Two Poems from Suzanne Ondrus’s “Passion Seeds”

Suzanne Ondrus is a poet and literary scholar whose work explores cultural exchange and understanding, intimacy, oppression, and history. Her poetry book Passion Seeds, about love and longing long distance between an American woman and a Burkina Faso man, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize from Little Red Tree Publishing. Suzanne has taught writing and literary theory in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Russia, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Italy, and Germany, and was a 2018-2020 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Her new collection, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2022 and will be available for pre-order in May. It is a true story of female resistance to domestic violence involving an 1881 Ohio-German immigrant couple. Read three poems from this book in the feminist journal S/tick.

Suzanne kindly shares these poems from Passion Seeds.

Let’s Go Green

Dante had Beatrice blazing blond before him
guiding him from the ice of hell to heaven’s
summits.

Beatrice burned forever in his heart.
Her hands filled with air
and her smile shouldered the world.
From afar he would watch,
happy for a view of her on Sunday.
In the Duomo, his heart arched over
the bridge his eyes made to her,

silent,
unaware
he prayed.

My black angel, you are afar.
How shall I say you burn for me?
My love for you glows like coal or
you are my black angel of coal glow?
But you are not coal, licorice, chocolate,
tar, oil, rubber, sod, tires, or asphalt.
You are seed in my heart,
the green promise.
I want to be the seed of your heart;
I believe I am the seed of your heart.
Please water me with your tears
and bring your heart to the light
so our seeds can grow and glow green.

****

Bleached History

I.
White through fire circles,
mud houses, lingering handshakes
white through indigo, slit goats’ necks
and the dolo-filled calabash.

II.
A congregation so large,
piled high up to the sky
for only one step to his throne,
to finally come home.

III.
Missionaries pleaded, cajoled
for their congregation to reach that throne!
They even stole boys to enroll
and control,
promising parents future rewards.
Their heads were shaved
and their mother tongues shamed,
with the antelope skull worn at least
once by all.
Cultural carving beyond bones,
branding
Jean,
Marc,
Antoine
over Narelwindé’s
wings
to God,
on top Awa’s whisper
to the river
and Yalle’s hope risen.

IV.
The red soil with its orange puddles
held this pain,
so full from
what the whites called religious school.

They tried to stitch boys against the hum
of their ancestors in the wind,
and with white cloth, bread and wine
wind their minds for Christendom and
the French curriculum.

But whispers of songs
sung in the field,
lingering handshakes,
compounds with family
and thatched roofs commanded feet
home, through thorned brush

stealthy under the moon,
back close to Mother’s womb
from where solid like the baobab
they did first bloom.

 

Author Note: This poem was inspired by Burkinabe shaman Malidome Patrice Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and Spirit. Somé was kidnapped as a young child by missionaries and taken to missionary school; he escaped in his late teens, returning to his village. In the 1950s children were punished if they spoke their native languages at school; French was the language of instruction in Burkina Faso. Dolo is homemade grain alcohol. Calabash is a gourd. Calabash are dried and used as bowls, among other things. Wearing an antelope skull signifies shame, akin to wearing a dunce cap. Narelwindé, Awa and Yalle are Burkinabe first names. Baobab is a tree of utmost significance to West Africa, signifying strength and groundedness.

“Made Man” Makes News: BGSQD Reading Video and Solstice Lit Mag Review

The Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (BGSQD), the queer bookstore at The Center NYC, hosted a fabulous launch reading for me and poet Steven Riel (Edgemere) this past weekend, which you can watch on their YouTube channel:

Being back in person in a queer arts space was a sacred experience, enhanced by Frank Mullaney’s “Wallpaper Saints” photo exhibit, which you can view behind us. Please support this essential cultural haven by purchasing books from their website. If you don’t see Made Man or Edgemere on their site yet, email Greg Newton at contact@bgsqd.com to purchase your copy.

In other news, Solstice Lit Mag poetry editor Robbie Gamble just published a great review of Made Man in their Spring 2022 issue. Gamble says, “The reader is in for a comitragic, day-glo accented, culture-hopping, snort-inducing, gender-interrogating rollercoaster of a ride… In the current season of culture wars, where state legislatures are enacting ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills, and trying to reframe gender-affirming treatments as parental abuse, Made Man stands as a testament to the humanity of trans people everywhere. It’s also chock-full of intelligent, often hilarious and sometimes biting poems that will leave you spinning and exhilarated.”

