Lesléa Newman’s “I Wish My Father” Is a Tragicomic Elegy

Shepherding an elderly parent through illness and death is a stark, unglamorous journey that demands clear vision and directness, and (especially if you’re a Jewish New Yorker) a fair amount of gallows humor. These qualities abound in Lesléa Newman’s latest poetry collection, I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021).

Dedicated to Edward Newman (1927-2017), a dapper and hardworking New York attorney, this sequence of narrative poems cycles repeatedly through grief, frustration, and absurd humor, as his adult daughter endeavors to preserve his dignity and safety (not always compatible goals) while his grasp of reality weakens. There’s a certain kind of Jewish couple for whom bickering is a love language. One gets the sense that Newman’s late parents often communicated in this register, which makes her widowed father’s moments of romantic sorrow all the more poignant.

The collection is unified not only by the storyline but also by a formal similarity among the poems. Each poem’s title serves as the first phrase of a sentence that continues as a sequence of three-line stanzas. This device, never obtrusive, reinforces the feeling of sameness that must have burdened her father’s days once his mainstays of work and marriage were torn away. And yet there is change, painfully perceptible to his daughter if not to him.

…He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper

of that terrible last day. Don’t worry,
sweetheart. She cupped my cheek
with her worn, withered hand.

There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.

Now, that puts the “dead” in deadpan humor. Look how deftly the anecdote is saved from sentimentality by an unpredictable bit of very Jewish wisdom that is both optimistic and so pessimistic we can hardly stand it. As Leonard Cohen sang, You want it darker…

Faith is more than a cultural style here, though. Mr. Newman seems largely contented by his delusions–or are they visions?–of mysterious children at his bedside and random dead people from his past. Together they observe Yom Kippur in a nontraditional way that still brings his daughter closer to the mysteries of time, repentance, and forgiveness. And when he is released from his earthly life, she narrates his arrival at her mother’s side in the World to Come, in exactly the same factual voice as the preceding poems.

I appreciate how this book is accessible to readers without a background in poetry, while also revealing depths to an experienced writer and reader. Even the Young Master took an interest when he saw the book cover, asking me “What does that mean? I wish my father what?” I read him the title poem, about Lesléa’s father tallying the events of his life at age 90, and then asked Shane, “What do you think she wishes for her father?” His suggestions:

I wish my father was still alive.
I wish my father had a good life.
I wish my father knows he was the best.

I Wish My Father by Leslea Newman

Click the cover image to be taken to the book purchasing website. Lesléa has kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below.

MY FATHER WAS NEVER

on time once in his entire life.
No, we could always count
on him being a good 20 minutes

early. I remember many a Saturday
night with my dad dressed
to the nines in his sleek black tux

and glittering diamond studs
pacing the hallway from front
door to kitchen to dining room

before ordering me to dash
upstairs and see what was taking
my impossible mother so goddamn

long. I’d find her sitting side saddle
on a stool in a white silk slip
surrounded by crumpled tissues

imprinted with lip prints
of lipstck the color of apples,
clasping a sparkling bracelet

around her wrist, clipping
on a pair of matching earrings
and muttering to herself in the bedroom

mirror. “I know the early bird catches
the worm. But who the hell
wants a goddamn worm?” She’d hand

me a pendant shaped like a tear
to fasten around her neck,
then raise a silver aerosol can

the hairspray hissing like a snake
as she circled her head three times
forcing me to step back from the cloud

that always made me cough. Once
I came home from college
for Thanksgiving and my dad

drove me to the airport for my return
flight on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Somehow my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase

never made it out to the car.
After a ton of yelling and screaming
and carrying on, my father drove

us home and drove us back
to the airport and I was still
an hour early for my flight.

It made me laugh when my father
proudly showed me a note
he received after my mother died:

Dear Mr. Newman,
Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.
You were the first one there.

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

 

© 2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.

January Bonus Links: Butt Trumpets

First things first, “Butt Trumpet” is the name of a delightfully bonkers parody punk rock band that my best friend and I found in the $3 bin at Turn It Up! Records in 2009. Enjoy this video of him as Cyril the Rat Puppet playing air guitar to Butt Trumpet’s “Flannel in Seattle”.

