by Alain Ginsberg
Nostrovia Press, 2017
You do not need to be part of the LGBTQ community to find yourself utterly immersed in Alain Ginsberg's Loathe/Love/Lathe
. Tender, piercing, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes devastating, the poems in this slim chapbook dwell on the very real, raw stuff of life. In these deliberate, careful sketches, Ginsberg pulls from their life and experiences to explore, amongst other things, gender, rape culture, fear and trauma, faith, and language.
The poems are by no means chronologically organized, but flit from discussion of birth and creation to the queer utopian future Ginsberg is willing into existence — from Genesis to what has not yet been written. From the first line, "And on the eighth day after an infant is born," Ginsberg toys with myth and history, as all queer people must, to write themselves into existence. I love that the whole chapbook opens with "and," that it begins on the eighth day. In Judeo-Christian belief, God created the heavens and earth in six days, resting on the seventh. The eighth day is the beginning of the second week of all of life. This first poem's meditation on transition primes the reader for other themes that surface throughout the collection: research and definition as risk assessment and protection, flowers blooming, drowning in a basement while looking for guidance. The title, "Loathe/Love/Lathe," echoes in "oscar wilde teaches me to write a poem," where while trying to read lips, the speaker can't determine if they're being told I love you
or I loathe you
. "Lathe" can be either a noun, a machine for shaping wood or metal, or a verb, to shape (as with a lathe), so unspoken, the reader thinks of I shape you
alongside love and loathe. Thought of the lathe returns in a later poem, "on 'shim,'" which addresses the tension of meaning in a word used "to align parts, make them fit, reduce wear," and to question humanity.
Many of the poems speak to each other, flowing back and forth through the body of the text. In "dude at dupont," Ginsberg is music personified but is seen by the aforementioned dude as something to be consumed — dessert, a "complimentary breakfast" — there to be taken. "But [he] doesn't realize that there is nothing of me / that he has not already tried / to take," Ginsberg comments. This idea of being there to be taken, or threatened, or violated, strings through other poems: "above average" (one of my favorites), and "my rapist speaks in two parts." The latter, an extremely vital text in today's queer conversation, touches on the toxic underbelly sometimes present and seldom spoken of in queer culture, particularly polyamorous culture. "We are safe together," the rapist says, "your partner said you were okay / with being hung, / drawn, / and quartered." The language of unity, safety, likeness is used against Ginsberg, who later comments:
I tell a friend my rapist's name and a hawk
will not eat the body of another hawk,
we are willing to abuse our own
but unwilling to consume them.
The power of names is another concept that floats through multiple poems — "the place where my mouth closes or, the focal point when i am most afraid of being left alone," a poem that shines a light on the dehumanizing nature of being forced to tolerate sexual harassment and wrong names, wrong language, in the food service industry, when a customer, "my difference between rent / and emptiness," gropes the speaker at work. Another, "what is in a name?" is one of the longest, most lyrical poems. Borrowing from Shakespeare's "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Ginsberg takes the idea further:
No one asks what a rose's parents would say if they
chose to be a lily or peony or hydrangea and death by any name
is still finality or the beginning of something entirely new
and I hope at my funeral no one asks if my parents meant for this
when I do not know if they even meant to make the mess
that I blossomed into …
It's really an amazing work. Ginsberg touches on the humility and fragility of one's possession of their name, writing, "I still mistake / a dictionary for god and know I am at best a creation myth." The dictionary returns at the end of the poem, when they write, "Press my name between the pages of a dictionary, and when you open / there will only be flowers."
To those who do not know much about the statistics stacked up against the hopes of trans people today, the detail above that the speaker's parents will bury them might not carry the significance it should. Ginsberg acknowledges one of the most frightening truths of the trans existence, that "the life expectancy of a transgender individual is / roughly a quarter of a century," and that they "have only a few years to be an above average statistic," in one of the tightest, most urgent poems — "above average," which returns to the feeling of fear in public spaces, sizing up those around you to assess the degree to which they are a threat, the chance you have of surviving them.
Hopefully in our lifetime, some of the tenets of Ginsberg's queer utopia will become facts. I want to see "only articles / about the successes of trans women of color," live in a world where we will be "only anxious of counting the stars / and not of how many years we have left to live." Accessible and conversational, while in conversation with heavy and complicated topics like politics, identity, literature, and history, Loathe/Love/Lathe
is an essential read in the evolving canon of young queer poets.
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