With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Roz Kaveney – Selected Poems 2009-2021: a review, via the work of Frankland, Parra and Lemebel
Note: In writing this analysis, I feel the precarity of the relationship between the trans person's poem and the trans reader, the risk of all kinds of misunderstandings and presumptions. Perhaps some day I'll meet Roz Kaveney and she'll say, 'Gina, you were miles off.' In the meantime ...
The imagining of the transgender figure in apocalyptic wastelands is seldom far from trans poetics, whether in Emma Frankland’s hypnotic cycles of fear and punk-infused transcendence in Hearty, or from South America, the poetry of the Venezuelan Esdras Parra or the genderqueer writing of Chilean Pedro Lemebel. In keeping with these highest forms of dystopian, genderfuck vistas is Roz Kaveney’s Selected Poems 2009-2021. To be clear, the first quarter of the collection explores “art, sex and love” through a shining, classical prism, but these give way to later pages involving death and desolation, alienation and tyranny. It is these latter sections that I want to celebrate here, as examples of trans texts that evoke both darkness and the light within that darkness.
‘Waste’ is a particular highlight of the section marked 'World' (pp 100-103). In these verses, it is possible that Kaveney is describing an unnamed war, but the elemental pain and fear speaks to more than any one conflict: “From the sky, falling, screaming. Dying. Fire, that day,” and then, “What looks like dunes are piled white dust bones.” In the landscapes that this section evokes, I’m reminded of Parra’s arid vistas, her poems’ own bleak considerations: “You know you wait for nothing, but the wind that storms, between the rocks, the weeds that have lost their way, the evaded water of the cisterns, that undresses your promise, and ties it to the tip of a cord” (2018: 135). Parra too could be describing a post-war desolation, but also something more, a sensation looking out at what others see as normal, an Edvard Munch moment by a minority member, the ennui overwhelming her. Kaveney conjures such dread, closing her poem, “Silence at last. Before, a rushing crowd, running and dying. Trample and fall down, and trampled. Come to rivers, run in, drown, last song, last poem. Is our screams. Are loud.” To read this is to encounter panic, but what kind, a moral one perhaps? Conjuring these effects without context, such texts transport the reader to myriad possibilities. These include meditating on a society that has begun to turn on its most vulnerable with a particular kind of zest, leading to the trepidation about campaigns of erasure in which no one in any position of responsibility is willing to say ‘stop.’
Sometimes, the reference to a threatening force in this section is more explicit. In ‘The Poet to her Young Comrades,’ Kaveney begins, “You will not all live through this. Death will take, you unexpectedly. Shot in a crowd, rushing police lines. And if I am allowed, by circumstances and age – my heart will break” (103). As a queer progressive putting into words the apprehension of state-driven violence by police, Kaveney’s words echo those of the Chilean Lemebel, theirs written while experiencing the Pinochet regime. In 'Manifesto,' Lemebel describes what it is to be Othered at the margins, wondering where the sanctuary is supposed to exist: “But don’t speak to me of the proletariat, Because to be poor and queer is worse, One must be tough to withstand it, It is to avoid the machitos on the streetcorner, It is a father that hates you, Because his son is a queen.” Lemebel’s reference to a childhood marked by the violence of others and a father’s bewilderment overlaps with Kaveney’s own recollections, in which "how you walked worried your father's dreams" (53). In Lemebel's 'Manifesto,' the doubt over solidarity or support continues with an especially political dimension; Lemebel is hardly excited by the prospect of a revolution that replaces one form of patriarchy with another, and asks, “What will you do to us, compañero?” Kaveney gives us one kind of answer to this kind of question in her poem '23,' relating to her childhood experience, "The boys had pretty much all handled you, They'd called it bullying, but it was sex" (56). Summoning memories of a different mode of violence, in a land that takes anti-queer terror to its logical conclusion, Lemebel evokes the population-cleansing of ultra-conservative regimes seldom mentioned by Pinochet-apologists, of queers taken out to sea by fascist soldiers, “Put us on some train to nowhere, Like general Ibanez’s ship, Where we learnt to swim, Although no one reached the shore.” Queer erasure, then, is in its many forms part of the silent knowledge of queer communities. A metaphor in Frankland’s Hearty is particularly potent, of trans history as a hidden chest buried in different corners, and the dread is to be found in the words of queer poets who know these pasts, who help to store these tales. Kaveney, like Lemebel, Parra, and Frankland writes in this tradition in her own distinct way, sometimes the pain and the torment is individualized, other times more overtly political. Lamentations are only partly for others, though, as Kaveney begins one poem, “When we cry for the dead, it is ourselves, We cry for.”
This part of the collection is not just a homage to the fallen, however. Returning to the poem ‘23,’ there is something more determined that spiritually grows outward. In what seems a particularly personal account, Kaveney recollects a past that might be hers leading from childhood to young adulthood, “In the dark, You whispered prayers to silent apathy. All night, and still smiled in the morning light. You never learned despair. You pray and hope” (56). Some verses later in this coming-of-age remembrance, she confides of taking shelter in fantasies and the artistic expression of others, “Music and dreams. You sleep away the years, And hope to dream and not to choose.” Suppression of her nature characterizes this initial period from within and without, including by those around her, before her own blossoming as a trans person in later years. It is here we see the gradual transformation from a kind of living death to life: “Let friends harangue you, let them choose your name, Until your sadness nearly breakd [sic] your brain, You weep, and choose. And wake out of the hurt, From years of sleep, and music, and of dream.” (57). This optimistic conclusion, in the section marked ‘Trans Poems,’ typifies the switches between different sections and their moods. There is something for everyone, perhaps, in this collection’s one hundred and eleven poems, but at a time when it seems trans people are the prey for a hungry media, I found myself drawn to, and seeing, parallels of horror and resistance that make it a darkly familiar trans meditation, one I was almost relieved in these times I could relate to.
Images: Roz Kaveney from youtube video 'Supporting Trans Rights and the Struggle for Liberation' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2dLolNnE3Y
Esdras Parra from Digo-Palabra-TxT https://digopalabratxt.com/2016/11/06/5-ocho-poemas-de-esdras-parra-merida-1939-caracas-2004/
Pedro Lemebel by Joanna Reposi Garibald and Claudia Romaěn https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/film-2/pedro-lemebel-film-joanna-reposi-garibaldi/