Language. It’s as slippery and fluid as gender. And some of us need poetry to grasp that.
Charles, Jos. feeld. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. Print.
Summary: Jos Charles, trans editor and poet, recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s 2016 Ruth Lily & Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Fellowship, crafts poetry in Chaucer’s English to simulate and capture a transgender existence.
Critique: About the time I found feeld at my public library, I had just listened to a series of mind-blowing podcasts on gender; how it’s determined genetically, why it’s never fixed or chemically constant, and how modern society is coming to terms with new definitions and expectations for “female,” “male,” and everything we now realize is possible in between.
(Curious? Check out RadioLab’s “Gonads” series.)
These episodes broadened my scientific understanding of the gender spectrum; however, Jos Charles’ poetry irrevocably enlightened my internal, heartfelt sense of that spectrum.
At first, reading a contemporary text in Middle English (the version of medieval English best preserved in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was jarring. Middle English arose after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The cultural, social, political upheavals waylaid what had been a relatively standardized language. In other words, grammar rules, punctuation patterns, and spelling conventions all went out the window. Consequently, when I read Middle English, I am reminded of my earliest attempts to spell without adult/academic supervision. Acting with only the slimmest understanding of phonetics, I (and many young children) kobbul letrs that mach the sownz uv the werds.
Under Charles’ precise, poetic influence, the Middle English spelling variations result in sparkling homonyms and heteronyms that spur new understandings, reinterpretations, and re-appropriations.
For instance, Charles’ writes:
1 drags so much alonge the bottom off the see
i care so much abot the whord i cant reed/ it marks mye back wen i pass
as mye hole extends it nevre entres conchesness as myne
See or sea. Whole or hole. Reed or read. Either way, these words resonate with so much fecund and versatile meaning that suddenly all the standardization rules built into modern English to produce precise, clear, unambiguous communication seem limiting and naive. To that same end, all the societal conventions we’ve built into gender definitions to prohibit the unambiguous also seem to hamper more than help.
See or sea? Hetero or homo? Male or Female? What’s the difference and who cares if I am not truly comprehending and appreciating the inherent and beautiful complexity that is humanity?