43.2 Feature: Craft Essay by Alexander Pines
Alexander Pines is a writer and photographer most recently from New York. He now lives in Iowa City, where he teaches literature and is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He has written about transness, masculinity, and the rust belt for The Rumpus, VICE, and elsewhere, and is currently at work on a longform project about demolished urban spaces, horror films, and archives. Send him pizza recommendations @apines11 on Twitter.
Notes Towards a Trans Poetics
by Alexander Pines
I live in Iowa now and have met only one other trans person so I read and reread Relationship, a photographic diary co-created by trans artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. They began dating in 2008 and started hormone replacement therapy around the same time. Relationship is the record of the six years they spent together, existing first as a show at the Whitney Biennial in 2014 (the year they broke up) and now in print. Looking through the images, what fascinates me is their capacity to withhold, to refuse. As the book progresses, the images retreat from the lens, obscured by mesh and water and fogged up glass. By the end, its subjects have almost disappeared; just shadows on the page.
This progression is a form of resistance: the typical transition narrative begins with the hazy outline of a body that can only find itself, find clarity, through hormones and other medical intervention. Relationship denies this closure, what feels like a false wholeness, in favor of melancholy impression, uncertainty. Rarely do Drucker or Ernst look directly into the camera, preferring to see past it, perhaps understanding that their bodies will never exist in this precise way again. Their averted gaze suggests a constant border crossing, a refusal of transition as completion.
Many trans people refer to the names they were assigned at birth as “dead names.” I watch a documentary about a boutique that custom makes suits for queer and trans folks, seeing the subjects’ childhood pictures floating in front of their faces onscreen. We are supposed to see this as a sign of success. The “before” must necessarily be dead for the “after” to live, a falsehood shown only to highlight the realness of the person speaking into the camera. Not only must the “before” die, in a sense, but any attempts to recognize that loss might threaten the “after.” (In other words, if you miss being a ________ then why transition in the first place.)
Barthes described the photograph as a kind of terrible resurrection, the return of the dead. His obsession with photography sprang from the death of his mother, an absence he only locates within an image he does not reproduce within the text. The photograph is in this sense a wound (ghost), something that needs tending. Relationship, through not splitting its subjects into their before and after selves, creates a space for mourning. These are the bodies that do not, cannot return, the particular experience of inhabiting them in some ways entirely inaccessible to their audience and themselves. It is a peculiar thing to inhabit a body whose former shape cannot, in some way, be mourned. The book acknowledges that loss, makes it visible, and makes it possible to see the past as more than stark contrast to the present.
As I wrote “Monster Glossary” I constantly flipped through pictures of myself from high school, resisting the urge to pull up my computer’s camera as a reminder of what I look like now. Staring into this ghost space, allowing myself to grieve it, I realized that I wanted to find a way to love the body I had to abandon in order to survive, a love that wasn’t possible when I lived in it.
Anne Carson begins Autobiography of Red by asking, “What is an adjective?” She continues, “Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. They are latches of being.”
Which is another way of saying that I wrote a story of myself and told it until it came true.
In the case of Carson’s Geryon, the writing and rewriting of the self is an essential component of both creation and resistance: language is the mechanism for both a formation from the (monstrous) void and a tool with which to push against an imposed monstrosity. As a child, Geryon begins his autobiography by writing, “Geryon was a monster everything about him was red. Herakles came one day killed Geryon got the cattle.” The lines are an inheritance, lifted from Carson’s translation of Stesichoros’ Geryoneis. But then, prompted by a teacher, Geryon amends the document: “New ending. All over the world the beautiful red breezes went on blowing hand in hand.”
It is no accident that Geryon is queer, that his body is clearly marked as other. Whenever he stuffs his wings under a t-shirt or coat I am reminded of my own bound breasts, strapped to my chest under thick spandex.
Autobiography of Red is a useful starting point toward what might be called a trans poetics, a way to birth (or rebirth) a monster, but an essentially trans literature needs to be more than simply writing about transness. The average book on the subject takes the shape of a narrative based transition memoir. So many of these books, beautiful and moving and necessary as they are, are restricted and betrayed by their form. Janet Mock’s bestselling Redefining Realness, for example, is the kind of book that absolutely must exist in the world and yet its central thesis—the urgent need for a self created on one’s own terms—is undermined by the decision to frame the text’s events around Mock’s disclosure of her trans status to her partner. Within that frame, the narrative begins with Mock’s understanding of her girlhood as a young child and ends with her gender affirming surgery. It is a devastating and powerful book, but one that ultimately feels constrained by the cisgender gaze of its primary audience.
In “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” Audre Lorde writes, “We see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, of non-universality, of self-centeredness, of sensuality.” The whiteness and perceived maleness of my body not only mitigates the violence that I experience, it also protects me from these kinds of accusations, a protection not often extended to my trans siblings of color nor those whose bodies do not as neatly cohere to a cisgender standard of beauty. This is to say that the cis gaze is often a white gaze and a straight one, too.
“Monster Glossary” emerged out of my own inability to escape the constraints of narrative. While writing its sister essay, “Regarding the Boy,” I felt as though the piece needed closure, the kind of happy ending Geryon’s teacher asks for at the beginning of his autobiography. I wanted to dissolve my own feelings of loss and ambivalence, to soften the monster edges of my writing as a means to feel better about my life, or at the very least I wanted to create a place where some version of myself could have peace.
You could describe “Regarding the Boy” as a sort of bildungsroman; I even had a teacher in college who said that my story was “just like anyone else’s coming of age story, if a bit more extreme.” Yet coming of age as a genre suggests that the desired ending is formation, completeness, maturity, the embodiment of a social norm.
I am more interested in unraveling, in the incoherent, in multiple selves. A trans literature is fundamentally one of birth and rebirth but it must also make space for elegy. I want to hold on to the monster bits.