Trans self-making is fraught with cis people’s associations of deception and the desire they project onto us: our transexual prime directive to leave the past behind and enter an unrippled state of always-having been, by any means necessary.
But we each have at least one self, and of course we shape them. Cat Fitzpatrick’s funny, cutting, and minutely-crafted debut Glamourpuss sets out to examine how.
The title poem is an exploration of how explicitly we make ourselves through glamour (longed for, stolen, and, by increments, becoming our own). No matter how deep we get into ourselves, the outside world—and how we internalize it—is always intervening. The poem details the pressures of getting older, becoming political, and being a dyke in a queer culture that hangs its hallmarks on masculinity, which make some feel they have to abandon the feminine and glamorous in order to authenticate themselves. The end of “Glamourpuss, Repent” goes back and needles at that rejection of intentional femininity by framing all our “charms” as acts of self-making. All of them are “lies,” not just the glamorous parts, so the question becomes not whether we are real, but what we’d like to do with ourselves.
Throughout the book, Fitzpatrick studies this concern, examining different methods of distancing from and reconciling with the self. In some places, like the series “Six Women I’m Not” (subtitled “meditations on having sex with straight men whilst pretending to be a literary character”), the speaker Catherine obfuscates herself so thoroughly with her own allusions that there’s very little of her left, unless you count her reading list. At the end of these poems, she concedes that “none of these stories do us any good.” I wanted to know what made the efforts of pretending to be these figures transparent: in the moment, getting a hickey by the water, getting self-conscious head, extricating herself from a sleeping embrace to go home in the middle of the night, how did this pretending fall apart? Who was peering out from behind it?
Very often, though, the collection’s push and pull of self-distance is more revelatory. The poems have a strength of perspective: the characters of Catherine at different points in her life are distinct and specific in their thoughts, values, and fears, and Fitzpatrick is kind of really hard on them, but the portrayal also feels loving, like they’re difficult little sisters.
When I first transitioned I didn’t know any trans women
I didn’t even know anyone else who knew any trans women
I swear it’s the truth not one I walked around the medieval towers
And secret lawns and felt just like the biggest freak on earth
So grateful for every bit of condescension I could get
And crying out do you believe that I’m a real girl
Like all the trans girls say
The emotional, though not always chronological, arc of the book moves from isolation, making-the-self alone, to connection, making it with others. It is a disavowal of the self-love tenet that first you must learn to stand yourself; only then will others love you. Fitzpatrick looks for the self everywhere, at the club and in nature, in scraps of community and desirability, and finds it by looking backwards through more than a decade of poems (and Lynn Conway’s now-archived website TS Successes) about how the relationships we form with others make it possible for us to imagine ourselves.
Still, the self is never easy. From her compulsive analysis of the ratio of girls:boys in her contacts list (“Which reassures me. Girls are friends with girls”), to the traitorous workings of her subconscious, Fitzpatrick’s speaker Catherine shows how shame winds its way back into all things small and large, undermining all the good work she’s done of trying just to be.
My dick still turns up in my dreams. I know
That worried me. I think I had to try
Too hard. I had to treat a choice as proof.
One hazard of self-making is, who will believe you? Here, money buys belief, in this case from the surgeon who at first told her she was too young to decide.
And now at last it’s time for me to talk
About the fact my mother paid to chop
It off. Yes, I’m a lucky one. The food
Was good, the view was beautiful. It was
Looking up from the page, Fitzpatrick asks us to consider what it’s time for poetry to talk about. White trans people have become practiced at identifying our positionalities. A next question for Fitzpatrick, and for me: where is the movement forward from self-awareness of wealth, whiteness? Standing at the intersections where our selves are predicated on power and determining where we are is not enough. What will we, our poems, do about it?
In a series of roadtrip poems about a carful of trans women learning to live with each other, rather than trying to escape the places they’re from, there is another unresolved question of our responsibility to others.
I’ve never felt like this, so strong, so good,
So clear. I look from face to face, and smile
I never want to turn away again,
Although of course I have somewhere to turn.
This makes a frame with the end of the earlier “How to Be Stealth” series, where a younger Catherine is hiding from her cis coworkers in a replica barrel, having just about given up on making it work in telemarketed wine sales.
Inside the tun, against the cheap oak planks,
Peering through the gaps, ready to turn and run.
Now, we see her again, years later, faced with a different kind of departure: one where she gets to go back home to the life she’s made instead of just ditching everything and everyone, doing whatever she must to get out. The struggle to relate to other trans women without using them as a warped mirror designed to reflect back her own flaws and graces is a constant tension of the book. At the end of the journey, before she leaves the space their days together have created, she seems for the first time to be really seeing the women she’s come to know, not least of all herself.
Glamourpuss, by Cat Fitzpatrick. Topside Press, September 2016. 106 pages. $9.95, paper.
Charles Theonia is a poet and teacher from Brooklyn, where they are working to externalize their interior femme landscape. They are the author of Which One Is the Bridge and a co-editor of Femmescapes. They keep a most-poetry blog at qu-arles.tumblr.com.