus on something uplifting, like…“A Photo Study of Rock Gods’ Packages in Very Tight Trousers” (from the DesignYouTrust website). Marc Bolan is 100% transition goals–that pink crop top! that hairdo I actually wore in high school!–and Elvis is looking rather metrosexual himself in a frilly blouse.

Having penis envy yet? You’re not alone. Feminist pop culture site Jezebel celebrated “Doll Week” last October with “The Strange, Sad History of the Ken Doll’s Crotch”. While Barbie’s approximation of the female form has always been surreal, Ken’s bod is generally realistic in its proportions, with one exception that has frustrated many curious children. Rich Juzwiak writes:

Ken was not merely dickless by default; the bulge was the result of careful strategizing to which his inventors, businessmen, a psychologist, and Japanese manufacturers all contributed. Despite all this planning, Ken still came to represent things his parent company never intended, as icons tend to do. The story of Ken’s crotch is not merely one of PR, manufacturing, and/or branding—it’s about which realities our culture deems acceptable, and which that it seeks to keep hidden. This goes not just for the doll, but for the man he was named after, Ken Handler, who died in 1994 with major parts of his life airbrushed out of public view.

In keeping with her then-revolutionary idea that children wanted to try on adult roles through doll play, Barbie creator Ruth Handler advocated for Ken to have a bulge. It was toned down in the manufacturing process, but early Kens compensated with a slew of phallic accessories, from a baseball bat to a plastic hot dog on a long fork.

Mattel itself drew inadvertent attention to Ken’s lack of a penis when it released the notorious Earring Magic Ken in 1993. With his close-cropped blonde hair, shiny lavender vest with a matching mesh shirt underneath, and of course, earring, this Ken became a minor sensation amongst gay men who spotted the signs and claimed Earring Magic Ken as one of their tribe. And, as Dan Savage pointed out in a piece published a few months after the doll’s release, “hanging around Ken’s neck, on a metallic silver thread, is what ten out of ten people in the know will tell you at a glance is a cock ring.”

Meanwhile, Handler’s son apparently hated being the doll’s namesake. A bisexual musician and raunchy film director, he reportedly died of AIDS, though the Handler family suppressed the information in his obituary and still refuses to comment on it. Juzwiak quotes Erica Rand, author of the 1994 book Barbie’s Queer Accessories:

“What does it mean to think about this topic when we have a broader understanding of the relationship between genitals and gender? This idea that Ken is a man without a penis, what does that actually mean?” she said. “If we think now that in a way there’s no such thing as one male body, if you identify as a man, you have a male body, whatever parts you come with would be my view of things now. If you’re a trans man, you might not have come with what Ken didn’t come with either. If you’re a trans woman, you’re still a woman even if you started out life with a penis. That makes me think of things a little differently.”

Image result for jack lamplighter ken doll

Just call me Jack.

Alas, no amount of T-gel and deadlifts will give me the hard abs of a 60-year-old plastic doll. So I appreciate the Atlantic’s perspective that “Diet culture is just another way of dealing with the fear of death.” In her 2017 article “Eating Toward Immortality”, dietitian Michelle Allison argues that our obsession with finding the “correct” diet stems from a wish to repress the truth of our embodiment:

Eating is the first magic ritual, an act that transmits life energy from one object to another, according to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in his posthumously published book Escape From Evil. All animals must feed on other life to sustain themselves, whether in the form of breastmilk, plants, or the corpses of other animals. The act of incorporation, of taking a once-living thing into your own body, is necessary for all animals’ existence. It is also disturbing and unsavory to think about, since it draws a direct connection between eating and death…

…There are twin motives underlying human behavior, according to Becker—the urge for heroism and the desire for atonement. At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status—they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay.

Only those with status and resources to spare can afford the most impressive gestures of renunciation. Look at all they have! The steel-and-granite kitchen! The Le Creuset collection! The Vitamix! The otherworldly glow! They could afford to eat cake, should the bread run out, but they quit sugar. They’re only eating twigs and moss now. What more glamorous way to triumph over dirt and animality and death? And you can, too. That is, if you have the time and money to spend juicing all that moss and boiling the twigs until they’re soft enough to eat.

This is how the omnivore’s paradox breeds diet culture: Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility. If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging—in short, your share in the human condition, including the random whims of luck and your own inescapable mortality.

