Ely Shipley’s long-awaited second collection, Some Animal (2018), evades category and convention. Where his debut collection Boy with Flowers (2007) offered tightly crafted individual poems, Some Animal shakes off the constraints of page and poem to take readers on what can truly be called an epic journey: into gender dysphoria and out into a world still rife with transphobia and hatred. Given the sheer magnitude of the experience his book presents, nothing but an expansive take on poetry would do it justice.
The first and perhaps most stunning section, “Playing Dead,” actually recreates in language the dizzying upheaval of gender dysphoria as experienced by a teen girl fighting to make sense of her female body, given that it houses a more conventionally masculine self-identity. Shipley juxtaposes the intense physical reality of first menstruation and stark sex education diagrams with the dissociative surreal landscapes in order to disorient the reader in keeping with the speaker’s experience. When a teacher compares the female reproductive system to “a ram’s head,” the speaker transcends to visions of “the luminous animal skull. A sun / bleaching from inside a desert / of quiet” and feels “my mouth // gauze and cotton. My breath / shallow.” Overcome, the speaker nearly faints. A similar occurrence happens when the speaker is 11 and finds “dark red blood, nearly a brown, in my underwear. The world blurs. / Everything white light, then the electric imprint of the bathroom tile / when I shut my eyes.” Not only does Shipley suggest something deeply disturbs the speaker, he employs tactile, visceral detail to immerse the reader in the difficult emotional truth.
Starting in this first section, Shipley plays with poetic convention to amplify the readers’ experience of the text. Like a lyric essay, the four sections are composed of fragments flowing together rather than discrete poems. Shipley uses found visual and textual materials—the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a therapist’s notes, details on sleep paralysis and hysteria—to supplement experience and dream. In the fragment about sex education class quoted above, for instance, appears a diagram much like the one the speaker would have seen. It immerses us in the experience, but also reminds us of how our parts and wholes are tagged into a gender binary based on outward appearance. Likewise, the image of bathroom doors in Part 3 signposts the overt cultural binary that trans individuals encounter every day (and which forces them to consider safety, authenticity, and the prospect of having neither).
“A Sweet Teen” tells the stories of a predatory relationship and an effort by the speaker to construct (in secret) a true identity. Looped reportage—“The large teenage boy, who looked like a man, / pinned her down / in the dark house when no one else was home”—and testimony—“He sinks / his claw in my flesh, locks into bone / above my breast”—force the reader to revisit trauma in all its iterations. The strength of this section lies in the multiple reading possibilities—a narratively real experience of sexual violence, a relationship pursued in an effort to do what is needed to fit in (sadly, this is no small part of the queer experience) or a metaphorical oppression of norms and patriarchy.
Where the first half of the book presents the challenges on the way to adulthood for a trans individual, the second half enacts the struggle of trying to navigate the world while out/presenting and transgender. What much of the population boils down to a question of politics, Shipley re-presents as an experience of human dignity (or the denial thereof) in Part 3, “On Bathrooms.” Bathrooms become places of such fear that they can’t be encountered without anxiety and a readiness to fight. Barged-in upon by a classmate accidentally, the speaker’s fear and agony manifest as violent reaction: “She wants to hit them. She will hit the girl in order to hit them, / make them wince in pain, look away.” She wants to make them understand the depth of her hurt the only way she knows how.
We further see how the bathroom becomes weaponized against trans individuals in the second half of the section, which is crafted from Justin Adkins’ “Police Mistreatment of a Transgender Man—Brooklyn Bridge Occupy Wall Street Protest Saturday, October 3rd, 2011, 1:39 p.m.” Again, Shipley taps into the most visceral imagery to evoke fear and pain. “Every person had to use the toilet / next to where they had me / locked to the railing,” and being treated as “curious and freakish wires / beneath my hair the white of / my eyes.” The abuse that some individuals don’t want to believe happens, and that others think should happen as a matter of “justice,” is revealed for the human horror it is.
In “On Beards: A Memoir of Passing,” Shipley brings the collection full circle. Published also as a letterpress chapbook, the section presents a synthesis of gender performance from childhood to adulthood. Here, the collection achieves “epic” status in its ability to cross-section a lifetime of challenges and conflicted emotional truths.
“On Beards” confirms for us that gender is performed rather than fixed or innate, but Shipley demonstrates the ways in which the performance is endlessly critiqued and even ridiculed. In a moment that hearkens back to Boy With Flowers, the speaker sits in a car with his grandmother on a shopping trip “to buy pretty dresses / for your first day of school.” When the speaker argues, he’s informed that “Girls wear dresses / and you’re going to wear one / whether you like it or not.” These lines are heartbreaking enough, but this is not the end. When the speaker insists “I’m a boy! A boy,” for the first time ever, his grandmother insists, “Well then, if you’re a boy, / let’s see your penis.” In addition to being a tightly woven anecdote, it drives home the truth that gender delineation and demands for gender proof begin far too young
All the fragments of this section compound to create a lyrical web of the complexities of being non-cisgender. A self-portrait with a beard added is presumed to be Abraham Lincoln, because of course it could not be the seemingly-female child artist. A girlfriend’s insensitive mother begins to use “it” instead of a proper pronoun. The pain of watching Boys Don’t Cry in a movie theater where only one’s partner understand the fear of such a fate. Even as the speaker embraces and expresses his identity, all that has transpired weighs on his future.
Some Animal takes some commitment to read, owing to the freeform structure and interwoven use of complex texts (medical information on sleep paralysis, Judith Butler theory, Shakespeare, and more). But a reader who is willing to let go of expectation for form and strict narrative, the richness to be gained from these pages is profound.
Jocelyn Heath is an Assistant Professor in English at Norfolk State University. Her poem “Orbital” won the 2014 Alison Joseph Poetry Award from Crab Orchard Review. Her creative writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Poet Lore, Sinister Wisdom, Flyway, Fourth River, and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared at Lambda Literary, Grist, Tinderbox, Southeast Review, and The Lit Pub. She is an Assistant Editor for Smartish Pace.