Sprawling Bodies: The Poetics of Transness
It’s not getting on the train that’s hard—we wait in what starts as a line and morphs into a small crowd, the doors open, some straphangers leave, and we get on, we get into the pile of other’s bodies.It’s the getting off.
I almost always miss my stop because I am trying not to feel cramped in by the men on either side of me who, inevitably, spread their legs so infuriatingly far in an already crowded car. Instead, I settle in to read and let my body (bag on lap/book on bag) conform to whatever space is left. I’m like a puddle taking the shape of my container. I become so interior, so self-contained that I miss my stop by—I’m embarrassed to write it, but it’s ussualy a lot. On one particular trip from Mount Vernon to Brooklyn I was reading On Walking On (Nightboat Books, 2017), and passing underground I found myself in what she might call the terrain vague. In that poem she writes that:
in between, le flâneur, invisible against a forest of ghosts
to whom the slow, wherein the wry, in which a slice of light
amid the blind spot, the white space, flits.
And in that space I liked that term, terrain vague; it seemed like a good metaphor for the white space in a poem. It is a kind of geographical landscape that the poem hasn’t been to yet or has, instead, decided to leave unmapped. It’s almost like there is something just outside of vision. And so I got off the train and transitioned to the opposite platform to make my approach another way. That time I read Spencer Williams’ “Rumination on a Mother//Sister Tongue.” In the poem, her words move around the page like an uncurled strand of DNA incomprehensibly long as she writes:
thick of reeds
And it strikes me that Spencer, though an unmatched favorite and a lovely friend of mine, is not the only transgender poet using this kind of formatting to make the body of the poem large, long, and sprawling. It’s a tendency to spread words, as Emma Stewart, another dear friend and queer-trans poet, pointed out to me one day while walking around Manhattan, further than a man’s legs on the subway. “It’s like man-spreading,” they said. “But with words...word spreading,” they called it.
This is a way of using white space that differs so much from Swenson’s terrain vague. If terrain vague is the unclaimed white space that surrounds the words and the contents the poem could reach to, then word spreading is the act of letting the poem claim its own space. And I suspect that so many transgender people are using it because it reclaims, problematizes, the space that transgender people (in the barrage of bathroom bills, denial of service lawsuits, and ineluctable surveillance and gendered policing) are often denied. This is where the fundamental difference in the ideology of terrain vague and word spreading lies. What is metaphorical also sedes way to the literal: the terrain vague encapsulates the idea that the “unmapped” territory of a poem can be crossed and should be accessed regardless of if the unseen horizon is a literal border or a view of what Wallace Stevens would call “the end of the mind, Beyond the last thought.” I worry that this is, at best, a fallacy of how the human mind works or, at worse, a precedent for colonization which always harms, inherently harms, transgender people and people of color, and drowns out all marginalized voices.
In fact the title of Swenson's poem, “Nerval,” refers to Gerard de Nerval, the nineteenth century Romantic, whose memoir Journey to the Orient is a beautifully written tale of adventure and, still we must acknowledge, a piece of colonial propaganda. Nerval’s contribution to the culture of the time further exoticised and enabled the harm of an unknowable many abroad and in his native France. And here I am thinking about Brian Morton’s recent New York Times op-ed. He’s right, of course: the troubled history of a piece is no reason not to read it, and I do not mean to suggest that Nerval lacks art or importance, but only to illustrate that rhetoric of orientalism and colonialism haunts the poetic of the terrain vague like transparent ghosts in a graveyard. It is passages like this from early in Nerval’s journey in which he recounts watching dancers in an Egyptian cafe that illustrate just how much the bodies of trans and gender nonconforming people to portray the “wild” and “unknowable” qualities of space. He writes:
...Their raised arms whirled in time with the boisterous rhythm and their hips quivered voluptuously….When the dance was over I was at last able to examine the features of the two girls more attentively, as though I were Paris about to offer the apple, and then, despite my initial incredulity, I was obliged to recognize that, like their partner, these two potential Venuses were...males!
This is the horrible precursor to Swenson’s lovely poem and coining of the terrain vague. It’s victims are the numerous bodies buried beneath our cities.
Maybe this is an eternal mood—I hope not, writing towards that queer utopia—but jayy dodd writes that “to be Trans, here in Amerikkka, means to be elastic. To traverse the pulling apart and remaking of your identity each day and nearly with every interaction.” I want to focus on the way this elasticity is manifested by a few trans poets. I want to share some amazing work which gives voice to that elasticity, celebrates transgender bodies, elucidates what we mean when we say word spreading, and have made me miss several stops and one entire train.
jayy dodd has been at the center of my thoughts lately, as I think about word spreading as a tool of transgender resilience and poetry. They are, a self-described “a blxk trans femme” and “a blxk question mark.” In their “Ars Poetica,” the space at the center of poetry is articulated in these words:
every poem is a death & each stanza: an economy
built on an ocean floor covered in bones,
like my mouth. every poem is
that same mouth filled with loose teeth & salt-water.
