This one’s another book I picked up in London last month. Published in 2012 by A Midsummer Night’s Press, Dialectic of the Flesh is literally pocket-sized (think blue jeans’ back pockets), but feels larger when read. It’s an intense collection through which British writer Roz Kaveney explores the experience of being a lesbian trans-woman.
The day you change, like any other day,
is sunny or is rainy. You get up
and put your new clothes on, and brush your hair
and put that on as well. Your breasts are sore
they still have stitches. And you drink your tea
The strength of this collection is the sense of honesty that permeates it: Kaveney’s speakers are self-critical as well as other-critical, and they are not afraid of admitting weakness or mistakes. In the poem “Valediction,” the speaker examines her feelings toward her ‘old’ and ‘new’ body, focusing on the realization that it is, really, very much the same body. She still carries her old body, and her old self, wherever she goes.
Some of the poems are NSFW, others are tamer, but they all work together to form a coherent larger narrative, the raw, tender, touching portrait of a woman trying to be true to herself. Poems that stood out to this reader in particular were the long “23” (a letter to her 23 year-old self — if you’re going to read just one of these poems, make this the one!), “Pineapple,” “Mirrors,” “Crush,” and “Awkward.”
In “Awkward” we’re told that “Love comes unasked for. Comes in the wrong year. / When you are busy, ill, or slightly mad.” This, obviously, isn’t an experience exclusive to the speaker, or to trans-women, or to lesbians, this is an experience that a person of any orientation and gender-identity might share.
There are many such relatable, universal moments in Dialectic of the Flesh; — Kaveney’s collection does not set out to set her transdyke experience apart and put it on display as a curiosity. “Yes,” the speakers seem to say, “yes, there are differences between me and you, but what really matters about us is the same.” In the end, the characters we meet here, the trans-teens, the “Drag queens and street queens and hair fairies and gender illusionists,” the run-aways, those still in the closet, all are looking for love, for identity and a place to belong. This fundamental need and longing unites us all.
What’s different is the degree of difficulty we encounter on our way to that goal. Some are born / raised into their community, some have to break out of their family’s patterns to get there, others can arrange themselves, and some are lost on the way, like the “Others” the speaker regrets being unable to help in “23” — those who fall prey to despair, drugs, and violence to such an extent that even a good friend cannot help them get back.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, but really should, is that a good number of these poems are form poems: for the most part sonnets, but also villanelles and other forms. They all follow patterns, received or original. Frequently, the contrast between the formal qualities and the subject matter and informal tone creates an interesting effect. Take, for example, this heroic couplet from “Mirrors“:
[I’m sick of] feeling less than loved. I’ll kiss the glass
and feel my own hands warm upon my arse. (29)
I particularly enjoyed the opening of “Crush” (check out that first line break!):
Hold hands a moment, for a second touch
her cheek, picking a dead leaf from her hair.
Buy sweet red grapes for lunch, offer to share,
watch her mouth slowly crush them. It’s too much
to hope for more and it is quite enough
to have these things, to have but not possess (15)
In all, this is an interesting collection that is both raw and tender. The voice of these poems is strong and memorable, whether it speaks about growing up trans, falling in love, or the Stonewall Riots. You can get your own copy of Dialectic of the Flesh here: http://amidsummernightspress.com/WP/2012/11/15/dialectic/