The website OpenCulture delves deeper with their December 2020 article “Why Butt Trumpets & Other Bizarre Images Appeared in Medieval Manuscripts”. Obviously, for the same reason teenage boys draw penises on their desks during Latin class. But there’s more to the organ-playing rabbits and snail-fighting knights than bored doodles. Some scholars think the disrespectful images expressed monks’ disagreement with the texts they were copying. At any rate, they certainly livened things up.

Lesbian-feminist playwright Carolyn Gage finds her own brand of symbolic resonance in the animal kingdom. Recently diagnosed with autism for the first time in her 60s, Gage encourages us to appreciate multiple kinds of intelligence in her post “On Octopuses and Autism”:

Our theories of intelligence have historically been derived from our studies of vertebrates, especially mammals, and especially primates. All these vertebrate forms of “intelligent life”  have been very social creatures that travel in pods, packs, herds, or tribes. Not surprisingly, our theories about intelligence have been shaped by this fact.  These theories have assumed that intelligence evolved in certain species in response to social needs for communication, for bonding, for collective action, for establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, and so on.

But… then there is the octopus, a form of intelligent life that is notoriously anti-social. The octopus does not bond with other octopuses, does not live or travel with them, and  does not observe any kind of social hierarchy. It is a real loner. According to our theories of intelligence, it should actually be quite stupid… dumb as a snail, in fact. But the octopus has 500,000 neurons and the snail has only 20,000.  The octopus is right up there with the pig, the dog, and the dolphin. Clearly there is a problem with our theories about the evolution of intelligence. Being social has no bearing on the development of intelligence.

And here we are.  Autism is “characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication.” We are wired for resistance to social pressure. We are said to lack empathy, to have difficulty reading social cues, are oblivious to social hierarchies. We don’t travel in packs. Are we missing out on evolutionary forces that generate intelligence?  Or are we developing intelligence along a completely different axis, like the octopus?

Scientists believe the octopus evolved complex intelligence for protection because it lacks the shell that other molluscs have. Gage muses:

[L]osing that shell…makes one vulnerable, but it also drives the evolution of a different kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is rooted in highly complex and subtle interactions with one’s physical environment. If the octopus lacks the social intelligence that comes from belonging to a pack, it has evolved an exquisitely fine-tuned relationship to the natural world around it.

If an autistic person is lacking in social intelligence, have we evolved compensatory sensitivity to our surroundings? Without the kind of protective armor that non-autistic people develop in their social interactions, have we developed a different form of perceptual/conceptual mobility, a nimbleness of spirit? Could it be that our “special interests” are part of this protective disguise? Without the rigid shape associated with a social role, are we not able to slip ourselves into the secret nooks and crannies of a rich inner life that appear irrelevant or inconsequential to those who have never had to develop alternative resources?

Feminist writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who came out this year as nonbinary, writes about a similar protective strategy in their Substack newsletter post “The Great Mutation”. Originally they thought they’d refrained from writing about pregnancy and parenthood in order to shield their family life from Internet trolls. In retrospect, it was part of a pattern of dissociating from their female-gendered body.

Before I transitioned, I felt that my writing was my “real” self and my physical body was just its life support system. My real self could not be pregnant, even if my physical body was, because pregnancy was something that happened to other people. To women.

This reminded me of my post here waaaaay back in March 2007, “Am I a Woman?” Perplexed why I felt feminism somehow wasn’t “about” me, despite agreeing with most of its aims, I wrote:

I don’t primarily think of myself as a woman. Sure, my biological gender is female, and I like collecting dolls and wearing pretty dresses. I talk about my feelings all the time, and I take too much responsibility for the feelings of others. But I could do all that equally well as a codependent drag queen.

When I think about what makes me me, I identify much more with my mind than with my body. I resist efforts to draft me into a collective interest group based on unchosen characteristics.