Other great stuff in this issue of Solstice includes Richard Jeffrey Newman’s sexual abuse memoir “The First Time I Told Someone” and MC Hyland’s prose-poem “Five Short Essays on Open Secrets”. Check it out and subscribe to their free e-newsletter.

Two Poems from “The Chessmaster’s Daughter” by Barbara Regenspan

Barbara Regenspan is a poet, scholar, and opinion writer who has taught leadership in social justice-focused education at Colgate University. Her books include Haunting and the Educational Imagination. Now, her debut full-length poetry collection, The Chessmaster’s Daughter, is available from Cayuga Lake Books. This collection combines lyricism and philosophical inquiry, meditating on the tensions between appreciation of the present moment and responsibility for the burdens of history. Regenspan appreciates the complexity of her Jewish immigrant legacy: its silent traumas, restless search for truth, and ancient rituals of renewal. In a familiar trajectory for progressive American Jews, she also turns to Buddhist mindfulness and nature-centric practices to counterbalance the intellectual ferment of her ancestral religion.

Barbara says, “I am a strong supporter of the local Tompkins County Workers’ Center (they are among the original national fighters for a living wage) and I have offered the book as a fundraiser.” Donate $13 or more to this upstate New York labor advocacy group, and they will send you a copy of The Chessmaster’s Daughter.

She kindly shares these poems below.

Little Animal Lessons

The day after Ruth’s fatal fall
a squirrel found its way into an
upstairs waste basket,

apparently unfazed when David
released it to the outside sill.

Then a toad preceded our steps on
the path to the market, committed to
the journey on the dry concrete,

avoiding the lush summer growth to
the right and left,

demanding from us a walking meditation
under its peculiar green leadership.

I’ve known this before:
The smaller living things, not
your usual friends, acting out,
commanding:

“Slow down, heed
the closures,
the new possibilities.”

****

Argue for Life

Try to leave your life without dying.
It’s impossible; you were always
a detective anyway and must find
the crime the suspect did not commit.
You’ll be given away by wind chimes
left on the porch,
whose commitment to a furious
system leaves a trail of resonance.
The pain you need to escape has
its own residue, because the separation of
you from everybody else that you almost
believed in is defied by the difficulty leaving.
Stay here with me in this house on the canal
where the lovers we’ve hardly seen walk
by and look in the window, or touring groups
ignore us to take in the sights—approaching the
gorge trail, the path of depth and turns.

Poetry by Helen Bar-Lev: “The Wrong Tree”

Israeli poet and painter Helen Bar-Lev was born in New York in 1942. She has held over 90 exhibitions of her landscape paintings and published eight illustrated poetry collections. She kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below, inspired by Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was first published in ESRA Magazine.

The Wrong Tree

Look at us humans
bones and blood and skin
eating fruit from the wrong tree,
sailing arks to banish the bad
but we are fools and sink with the ship

Prayers unheard clog the earth
war after war and the world whirls on
a murderer in every corner
superheros vanished or banished,
refugees like the rest of us

Atlantis has disappeared
Saints burned at the stake
Shangri La never was
think Hiroshima, my love

Mozart was recalled at thirty-five
Moses forbidden the promised land
slavery and plagues still alive
and no one to raise us from the dead

Look, Henny Penny
the ruble is falling
the wall is wailing
the pipes are calling
Danny, the boy, the soldier
tells Mama he’s frightened–
then the missile explodes

The sun shines and regrets and retreats
the crocodile cries and destroys
this is not the planet of free choice

News news everywhere
on buildings, in bunkers,
oh how the world has shrunk

We are all golems
slumped on the floor
waiting for instructions…
or our own destruction

April Is Poetry Month: Two Poems from Mahnaz Badihian’s “Ask the Wind”

Since April is National Poetry Month, it seemed like a good time to run excerpts from some poetry collections I’ve recently enjoyed. Mahnaz Badihian is an Iranian-American poet, translator, and visual artist in San Francisco. She sent me a copy of her new poetry book, Ask the Wind (Vagabond Books), to review for Winning Writers. I was pleased by her original turns of phrase, delight in nature’s signs of renewal, and hopefulness about peace in our tortured world. She has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems below. I love how she takes an expression that usually denotes sadness, “not belonging,” and rethinks it as joyful non-attachment.

