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.
Transgender Venezuelan Poetry: the Collected Poems of Esdras Parra (2018)
I've seen your dreams
In the foliage of your eyes
Opening in a horizon of ash
Ready for death
And the innocent flame
That leaps from branch to branch
Brings you the color of earth
Which you should get used to
Before the fog
Grows within you
(taken from the collection Este Suelo Secreto (1995) by Esdras Parra, trans. Jamie Berrout)
Neoliberal stories of transgender people are usually simple: there's an arc, from poverty to wealth, and from chaos to serenity, also by no coincidence given our patriarchal world, from humdrum male to voluptuous siren. In neoliberal society, so it goes, you can be anything if you work for it. It's a misleading narrative, of course, most trans people don't live the privileged life of a Caitlyn Jenner but neoliberal media and our own complicity – our need for a Cinderella story – seem to crave a story with the Disneyfied arc. Perhaps all of us – myself included – are always looking for the A to B, some Grail-like journey that inspires us to believe that we too can find that magic X we're all yearning for.
Perhaps it's in defiance of this common narrative, that I'm really loving the poetry of Venezuelan transgender poet Esdras Parra (1939-2004), just this month released in translated form by editor Jamie Berrout (a world class writer in her own right). To be clear, I don't usually read poetry, and Parra's words are hardly Lennon & McCartney (always my frame of reference); in a self-portrait crucially included in Berrout's edition, we learn of Parra's acceptance that there is no magic X or dare I say it, magic anything: My life has consciously revolved around this absurd, unrealizable effort . . . I'm sorry to say that there are no revelations to make. My life couldn't be more ordinary or insignificant. I don't know where I'm going or what currents push me along. Parra talks, true to the Lacanian spirit, of how she's circled unceasingly around myself searching for a non-existent center. The result is poetry using natural-world imagery to convey unconscious dreamscapes. Wordsworth's lonely clouds and rolling hills have been reformed to chthonic underworlds and apprehension, melancholy and the void, recurring and reforming across 200 poems:
How long I've waited in crystal rooms
in the vast timber of the forests
watching the dark moon
along time that runs in a straight path
watching the quiet scent
of the vacant houses
in a hiding place filled with pain and tears
and I have waited up there in remembering
between pounded stones
above a drowned tree
in the midst of arid days
I take these kinds of lines like cocaine that's been prepared by H.P. Lovecraft, like an essay by Slavoj Zizek when he really wants to express the Lacanian Real of a realm without language, grasping to make sense of what isn't there. To be transgender, in Parra's evocations, is not to find the Holy Grail, but just the Wasteland in your naked form, finding beauty where you find it in still pools and leafless trees and still breezes with cawing crows. A lifelong narrative of meaning evaporates: I concede to the wind a body without memory.
Collectively, the poems in the collection have an almost disorientating, fragmented effect, but I welcome Parra's autumnal ambience; these are not the words of cisgender appropriation or projection, no happy ending in the style of the Hollywood-friendly, Chilean movie A Fantastic Woman, to give just one example. In The Collected Poems of Esdras Parra we enter three-dimensional melancholy and remoteness, so distant from neoliberal happy scripts and so many trans narratives to remind us of where we're at on cosmic landscapes: of an existence less beginning-middle-end or striving for white-picket-fences. Rather, of increasing self-awareness, enduring for the brief time in the form that feels most naked and sincere.