Ahh, little soft-boiled trans egg…

Doyle’s childhood coping strategies for family trauma and unrecognized dysphoria were a lot like mine (minus the eating disorder). I wrote an entire notebook of laws for my dolls, and enforced them with trial by a jury of mice in Victorian dresses, followed by beheadings or imprisonment in the shoe closet. As for Doyle:

I don’t remember my eating disorder, because I wasn’t there. What I remember about seventh grade are X-Men comics, which I got into rapturously and obsessively, and the vast, elaborate fantasy worlds I built in their image. I invented whole teams of superheroes, with headquarters and code names and plot arcs and recurring villains, and if the embarrassment would not kill me, I could still tell you each and every one of their names. Down on earth, I was engaged in a frantic struggle with my body, but in my mind, I had reached safe harbor, creating a place to breathe during my Cronenberg years.

Clearly, the split — the false life of the body, the true life of the mind — was already in place. But it had always been there. I learned to read at age three, and by the time I was in kindergarten, teachers had to beg and coax and sometimes just rip the books out of my hands to get me to interact with any of my classmates. Even then, at the beginning of my social existence, I was building pocket dimensions, finding doors into a better place.

Vintage Real Fur Costumed Mice Russ and West Germany image 0

“Guilty!”

Finally, enjoy this photo essay in Out Magazine about Anthony Patrick Manieri’s queer male body-positivity series Arrested Movement. The joyful black-and-white nude portraits feature a multiracial cast of cis and trans masculine folks, with several plus-size and disabled models.

 

January Links Roundup: Greetings from the Failed State

Shortly after my post yesterday celebrating the Democrats’ Senate wins, white supremacist terrorists invaded the US Capitol to try to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. I’m with those who believe there’s more than simple incompetence behind the security failure. Fascism has made significant inroads in American police departments.

Baptist minister Candace Simpson, who tweets as @CandyCornball, posted this insight today: “‘Apocalypse’ does not mean ‘the end of the world.’ It means ‘revealing.’ You can choose to notice or you can choose to ignore.” Black Americans like herself have long known the fearsome truth that we are now seeing acknowledged in mainstream news: the Confederacy never died. We will need clarity and courage, and not premature “unity”, to fight it again.

Rebecca Solnit pulls no punches in her LitHub piece from November, “On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway”. Democrats want marriage counseling while Republicans want war. It’s as simple as that. Mainstream media’s numerous sympathetic profiles of Trump supporters–what critics have taken to calling “Cletus safaris”–rest on the naive belief that:

…urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America…need[s] to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that…

There’s also often a devil’s bargain buried in all this, that you flatter and, yeah, respect these white people who think this country is theirs by throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views. And you reinforce that constituency’s sense that they matter more than other people when you pander like this, and pretty much all the problems we’ve faced over the past four years, to say nothing of the last five hundred, come from this sense of white people being more important than nonwhites, Christians than non-Christians, native-born than immigrant, male than female, straight than queer, cis-gender than trans…

I grew up in an era where wives who were beaten were expected to do more to soothe their husbands and not challenge them, and this carries on as the degrading politics of our abusive national marriage.

Yesterday’s coup attempt reminds me of the behavior burst when you set boundaries with abusers. They are most dangerous when their victims are trying to leave. In today’s column for Medium, nonbinary feminist author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle cautions that “Trump Is Leaving, But the Revenge of Men Continues”. The alt-right movement appeals to, and strengthens, many men’s identification with a toxic brand of masculinity, characterized by bullying and anti-intellectualism. Regarding feminization as worse than death, they are actually dying (and killing) rather than admit their vulnerability to Mother Nature: hence climate-change denial and the refusal to wear masks in a pandemic. “The contemporary push for men to give up their ‘masculinity ideology’ — to be softer, humbler, more cooperative, to think of others first, to support the leadership of others rather than assuming they are entitled to lead, to listen rather than doing all the talking — is simply asking men to cultivate qualities that can help them survive in an increasingly complex world. It’s adapt or die.”

Four years of the narcissist-in-chief screaming “Fake news!” has made “gaslighting” a household word. Ozy at Thing of Things objects to how the word has become Internet shorthand for any argument that causes cognitive dissonance or uncomfortable paradigm shifts in the hearer:

Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person you trust manipulates you into distrusting your own perceptions, memories, and judgments… It is not gaslighting when someone contradicts you, or intentionally causes you to doubt your beliefs, or leaves you uncertain of what you believe, or even makes you think that they think you are crazy. Gaslighting is about someone lying to you in a way that causes you to lose trust in your own capabilities as a rational person.

