Follow Harriet on Twitter
Yes! Stephen Burt Reviews Troubling the Line for LA Review of Books
Hurray! Stephen Burt reviews the TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson edited breakthrough anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics for the Los Angeles Review of Books!
BEFORE WE CAN THINK about transgender bodies, transgender writers, and our (perhaps) transgender poems, we will have to think about bodies and poems in general. I’ll get back to trans people, and to our poems in particular, a few paragraphs down; if that’s what you’re seeking, stay with me.
By now it’s a commonplace, though not a truth universally acknowledged, that a poem can stand in for, or create an alternative to, a human face and a human body: for the writer (after she writes it) and for the reader (while she is reading it). Jay Wright says that a poem creates a “body that stands apart from itself”; Wallace Stevens, in “The Motive for Metaphor,” suggests that literary figuration opens up, or imagines, a world “[o]f things that would never be quite expressed, / Where you yourself were never quite yourself / And did not want nor have to be.”
And so unless the poem is a dramatic monologue — and maybe even when it is — the poet is both herself and not herself, or not quite herself; the poem augments her face, or substitutes for it. Think of Emily Dickinson’s poem, so often taught to children, that begins “I’m Nobody — who are you?” Think of the people in Randall Jarrell’s late poems, often middle-aged women, who want nothing so much as to be noticed, to be seen: “The world goes by my cage and never sees me,” says one. Think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” whose sacred headless sculpture (a figure for poetry) seems to meet our gaze, to speak to us, even though we can never see its face. Or think of Shakespeare’s sonnet 83: “I never saw that you did painting need / And therefore to your fair no painting set,” where “painting” means word-painting (flattering poetic description), portrait painting (preserving a face through art) and the morally suspect artfulness of cosmetics (improving the face you have by applying makeup). The poet would have made a better face, a more durable face, for the beloved, but felt he could not, because the beloved’s real face is as good as it gets.
We need poetry when literal faces and bodies and circumstances are not as good as it gets: we might enjoy reading and writing poetry for many reasons, but we need it when we feel that we need figuration, need something unavailable in the literal world. That “something” might be a theodicy, a way “to justify the ways of God to man”: it might be an expression of grief, or devotion, or confusion, or frustration. But it might also be a new face, a new body; it might be a way to make the inward person audible (if not visible) to other people, if the outward person cannot match what’s inside. [...]
Troubling the Line is published by Nightboat Books. To read more of Stephen Burt’s review, visit LARB.