Once again, Trish Salah has written a collection of poetry that somehow manages to make old, familiar topics—this time: the self—brand new. She also again somehow made me feel like I was getting smarter every minute I was reading the book and like she is so much smarter than me I will never fully catch up to her.
Lyric Sexology Vol 1 is Salah’s follow up book of poetry to Wanting in Arabic, which was originally published in 2002 and re-issued in 2013, when it won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Like Wanting in Arabic, Lyric Sexology takes on topics so many other poets have tackled that it feels like a wonder that she has made something unique and fresh. Lyric Sexology too has already been re-issued in a second (Canadian) edition with some additional poems not included in the first edition by Metonymy Press, which is fast becoming one of my favourite publishers. (The first American edition was published in 2014, with Metonymy’s edition coming out in 2017).
I can’t put what this book does in better words than Michael V. Smith does in one of the reviews on the back cover: “Lyric Sexology Vol 1 makes a perfect mess of so much human experience that’s been too tidily categorized.”
Salah’s poems are about gender, love, mythology, religion, sex, and trans ancestors (both real and mythical). But the idea of the self permeates most corners of the book and informs its interrogation of the other themes. She begins in a prelude:
I didn’t mean to become an I.
I didn’t mean to be.
But, I got caught up, predictably, in a subject, History, yours
From there, the collection presents poems written from the perspective of Tiresias (a male figure in Greek mythology who was transformed into a woman for seven years); about religion and god(s); poems addressed to Lili Elbe, Michael Dillion, and other trans people of the past; and so many poems about being / becoming a (gendered and otherwise defined) person. How do you become a person? How do you become an I?
In “You Were Not Born Here,” Salah writes:
You were not born.
I began in a swamp, I was made of muck, I was made to run off, to pool
sit still and stye …
We were made at home in a hut, of thatched possibilities like beach grass, plump with sweet water and razor sharp to keep the mares delicate and aware of where they trod. We were made in blue shadow so our skin might pull the light, swirly into us chitinous kids, blooming loosely and elastic cellmates with stellar equivalents. And I mean that bit literarily, star parts stretched from macrophage to deep beyond the prominence.
Contrary to the many dominant narrow narratives on how to be a trans person and how to be the right kind of trans person (“trapped-in-the-wrong-body”) and how to be the kind of trans person accepted by and understood by the cis majority, Salah’s poems are an amazing interruption of complexity. In a cisnormative world where certain types of exploitative and reductive transition stories (“the-man-transforms-into-a-woman”) are gobbled up by cis readers, Salah creates a whole book of entirely different kinds of stories, of crawling out of some kind of primeval muck and being home made out of stars and possibilities and light.
In another poem called “Lili, Inc.”, Salah addresses an historical trans person—Lili Elbe’s—complex idea of a multiplicity of gendered selves, occurring within her own body, that doesn’t at all conform to 21st century mainstream understandings of being trans:
On the train to Berlin, Lili wrote to her friends. I don’t exist here. I don’t exist yet. Einar will die for me. Heroic Einar will give up his body so…
Salah also addresses the medicalization and institutionalization of transness, in “Careers in Transsexuality: Case Studies”:
So, love, in love with your surgeon, your endo, is it really so different from your girlfriend who really sees the skin you need to make matter to make yourself matter and the support group who will maybe cut you up and maybe not. We have such small distances between our skins.
I craved the impersonality of the doctor. His arrogant projections, and clinical curiosity.
“Halving and Being” addresses the intersections of gender and sexuality in the self. Speaking in particular to Quebec lesbian feminism, Salah writes
‘Who is writing in the feminine on whose body?’ I asked, not the first
and of course it was self-interested.
Interested in having a self. What dyke isn’t? It seems like the double
significance of the feminine, repudiated by the patriarchy, constructed by
the patriarchy, repudiated / constructed as the patriarchy, is not lost on us still.
Probably my favourite poem in the entire book is “Teenage Trans Vamp Montreal, Fall 1987”:
I masturbate in lunar cycles
with your bleeding agile thighs,
big tits in red mesh crushed.
The gravity of your love
and our doom, in mind.
In the donut shop
we argue over which one of us
should wear the dog collar,
go down on the other.
In a room full of cops
speedy acid lets you dance for hours.
Round the corner at the Thunderdome
I make out with fourteen-year-olds from Verdun,
Dorval, the outer limits.
At Club Super Sexe, you’re the new favourite:
corkscrew blonde curls, ballerina body
except those tits you hate—
why you’re not a ballerina—
and a face too young to be legal.
But best, with brains, they like that:
one of the regulars brings this magnetic chess set.
On slow nights the manager lets him play you
while other girls vamp on stage
You gunk up my face and put me in your dress,
ripped fishnets. I look awful. I cut my face
in the bathroom mirror. You suck the glass out,
smoke me up and promise
someday I’ll have tits like yours…
But also, I really loved “Interlude 4: The Voice”:
The voice is not something I can do something with. The voice is a doing of something to me.
It is rasping slut and hopefully toward the curve of being. It is singed with a sun of sums
and dividing, it is singed with rays arrowing into the world the work of discrimination,
the slice, sluice, dice of quotas quoted and rotary motions in and out of virtual spheres,
fleshy lumps, bones and scrota and menstrual rain. The voice impermeable, the voice
undecided, the voice falsetto, castrato, undecided in declension. The voice is dressed up
fancy, the voice is dangling a hard-on. The voice is flying into you ready for resurrection,
reanimation, rivets. Make me up already, the voice declares, declaims, decals with spiffy
stuff sported by those kids today. The voice is your poem, Tim, Trace, not mine, but
Trace, Tim, your voice is in my mouth and I’m acrossed by it. Don’t be cross with me.
Janice Raymond interrupts to say: The voice is male-identified.
Don’t be too cross with her either; it is all she knows how to say, and her historical
moment more or less forced those words into her mouth.
As you can probably tell, this is a dense, frequently referential collection of poetry. I had many aha! moments where I realized what she was referring to (often other writers or books or essays but sometimes historical figures) which added a lot of richness to certain poems for me. At other times, I knew I was missing something because I hadn’t been able to identify the reference and wished that which reference was being made had been more clear, if not in the poem itself then in an editorial note. There is a great list at the back of the book of the works cited that Salah writes she “rips riffs off.”
That said, the denseness and referentiality and emphasis on intertextuality make Lyric Sexology Vol 1 the kind of book I know would be fruitful to reread many times, which is its own kind of gift. You’d get more and more from each reading, and more and more the more other books from Salah’s bibliography you also read. So read this, and then read it again, and then read some other books, and then read Lyric Sexology Vol 1, again.