However, the quest for the one true diet is an illusion because science is always developing and everyone’s body is different. Allison concludes: “This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s.”

At the literary journal Maudlin House, Julian K. Jarboe offers a darkly hilarious queer take on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in the story “I Am a Beautiful Bug!”. Right from the opening line, which turns an originally horrific premise into something to be desired, the story asserts trans beauty, self-determination, and survival in the face of obstacles that are all too real, as in this scene at the Registry of Motor Vehicles:

I frightened several people, but I felt so, so bad about it! I should have asked the plastic surgeon to make me invisible as well, if I were really smart and considerate, but I was foolish and selfish instead. The cries and commotion in the waiting room drew the upper managers from their offices. One manager introduced himself as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion.

“I’d like to personally apologize for the negative experience you’ve had,” he said, and swiped at me with the business end of a broom. “If you will come down, I’d like to see what we can do to make it right.”

“Let me have my picture taken without a permit?” I chirped.

“Other than that,” he said, and took another swipe, but the bottoms of my six feet were powerful suction cups and I would not budge.

“It seems unnecessary to have a third party confirm that I am a large insect when, indeed, it’s quite apparent,” I said. “It’s a tad invasive, speaking only for myself, but it must be extra paperwork on your side, too. You would not want to have a discrimination lawsuit on your hands.”

“We strive to treat everyone with dignity and equality at the Registry of Motor Vehicles,” the director said. “Though, you do realize the bug in the Kafka story is a metaphor, right? The author did not want the story illustrated. It’s meant to be ambiguous, symbolizing alienation and self-denial. The real metamorphosis of the title is actually the sister’s coming of age–”

“I am not a metaphor,” I said. “I need my driver’s license, and I would like to update my photograph, please.”

“I wrote a paper on Kafka in college,” the director scoffed. “I think I know what I’m talking about.” He climbed up onto a waiting room chair to get a better reach and aim on me with the broom. Just as he lunged it towards my head, I fluttered off the ceiling towards his head, bothered him about the face, and zoomed away over the snaking lines and out the double doors.

Buy Julian’s new story collection, Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel, coming in March from Lethe Press.

 

 

Poetry by Garret Keizer: “Yosodhara”

This week we wrapped up a 6-month online course on masculine archetypes at the Temple of Witchcraft. Jumping off from our source text, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King Warrior Magician Lover (a somewhat dated but still intriguing “men’s movement” book from the 1990s), instructor JT Mouradian prompted us to match these archetypes to the deities, spiritual guides, or role models in our worship traditions. Compared to the Greek and European pagan gods, or the compassionate but remote and all-powerful Adonai of the Hebrew Bible, can we say that Jesus is unique in foregrounding the Lover energy–a path centered on healing, personal intimacy, engagement with the world of the senses, and prioritizing human relationships over abstract principles? Perhaps, said our teacher, this missing ingredient explains Christianity’s extraordinary rise to popularity in the ancient world.

A poet, political essayist, and retired Episcopal priest, Garret Keizer explores this question in his sonnet “Yosodhara”, published last fall at Rat’s Ass Review. (Scroll down the page to read all the poets in this issue in alphabetical order by last name.) He’s kindly permitted me to reprint it below. I’m married to a Buddhist, and have learned to appreciate many things about that tradition, particularly the ideal of non-attachment to views and concepts, which literalist Christians would do well to emulate. Yet I’m ultimately in the camp of poet Richard Wilbur when he says “Love calls us to the things of this world”.

YOSODHARA

The Buddha’s path attracts me, always will,
the rational compassion of his Noble Truths,
the higher heroism of the kind and still—
by the Bo Tree let us build three booths.
But God so loved the world and so have I
and found it worth the pain, and found it good,
and therefore find that I identify
most with the lover nailed to the world’s hard wood.
It’s not that I see merit in love’s hurt,
or none in non-attachment’s claimless claim;
it’s rather that, as roots take hold of dirt,
whenever love grips me, I do the same.
Won’t Yosodhara, Buddha’s wife, agree,
though weeping, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

January Links Roundup: Writing Magic

Happy new decade, readers! Many links have been collected over winter break for your enjoyment. I have only two resolutions: do my tiny part to roll back fascism in America, and finish the f*%$ing novel.

