When reading taylor jacob pate’s debut collection, becoming the virgin, I expected the speaker to be a simpering maiden, but I got a fiery androgyne. The patriarchal thirst for chaste brides feminized the concept of virginity, at least, in my own indoctrinated perspective, so the fact that pate’s speaker subverts the gender binary, claiming to have a vulva but also being taunted as a “dear boy,” is unexpected and refreshing.
pate’s speaker qualifies their flashiness with a wink, quipping, “i hope of course / i’m being feminine.” They adore dancing, rioting grrrls. Although pate’s heavy enjambment and gender-bending may recall Eileen Myles’s poetry, his approach is more lyrical and oblique than Myles’s narratives, as the speaker revels, “inside me there’s a porcelain grrrl.” pate’s speaker enacts the exhibitionism and the camp of the Gurlesque, as in the fragment “have you ever been in a crowd”:
have you ever worn a pretty
with red lace
& a baby
just to wink twice
in the window
The speaker also mocks the badass, “Action Girl” trope when they offers to “pose with a pistol” and have “shotguns & tea” with a sailor. These flares counter the supposed diminutiveness of the lowercase “i” (although the author may have made this choice to correspond to his own stylized, lowercase moniker). The ingénue of this narrative is not the speaker being “virginized,” but their sister, who “is always missing,” who the speaker dreams of as “dead in the city.” pate reserves an entire page for the line “we all have a beautiful sister,” typifying the speaker’s desirable sister as a ubiquitous responsibility or cause for jealousy.
The speaker’s sister may have an attractive face, but like Plato’s androgynes, they wear multiple visages. The speaker dons a “bird mask” and warmly recalls when they collect a sought-after face in the portion “this is how i think of childhood”:
i found a face
a face i have
been looking for
i laid it flat
& all of the words
of my language
The speaker values the halved face as much as their personal lexicon. The fold in the face creates two new profiles, doubling the duality of the image.
Another dyad is the speaker’s vacillation between the pagan and the Christian. The collection’s first fragment echoes the medieval anecdote that the Virgin Mary’s purity could attract unicorns. The italicization of the fragment indicates that it is spoken by a voice different than that of the following poems; unlike the rest of the collection’s speaker, this one is already a virgin, who captivates and shoos away the mythical creature, protesting, “go away, unicorn.” Like the Madonna in a Pieta, the primary speaker later laments the dead “jesus hanging on every tree in the yard.” Though in lowercase like the rest of the text, the speaker often refers to a singular “god,” even commanding their audience to “say: god, god, god, god, & me.” Like liturgical cycles, they are synchronized with the days of the week, frequently asserting that moments in the narrative occur on “monday” or “thursday.”
Despite these Christian practices, the speaker prowls in mythological Arcadia. They embody the pre-Christian virgin, Diana, by constantly orienting themselves to the moon, toting their knives, and taunting, “deer heart / why are you crying,” recalling the Actaeon myth. The speaker hides within the lack of capitalization and the expanses of lacuna; the many short, enjambed lines fluidly trace their stalks through the brush. Occasional long lines with repetitions such as, “& i set fire to street sign after street sign after neighborhood after street sign,” mimic rapid arrow fire, jerk the smoothness into the poetic equivalent of shaky cam.
The piece “do you remember” epitomizes the speaker’s twofold spirituality. They conclude a bacchanal in which they make “love like the rape of roman torsos” with the recollection:
& we said christ
& you licked my ribs
& my jaw went numb
& i said i will wear this masque forever.
Christ slips into the pre-Christian revelry, and the speaker invalidates the ritual as an artificial accessory that can be removed, that is not integral to their being. It’s only a façade, however, the speaker cherishes it enough to want to hide their face behind it for eternity.
becoming the virgin may waver between Biblical and mythical realms, but it is also undeniably set in a psychosexual fairyland. Although this collection proposes to describe the acquisition of virginity, the speaker undergoes a violent deflowering in its most dynamic fragment, “i am sure.” A king coos a lullaby akin to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” so sweetly, the speaker’s “teeth ache.” The speaker winces, “he presses his thumbs / into my eyelids…he shatters / my face.” Afterward, the defiled speaker flees, along with their subservient deer heart, crying:
we are wanted
this is no fairytale
this is a red room with red walls & red carpet
The next two pages catalog other red objects haunting the speaker. Their rape is no fairytale because it is not childish, but it also parallels Charles Perrault’s carnal version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” which nods to the idiom, “Elle a vu le loup” to hint at a girl’s loss of virginity.
pate’s speaker suggests that the “virginizing” process entails removal of physical evidence of penetration. They recall a girl who became a king by “unscarring her face / with bone from her hip.” In “who dances in the moon,” the speaker conflates heritage with sensual history, asking:
little yellow boy
what is your legacy
who has combed
& uncombed your hair
who has touched you
on the hip
who has bitten you
on the skin
pate’s speaker envisions virginity as a lack of physical or even genealogical history, desiring total tabula rasa. In “who dances straight,” they exalt a dancer who “has no hip / to touch / or untouch” because “she has no mother.” The self-purifying process desexualizes one’s entire family tree, denying one’s own conception. The speaker apologizes to their parents, “i’m sorry i say i’m an orphan.” pate reserves one page to repeat, “the son of” three times, mocking patrilineal societies.
It’s ironic that this speaker, who personifies both sexes and admits, “i’m so into my body / it’s disgusting,” is so intent on erasing proof of sex, even to some degree of castration. The self-loving speaker claims, “i lay on the dirt…until my head is cut…this is salvation.” They pound their fist and then attest:
my hand into glass
until it behaves
as a part
of the failing
This paradox illustrates that almost every facet of the speaker is cleaved— they bifurcate sexually, spiritually, and emotionally. I would love to engage this self-confident, celibate androgyne in conversation with one of Matthea Harvey’s mermaids. pate’s speaker is completely divided, whereas the mermaids don’t even have legs to split. As Harvey told The Paris Review, “they’re sex objects who can’t have sex”— wouldn’t pate’s body-loving, yet abstinent speaker want to be the same?