We Are Mermaids, poems by Stephanie Burt, reviewed by Robin Arble

There’s a moment in Stephanie Burt’s newest collection I’ve read so many times I memorized it by accident. In “Love Poem with Summer Camp Reunion,” the huge and frightening freedom of camp has given the poet enough distance from her life—from helpful but clueless parents, from treacherous hallways and classrooms, cafeterias and blacktops—to encounter her true gender in the touch of her first crush: “Do I want to be with her? Or do I / want to be her? As if our fingertips / had always been touching, as if the nervous connection / between us ran up our spines, and into our brains.” It’s a common moment in a trans person’s life, especially in the confusion of youth: that vanishing moment of clarity when we’re one right thought away from discovering what we’ve known all along. The speaker of this poem is putting the pieces together from decades away, while her young self is startled by the strangeness of her desires. Both of them ask the italicized question: is this attraction or jealousy? The answer, the speaker knows, is both: when we aren’t allowed to express a part of ourselves, we have to find that self in others, in “the uncountable, tiny / mechanically printed flowers / on the wireless (as in telegraph), underwireless bra / of the first girl I … the only girl I …” Burt’s speakers embrace the multiplicity of their emotions. “You were never one thing, my youth. / You were a terror, a missed chance, a come-again, / a kind of eternal return,” Burt says in her Hymn to Youth. “No-one is only one thing,” a late poem concludes. Burt’s poems are never one thing either.

We Are Mermaids is in many ways a sequel to Burt’s last full-length collection of poems, 2017’s Advice from the Lights. As in Advice from the Lights, many of the persona poems in We Are Mermaids take the form of riddles that give themselves away in their titles. Poems spoken by punctuation marks begin each section, the unspoken finally speaking (up) for themselves. Just as a punctuation mark can only be heard in the tone of its sentence, the “hidden” meanings of these poems can only be heard when we listen between the lines. In       ”, the first poem after the titular prologue, quotation marks declare that “we have a soft spot for drama, / and for memorization; // we like to share whatever we’ve been told.” The clarity here lies in Burt’s ability to say two or more things at once, one meaning elaborating on the other; the “tadpoles” of the fourth line refer to the shape of quotation marks as much as they refer to the vulnerability of a newly-out trans woman:

We used to believe that, being so good
at belatedness, we might never have to get old,

which was our mission, or our curse;
though our true age is unclear, we have had equivalents

in nearly every civilization,
both in our efforts at sarcasm and our attempts
at protests. Leave our single sisters alone.

Notice how the couplets gang up into a tercet in the penultimate stanza. A break in stanzaic pattern would be distracting in the hands of a lesser poet, but Burt’s decision only reinforces the poem’s effect: trans girls travel in pairs, if not packs, just as quotation marks nest in themselves when their contents are requoted. “We come in several shapes but are never / heartless, pointless, and never entirely straight. // If you ever see just one of us, / wait.”

The speakers of these poems know a thing or two about hiding in plain sight. Some find trans narratives in pop culture (“Frozen Is The Most Trans Movie Ever,” “Some Like It Hot”), another finds them in folklore (“Cinderella”), and another finds them in contemporary fiction (“Introduction to Trans Literature”). Persona poems fill the collection’s first few pages until we read “At the Parkway Deli,” which begins as an exploration of the poet’s favorite childhood pickle bar but suddenly turns to say, “How many years / till I found out why trans girls and women crave salt. / Coming out makes your blood pressure go down.” The poem pivots from the conversational to the confessional: “So do spironolactone, and other / similar shots and pills with jawbreaker names / I wanted to change me. I would tell no-one. / I would stand outside until I was 41, / waiting to be let in.” How fitting is it that “no-one” rhymes with “41”? The first time I read these lines, I had to lay my book flat on my chest before I could read them again.

