We Are Mermaids

Nonbinary Thinking: Stephanie Burt’s We Are Mermaids

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A colony of merfolk living in a harmonious undersea commune. A cult of sentient Boeing 757 aircraft. A lament for a werewolf. A pod of whales after the apocalypse observing humans like a nature documentary. Is it any surprise that Stephanie Burt discovered her love of poetry by reading science fiction? Speculative writers have always drawn inspiration from poetry, from Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” to stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. Despite what some elite literary institutions would like you to believe, science fiction and poetry have plenty in common. In that spirit, Burt’s collection We Are Mermaids (Graywolf Press) is a beautifully weird exploration of trans joy and the common threads that unite us all.

Burt is perhaps best known for her contributions to literary criticism. Though she has written collections exploring identity before, this is the first of her collections that fully embraces a trans narrative. In many ways it is Burt’s coming out story and by far her most personal. She takes us back to her youth, transformative experiences that, as demonstrated in “My 1994,” show how “I didn’t know. But I knew.” Perhaps more importantly, the collection shows us that we’re “never one thing” and all inextricably connected to the earth and to each other (“Hymn to Youth”). By including speculative elements, Burt takes us out of our binary world and puts us in a place where social constructs are meaningless and arbitrary. She weaves between subjects, from mermaid to flower to what it’s like to be a punctuation mark, with a fluidity that makes the reader an active participant. I am a whale, I am a scallop, maybe I’m not so binary after all?

The first section in We Are Mermaids looks back on different moments that, in retrospect, show how “You can know what you need / before you know why.” The speaker in the poem “At the Parkway Deli” reflects on their childhood obsession with a particular pickle bar:

half-sours and dills, sliced lengthwise like canoes,
curled up at their tips like canoes;
banana peppers the shape
of your tongue if you stick out your tongue,
that also burn your tongue;
jade discs with peppercorns, sugary like tart candy,
yet not dessert, and good for you. How many years
till I found out why trans girls and women crave salt.

The language is almost childlike until the turn, a question stated as a fact from an older, reflective speaker. It’s a known phenomenon that trans women undergoing hormone replacement therapy experience these sodium cravings; Burt draws the reader into this shared experience and deepens the connections between mermaids, saltwater, trans people, and the universal we.

As the collection moves into a new section, the poems shift toward contradictions and a sense of uncertainty. Burt grapples with the problems that come with keeping your true self a secret. In “Prayer for Werewolves,” a speaker tries to convince a werewolf that despite how hard things seem, “someone will probably love you for who you are.” It reads almost as if the speaker is trying to convince both the werewolf, the reader, and themself why life is worth living.

The third section of Mermaids is the most political, and while it doesn’t take a combative tone, it asserts with conviction that marginalized people cannot be erased. In “Snow” and the succeeding “Whiter,” Burt reflects on the conservative viewpoint that America needs to return to some ideal past, which that never existed. She makes clever use of a shape poem in “Sparrows in the Natick Collection,” which speaks from the perspective of birds living in the rafters of a Boston shopping mall and has each stanza shaped as a bird. It’s an interesting play on the collection’s assertion that anyone can be anything and anything can be anyone. The poem itself is a flock of birds, and the birds in the poem metaphorically represent marginalized groups. In particular, the sparrows are like undocumented immigrants who, despite being “proactive” and “motivated” members of society (or this shopping mall) who “never meant any trouble,” are constantly forced out of their homes. The people in the mall may try to destroy the nests or poison the birds, but they defiantly exclaim, “Nothing you do can make us leave.”

The fourth section moves away from America entirely, with each poem taking place in Ireland, England, New Zealand, and other countries. These pieces further emphasize Burt’s conviction that we are not people belonging to a country, rather we belong to the Earth.

Throughout the collection, Burt pushes the reader through a revolving door of perspectives that, like in “James Smith & Sons Umbrellas, Parasols, Etc. Since 1830,” ultimately prove “no one is only one thing.” Each section begins with a poem from the perspective of a different punctuation mark, from “( )” to “”””. All wield dual metaphors that can be read as either a defense of the punctuation mark itself or the experience of being trans. For example, in the quotation mark poem, the speaker says, “We liken ourselves to tadpoles,” referring to both the shape of quotation marks and the ways in which trans people experience a transformation. Using the collective “we” as the speaker in this poem also has the effect of referring to a collective community, or perhaps just two quotation marks that go hand in hand. My favorite has to be the semicolon piece, which is both a defense of this much maligned punctuation mark as well as a celebration of trans identity:

I know, though, I was made to join together
things formerly thought incompatible, to be neither-
nor and both-and; to seek a connection
that does not amount to copulation.

It’s no coincidence that this particular poem comes at a section’s conclusion rather than  beginning, connecting the hopeful fourth section with the triumphant finale.

In “Whale Watch,” the speaker—presumably an adult or more knowledgeable whale—explains to another whale what humans are. It’s written like the narration in a nature documentary, but the whales’ attempt to describe human behavior in terms they understand (i.e., boats are shells, wood is the bones of fallen trees) is both humorous and disorienting, since it points out the absurdity in assuming you have the language to understand someone else’s experience.

Perhaps even more fascinating are the persona pieces from the perspectives of inanimate objects. “Boeing 757s, Airbus 320s, an Embraer 190” chronicles the lives of commercial airliners. The collective speaker talks about their mechanical imperatives, then their “laws” or “commandments,” essentially social strictures that seem to have no identifiable origin. They muse on the robotic sameness of their existence, that “all of us grew up / in places that look just like this” and think that humans can’t leave their own “assigned-at-assembly airport.” It’s easy to personify an animal, less so an airplane or an umbrella, but in doing so Burt asks us to consider why society’s norms exist: are they for everyone’s benefit, or only a select few?

Recurring images throughout the collection reinforce Burt’s call to embrace our most authentic selves. From the opening poem “We Are Mermaids,” Burt threads imagery of wetness, salt, and oceans through the poems as powerful reminders of femininity and “life-giving” waters that have “been there since before / the beginning of tragedy.” We’re reminded that the first creatures that crawled out of the ocean were fish that evolved to walk on land. What are we if not constantly evolving?

Pop culture references abound, from Disney’s Frozen to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot to one particular artifact of internet meme culture that I refuse to spoil. There are several pieces in the collection that feature comic book characters like Nightcrawler, Dazzler, and Mr. Incredible. Nerd culture is celebrated as another stitch in the fabric of our interconnected world. Flowers recur in this collection as well, delicate and slow to bloom, but “the most important fact about them” is “that they continue to exist,” which Burt reminds us in “Bleeding Hearts.” Burt begs the question, does there have to be more to it than that? The opening poem reminds us “You don’t have to be use- / ful. You are not required / to come up with something to say.” The overall effect is encouraging, that all you have to do is be you. These images sing together in the beautiful cover illustration by Sam Chung: a trio of mermaids, drawn in a superhero, comic book style and adorned with flowers.

We Are Mermaids argues that trans and other marginalized groups are only invisible because of arbitrary social constructs. Society is built, like airplanes. No one should have to explain their right to exist. Nothing is only one thing, and as Burt’s poem “Ligature” reenforces, “binary thinking leaves out so much.” It’s a beautiful reminder that we all deserve the world.

Carrie Lee South is an MFA candidate at the Arkansas Writer’s Workshop where she focuses on dark speculative fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Opus Comics, The Dread Machine, Tales to Terrify, and elsewhere. Read more at carrieleesouth.com. More from this author →