Following philosopher Miranda Fricker, Ozy recommends the term “hermeneutical injustice” for something that can feel like gaslighting but is distinct from it: when you have an experience, but your community has denied you a framework to understand and believe in that experience.

If you don’t have the concept of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to put together your body image issues, your depersonalization, your deep-seated jealousy of women, your desire to wear skirts, and the fact that you never play a male RPG character. Those will all seem like discrete unrelated facts that don’t point to anything.

But the harms of hermeneutical injustice go deeper. There are harms to the individual as a knower: you feel stupid or crazy because you can’t articulate your experiences, and that makes you feel stupid and crazy in general; it is hard to cultivate certain epistemic virtues if you can’t understand yourself and your own mind. And quite often– especially in more serious cases of hermeneutical injustice– there is a harm to your identity. The harm of growing up conceptualizing yourself as a sodomite rather than a gay person; the harm of thinking of yourself as a person who freaks out about normal flirtation instead of a victim of sexual harassment; the harm of having your very sense of self shaped by narratives and concepts that were developed by people who don’t understand people like you at all.

Hermeneutical injustice isn’t only perpetrated by conservatives. Feminism’s transphobia problem is documented in this Atlantic article by Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Secret Internet of TERFs” (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Like QAnon cult followers, TERFs have created an echo chamber in Internet communities where they spread paranoid conspiracy theories about the “trans agenda”. TERF discourse, though ostensibly from the Left, shares with right-wing homophobia the dangerous assertion that other people’s mere existence threatens the meaning of your life. Not a stretch to compare these folks to the tiki-torch-wielding racists in Charlottesville whose battle cry was “You will not replace us!”

I wrote my college religion thesis on original sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Hawthorne didn’t have the word “narcissism” at his disposal, but his moral tales were targeting TERF logic. The fatal flaw of a character such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark”, the scientist who killed his wife in an attempt to perfect her beauty, was that he treated his fellow humans as pieces on the chessboard of his own symbolic scheme. Purity of concept mattered more than real people’s pain. That’s what Christian conservatives do when they argue that marriage equality devalues their straight marriage, or when cis women claim that including trans women in their spaces would erase the significance of childbirth and menstruation. It’s an assertion that some people don’t have the right to narrate their own lives. There’s nothing feminist about that.

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Happy 2021, readers! And happy Feast of the Epiphany, too. As of this writing, it appears that both Democratic candidates for Senate have won their runoff elections in Georgia, giving us the slimmest majority in the new administration (51-50 with VP Harris’ tiebreaking vote). Big thanks to Stacey Abrams, the NAACP, Movement Voter Project, Swing Left, and other folks who worked hard to bring progressive and minority voters to the polls. Gerrymandering and voter suppression have long made the South seem more conservative than it has to be. Next stop, Mississippi?

My two writing projects this fall were 30 Poems in November and those get-out-the-vote missives for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. This mashup was the result.

 

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Turning the Senate blue? Don’t write our cause off:
Time to work your ass off in the runoff for Jon Ossoff.

Rev. Warnock too, though hard to rhyme his name,
Could represent the state without taking his cross off.

Incumbent Loeffler saw stocks about to dive,
Pandemic inside knowledge, sold to write her loss off.

Perdue — no relation to the chicken man —
Is scared to tell any campaign-donor boss off.

The lame-duck fascist fears the winds of change
Will blow his toupee’s pumpkin-colored floss off.

While Giuliani sues to throw out ballots,
His flop sweat streaks his TV makeup’s gloss off.

Democrats hustle to get out the vote,
Thousands of names to register and cross off.

My hand’s still sprained from the November race,
Like a cat’s paws when the vet has pulled its claws off.

Nonetheless I will write one hundred times —
Like a bad schoolboy dusting his blackboard chalks off —

“Dear Georgia voter, it all depends on you!
Sincerely, Jendi, a volunteer for Jon Ossoff.”