Many of these poems are especially concerned with the double-edged sword of public visibility. In “Cabbage Whites,” trans lives used to be spent “in search / of sugar and cellulose, or shelter and shade,” but now they’re lived “out in the open, protected, / if at all, by our apparent / insignificance, or by the speed / at which we pivot and change direction.” In “Miami,” the poet is asked a startling question by a young (and presumably queer) reader: “How do you deal with the fear of existing?” Suddenly the speaker must become an ambassador of her experience—a role usually familiar to the poet. Instead, attempted metaphors evade the question—“standing alone / in front of a microphone,” “scallops whose breathing / tubes pop up / above the receding salt water,”—until the poet is stunned to silence: “The insubstantial feeling / that came to you then, the vertigo, / and the quickening.”

Sometimes, the speakers of these poems have no choice but to reveal themselves outright. The speaker of My 1994″ admits, “I didn’t know. But I knew. I took off the dress / Kay offered and apologized for my striped boxers.” Alternating between the speaker’s post-college years as a closeted trans girl and a wasp caught between a windowpane and screen—metaphor, meet metaphor—the speaker explores the impossibility of denial, of ever truly being one thing or another: “The demand that we shed / our previous selves is garbage. We are not wasps // And need not leave our shells behind.” The truth is, we’ve been ourselves—and something more than ourselves—all along:

I didn’t know. But I knew. Maybe everyone did.

The wasp rams the glass, black and gold. I thought I wanted
To free myself from my body, which was

Not possible. Land
on this windowsill with me.

While most of these poems explore or explain some facet of Burt’s trans experience, each of them attempt to look out from themselves to make sense of their world. A cluster of poems in the middle of the collection explore white supremacy in the wake of Trump’s election: “America was America before / we tried to make it fairer, braver, brighter. / It seems, from above, very near / the same, but whiter.” These poems, written in the same elusive, rhyming style as most of the book, might be too polite for their subject matter, but their tone is coldly serious. One poem within this cluster uses defamiliarization to speak of snow as an almost mythological memory, written in a not-so-hypothetical world in which its inhabitants have destroyed the changing seasons: “Children could scoop it up // in disposable clear plastic cups / for later use, keeping it safe / in something called a freezer.” The implications of comparing whiteness to climate change linger in our mind long after their first or fifth reading.

Later poems in the collection explore Burt’s recent obsessions as a poet, critic, and fangirl. Continuing her fascination with ancient Greek poetry, Burt translates Sappho’s famous “Fragment 31,” updating its contents for the themes of her collection while also maintaining fidelity to the sentiments of the original: “Still, I wish / I could be taking your hand now, even if / my horns and tail would show.” A pair of facing poems shift from a reference to The Verlaines, a Dunedin band from the early 1980s, to a poem written after Paul Verlaine, the band’s namesake. A villanelle spoken by Kate the Pirate Queen gradually adds to its repeated phrases until it concludes with one of the most badass lines in Burt’s career: “I used to be responsibility. Now I’m your bare-knuckle, blades-drawn, power-politics bisexual pirate queen.” One poem ends, miraculously, with a Rick Roll, fifteen years out of time and space.

The poems in We Are Mermaids can be skillfully decoded as trans allegories, or climate anxiety, or disgust at U.S. Fascism, but limiting these poems to one reading would miss the pleasures of their inventiveness, their playfulness, their ease at existing in many states at once. “Binary thinking leaves out so much,” begins “Ligature,” the last poem in the book’s three-poem encore. The poem’s final remarks serve as great advice for reading and rereading, not only Burt’s book but books in general: “How little we know. How much // Knowing isn’t the point. We love how the letters can touch.”

We Are Mermaids, by Stephanie Burt. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, October 2022. 120 pages. $17.00, paper.

Robin Arble is a poet and writer from Western Massachusetts. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in beestung, Door Is a Jar, Pøst-, One Art, Overheard, ALOCASIA, Midway Journal, and Your Impossible Voice, among others. They are a poetry reader for Beaver Magazine and the Massachusetts Review. She studies literature and creative writing at Hampshire College.

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