Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen
Written by Mirna Palacio Ornelas
When I picked up this book—Waite’s first full-length poem collection—I expected to see the journey of a non-binary gendered person. I expected to go through the pits and falls, the confusion, and eventually a self-awareness. I found exactly that in Butch Geography, but in a way I didn’t see coming.
Waite’s poems take you back and forth through time, juxtaposing the confusion of a child that could never really fall into one of the binary slots of gender with the understanding that forms after having examined and reexamined oneself over time. Many of the poems come from childhood memories; there are instances in which the narrator is confused by the way adults around them behave and react to their appearance. In these, such as “Self-Portrait, 1984,” you’re reminded of that blind confusion that came with being a kid, where you know something is amiss, but you don’t know why, or what.
“Sometimes no one can keep my mom
from crying, I think the frying pans
get grease in her eyes when she cooks,
so I always say I don’t like anything hot.
It’s okay to lie about food, I think.”
In these poems, there is also a sense of detachment, as if the narrator has now come to accept the events that happened. It’s like that breath you release after letting disappointment settle into your bones.
The poems in which the narrator seems to be older, more aware of their being, are not only more lyrical, but also contain a small seed of pride in their acceptance. Moving past the struggles the narrator has faced, the tone of the poems clearly conveys some of the insight that comes with growing up. There’s a certain maturity there. In “Changing the Names,” there’s more of that feeling. It’s settled.
“In Pittsburgh, the rivers want to freeze over,
but can’t stay still long enough. So, for a while,
I call them ice to honor their wanting,
their leaving and returning, always the
slow shift of hands and water.”
The poems that fall in line in feeling with this one create an acceptance that soothes the confusion from the other poems. The narrator is almost taking their younger selves by the hand and wiping away the tears with reassuring murmurs.
The way the poems are written caught me completely by surprise. While there are a few prose poems sprinkled throughout the book, the enjambment in the others does nothing to break up the complete sentences in some poems. “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport” is a good example of this structure.
“But when I hold my arms straight out
and he traces the outline of my underarms, he makes
that face, the face I’ve seen before,
the ‘holy-shit-it’s-a-woman’ face,
the ‘pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits’ face.
By using this structure in combination with this word choice, the poem is presented to you rather than slowly experienced. This writing style can be ingeniously helpful. As a cis-gendered reader, I’ve not had the experiences the narrator has. I’m distanced in a way that can really affect my reading of the poetry. By putting it in such a plain way, by making the poems read as stories, Waite makes these experiences accessible.
There’s much to say about the layout of the book, the way the poems are organized. The poems, for the majority, weave back and forth through time. One that takes place in the narrator’s childhood is followed by one with a more “adult” experience, be it a lover, or a more serious look at gender. It creates an intricate balancing act that is maintained throughout the book. For example, there is “Kimberly,” which ends with the lines,
“Kimberly, I should have been Kimberly.
I would have felt some loyalty to a name like that.”
It is followed by “It Has Always Been Frankie Cossinelli,” with the lines,
“the kind of girl who wore stretch jeans and black concert t-shirts
so you’d know she was a piece of the night sky,
the kind of girl who didn’t blow her nose,
but just sniffed all day long.”
Those two poems give two very different self-depictions from the narrator. It was like a roller coaster, or even just (get this) natural geography. These highs and lows make the difference between the attitudes toward gender and sexuality more stark. You get to see the struggle referred to in some of the other poems. Unfortunately, this layout also has some complications.
The combination of structure and writing style left out something crucial: a sense of completion.
As I read the book, I kept waiting for that big, obvious “OH!” feeling, but it never happened. There were some poems, like “Kimberly,” that took me right to the cusp of an epiphany-like sensation, but the following poem made it all crumble down. This didn’t take away any enjoyment from reading the poems, or even that kernel of truth poetry forces into your meaty center, but it did disappoint. I was waiting for that tangible feeling of being able to walk away having learned something. Notes in my hand, so to say. Instead, I was left wondering if maybe it was just the subject matter: maybe it’s one of those things that never really has a neat, wrapped up ending.
A second reading, however, completely turned this around. I let the poems marinate for a couple of weeks, and when I came back to them, there was a definite sense of completion I didn’t feel the first time around. I found that the poems had already found their way inside me. Not in the obvious etched-into-my-skin way, but not in the written-in-my-heart way, either. Instead, I found them under my skin, under the following layers of fat, and seared into my muscles and ligaments. As an outsider to the world within Butch Geography, this could be the best result. I don’t know if Waite wanted to serve as an educator through these poems, or if just the sharing of these experiences was the goal, but the poems have done their job as a medium, reaching out past the world they were created in.
Mirna Palacio Ornelas is a Vouched Indy intern and is currently a junior at the University of Indianapolis. She’s a poetry writer that dabbles in the publishing world. Mirna spends most of her time in the dark with Captain America looping in the background on the lowest volume and light settings while collecting boxes of steakhouse dinner rolls on her desk.