A lot of praise and thought has already been given to Jos Charles’s new book of poetry, feeld, and for good reason. Written in a faux-Chaucerian version of English which slips between archaism and text-speak, Charles uses the history of the English language to bend it almost until the point that it breaks, and, through those twists and fissures, creates a space for her (trans, queer) voice to speak, be it intelligible or unintelligible for its audience. Others have already remarked on what this Chaucerian queering of language does to the formal meaning of the text, but I think there’s been less spoken about the why of this text, opting instead to enjoy the pleasant surface of Charles’s (admittedly beautiful, formally impeccable) verse. And, in a way, the outright beauty and power of Charles’s work allow its reasons to be unexamined beyond the way it creates this beauty—how can you really dissect or argue with the beauty of lines like these:
“& wut cums // out / so poor inn me / // stop caling me he / // spils like lite / // please / like daye lite on hils / // a loss / being seen” (41)
To see the loss acknowledged in having to ask for the recognition of identity in such striking beauty, to see a pain I’ve actually felt depicted in the language of history, even if it’s merely a construction only intended to resemble that history, is almost a shock. I’m not used to recognizing myself in something—namely, the English language, the literary canon—which all too often erases or demonizes trans and queer experiences. Indeed, this is, in many ways, the whole point of the book—it historicizes trans life, while also pointing to the tragedy of the fragmentary state of that history. Indeed, in an interview for Shondaland, Charles outright states feeld’s formal choices were in part to “highlight […] the absence of trans narratives in historical poetics.” The language of Chaucer, too, is a keen choice on Charles’s part: Chaucer’s work, so tantalizingly, offers glimpses of the bawdiness of the body, the potential queerness of medieval subjects through such figures as the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, but often forecloses itself of those radical potentialities by using them in service of Chaucer’s Christian project—in some sense mocking the interpretive “deafness” of the wife of bath, or the shallow, surface-obsessed vanity of the pardoner. Charles performs the voice of the Chaucer I wish existed, who chose to revel in the interpretive strangeness of language and in the queer crudeness of the body, rather than the one who ended his tales with the Parson’s religious screed on penitence and the retraction of his work.
Trans people have been trying for so long to historicize their identities in an archive which only has a room for cis people, from outright histories like Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, and Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come, to a wealth of trans literature which, in the frustrating absence of a trans history, choose to create beautiful, ahistorical works of trans fiction-history. Texts like Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, a work of trans historical fiction which is, in part, about the contradictory notion of the phrase “trans historical fiction”, to Never Angeline Nørth’s creation of a spiritual and mythological trans history/grimoire in her Sea-Witch series are part of this move to think seriously about the creation of a trans literature and trans history.
But I am most reminded of kari edwards’ Joan of Arc project, part of which was recently released as dôNrm’-lä-püsl. edwards’ work focuses more on the more spiritual activist-minded task of retelling the Joan of Arc story, but I felt a certain genealogical connection through the history of a personal, queer language. Tina Žigon, who edited the Joan of Arc project, corrected most of the text of dôNrm’-lä-püsl, which was, due to edwards’s dyslexia, written in a way which I cannot help but find echoes of both Chaucer and Charles’ work:
“weaving stright at me from the grande quzine of comnamd in guttraal retention” (xxxi)
In both of their work, I see the radical historicizing potential of a queering of language, not merely this queering for the sake of beauty or personal expression or the politics of the current moment, but as a consideration of that which we have already lost, histories and archives and people which have long been destroyed. It is actually this participation in a history of history-making which makes feeld so wonderful, a breath of fresh air, an engagement with trans history which reminds us trans poetry and stories, deserve to be remembered and preserved in our literary consciousness.
ava hofmann was born and raised in Oxford, Ohio. She has work published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fence, BAX 2019, PeachMag, Apartment Poetry, Grimoire, and GLINT. Her current project, leech-book: an anti-grimoir/, is a transgenre work which concerns itself with trans/queer history, medieval magic, and the frustrated desire inherent to encounters with the literary archive. You can follow her bad posts on her twitter, @st_somatic.
feeld is available from Milkweed Editions (August 2018).