Writing for West Branch, the literary journal of Bucknell University, Kathryn Nuernberger reviews five recent poetry books under the heading “The Poetics (and Politics) of Spells”. Among them is the new collection A Sand Book from one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ariana Reines. Nuernberger examines how these books use techniques of ritual and magic, such as litanies and astrological concepts, to create poems that are a written artifact of a transcendent spiritual experience. Poems drawing on marginalized traditions like Vodou can also function as protection spells against racist oppression.

Fashion is another type of embodied ritual with a political dimension. At the literary journal ANMLY, the Issue #29 feature “Queering in Plain Sight: a folio of queer fashion” gathers creative writing and artwork that explores the frontiers of self-presentation. From editor Addie Tsai’s introduction:

These delightful, fierce, inimitable, and unapologetic contributions transcend the lines between genre just as we transcend the lines between gender, sexuality, aesthetic, and style. What we queers make of our bodies and community is how we insist on our own existence, then and now, especially in a world that works tirelessly to erase us, in small and large ways. The marvelous work included in this folio embraces all the layers of hybridity, just as we do. We are collages of our own making, in cut and line and color and seam and material and shade and skin and body. Sometimes, stitching ourselves to one another through the patterns our bodies make is all we have to get us through each year, each day, each moment.

I’m still reading this folio, but so far, I was especially struck by Miriam Bird Greenberg’s creative use of punctuation and line breaks to surprise the reader with multiple meanings, and Antonius-Tin Bui’s intimate yet glamorous genderqueer photo portraits.

It often seems like the mainstream image of queer style is a slender, tomboyish, young, white assigned-female-at birth person. Those folks are very handsome, no doubt, but the rest of us who don’t fit that body type can feel at a loss for personal style options. On the blog of clothing brand Qwear, founder Sonny Oram’s feature “9 Plus Size Cuties Share Tips for Androgynous Style” showcases larger butch and femme folks of different races who put together eye-catching looks from a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” pieces. Ree Melanen has inspired me to hunt down some vintage sweater clips as an alternative to my bowties and bolo ties. Personal shopper and stylist William “Beave” Brooks shows that you don’t have to give up pinks and florals to be a fine-looking dude. Check out Anastasia’s vintage clothing shop Androgynous God on Etsy, too.

The beleaguered Left in the age of Tan Dumplord is doing what it does best, blaming the most vulnerable members of its constituency for distracting the electorate from issues with supposedly broader appeal. Yes, I’m talking about the dangerous nonsense that is “gender critical feminism”, a cosmetic re-branding of transgender-exclusive radical feminism (TERF-ism), which is especially on the upswing in the U.K. In a still-timely 2018 piece at Tits and Sass, a journalism site written by and for sex workers, Juniper Fitzgerald lays out why “Gender Critical Feminism Is Fascism”. Both movements divide society into “us and them”, and evoke a mythical past characterized by a purity that we have lost.

The alliance between “gender critical feminists” and the alt-right has been forged on mutual bigotry: hatred for trans people and sex workers. “Gender critical feminists” are willing to sacrifice access to medical care, abortion, and self-determination in their alliance with the alt-right for the sole purpose of harassing, doxing, and generally inciting violence against trans people and sex workers.

Historically, factions of white feminism have flirted with fascism, from the overt racism of the Suffragists in the US to the Christian Temperance Movement here and abroad…

…While the alt-right conjures up mythic pasts that are entirely race-based and, of course, racist, gender critical feminists rely on myths about their own oppression. This is where their hatred for trans women and their hatred for sex workers intersect—in order to maintain the illusion that patriarchal oppression is solely rooted in genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and reproduction, gender critical feminists must create fantasies of “real” women and “unreal” women. According to gender critical feminists, trans women are not “real” because of secondary sex characteristics,while sex workers are likewise “unreal” because we complicate the notion that sex and reproduction are patriarchal tools for controlling women.

Certainly, the fact that we live under a heteropatriarchy is undeniable. And of course the sex industry, like all industries under heteropatriarchy, operates in specific ways on account of existing under oppressive social systems. But gender critical feminists argue that sex industry workers perpetuates these oppressive social systems, which is akin to blaming low-wage laborers for capitalism.

Moreover, this purposeful scapegoating of the sex industry makes sex workers the barometer by which “respectable” feminists measure their own “purity”: real women don’t hurt other women, gender critical feminists imply. Real women, real feminists, should starve to death before giving a commodified blowjob. For the cause!

