The Poet’s Many Personas

Reviewing Troubling the Line, a new collection of trans and genderqueer poetry, Stephen Burt revels in the freedom offered by verse:

I would, in fact, like to be several mutually incompatible women and girls: a techie tomboy; a confident professional woman whose palette is grey, gold and black; a girl who in several senses has not quite developed, who still puts hearts on her “i’s”; a reviver of colorblock tops, bringing back the New Wave. I would like to resemble the British pop star Clare Grogan, and the cute starship mechanic from the TV show Firefly, and Katherine Hepburn, none of whom resemble each other, and Kitty Pryde from X-Men, who doesn’t exist. I would also, at times, like to be, and I can see myself vividly as if I were, a point guard, and a ferret, and (like Shelley and Mayakovsky before me) a cloud. Sometimes I feel that I might as well be 75 years old; sometimes I feel that I’m “really” 12.

Some of those identities can be approximated, approached, even if clumsily, with makeup and wardrobe; some of them can’t, or not for me. But all of them could be, and some of them have been, explored in my own poems. I think (I have no way of knowing) that if I had been born a girl and had grown up a woman I would still have a profession in one of the arts that use words; I might even be a professor and a literary scholar and a cultural critic, doing much of what I do now. But I am not sure that I would have become a poet, not sure that I would have had the same motivation to make these odd, embarrassing, risky, intuitive, apparently useless art forms that can stand in for the bodies and faces we have, to eclipse or disguise the literal with figura, with artifice made up of language alone.

He steps back to consider the lessons anyone might learn from the poetry of trans people:

Whether or not its author is transgender, a poem is always an alternate self, an imaginary body, a form of transport: we make it from what we are and from what we know, from our immediate lived experience, from the examples we find in others, from what the culture and its words can give.

In this sense, Troubling the Line shows not just what all its trans writers share with one another, but how trans writing can illuminate one purpose of imaginative writing in general. Czeslaw Milosz wrote that “in the very essence of poetry there is something indecent,/ a thing is brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us.” I agree. The same poem by Milosz announces that “the purpose of poetry is to remind us/ how difficult it is to remain just one person.” There I think he was half-right: it seems to me that another purpose of poetry — especially, but not only, trans poetry — is to show us that we don’t have to be.