In the center of those lines the pause the period makes grows longer; “like my mouth.”, a hard stop. An absence after. That space is filled with silence, is open like a toothless window in the mouth. And, I think I can speak for those of us trying to write to/and survive, it is true that each stanza is an economy and each poem is a potential death in which we mark ourselves as queer and poets (neither too prized in this economy!)
And still the poem goes on. It asks us readers to consider what happens to the bodies of black people, transported and what cost the bodies of marginalized people take when forced to expose themselves in writing.
every poem is ship & sea & sail, a cargo passage
or, the vessel obliged with displacing
the poet’s form. every poem costs some mass, some
measure – requires a body to expose itself. a grammar
called recompense. every poem is a rhetorical
interrogation of how many questions can you fit in your
mouth or, if the jaw learns to unhinge: how will it hang—
heavy & full—be ripe fig on low branch? each poem
is the pit, the seed, the fresh & the molding. delineate
the harvest before the drought.
every poem is masturbation. the gesture of naming
in so many words, crafting metered stroke, in lyric & verse & still,
every poem, even in its most spectacular excitement,
must know how to finish itself off.
I am moved by the way this poem maintains it space; sometimes sending itself off, establishing a distance between the words, to force us to hear and see deliberately the words before the pause: (I don’t want to write break. I’ve had enough of “broken” bodies and the two are not the same.) “passage,” “form,” “recompense.” And I admire the way the huge gap around “or” is the volta in which the poem turns away from cost of body, from price of body, toward pleasure of the body. The use of the white space, the word spread in this poem is not, as in Swenson’s, a way to mark where the poem hasn’t gone, but where it will. It moves from a rather close confinement to the whole spread limb and rhythm of and lyric of the poem.
In R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018) the space Chase Berggrun leaves in the poems is made from an erasure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a deliberate form, written in parallel with Berrgrun’s own transition, that asks us to question how we can make sense of the transformations bodies take, of their desire to live and outlive, and change. It’s not a secret, that transgender bodies, especially in America, have been considered monstrous, predatory. R E D begins there. “Chapter One,” which appears in Interrupture here, begins:
I was thirsty
I was a country
of queer force
rushing east to see
the strangest side of twilight
I was a woman in the usual way
I had no language but
distress and duty
I have been taught to doubt my mother
and fear tradition
but my queer tongue
would not could not
In these lines we read a queer body, a queer tongue, creating space for itself. Bergrrun’s Dracula calls the body itself a country: it will do the things countries do; it will go to war to defend its own boundaries, it will declare itself stable and unstable, it will produce, and export, and above all, exist. In this way, the space left by the removal of the novel asks us to consider the body with in the body, and it isn’t long until this form allows desire to really swing the shape the poem. Bergrunn writes:
The afternoon sun seemed mighty
and touched my arm
with a delicate pain
the beautiful weeping mistiness
of the valleys
Peculiar thoughts and fancies
Through the darkness I could see
a great stormy sea
with a strange mixture of movements
slight and flickering
seemed to mock my
It’s the construct of the erasure that allows the poem to fluctuate as it turns, arching right and left against the confines of the paragraph and allows the peculiar thoughts and fancied to be engendered against the far edge of the page. It sets itself out from the previous stanza and from the life the speaker, the desirer, had lived before.
And back in Spencer’s “Rumination on a Mother//Sister Tongue” I can’t help but think of the way the space operates as somehow both independent body and a queer country both. The poem is constructed so much across the US/Mexico border, across siblings known and unknown, and asks what body is similar to mine and yet not mine. She writes:
On the night I was conceived,
birth mother’s hair into canals
Seven months later,
and I entered grave
How to name
a dying breath
something other than quick,
How to trace
back to a mother
I have one
photo of, who
does not know
I am not what
they first called
It’s a kind of radical unspooling. A kind of tracing back the thread, the vein, the history of genealogy. It’s a claiming of space that, like dodd’s, is a kind of archival and like Berggrun’s, a nod toward change. As I pursue my M.F.A. and continue to see the ways my body changes even two years after the introduction of hormones, I am finally beginning to see the way that my words and my body are taking up similar space. And I think is part of why word spreading exists such a tool of trans poetics: it allows us to spread our poems against the legs of the patriarchy, the body politic, and across the lines of our own selves.