Review: Trans poet’s book succubus in my pocket

9781495186141succubus in my pocket is a book of experimental poetry by the late, great trans poet kari edwards (1954-2006). In the foreword, edwards — she preferred her name, as well as the book’s title, in lower case — is described as one of transgender literature’s “driving forces and homing beacons.” She was one of the first trans women to publish a volume of poetry in America, edited a magazine called Transgender Tapestry from 2000-2005, and was a mentor and teacher in both the trans and poetry communities. Despite her active and ambitious career, poetry by trans women has remained obscure to the poetry world as well as the general public.

Experimental poetry itself is something that has struggled to reach mainstream American audiences. Historically, experimental poets have sometimes enjoyed what passes for mainstream success in poetry; e.e. cummings is probably the best-known example. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were experimental in their day, and now they have a solid place in high-school English curriculum. Since the ’80s, though, experimental poetry has gotten truly postmodern, and if not too fragmentary and bizarre to be palatable to the masses, certainly too much so to monetize. So today’s experimental poets reside largely in the academy and obscure online poetry reviews, even as they do much of the work of pushing the art of language ever forward.

Maybe there’s hope, since the same kind of resignation expressed by contemporary experimental poets pervaded the trans art scene a mere decade ago. Even last year, we couldn’t have predicted how much more recognition trans people would be getting in 2016. Maybe that’s why, finally, the first in a three-volume opus of gender/genre-bending abstract poetry by kari edwards was published this year, a decade after her death.

American audiences are warming up to trans women as entertainers, at least if we take Transparent and Orange Is The New Black as cases in point. Troublingly, this has coincided with the violent erasure of non-fictional trans women of color through brutal murder. At this point it’s pretty clear that mere visibility can’t save — and even hurts — a vulnerable population. Opportunities to hear trans women’s voices are blessings, given the peril visibility can cause.

Poets are not, in our society, understood to be entertainers, so it would be a stretch to apply to same logic to trans women poets as actresses. However, a few trans women poets like Kay Gabriel, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and edward’s publisher, Trace Peterson, are paving the way. Thanks to Peterson’s press EOAGH, edward’s work is, posthumously, seeing the light of day. The fact that kari edwards is no longer with us may be another point of difficulty in terms of being heard — since trans women so often are compelled to include their bodies with their work. kari edward’s work has to live in absence of her body.

The poetry itself is vibrantly alive, even as it challenges every aspect of living. The world as described by edwards is simultaneously horrible and wonderful, familiar and uncanny:

The sun languished through the crack in a slow blue syrup, driving over our bodies like the sweet sex oil found in carnival products, that promise to keep you alive and smiling for eternity

This is a characteristic description of setting in succubus, something that uses words the reader can recognize but describes a world we cannot, at least without our imagination. edwards’ poetry demands that we try to picture what feels impossible, whether it be the ambiguous, kaleidoscoping gender of the narrator, or the sky as a blue syrup.

The promises held by “products” is a motif that edwards engages throughout the book. In fact, language apparently lifted from advertisements occasionally floats through the text in phrases like “this message is brought to you by coke….the drink the world loves.” Similarly, propagandistic phrases like “it’s good for god and country” accompany wartime imagery and frequent references to that poster boy for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, G.I. Joe. This is the beauty of experimental poetry — the concrete and familiar are made to coexist with the impossible and uncanny.
It’s extremely exciting when edwards brings this sensibility to bear on gender. Not only is she a poetic visionary, but a gender visionary as well:

Body parts could move in and out and on and off my body before my voice modulation could possibly catch up. I could start by taking on mix-n-match characteristics of goddesses and gods to cartoon characters. I could breakthrough this gender thing, truly let go, there would be no limits…

This might be my all-time favorite vision for a multi-gendered future. I don’t want to dwell to long, though, on my own analysis of gender in succubus,or at least not extend it further than I would for a cis poet. Ultimately, the poetry speaks for itself.

I can neither confirm nor deny whether this book is “about” gender. This book is “about” aboutness — states of being and subjectivity — of which gender is one dimension. If this doesn’t quite make sense to you, trust me that the only way to understand is to read it. succubus in my pocket is unlike any book you’ve ever read, especially if you don’t read much experimental poetry — but it’s never too late to start.

Click here to purchase a copy of kari edwards’  succubus in my pocket.