The title of torrin a. greathouse’s debut poetry collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound is a poem folded into itself. It derives its beauty from its redundancy. It’s not just a Mouth of a Wound, an explanation of bodily pain, it’s a litany of wounds polite society inflicts upon her body for hurting in the first place, and a repurposing of those wounds into a less finite sense of self. “I do not want to speak about the beginning / of this story,” she writes. “Instead begin with the body—itself a kind / of ending.”
In greathouse’s eyes, a label is perhaps a failure as much as it is a means to affirm ourselves: when did you first know you were trans, when did you first identify as crippled, when did you know you might be struggling with a substance? The repetition of this kind of rhetoric reduces the body—queer bodies especially—to a fixed narrative, a point A to B. In fact, in an interview with VIDA, greathouse even states: “The conception of poem as body is intrinsic to my personal poetics. My poems are not just about my body, but an extension of it.” greathouse’s poems aren’t just queer in that she’s queer; they’re queer in how they don’t confine themselves to one idea of what a poem is—as in, with each new poem, the reader must relearn what, exactly, a poem is.
Which is to say, these poems were a guide for what I needed, as I had moved across the country to attend a writing program, mid-transition. Only I wasn’t starting again. I was carrying a past and future within me, all at once.
My mother says her first crime was beauty,
that my father’s was how he imagined himself
a god. Call me bloodcurse
A mother who defines herself by visual appearance, a father who prescribes his worldview through threats and violence, and greathouse caught in some other sense of time. Her in-betweenness, a “bloodcurse,” thrown by the whitespace on the page. To those who wish to label greathouse (in order to make sense of her), familiar forms, narratives, and language prove the easiest reach.
Transness as a site of suffering. Transness as boy-to-girl or girl-to-boy. Shy of a gender studies degree, the easiest explanation I can offer is that these are boring stereotypes.
What we forget is stereotypes may exist but aren’t true constants, especially when humans are exceptionally good at failing to measure up to the rules we lay out for ourselves. To this end, there’s a breaking point—or evolution—for everything we, as subjective creatures, claim. To know one thing is to undo another. To know a body, especially, is to imagine it without future possibility.
I couldn’t read greathouse’s Wound from the Mouth of a Wound without thinking of Carl Phillip’s essay “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax.” I came to his work by way of typing muscular sentences into Google. Hot. There, Phillips believed words were containers. Grammar and syntax were tools of control and reveal—system for delivering an experience. “To read aloud is a physical engagement with the poem…we make language itself physical. But I mean something more than this, namely, that the poem is itself essentially a body…living things made by living beings.”
But for some writers, the word “muscular” is too tempting in a literal sense. Strong prose is terse, lean, muscular. Cut it, and it bleeds. Eat it for a daily dose of protein. Repeat. These descriptors, which might as well come from a Hemingway interview, don’t necessarily describe efficient prose so much as the serving options for Rambo’s steak. Or how Tom of Finland likes his pinup posters.
Within the framework of “muscularity,” there’s the implication of unmuscular writing. Writing that’s waifish, sickly, (dis)abled, obese. Writing that’s fragile, femme, ineffective. Obviously, this isn’t Phillips’s intent, and these are terms we seldom use when discussing writing, but their implications carry over from the bodies we marginalize as a culture. When describing a text as a body, it’s not difficult to revisit the body the metaphor draws on. In fact, it’s probably encouraged. But when we argue a poetic technique is too “loud,” too “obvious,” too “gimmicky,” too “passive,” too “rambling,” too “uneven,” too “uncertain,” or simply too “unsatisfying,” it echoes the critiques many identities face for simply existing.
In my reading of greathouse’s work, having internalized so much literalness surrounding “muscularity” from bodies to word economies, I found myself confronted by my own biases. Notably, in the poem “Metaphors for My Body on the Examination Table”:
The way that hunger kicks & is a living thing
The snake choking on its own body; The drowned man’s hand
-cuffs; The chrysalis strangling
the moth; The mother of ouroboros giving birth to herself
& herself & herself &; The lie of omission;
A fistful of seeds becoming teeth;
Beyond surface-level grammar, greathouse is well aware of il/legibility. My nonbinary experience isn’t the same as greathouse’s, a trans woman who allows “medical professionals gender [her] in a strictly binary way.” However, if there was one thing greathouse and I can unify on, it’s how in trying to explain our bodies to friends and stranger alike, we often reach for what we imagine more familiar. We point away from ourselves toward something else and call the two entities the same. Here, greathouse pushes the metaphor as a tool until it breaks. Or perhaps, a more accurate description is she wrings it until it becomes something entirely new.
Her body: “A fistful of seeds becoming teeth.” The visual likeness of seeds and teeth. The likeness of seeds growing into wildflowers or fantastical creatures, perhaps stand-ins for the speaker, someone who bites back. A bite in the form of self-mythologizing. Mythology, a new, impossible body. A poem. Here, it’s not that the body is too much, but perhaps, the audience’s wiliness is too little.
In fact, let me begin again with omission. In the poem, “The Queer Trans Girl Writes Her Estranged Mother a Letter About the Word Faggot & It Is the First Word to Burn,” greathouse articulates memory loss through erasure, but more than that, she writes toward the terror of what is not seen.
“You would figure faggot was a word like a fuse. Easy to trace back to a fire. But, there is no simple history for how this word travelled from tinder to flesh” becomes, “You would word like fuse to trace back to a there simple history for my this word .tinder flesh.”
