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Butch Geography
by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-937797-25-7
Paperback, $16.95, 72p

“God made gender a plaything.”—Stacey Waite

Butch Geography is the first full-length book of poetry from Stacey Waite, award-winning author of three chapbooks and assistant professor of gender studies and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. The poems of Butch Geography explore gender as a role and gender as a body. In a voice both lyrical and narrative, they attempt placement and identification, and are both the reflection and the act of locating and understanding the other in our midst. But Waite isn’t trying for the diagnostic or the definitive. We see in these poems the conundrum of the human animal: as others try to place us—figure us out—we are trying to place ourselves, too. And in our efforts are all gradations of grace, error, and exasperation. By looking at the questions of gender Waite is able to ask the questions of self. As the title eludes, we are creatures who need guidance, who depend on our ability to navigate complexity and difficulty by reading maps and its indicators. Translated to the body, both physical and social, our attempts to know ourselves and the other are not so different, and often as problematic.

Several poems appear in Butch Geography entitled “Dear Gender.” This series ignites then sustains the momentum of the book, for these poems—some of the most uninhibited in the collection—grapple with the primary source of being and its relentless, impossible question: who am I? “Gender, I want you to turn me to chain. / I want to bleed you out without dying.” There is desire for constancy, for static nature, despite the contradiction of human fluidity, “bleeding” evocative of this, evocative of one wanting to reject that which gives life. And in another poem in the series: “Gender, rise out, an exorcism, from our too-scared skin. // Let us make the sounds we were never meant to make.” Is this not also a task of the poet, to exorcise with sound? Waite succeeds in the task, by creating a narrative arrangement that aids and allows space for the more concentrated, emotional movements in the book. So many things are done well in Butch Geography, and simultaneously, it’s staggering. And disarming. Waite’s dexterity with line and language, the confident movement between lyric and narrative, invokes faithfulness in the reader. We will follow this voice anywhere. “She knows better / than to cry so spits again. She learns / to live in halves.”

A map is useless, ambiguous, without names, boundaries, intonation, and direction. Despite a map’s simplification of landscapes—and therefore our simplified understanding of those landscapes—they help us navigate the strange and the unfamiliar. They also guide us efficiently through known roads. But we shouldn’t come to understand the map as authoritative. We must honor the landscape, foremost. Otherwise, we risk dogma, the naïve dependence on systems. “The doctor looks mostly at his chart. He wants me to disappear, to put back in order his faith in the system of things. He wants me to react correctly, to be ashamed.” The human animal, its body, and its idea of body are always in flux, “alive and inevitable.” Knowing this maybe doesn’t give us control or power, but better, a sense of empathy. We can see the other as strange and in that strangeness, see ourselves. “I carry this to our bed, / where each night the body / loses its memory, and / for a moment, is able to give.” This is not to be understated. Memory’s influence is startling and often upsetting. How are we to know and care for our own bodies when they are so infused with memories that bring shame and confusion? Is a body not geographical—a map of memory, impulse, and synaptic response? Waite is refreshingly, albeit cautiously, hopeful. “…survival, the anthem / of those places we’ve always been.”

The poems of Butch Geography are subversive, deconstructive of culturally dominant paradigms, but they also challenge our individual response to those paradigms, prodding readers to examine our own constructions as well. Waite moves us beyond one-dimensional stereotypes and pigeonholes. The people populating these poems are intensely human. Through a voice that is at once humorous, poignant, and tragic, we are offered an enriched way to see each other.

Let the poems of Butch Geography be a guide. Waite, with generous hospitality and rare humility, will lead you into intimate and unfamiliar landscapes, and once there will help you see yourself in the strange.

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.