Looking back at another period of crisis, Lambda Literary’s article “Will We Survive the 1980s?” excerpts an essay by Bay Area writer and critic Steve Abbott (1943–1992), one of many talented artists of his generation lost to AIDS. In this piece, Abbott surveyed the tremendous progress in gay rights and visibility since Stonewall, but worried that his community would be nearly erased by the twin forces of the epidemic and consumerist assimilation. Was autoimmune disease the symbolic fruit of generations of internalized homophobia, the self turned against itself? The cure is not only medical or political, but spiritual and ethical:

To fight AIDS and the conditions that threaten us, we need more than scientific research, more than money, more than leadership. We need to rethink America’s spiritual, political, social, and cultural systems at the most fundamental root level. How do we use power? How do we use language? It is clear that what we are doing now—as bosses and workers, as men and women, as gays and straights, as whites and non- whites—is killing us all. And as we project these attitudes onto other species and towards the Earth’s ecological system, we are jeopardizing our very planet. I would argue that today we can no longer afford to see anything—not even “gay liberation” or our survival—as a separate issue needing a separate cultural, political or spiritual agenda.

This does not mean I intend to renounce my sexual orientation, far from it. Even in times of sadness or loneliness, it remains my greatest source of strength and joy. But if my sexuality is a social construct, I can change how I think about and act on it.

“Gay is good” doesn’t have to mean what I used to think—that I need a lot of sex or a lover to be happy. Nor need it mean the opposite—stoic celibacy. It can also apply to how I center and balance myself, how I choose and nurture friendships, how I support my community. And when I consider or have sex, can I change how I think about it—to admire, share, and enjoy beauty without trying to use, own, or consume it? Pleasure is good but we are not objects. And contrary to what fashion, ads and some songs suggest, neither are we just images or toys.

In work and play, how can I free myself from the hype of competitive stress? Can I learn to accept and find joy in the present moment, even when it’s not what I might prefer? Can I continue to take risks, to redefine myself? Can I wake up from sexism, racism, ageism, and careerism without becoming obsessed about being “politically correct?” Can I set and fulfill goals, while still allowing spontaneity? In short, can I take my energy glue out of the worry/fear/consumer trap?

What is the right amount of hedonism in response to oppression–enough to affirm that you have worth and deserve joy, but not so much that it becomes the opiate of the masses? One of the many things that jerks my chain, when Mother’s Day comes around, is the proliferation of “wine mom” gifts and cards in the supermarkets. One of our family members died of cirrhosis this year, so I have an extra reason to fume at the suggestion that a bottle of Merlot is your reward for another year of selfless emotional labor.

In this 2016 article at Quartz, Kristi Coulter observed that “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink”. She details the places that have been invaded by compulsory boozing: the farmer’s market, the mandatory workplace mixer, the movie theater, the yoga studio. It’s absurd but infuriating too.

I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon, but Cinnamon Churros Smirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucks up my prescription three months in a row, installs self-service beer taps and young men line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care…

…The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with being a 24-hour woman. The stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus. Even the other TV men, who say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What the fuck business is it of yours whether it’s rare or not? I think.

The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: muscles are beautiful. No, wait: fat is beautiful. No, wait: thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As though we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust, or we’ll lose our shit.

And then I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. But for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about my family of origin, but they deserve props for not having a culture of alcohol use to distract from their problems. My bio mom only used liqueur to flavor baked goods. Those Calvados pancakes were top shelf.

Ah, Vandermint… why did they discontinue you?

Chapbook Reviews in Brief: Holmes, Lisowski, and More

Have you ever entered a contest you didn’t win, received the winning book from the sponsor, and said to yourself, “Yeah, they’re right, I have to up my game”? That’s how I feel about Dead Year by Anne Cecelia Holmes, which was my reward for entering the Sixth Finch poetry chapbook prize. (Dead Year was published in 2016, so technically we weren’t competing head-to-head; grab your copy before it goes out of print, since it’s not listed on Amazon and the “excerpt” link goes to an error page.)