NOT BELONGING

Like a bird, she floats in nature
like water, she seeps through the earth
the cells in her body,
do not identify with anyone
she is everyone

She has no motherland
she’s free from friends and enemies
the recycled woman rises to far horizons
with no destinations in mind

She’ll not be wounded, not be sad
she’s free of old memories,
from belonging to one particular land
from heavy gold necklaces
her ancestors left behind

Now she puts her feet on fresh grass
opens her arms and lets the sun plant
flowers on her fingertips

Gives her naked bosom to the hands
of the breeze under the glory of
the apple trees
giving herself to the flowing creeks
letting the fish swim in her veins
for the birth of more new happiness.

****

DNA

It was Monday morning and
I was passing the big statue
In the lobby of Johns Hopkins hospital
searching for Room 202,
the first interview with Mrs. Willis

She had a kind smile on her lips
her hands were wrinkled with red nail polish
Mrs. Willis looked me in the eyes,
how do I pronounce your name, dear?
I said, MAH NAZ,
the exact same way it’s written

Mrs. Willis with her M.S. degree said, I’ll try
MENAZ Manos, Maha-noss
then gently she changed her voice and
said, Can I call you Mary?

Marry? Merry? Morry? Echoed in my head
I felt like evaporating morning dew,
like a branch of a tree under heavy rain,
like fruit just fallen from a tree

I looked Mrs. Willis in the eyes and said,
“But my name is the charm of the moon
the name I was called by my mother
and by the man with black hair
dark mustache and brown eyes.”

Mrs. Willis was looking at me
with wide-open eyes
I said: “Mrs. Willis,
is my name more difficult
than Deoxyribonucleic acid?”

April Links Roundup: And the Real (Estate) Monster Was…

Happy April Fool’s Day to the readers of this increasingly sporadic blog. I pranked my son this morning by telling him that the Nutella company was going out of business. We both love to eat this sugary spread for breakfast (him without benefit of spoon). Never fear, the nut supply is still abundant.

For genuine everyday horror, I’ve just finished reading Robert Marasco’s 1973 haunted house novel, Burnt Offerings, reissued by Valancourt Books. This book is like what would happen if a “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine became sentient and started eating your brain. Our protagonists flee the grime and noise pollution of low-income apartment life in New York (something I know well!) only to be seduced by the luxuries of an upstate mansion that consumes tenants’ life force in order to repair itself. Unlike typical haunted houses, this one is delightful to live in. The horror arises from watching the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves because they want a room with a view.

That this impulse remains strong, especially when New York real estate is involved, is documented by Morgan Boyle’s essay at Fence Digital, “Imaginary Liminality Steps From the Train: How to Dreamwalk the World of Craigslist Apartments”.

Occasionally the ceilings are high, the rent is cheap, the deli is two doors down, the kitchen is large and there’s no sink in the bathroom. The listing says the apartment is unique. The apartment is unique. The kitchen is big black and white tile and good to dream about. You think about never washing your hands after using the toilet. You think about never washing your face at night. You think about brushing your teeth over the kitchen sink. The living bodied broker waits expectantly, digitally behind a computer screen. The listing says it is unique. Are you unique enough for this apartment? What’s a bathroom sink? You think about a potential lover standing in the bathroom looking expectantly for a sink that isn’t there. You think about the moment the realization of the lack dawns. You think about the look they give you upon exiting the bathroom with the missing sink and their unclean hands. You think about the unspoken shared knowledge of filth between you. You stop daydreaming in the apartment and click to the next listing. There is not a lot of room for this type of uniqueness in a pandemic world.

The Guardian’s Meg Conley takes a deep dive into the history of kitchen design and social class in this October 2021 article, “Invisible fridges and cooling cubbies: how kitchens have been designed for the rich”. Since the labor of home management historically fell to lower-status groups–women, and particularly Black women in white households–it was important to conceal it because oppression is such a downer when you’re throwing a dinner party. Rather depressing to learn that in 1908, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the classic feminist tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”, proposed liberating white women from household duties by creating a forced labor corps of Black men, women, and children!

Along those lines, the ever-astute Brandon Taylor suggests in his Sweater Weather newsletter that costume dramas like “Bridgerton” or “The Gilded Age” can never adequately represent historical injustices such as racism, because we watch them to enjoy the pretty stuff and the rich people behaving badly, but where do you think that wealth came from?

American period dramas are exercises in self-delusion, always evading the twin horrors of colonization and enslavement. The reason is simple: the history as it happened is too horrifying to turn into a rosy bourgeois narrative. There are no good guys to root for. No way of affirming Protestant sexual and social values in a way that flatters contemporary audiences. That’s why every period drama is ultimately a confection. Because to tell the truth how it really was, how it truly was, would be too much. Implicating.