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2020

Your humble transmasculine fashion influencer has had an intense year. As have we all.

Greatest accomplishment: Staying alive.

Other greatest accomplishment: Finished a draft of Origin Story, my second novel about butts and sadness.

Currently writing: Poems about dinosaur masturbation and vat-grown human flesh steaks for my third collection in progress, Made Man.

Soundtrack of my days: Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell”; various artists, “Karneval Top 50: The Very Best of German Karneval”

New obsession: Jigsaw puzzles. We were given a ridiculously difficult Harry Potter puzzle last year that we dug out of the closet during the first weeks of lockdown. I discovered that putting physical objects in order is extremely soothing when the world is falling apart. Also, that all puzzle manufacturers are not created equal. I give top marks to Ravensburger, Pomegranate, and New York Puzzle Company.

Edward Gorey book covers puzzle (Pomegranate)

Most ridiculous purchase: Doll-sized penises on Etsy for my FTM Barbies.

Binge-watching: “Bob’s Burgers” on Hulu. I was a Tina who grew up to be a Gene.

Feeling Meme-ish: Bob's Burgers - Paste

Best novel read in 2020: Eve Tushnet’s second novel, Punishment: A Love Story, was the first work of fiction I read this year, and nothing has quite equaled it. No one is better at exploring the blurred lines between self-destruction, kinky submission, and religious humility. Set at a Washington, DC halfway house for former prisoners re-integrating into society, this wickedly funny tale includes (among other things) a predatory cult, a tender romance between a male sex worker and a figure skater who calls himself “Trash”, and a stolen owl who might be the Holy Spirit.

Best memoir: Obviously, Daniel M. Lavery’s essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (published as Daniel Mallory Ortberg). The humorist who co-founded The Toast finds transmasculine resonance in a wide range of stories, from Greek mythology to “Columbo” and “Star Trek”. The comical riffs bookend deeper reflections about the self-mistrust and emotional shutdown he learned from his evangelical upbringing, and how these factors delayed his transition.

Goals for 2021: Hahahaha.

Latest Bobs Burgers GIFs | Gfycat

Have a safe and peaceful holiday season, readers.

 

 

Music and Poetry by Peter Campbell-Kelly: “Passacaglia”

Violinist Peter Campbell-Kelly of Worcestershire (UK) contacted us at Winning Writers to share this exquisite contemplative video of himself playing Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber‘s Mystery Sonata #16 “Passacaglia” in a 12th-century church in Warwickshire. He writes, “It is a sort of musical prayer, intended somehow for the well-being of all of us in this desperately difficult pandemic.” Peter wrote a poem to accompany the performance, which he has kindly permitted me to reprint here. He also submitted the photos below. Follow the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra channel on YouTube for more music to soothe your spirit.

Passacaglia 

Our songs of sadness touch
The dry-deep scars of earth

And on this peaty path
A lichened branch
Cuts clean through the heart

And people lie dying
And people die weeping

And the waters ripple slow
And the sun lasts down and down

And the curlew throws free
Her liturgy of fiery love

December Links Roundup: What’s Not Wrong

Will 2020 end? It’s possible! As we ride out another frightening virus surge, with a vaccine in sight, let’s light the winter darkness by looking at some small good things.

I was going to give my readers a break from “WHRT Radio: all transgender, all the time” but then this happened.

Elliot Page, the Oscar-nominated star of “Juno” and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” has announced he is transgender.

Elliot, formerly known as Ellen Page, addressed his social media followers saying:

“Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey. I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self. I’ve been endlessly inspired by so many in the trans community. Thank you for your courage, your generosity and ceaselessly working to make this world a more inclusive and compassionate place. I will offer whatever support I can and continue to strive for a more loving and equal society,” he wrote.

“I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive. To all the trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse, and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you, and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better,” Page continued.

Page uses both he/him and they/them pronouns, and describes himself as transgender and non-binary, meaning that his gender identity is neither man nor woman.