Every poem in this chapbook is also titled “Dead Year”, demonstrating how grief seems to stop time, trapping you in endless ruminations or numbness. This is confessional poetry without a confession: the trauma that has unmade the speaker is never specified. Early on, perhaps reading myself into the text, I thought of infertility or miscarriage (“Unbelievable how we stretch/in our skin day after day.//How I never say when I am/a mother into the mirror”).

However, the point of the book is not literal autobiography, which would enable us to distance ourselves from the agony by pretending it doesn’t apply to us. Holmes aims to dissect the process of unbecoming and remaking the self after any event that calls into question our whole way of living as a body among bodies–specifically, as a woman:

Since I am female

I am like a pet
and try to swallow a man.

Perhaps this makes me
a villain but think of it

more an act of devotion.

But this is not, after all, merely a story of stagnation. The speaker’s immobility, her refusal to be prematurely reassembled into legible personhood, reveals itself as an act of furious resistance that burns brighter as the book progresses. (“Okay/hurricane, make me/a skinless girl…/I shape my mouth/into a poison halo/and rain.”) The later poems more directly address a “you” who (we infer) is somehow culpable for the indescribable event. In the last poem, this anger seems to be propelling the speaker up and out of her sojourn in the underworld.

It is the end. I hope
you know that.

When I stick my
full self inside

the year nothing
but my fire ring

blasts through.

It takes chutzpah to dedicate a poetry chapbook about Lizzie Borden to your father. Zefyr Lisowski went all-in with Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), her unsettling re-creation of the much-debated murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The family home becomes a cursed jewel that the poet holds up to the light, examining each facet through different characters’ perspectives, but finding only distortions and sharp edges. It’s a claustrophobic setting worthy of Shirley Jackson, where the menacing tension mounts but is never resolved by exposure of its true source. Lisowski is less interested in solving the mystery (the book is bracketed by the poems “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t”) than in limning the many influences that press down on the characters like a coffin lid in Mr. Borden’s funeral home. As Lizzie’s sister Emma says bitterly, “I’m in constant//pain. The minister says, ‘God is all around us.’/Tell me. Who could require more proof than that.”

We subscribe to the monthly mini-magazine True Story from the journal Creative Nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring essayist, I recommend that you do too. Each chapbook-sized issue features one narrative essay, fact-checked by the editors. The pieces generally braid autobiographical reflections with larger cultural themes and a thumbnail history of a special topic suggested by the personal anecdote. This format would scale up quite well to a book-length memoir: a subscription to True Story gives you a useful series of case studies in nonfiction narrative structure.

Some of my favorite recent entries in the series:

Heather Sellers, Where Am I? (Issue 27) draws connections between her face blindness, “place blindness” (difficulty navigating even familiar locations), and growing up with a mentally ill mother. I saw so much of myself in this essay. It was validating to see common patterns and have a role model for struggles that my mother and I both faced. (My mother would need help getting back from the restroom to our table in a restaurant we visited every month, and the last time she drove a car was the day she got her license, sometime during the Nixon administration!)

Renata Golden, Bought and Sold (Issue 30) is subtitled “A history of lies and broken promises”, as exemplified by the boondoggle housing subdivision in the New Mexico desert that her father bought into in the 1960s. She describes how the US government, real estate speculators, and railroad companies wrested Western lands from Mexicans and Native Americans, then cheated working-class Americans with promises of cheap “uninhabited” land. This chapbook would be a good addition to a high school American history curriculum.

Ander Monson, My Monument (Issue 33) is a humorous and wistful tribute to the 15-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he installed on the lawn of his suburban Arizona home. Monson, the editor of the avant-garde online journal DIAGRAM, riffs on impermanence, neighborly ties, the seven wonders of the ancient world and the modern wonders of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

Reiter’s Block: DECADE in Review! 2009-2019

July 2009…

…November 2019.

Greetings, loyal readers! It’s been a decade to remember. As my 30s segued into my 40s, I changed my gender, pronouns, religion, and pants size; fired my abusive mother; adopted Lord Bunbury, the cutest boy to ever eat a quarter-pound of lox in one bite; and published five books of sad poetry and smutty fiction.

Julian says, “You just get better with age, darling.”

Biggest Decision of 2019: Starting HRT.

Since October I’ve been taking low-dose testosterone in gel form. (I know, I know, real men shouldn’t be afraid of needles…) Not much visible change yet, but I feel very handsome and full of creative ideas.