Don’t miss Taylor’s searing short story “Urgent, Necessary, Vital” at Esquire. A college pottery class becomes a microcosm of sexual and racial politics, as a Black photography student finds that artistic success doesn’t insulate him from being othered, merely gives the problem a different form.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” last month interviewed trans activist and mixed media artist Alok Vaid-Menon about breaking free “from every socially constructed binary that does not allow us to live out our full humanity, our divinity, our infinite creativity and possibility.” Listen or read the transcript here. Alok says:

I see so much of what the trans movement being in the world is a love letter that says, I believe in your capacity for transformation, I believe in your capacity for self-determination. And then in response to that love, we’re told that we are wrong, that we’re disorderly, that we’re foolish, that we’re ridiculous, that we’re delinquents, that we’re predators, that we’re violent. That’s a pain that I continue to face as my words reach more people, is this extreme and coordinated backlash to tarnish me and by extension tarnish the ideas that have been here, they’re ancient ideas, because I think what patriarchy does is it makes us publicists. We find ourselves speaking it, doing it, living it, thinking it with such a fierce allegiance that if someone dare say another way of living is possible, people would rather eradicate and extinguish that alternative than confront that kind of spiritual nudity of asking, who am I outside of what patriarchy wants me to be?

I love their reframing of beauty standards: “Beauty is looking like ourselves.”

Devon Price’s Medium article “The Power of Defiance in the Age of Trans Bans” expresses an understandable exhaustion with the political process. How many times do we have to convince voters and politicians that we deserve to exist?

As a Millennial…I still received the message that being gay was strange and disgusting, and being trans was freakish and deluded. To be both gay and trans was too bizarre to even consider. Anti-gay laws convinced me I was an impossible, dangerous thing. Children and families needed protection from even the idea of me.

Believing all that about myself was absolutely shattering. It ruined my physical and mental health, and for many years destroyed my ability to love others. This is exactly the fate states like Iowa, Texas, and Florida are currently setting trans kids up for. The many political victories gay people have won in recent years have done nothing to prevent this. It was always conditional acceptance, as easily taken away as it was given.

But our autonomy and dignity should not belong to others like this. It should only ever belong to us.

I am not here to write inspiring calls to political action. I’m not interested in begging people to call their representatives or get to the polls. I don’t want to waste anyone’s energy or hope like that anymore. I no longer believe there is any liberation to be found within a legal system that has already tried, many times, to legislate entire groups of people out of existence. I think our power as trans people will not be attained through conventional political channels, but by standing together in proud disobedience of the laws that attempt to control our identities and bodies. I think our committed cis allies must be ready to disobey unjust laws too.

If your professional life is touched by these anti-trans laws, I believe you have a moral obligation to break them. If you’re a teacher, doctor, therapist, or school psychologist in Texas, you must be willing to protect transgender kids and their families. If it proves necessary, refuse to report trans kids’ existence to the government. Disrupt and thwart your colleagues’ attempts to report trans families, too. Lose documents. Slow down processes. Lie. Find any methods you can to grind this dehumanizing machine to a halt.

If you’re a healthcare provider in Iowa, find surreptitious ways to deliver care to your trans patients. Help trans families find the resources they need, and build networks with your colleagues in other states, to keep trans kids treated and safe. If you’re a school teacher in Florida, protect your gay and trans students from harassment, and quietly provide information that will help them understand themselves. If you are a parent or educator anywhere in the country, be on alert for transphobic, homophobic policies and undercut them at every possible turn. Every unjust rule is an opportunity to break it. You have so more power than you realize — and far more options than our political system would like you to see.

March Links Roundup: The Transience and Greatness of Books

Happy March–the month when, theoretically, spring will arrive, even in New England. As they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a day. As changeable, too, are the fortunes of books. This essay by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), reprinted in Narrative Magazine, limns the author’s destiny in terms that are simultaneously humble, noble, and humorous.

Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life…

No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form—often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.

Given the fickleness and unpredictability of the literary life–like any life–Conrad advises the author to prioritize clear understanding, compassion, and the liberty of the imagination. Art is already dead when it merely serves to illustrate an ideological or aesthetic agenda.

It must not be supposed that I claim for the artist in fiction the freedom of moral Nihilism. I would require from him many acts of faith of which the first would be the cherishing of an undying hope; and hope, it will not be contested, implies all the piety of effort and renunciation. It is the God-sent form of trust in the magic force and inspiration belonging to the life of this earth. We are inclined to forget that the way of excellence is in the intellectual, as distinguished from emotional, humility. What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction. It gives an author—goodness only knows why—an elated sense of his own superiority. And there is nothing more dangerous than such an elation to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation.