He’s one of us!!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve experienced a shift in what I want from transition. Maybe I’ve retrained my eyes to rejoice in the beauty of gender-nonconforming people instead of comparing myself to cis gay musclemen. Maybe masks and the Zoom mustache filter have given me sufficient control over my self-presentation. In any event, I’m less concerned about “passing” now. Small sensual pleasures get me through the monotony and anxiety of COVID life, and those include perfume and jewelry. Should I ever earn millions and/or leave the house again, I want to dress like the louche male models for Palomo Spain, as seen on the fashion blog Tom & Lorenzo.

This attitude of greater self-acceptance extends to my art practice, too. Instead of trying to be famous and talented so that I can feel happy, what if I just dialed direct, and wrote what made me happy, whether or not anyone wants it? I used to think this kind of inner peace was merely touted as a consolation prize for folks who didn’t succeed in worldly terms. Don’t get me wrong, I still want a Lambda Literary Award. But right now I’m down to essentials. I’m alive today and I want to enjoy it. I can plan for the future, but I don’t have to live for it.

At the Poetry Society of America website, they’re doing an interview series called “Stopping By” where they ask creatives to reflect on language and community during the pandemic. These words from poet, novelist, and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths stuck with me:

Have you created something during the lockdown, or are you working on anything now?

I create things every day but it’s not about everything having to be a product or for somebody else’s experience. I would like to believe that my inner life is a spectrum of progressive transformations and experiments, rather than overly transactional. For me, creating and sustaining a private space where I allow myself to rest, to read, to cook, to play music, and to risk new turns of language and imagery where I have no idea how to be wrong or right, is part of the calling.

In high school, I was that edgelord kid who carried around a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness to piss off my liberal teachers. Though I have moved on to other ways of annoying people, Pierce Delahunt’s Medium article “What Does Sex Have to Do With Socialism?” showed me that I still didn’t actually understand socialism versus capitalism. Rand and contemporary conservatives had me conflating socialism with state control, and capitalism with free choice–although the Trump years have shown that we can have a free-market dictatorship.

Delahunt summarizes: “let’s make sure we do not fall into the Capitalist trap of thinking of Capitalism as private enterprise and Socialism as government control. Put simply, Capitalism and Socialism are defined by who controls the means of production: owners (Capitalism) or workers (Socialism).” The crucial difference is not the structure of the economy, but whose interests it serves: the rich few, or the people. In another Medium piece, “Antisocialism: The Personality Disorder of the Economy”, Delahunt explains:

Capitalism is not Commerce. Under Socialism, trade still exists. Transactions still happen. Phones still get made. The difference is that there is more input in every part of this process from the people doing the labor: workers…

Just as Capitalism is not Commerce, Socialism is not “anything the government does.” Government, in fact, can support Capitalism or Socialism. When the government takes power over the means of production from the private owners, but does not grant it to the workers, this is State Capitalism. The power still rests with owners; the owners just happen to be in government. This is what most people in the US think of when they think of Socialism. (The US expends a lot of energy to make us think that.)

I’m not sure you can really prove that “sex is better” under any particular regime, because people define “sex” and “better” in diverse and incompatible ways, but hey, I’d settle for universal healthcare!

The Poet Spiel on Dementia

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, whose eight-decade career includes both exotic pastorals and furious satires of bigotry and militarism. These poems on dementia show a more understated and gentle, but no less powerful, side of Spiel.

Leaving

When I cannot know my name and
I cannot recognize the ones who care.

When my native language becomes none
and I’ve forsaken caution.

When my curiosity has vanished
and I’m no longer able to want.

When I don’t know that someone I don’t know
is paid to garb me in disposables.

When I can no longer talk to my self,
the I of me will be suspended.

When I know no equivalent
of dusk nor dawn

and you no longer feel a need to visit me,
on the day I am unable to miss you,

you will know for certain that
I’ve forever lost my song.

****

Paint Cry

I doubt I’ll be painting daisies
like the others in this home
who can’t recall their names.

But please, dear heart,
smother me in gobs of paints and
leave my thumbnails caked and cruddy.

Please don’t scrub my sweats
of muddy colors and all that goop
I used to flush down in our kitchen drain

Can’t you hear, my dear, that I’m still here
but unable to cry in the colors
we used to share.