Immediately, I think of the second quality in Carl Phillips’ essay: eros, “the business of sustaining attention…providing enough mystery to arouse curiosity.” Phillip’s words ring of what writers write-off as gimmick. A manipulation of the reader to create manufactured mystery, mystery where there is none. But what I read in greathouse’s work is a deliberate frustration.
Often, when there’s a loss, we’re aware of a void but unsure what that void entails. The terror lands between the black blocks: what we forgot about forgetting. It wasn’t until I reread the erasure portion of the poem that I realized greathouse had dropped words before blacking out portions of the text, meaning, it’s an erasure of an erasure. The loss is two-fold. The poem forces a process of knowing and then unknowing and then not knowing. A body’s ability to betray.
Here, as Phillips puts it: “We recognize pattern only after having been conditioned to it long enough to see it as pattern, a comfort, which we miss when we’re abruptly released from it.”
For prescriptive critics who might call this gimmicky, at the very least, it should be known greathouse’s language is a felt thing. Rarely is a body’s lived experience marked by explicit meaning, and a straightforward form would force it into a container that betrayed its truth. What greathouse’s work proposes is a bit of kerosene poured on our imagination. To create entropy, to deconstruct, to reconstruct, and to play; to feel what she’s felt on the page—if only a glimpse—is to engage with her on her terms: a piece of her unbound by the material conventions of our world.
Let me fail for a moment, confess to the very practice I’m writing against. In previous iterations of this essay, the drafts I kept for myself, I swore to indulge the detours, un-articulate myself to the point of disorienting readers who might correct me, and let that illegibility stand in place of the hands that type. But what you read now is its echo, tempered to expectation. A publishable muscle.
In order to spar with prescription in the writing world, so many marginalized folks take up what Audre Lorde calls the “master’s tools”; they might write bone-clean descriptions, they might flex their syntactical muscles to obscene lengths, they might take up powerful positions at prominent institutions, and they might treat their communities as purely transactional entities, adopting scarcity mindsets. They think: if I can’t reinvent the industry I exist in (and yes, writing is an industry), what choice do I have than to play the game better than my critics? So often, to speak to be heard is to speak in the language of the unwilling.
What I’m really trying to articulate is, perhaps, a fear of uncertainty, and with uncertainty, failure. Assuming a wider audience can’t be bothered to interrogate their tastes keeps writers from exploring embodied experiences in fear of professional, intellectual, or financial repercussions. It needles its way back into workshop, book deals, and marketing. Choosing not to engage with work like greathouse’s on its own terms is a form of supremacy. It reinforces capitalism: a system of losers for the sake of winners. Which again, brings us back to the body.
The disabled body is always closest to machine
in its dysfunction. Most fixable
when it is furthest from human body
as metaphor/rhetorical question:
If a clock is broken do you repair it or
ask the world to conform to its sense of time.
So begins greathouse’s “Essay Fragment” series, wherein bodies may be deemed “broken” or “illegible.” But in actuality, they’re not broken or illegible. They may hurt or struggle, but to those who inhabit the bodies in question, these bodies simply are. Gender and ability aren’t equivalents, but in terms of how a capitalist society fails to accept them, their issues run parallel. greathouse’s dissection of the clock metaphor is a dissection of how we repacked bodies, like language, to justify violence. It’s significantly easier to enact cruelty—or ignore cruelty—when we can distance ourselves from the person on the other end.
This disabled body is always product or vessel
[of sin/for mercy]. Always this body of crooked back
& sidestepped gender. Body of apple-taker
& rib-giver. This body of ungiftings
worth praying away.
Language that isn’t bingeable offers some resistance to this. It demands an intentional read. Watch greathouse’s syntax begin with endings, logic itself backward. The crooked columns, the uneasy leaps in breath: how do you read something like this aloud, let alone on the page? Would you call this language uncertain of itself?
Even if we don’t fully understand a poem, we can’t deny there are intricacies beneath the surface. All human bodies have musculature—soft tissues, organs—not just muscle. And all poems have decision processes we’re not witness to. It sounds excruciatingly simple, I suppose, but you don’t have to be a medical professional to own your body. Nor do you have to be a poet to appreciate a poem.
Sometimes we write ourselves into a form so we may know ourselves better. Sometimes we can’t know our form until we chance upon a rupture while reading. A feeling that moves through us, one where we say, yes, this is something, this is it.
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound ends with poem written backward. It can only be read when held up to a mirror. One night, after a writing workshop where several cis peers misgendered me, and yet, managed to note how my speaker’s gender was too loud, too uncertain, as it stumbled across the page, I found myself reading greathouse’s words aloud.
I am told to
sever, with a pencil’s blade, the word body.
Taught that it does not belong, taught to cut
it away. But look, here it is, real
My hands quivered around the poem and my image in the mirror, at once, holding each other just to exist. I heard myself exhale. Tell me that’s not enough.
Mason Andrew Hamberlin is a queer, Southern writer living in Iowa City, where they teach at the University of Iowa’s English Department. Formerly, they received their BFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and helped open Epilogue Books in Chapel Hill, NC. Recent works appear in Ninth Letter, The Adroit Journal, Shenandoah Literary, The Boiler Journal, voicemailpoems.org, and others. Say hi on insta @definitely_not_mason.