To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so.

At the Southern arts and culture magazine Scalawag, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt urges us not to give up hope for the queer and leftist struggle in the South. Don’t write off the region as belonging to the right-wing racists. Like her late spouse Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Warriors), Pratt sees transformation occurring through intersectional alliances among queer, POC, and working-class people.

The South is full of our queerness—35 percent of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives here (the Northeast is home to only 19 percent). In the Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana—almost 40 percent of us identify as people of color; In Texas that figure is over 50 percent.

Pratt shares anecdotes about political organizing and how we can learn from each other’s limited perspectives, such as her white mother who appreciated women’s gains in independence in the 1970s, but was unaware that Black activism laid the foundation for her freedoms.

In this video at Poets & Writers, Paul Tran, in a gorgeously gender-bending dress, reads “Copernicus” from their new poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Books). Read more of their work at the Poetry Foundation website. From “Endosymbiosis” (a word that means one organism living inside another):

It wasn’t him
but what he did
that lived on
inside me.
I had to
learn that.
I had to
cleave  action
from figure,
the verb  do
from the noun  doll
Performance artist Kris Grey creates thought-provoking shows and videos with their trans body, often nude, as the centerpiece. This untitled piece, in which they move in and out of a cast of their former body shape, helped me visualize how I might look and feel after top surgery. In their 10-minute video “Suspicious Packages”, Grey tries on some unexpected phallic substitutes. It’s deadpan funny, but maybe only trans guys will get the poignancy of it, too–that way in which a packer both eases dysphoria and uncomfortably emphasizes its own artificiality, its separateness from the body.

My Poetry Book “Made Man” Is Here!

My third full-length collection, Made Man, officially launches March 1 from Little Red Tree Publishing.

Staci Wright at the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table Reviews says:

A mix of somber moments and charming wit, Reiter’s collection makes space for humor in the maelstrom of navigating gendered experiences. Their poems synthesize recent historical moments and deeply personal anecdotes to create commentary that dares you to question binaries and social construction itself. Reiter sources material from the nooks and crannies of the human experience; they sculpt each poem using anything from Scholastic Book Club books to Jewish folklore to 1970’s photography series to Manhattan dumpling houses.

Poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt says:

Dense with figure and dense with thought, full of fun and full of anguish, superbly conscious of every rule they break, sometimes giving us comfort and sometimes “another live coal in your mouth,” the poems in this collection work and play and travel in many directions, speak through many and varied masks. Then they come back together to point to a confident future, a nonbinary embodiment, a way past the limits of what other people have told us counts as feminine (“the mermaid bleeds lipstick”), as masculine (“chaos softboy”), as sacred, as childhood (“happy as a rubber ball”), parenthood, adulthood (“I didn’t grow up. I had more laundry”).

I regret that I did not send the poem below to queer theorist Leo Bersani, author of the seminal-in-all-senses text Is the Rectum a Grave? And now he has gone to the great bath house in the sky. Dr. Bersani passed away at age 90 on Feb. 20. From the NY Times obit:

Dr. Bersani was best known for his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” a dense, polemical critique of the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality.

Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life.

“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship,” he wrote, “gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women.”

This poem (like many of my best works) was inspired by a joke from my husband, so I guess marriage is good for something. FYI, the opening line of Bersani’s famous essay is “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”

 

Is the Roasting Pan a Grave?

There is a big secret about turkey: most people don’t like it.
One November day’s duty, otherwise ignored, the bottom.

When the legs are moist, the breast’s dried out
With a hellbound heart, closeted clerics exhort the bottom.

The more savored the taste, the more later despised:
Rest now, fabulous martyrs who whored the bottom.

Play families, play natives’ welcome spread for the plagued men:
Our schoolboy histories will not record the bottom.

But for one night, we feast together in a dying year —
What, then, that too much stuffing may distort the bottom?

We “failed to find the idea of the holocaust unbearable”:
Rather police meat market into pastoral, report the bottom.

Give thanks to ghosts, our unquenchable forefathers,
Pilgrims of filth, who on their knees adored the bottom.

TL;DR? Should Bersani’s words prove dry,
Read the foil pan embossed: ALWAYS SUPPORT THE BOTTOM.

