Of all the stunning epigraphs Stacey Waite includes in Butch Geography—insights from William Carlos Williams and Judith Butler and Virginia Woolf—the most memorable and significant to me is the Japanese proverb which marks the second of the book’s four sections: The reverse side also has a reverse side. These poems are here to reveal what lies beyond opposites, behind binaries, to show us how either/or and both/and equally neglect the rich, fraught, intricate story of the gendered self. This is why Waite writes, “which is to think of being whole when/I am only a fragment,” and later, in the same poem, “I keep giving birth to identity./ And each time it holds me/ by the throat until I say words.”
Waite’s work is not new to me, in that I have read and marveled over and grappled with and taught Waite’s previous chapbooks, choke (Thorngate Road, 2004), love poem to androgyny (Main Street Rag, 2006), and the lake has no saint (Tupelo Press, 2010). At the same time, Waite’s work is always new to me, as in fresh, as in innovative, as in infinitely recursive and self-reflexive. The speaker distrusts easy trajectories from Point A to Point B, as much as the speaker distrusts easy trajectories from boy to man, from girl to woman.
That distrust, and the intricacies of language it necessitates, is exemplified by a poem like “The Kind of Man I Am at the DMV.” The poem begins:
Mommy, that man is a girl, says the boy
pointing his finger, like a narrow spotlight,
targeting the center of my back, his kid-hand
learning to assert what he sees, his kid-hand
learning the failure of gender’s tidy little story
After the prosody of the lines and the elegance of the enjambments, I notice the hyper-gender of a word like “Mommy” juxtaposed beside the gender neutrality of a word like “kid-hand.” I hear this poem in conversation with an earlier poem from Waite’s canon, where the speaker tells how “[w]e all love [androgyny] to begin with./ Then something happens. We become/ a mother who races down the steps/ to cover our daughter (who is riding her bike/ topless) with a plaid blanket.”
That metaphorical mother is also this literal mother who tells her son at the DMV, “Of course he’s not,” then changes the subject. That mother who wants to believe in “gender’s tidy little story” is a version of the same mother who appears in “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by a Waiter While Having Breakfast with My Mother,” the one who “starts scraping the black burnt off her toast” and chewing her eggs “like they are lint from the screen in [the] dryer.” All of these mothers are the same mother Waite reminds us we have all already become when we insist that gender must be a box to check, that one or this other.
How can a poem like this end? I wonder. After all, in a case of multitudinous identities, there is no single pronoun to suture the story closed. Knowing this, Waite embraces the assumed contradictions between man and girl, boy and woman, and allows the poem to float, even to glide, within and between them, like water around rocks:
of man I am is a girl, the kind of man
I am is pushups-on-the-basement-floor,
when the kind of man I am drives away
from the boy who will become a boy,
except for now, while he’s still a girl-voice,
a girl-face, a hairless arm, a powerless hand.
That boy is a girl, that man who is a girl
thinks to himself as he pulls out of the lot,
his girl eyes shining in the Midwest sun.
You could call Butch Geography a bildungsroman, and you would be right. The poet-speaker comes of age learning “No one knows what I can do” and “Sometimes the world/ is too small for a kid like me.” You could call Butch Geography a kunstlerroman, an artist’s coming of age, and you would be right. It’s one thing, after all, to discover as a ten-year-old catcher on the baseball team that “[t]hey’re all watching the girl with no balls.” But there is an important turn in the next line when the speaker tells us, “I’m watching her, too.” This is the first poem in the collection, and already our speaker is exploring the power of ekstasis, the ability to step outside the self in order to perceive the self more fully. Later, our grown speaker will tell us, “I am still making love to the same woman./I have finally learned that she is not a poem.” Art and life are derivations of each other, never duplicates.
You could even call Butch Geography a meditation on the body, and you would be right. Our speaker muses “on the question of Prince,/his small erotic body, his long hair falling/around his shoulders like a black scarf.” Our speaker falls in love for the first time and recalls, “Back then, our bodies/were rendered speechless.” Our speaker contemplates “shots of estrogen,/ which will surge through my body like electric shocks” and “some piece of herself/ that has been swallowed by the jaws of testosterone.” In a poem called “Explication: Intersexual,” which is not an explication at all but an acknowledgment of the extraordinary liminal spaces of embodiment, the speaker writes/sings/mourns/reflects:
Take, for instance, my body,
always the flag at half-mast,
or carving initials,
the wind’s leave of absence,
someone saying what are you,
photographs and their edges.
Open this book, unfold this map; I dare you. Inside you will find series of poems within poems, recollections that begin “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken…” and epistles addressed “Dear Gender.” You will find a pair of “Self-Portraits,” a pair of “Poems for my First Girlfriend,” a pair of letters “To a Woman Who Has Never Been My Lover.” Stacey Waite is a poet in conversation with anyone who will listen, a poet whose voice is as “alive, and inevitable” as the body s/he sings, and “survival,” Waite reminds us, is “the anthem/ of those places we’ve always been.”