Perhaps the best book of poetry I have read in the past year is Joelle Taylor’s C+nto & Othered Poems (Westbourne Press, 2021). The title is taken from the obsolete Latin word cuntare, which means to narrate or tell a story. In the collection, Taylor—who recently won the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize—tells the story of butch lesbians and genderqueer women with aplomb. In the title poem, Taylor considers the origins of women living outside the gender binary, the body as battleground, protest, trespass, cemetery, backroom, haunted house, uprising. The materiality of women’s bodies ever presented informed, interpreted, shaped, policed, occupied by patriarchy. Taylor writes,
we are untamed a wilderness of women we are waste
ground what a waste love nothing grows on us sterile
and barren an un-useful female empty as church
pews the wind rattles its fists inside our wombs come
now, snake boy come now, heretic healer where are
the maths that solve us? How do we fit into your algebra
your binary code?
C+nto & Othered Poems is as formally innovative as it is linguistically powerful. Poems, plays, dialogues, scenes, performance pieces: Taylor gathers them into a book that is as taut as it is lithe. In Taylor’s hands, gender is a form to be adopted, interrogated, altered, and transformed.
These gender interrogations interest me. How is poetic form being adapted, altered, and reimagined in contemporary lesbian and queer poetry? Five new poetry collections by lesbian, queer, and trans poets attend keenly to gender and systems surrounding it. These engagements with form and gender have deep roots in feminist and lesbian-feminist poetry, and by discussing these six poetry collections together, I offer some historicization of lesbians, gender, and poetics—particularly thinking about the productive collision of contemporary queer/feminist/lesbian/trans identities in poetry that yields what I refer to as “chirapsia poetics.” Chirapsia literally means friction with the hand or massage; it opens multiple layers of meanings for these encounters among fricatrices and tribades.
Maggie Millner’s first collection, Couplets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), received wide praise this spring. The Washington Post described it as “restless, imaginative and daring,” while the Paris Review described it as a “rhapsodic debut.” I liked Couplets, and I understand why people love it. Couplets is a contemporary coming-out narrative told primarily in rhyming couplets. It is an analogue to Marilyn Hacker’s Love Death and the Changing of the Seasons, though that collection of sonnets was Hacker’s fifth collection and the narrative arc focuses less on coming out and more on the genesis and undoing of a passionate lesbian love affair. I read Love Death and the Changing of the Seasons at eighteen; it changed my life. Love Death and the Changing of the Seasons instructed me to spend my life reading poetry with care and dedicate my time to ensuring that poetry exists in the world. Perhaps some younger readers are having this experience with Millner’s Couplets.
What interests me about Couplets is the way that Millner uses the form of couplets to press against the idea of relationships being dyadic and to open space for polyamory. That formal decision, to use poetic form to mirror and mimic then challenge the world, to use form in a poem to reconfigure gender relations, is enthralling. The rhyme in Millner’s couplets, direct and slant, is deft and creates a rich sonic text, yet I found richer, more compelling queer transgressions in the work of Joelle Taylor as well as other contemporary trans and lesbian poets such as Kaleb Rae Candrilli, K. Iver, Alicia Mountain, and Alexis De Veaux.
Kaleb Rae Candrilli’s Water I Won’t Touch (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) opens with the stunning poem “Sand & Silt,” which meditates on masculinity and violence with profound intimacy and clarity. Candrilli affirms:
We all have a story like this,
innocent in its setting, nefarious
how it stays spurred into our bones
as we grow.
As the poem reaches for its conclusion, Candrilli writes, “Violent men want me to be a violent man. / Or they want me dead.” The poems of Water I Won’t Touch intimate an argument for a third way. Candrilli’s poems reflect a profoundly feminist reaching for alternatives that are humane and supportive in a world where gender binds people with unresolvable, untenable choices. This opening poem wryly concludes, “What a privilege to have an option.” When the world will not provide reasonable options, people make them for themselves, and Candrilli’s poems demonstrate how facing a rigid world that seeks not to embrace one’s being, people still find ways to be the selves they imagine.
In the extraordinary moving and vividly imagined poem “On Crescents & Waning,” Candrilli writes of breast reduction surgery, noting “My original body had many marvels / but I always wished it for / / someone else” concluding with the observation of how alive the body is “just under the skin . . . like a warm moon.” The imagistic configuration of breasts and moons, of waxing and waning in a body being remade through trans experiences, is exhilarating, driving me to return to many feminist poems situating women and the moon and to marvel at the ways that trans poets engage, challenge, and reimagine these tropes.
The most power sequence in Water I Won’t Touch, though, is the heroic crown of sonnets that concludes the collection. These sonnets are love poems to the beloved as well as love poems to a body being remade and reimagined. They also deftly pay homage to feminist engagements with sonnets as a formal tool by Adrienne Rich and Marilyn Hacker, among others. Water I Won’t Touch embraces a large, messy, beautiful world within its pages.