The Poet Spiel: “Returnee” Series

Time for some more hard-hitting poems about war and American manhood from my friend The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom W. Taylor. Watch this space for news of our collaboration on my next poetry book!

returnee: commandments 6 and 3

on his knees,
in reverse
of the sacred thou shalt commandments,
first taken to his heart as an innocent,
he killed for you
on lofty commands
drilled deep
in the immediacy
of fear and steel
and fire.

he’d come back home
and robbed you
of what he thought
he’d fought for;
and when he found himself confused,
he cleansed your colon
with his 9 mm glock.

so he fell to his knees —
like when he was a child —
to humbly wash your feet
of what he’d done;
but recognized he’d finalized
his shames
when he exclaimed
his first lord’s name
in vain.
___________________________
returnee: last words

he is so glad to be free
of those god-forsaken sandstorms.

glad to sink heels into real dirt
he’d worked
before he was called.

but he cannot know these bodies,
occupying the same address
where they all watch tv,

where he’s been pissing away big rents
from over there
for all these years.

these aliens have the same names as those
who have been shipping monthly selfies
and xmas goodies to him:
jen and tiffy, billy lou and little john.

though they have
somewhat familiar faces,
he wants nothing to do
with these strangers.

the square truth is:
he just doesn’t have to kiss
nobody’s ass
no more

he’s already said his last words
every ten breaths of his life
for the past one thousand days.

February Bonus Links: Go Ahead, Break That Dish

When the pandemic started, my spiritual guide Julian said to me, “We’re all going to die, darling–wear your good shoes.” (For more advice from an imaginary fashion photographer, read this book.) The sudden closeness of death and impermanence brought home to me that there may be no “later” that we’re saving our luxuries for. Or, as a less slutty higher power is reported to have said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20)

In the magazine Eater, journalist and witchy writer Jaya Saxena advises “Stop Worrying and Start Using Your Fancy China”:

 It is such a waste of beauty to keep the loveliest things out of sight, away from the parties and the food and the people you love, just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.

The thing about owning nice things is you’re going to die one day. Which isn’t to say throw it all to hell and only eat off paper plates, but that nice things are meant to be enjoyed while we’re still on this earth… Honor your ancestors or your family who bought such nice things off your registry by actually using what they’ve given you.

This mindset shift is not easy, I admit. Referencing the fraught family dynamics of our wedding, I often caution my son when he’s playing too vigorously next to our the china cabinet, “Many Bothans died to bring us this Royal Doulton tea set.” Which, now that he’s seen “Star Wars”, perhaps he will understand.

Shortly before that wedding, a much-fought-for event that I’d dreamed about all my life, I wrote this poem about my ambivalence about making any life-altering decision, even one that I wanted. Now, contemplating another big step in my gender transition, I appreciated this article by Joseph Bikart at the UK-based digital magazine Psyche: “How to make a difficult decision”. Bikart offers several thought-exercises to help you identify the parts of yourself that want opposite things; expand the range of choices; clarify your underlying goal; and break down big overwhelming projects into manageable steps.

Bikart writes, “Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.” (Literally, in my case, since I’m thinking about top surgery!) And he really called me out with this one: “Indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day, until you finally decide.”

On that note, hats off to cultural critic and historian Lucy Sante, formerly known as Luc Sante (author of Low Life and The Other Paris), who transitioned last year at age 67. In her recent Vanity Fair article about her journey of self-discovery, this passage stood out to me:

I once described myself as a creature made entirely of doubt, much of it self-doubt, but as soon as I made up my mind to come out, last February, I ceased doubting. That is to say, I experienced regular bouts of dysphoria, which in this context means intense recurring periods of self-doubt, self-hatred, and despair, which happen irregularly for varying lengths of time, typically (for me, by now) about two or three days a week. Yet paradoxically I had never before experienced such wholehearted conviction. Even in the throes of those bouts I felt an unaccountable bedrock of certainty.

Trans people colloquially refer to this moment as your egg cracking. It would be equally true to my experience to describe it as an iceberg thawing. All of the frozen feelings emerge like the Old Ones in “From the Mountains of Madness”. Along with euphoria, wholeness, relief, and a new sense of integration and resonance with myself, I have bouts of grief and fear. I confront internalized cis-het beauty standards that tell me I’m mutilating my body, or squandering the safety afforded by presenting as an average-looking lady. My younger selves finally speak up about the shame and discomfort of puberty. Paradoxically, I mourn both the young man I never got to be, and the older woman I won’t become.

Here’s another poem, “Couplets”, from the same pre-wedding period. “One can never/prove anything to the world, only make it surrender/by ignoring it or being ignored.” Thanks, Jendi-age-26. You were a smart guy.