Speaking only for myself here–you don’t have to do anything medical to be a “real trans”!–bringing my subjective sense of masculinity into objective physical reality via HRT has felt like an act of magical manifestation. I grew up in a home dominated by gaslighting. Maintaining my inner truth against constant assaults was exhausting. Being trans sometimes feels that way too. If my womanhood falls in the forest but everyone still calls me “Ma’am,” does it make a sound? My little bottle of Love Potion Number 9 gel is something I can point to, a fact in the world, a self-affirming decision to be myself outwardly and not only in my fantasy life. It tells my younger psychological parts that we’re finally safe to come out of the closet (and give away those uncomfortable high heels).

Happiness Comes in a Pill: For the first time in my life as a congenitally anxious person, I’m also taking Effexor, a mild anti-anxiety drug. The main benefit is that I sleep more deeply and have vivid dreams that seem meaningful at the time. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was re-creating the Bloomsbury Group out of Lego. Thanks a lot, Carolyn Heilbrun.

Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf.

I Wrote Some Stuff: I participated in the Center for New Americans’ 30 Poems in November fundraiser again this year, writing more strange poetry for a new chapbook. It’s not too late to contribute to this great organization that provides literacy instruction, job training, and naturalization assistance for immigrants in Western Massachusetts. Visit my sponsorship page here.

In addition, my poem “psalm 55:21” won the local category of the 2019 Broadside Award and Glass Prize from Slate Roof Press. The award was $250 and publication as a limited-edition broadside. You can read the winners on their website.

Young Master Update: His Nibs earned an orange belt in Tae Kwon Do this year, switched his allegiance from Pokémon to Minecraft, and learned to read chapter books on his own. (Shout-out to the “Captain Underpants” book series for making one of its main characters gay in the last installment.)

Fractions, Mommy!

We undertook a perilous trip by plane (me) and car (Daddy and Shane) in an April snowstorm to visit Shane’s birth mother in Wisconsin, where she was hospitalized for liver failure. Sadly, Stephanie passed away this August at age 45. She lives on in his happy-go-lucky personality, mechanical skills, and love for the arts and animals.

Stef and the Bun in October 2012.

Highlights Reel: With some trepidation, I have combed the Reiter’s Block archives for posts from the past decade that I still agree with. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how passionately (and dickishly) I defended beliefs that let me down in the end. But as Julian would say, you can only wear the clothes you have. Some people grow up by learning from failed love affairs. My method was to throw myself fully into the best available worldview at the moment, searching for an ethical foundation and a compassionate space where I could discover myself. What if I’d known about FTM transition in 1983, or demisexuality in 1997, or trauma theory in 2006? Well…I didn’t. Here’s what I did instead.

2009: I was really preoccupied with how to be a Bible-believing yet gay-affirming Christian, because I still had faith that good theological arguments would make a difference. Sigh. If this is your jam, check out the posts “Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives” and “Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty”. Also, my most ambitiously insane chapbook, Swallow, was published by Amsterdam Press. Now out of print; email me for a copy.

Swallow

2010: More gay Christian angst. I noticed the questionable respectability politics of some gay-affirming theology in “The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute”. Seriously starting to wonder why writing as fictional “Julian” felt autobiographical: “Straight Women, Gay Romance”. Marched in Northampton Trans Pride as an ally. Didn’t blog much that year because secretly coping with failed-adoption trauma and abusive mom meltdown. Another chapbook published: read the title poem in the post “‘Barbie at 50’ Wins Cervena Barva Poetry Prize”. Also received Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in poetry. Misery has never stopped me from being productive.

2011: I went no-contact with my mother, and shortly thereafter, mom-of-choice Roberta left her as well. I was still under the social workers’ microscope in the adoption process so I barely posted anything about my personal life on the blog. In September, Stef contacted us through our adoption website, and the rest is history. The series “Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 1: Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology” and “Part 2: Obeying Jesus Without Knowing Him?” is the culmination of 5 years wrestling with the gay Christian issue, and in retrospect, already shows the de-conversion that I would take several more years to admit to myself and others. I also gave myself this advice on my 39th birthday: “Every five years, you will completely change your mind about something important, so don’t be a butthole to people who disagree with you now.”