Alicia Mountain’s new collection Four In Hand (BOA Editions, 2023) engages exclusively with the sonnet form offering four crowns of sonnets in the volume. A crown is a sequence of fifteen sonnets where the fifteenth takes the opening line of each of the previous fourteen sonnets; in Mountain’s hands, these crowns take their content from widely different sources, though each nods to history of the heroic crown as a sequence of love poems and also embraces the still subversion of that love being lesbian. Perhaps the most subversive in content is the fourth crown, “MyMerrill,” which selects its language from emails from Merrill Lynch financial advisor services. In all the crowns and their individual sonnet’s Mountain’s fine ear for language and its rhythms is highlighted. The sequence “Sparingly” dazzled me. In this sequence, each sonnet is constructed with only one word on each line, thus the sonnet becomes not only fourteen lines but also fourteen words. This condensed approach gestures to Sappho’s fragments as we encounter them as readers today. Engagements by Mountain and other contemporary poets in crowns as a formal structure not only allow us as readers to engage with hundreds-year-old traditions in poetry but also to continue vibrant conversations among queers and feminists about poetic forms and how they can be taken up to tell stories about lesbian and queer lives.
Iver’s collection Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco (Milkweed Editions, 2023), like Candrilli’s, offers readers gorgeous poems that narrate lived trans experiences. In the poem “Boy Meets Them,” Iver writes:
I’d watched my mother
do the same, leading with lacquer, frost,
& shoulder pads. She didn’t know,
I didn’t know, there were other ways—
so many other ways—to wear a body.
. . .
I’d tell you my first name
is now one letter. Under it I grow like a plant
that can finally see the sky. I relax in mirrors
under a new uniform—a shirt buttoned
to the neck, flats, a small watch.
This poem brings readers into the quite mundane process of gender socialization within families, then revels in the insight from multiple movements that there are “so many other ways—to wear a body.” Reading these insights refracted through poetry by a new generation encountering sex and gender and remaking it in real time is thrilling.
Iver’s final love poem, “Missy Asks Me what the Next Century’s Like,” begins with a wry observation about trans people: “Most of us are on TV” and continues: “An eleven-year-old from my queer youth club says her hobby is trans liberation activism.” Reflecting a moment of advancement of visibility and trans activism while also holding the continued political challenges, the narrator wryly notes, “some of us still die.” Observing and rendering the complex emotional landscape of struggles for queer rights, Iver ends the prose poem with these lines: “I hold many people I don’t know responsible for your death. They love us here, now. Right now, they love us here.” In many ways, this is poem is a prayer for our century.
One of the powerful interventions of trans poets like Candrilli and Iver, joined with many other trans writers today, is to demonstrate the deft deployment of gender-neutral pronouns. As someone who struggles with they/them pronouns on my own tongue, as chagrined Sinister Wisdom volunteers will attest, it is revelatory to read writers deploying them with ease and confidence. It helps me to read them and practice their use in my own mouth.
It is also thrilling to see the adoption of gender-neutral pronouns in broader worlds, including poetry world. Feminist and lesbian writers during the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s championed gender-neutral pronouns and used them in novels. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time used per/person pronouns, which doris davenport embraces and uses today, and June Arnold’s The Cook and the Carpenter offered na/nas pronouns. A new generation of trans activists builds on these feminist insights and gathers remarkable traction for long-term change in the gendered nature of our language. I imagine how this widespread adoption of gender-neutral language does—or would—delight many early feminist pioneers, and I am eager to see how these strides in gender-neutral language will restructure our minds and our worlds.
Finally, Alexis De Veaux’s new collection JesusDevil: The Parables (AK Press, 2023) offers a thrilling read for people interested in capacious engagements with gender, feminism, and blackness. De Veaux calls these parables “afiction” as moving “away from, beyond fiction” and embracing “a poetics of repair, doing, love, desire, and freedom as body parts of blackness.” I consider JesusDevil a collection of poems, though it is a book that refuses all kinds of categories and rewards readers with its rich thinking about many contemporary issues. There are a million and one reasons to pick up this rich collection by De Veaux (and if you have not been following her work, I recommend Yabo to you as well), but I leave with one stanza nestled in the middle of the book in the parable, “The Nigerian Woman’s Dick.” De Veaux writes:
From that day forward, Theme was a regular at The Fabulous.
And because of the flamboyant philosopher, she learned to live in her body the
way she did.
Neither binary nor reconstructed.
What was the word for hybrid?
Or nature’s desire for difference.
Because nature desires the impermissible.
And abhors the prescriptive.
So, at Preach, Queen!’s elbow, Theme learned to theorize desire was the only
And blackness itself was genitalia.
To be pleasured and revered.
Alone and with.
And referring to the self as we was more acceptable to the historical soul than
the designation I
The insights of the last line, the possibilities it opens for multiplicitous selves that can be seen by a historical soul, delight me as does every word of JesusDevil. Given these recent books by lesbians, queer women, and trans people, the undoing of gender and the gender binary is well at hand and a vital part of contemporary queer poetics.