2012: Welcome, Bun!! I blogged about why “Adoptive Families Are Queer Families”. In other news, the title story of my eventual debut collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes won an award from Bayou Magazine. I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I turned 40 and wrote a three-part roundup of the books that influenced my youth.

2013: Is it gender dysphoria or is it sexism? Less filling, tastes great! I battled cultural expectations of femininity and motherhood in “The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and ‘Selfishness'”. (Thanks to Bun for sleeping through the night at 6 months old, so I had the energy to string sentences together.) I self-identified publicly as a child abuse survivor for the first time in “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal”. In “Imitation of Christ, or Substitute Savior?” I questioned whether it’s possible to write a “Christian” novel without romanticizing codependence. In “Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs”, I began asking the church to consider liberation theology from an abuse-survivor standpoint–a project I’d ultimately drop after recognizing its basic incompatibility with mainstream Christianity.

2014: I dyed my hair red. Many boxes of books were given away, with “Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014” surveying how my beliefs had changed. I wrote a series on Survivors in Church: “Between Covenant and Choice”, “Our Spiritual Gifts”, and “Insights From Disability Theology”. But it became evident that I had to leave church altogether: see “The Priesthood of All Survivors”. After 6 turbulent years, I finally finished an acceptable draft of the Endless Novel a/k/a Two Natures. To celebrate, I got a tattoo.

2015: I began studying Tarot, as described in “The Spiritual Gift Shop: Or, Living in Syncretism”. My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, was published by Little Red Tree. In “The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test”, I explored where accountability can be found in a self-directed spiritual practice. I met Elisabeth Moss, who played my favorite character on “Mad Men”! The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage equality. I won $1,000 from Wag’s Revue for a poem about buying a plastic dick. (No wonder that was their last issue.)

2016: Two Natures was published by Saddle Road Press! I blogged about why I write explicit sex in my fiction (“Sex God”), and the pros and cons of the radical feminist critique of Christianity (“Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes”). I tentatively came out as genderqueer in “Nonbinary Femme Thoughts”. My story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”, a semi-autobiographical tale of painful setbacks on the road to adoptive parenthood, won the New Letters Prize for Fiction. However, the year ended badly for the planet with the election of Tan Dumplord.

2017: Our storage unit raised their prices, so we let the lease expire and brought back a truckload of memorabilia to Reiter’s Block HQ. Some of my archeological finds are described in “Killing You in My Mind: My Early Notebooks”. I self-diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The Aspie community’s acceptance of finding emotional qualities in “inanimate” objects (“Autistic Pride Day: Everything is Alive”) paved the way for me to study Magick. I took charge of the Young Master’s religious education with a family trip to NecronomiCon Providence (“The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus”). I killed off my menstrual cycle with the Mirena IUD, ending three decades of disabling chronic pain from endometriosis (and, as it turned out, gender dysphoria). Our high school had a collective reckoning with the #MeToo Movement on our alumni Facebook page.

2018: My debut story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was published by Sunshot Press, an imprint of the journal New Millennium Writings. Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I took an online course from anti-racist group White Awake about decolonizing our New Age spirituality (“Problems of Lineage and Magic”). Christian feminist author Emily Joy’s Lenten journaling workbook Everything Must Burn helped me process my spiritual trauma. I regret that I didn’t write to Dr. James Cone before he passed away, because our church small group was passionately inspired and challenged by his book Black Theology and Black Power. (I was embarrassed to imagine that he’d say, “Well, light dawns over Marblehead, white ladies!” Centering my own feelings like a typical whitey…) For the same class, I did a 40-day Bible journal (“Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave”) and tried not to laugh at evangelical prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”. (Okay, I didn’t really try.) But it helped me get through losing one of my best friends. “Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Community at Flame Con” recounts my trip to an LGBTQ comics convention for research on the Endless Sequel.

2019: I did another purge of books and clothes that didn’t spark genderqueer pagan joy (“Facing Literary Impermanence with Marie Kondo”). As more research for the Endless Sequel, and let’s face it, to buy gay erotica, I attended Queers & Comics at the School of Visual Arts (“Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More”). I considered the symbolic appeal of Satan and Cthulhu for spiritual-abuse survivors in “Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience”.

In the year ahead, I hope we can elect a Democratic president and reverse course on the imminent destruction of democracy and the planet. Beyond that, my goals are the same as before: Be more trans, do more magic, lift more weights, write more words! Thanks for traveling with me.