In Gephyromania (literally, an addiction to or an obsession with bridges), Tolbert’s choice isn’t between female and male, lover and self, or loss and relief, but rather to live (willingly, intentionally) in the places where those binaries meet. Questions arise: Is a bridge simply an attempt to connect one (seemingly) stable body back to itself? Whose body—which embodiment—is absent when we say “I miss you”? And who is adored when we say “I love”? Sensing the parallels between a lover who leaves and his own female body as it chooses (as he chooses for it) to recede, the poems in Gephyromania explore the spaces between, among, across, and even within bodies.
“Gephyromania teaches us that to unmake a body, language, and thereby a world is as meaningful (perhaps more so) than building—and that unmaking is, oxymoronically, a form of creation. This collection presses hard and urgently against the throat of mainstream western notions of what it means to inhabit a gendered body. A truly necessary book!”—Dawn Lundy Martin
“Tolbert’s linguistic imagination, his sense of the ways words can join and shatter, is omnivorous, and the boundless possibility of his language counterpoints the painfully bounded possibilities of bodies and hearts from which these poems emerge. The love here doesn’t alter but the speaker does, and the music of these poems is the music of body and soul soaring together as they tear apart.”—Joy Ladin
“TC IS SISTER BROTHER ALL OF OUR WEIRDEST WEIRDNESS WRAPPED IN ONE CIGAR. This book is stunning. Every letter feels cared for. Poetry to undiminish the real lives of a ruined empire is in your hands right now. Do you own this book yet? Do you plan on lending it out? Do you want to see it again? DON’T BE A FOOL!! Let them buy or steal it for themselves.”—CA Conrad
From Passing . . .
I believe a line set down
at any point in space is
infinite. The body is a collection
If I believed in little arrows
shooting off the end of every i
I’d be asking for it.
I’d be taking over.
The body doesn’t need that.
The body is retractable.
We’ll become less one.
Copyright © 2014 by TC Tolbert
“How the body engenders text is half the project here even if one doesn’t know exactly know what the other half is this text seems to be saying goodbye to a body that never entirely leaves. Only traces. Behind. And if the difference between pronounal addresses (‘It’s spelled s-h-e but the s is silent’) and legible domiciles could be crossed (figuratively and literally), then TC Tolbert’s poems indeed serve as floating pontoons to suspend a temporary bridge, an edifice to get us from here to there, even if ‘I barely understand your pelvis anymore. it is someone else’s living room and out of context.’ Tolbert reminds us how humbling an exercise it is to be able to read at all, and through the course of this book, you, dear Reader, will be changed: ‘I want to tell you about my body. / About testosterone / as unwitting art historian. About recovery. Me(n). What it feels like / underneath there. The part you cannot know. but should.’
“Disclosures: The preponderance of syntactical terrains crossed herein is dizzying, destabilizing, altering what you think you thought you knew about being able to accurately read anybody else, even yourself.
“Favorites: ‘(ir)Retrieval,’ ‘A Love Note for My Breasts (Abridged),’ ‘Tau(gh)t,’ ‘Thaw,’ ‘Beg Approval.’” —Timothy Liu in Coldfront
Author photo by Mamta Popat.
As a body in a person, as a poet, as these lines in this order—white skin and male passing privilege, breasts I used to bind but no longer want to, soft belly, hips that could easily carry children but never will, facial hair that refuses my jaw while absolutely flourishing on the underside of my chin—I’m continually interested in the architecture we find ourselves in. At what point does construction become didactic? What is the space between container and constraint? What happens when we try, and is it possible to subtract formula from form?
In Queer Space, Aaron Betsky says, we make and are made by our spaces. In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Button says: The significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are different people in different places and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. I look at my house, my relationships, the things I’m writing, my body. These are synonyms. And I wonder how non-trans people experience these things. Is your body an architecture? Is your name? What are you constructing now? Can you visit it, and therefore, can you leave?
Back in the day my family called me Missy Moe. Missy because it’s short for Melissa, my birth name, but also it sounds like, and is a bit, prissy. And an admonishment, maybe, for a certain brand of sass. For being a bit too proud. Moe comes from The Three Stooges. I was born in 1974 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to a woman named Jeanne Darline. I became the first person in my family to get a college degree. Think: bowl cut, mischievous naiveté, round eyes, always a little bit surprised. In “Low Culture,” Dodie Bellamy says, If I were to write the story of my life with emotional honesty, my relationship to my body would be the most important thing. What kind of body did a name like Missy Moe make room for? Can a name allow?
The other day a few of us were talking about the difference between synecdoche and metonymy. It was a hard conversation to follow. We were hungry. Some of us were sad. Others of us, less visibly so. H said that a thumb could always be a finger, but a finger could never be a thumb. We decided we needed a Venn diagram. I could only have these kinds of conversation in Tucson. When I moved out here to get my MFA 10 years ago, I thought the desert was trying to push everyone away. I used to think that publishing my poems would make me a happy person. Ben Ehrenreich, in “When Animals Conspire,” says the desire to order does not live far from the urge to destroy.
In 2001, I walked from Georgia to Maine with my dog, Isabella, on the Appalachian Trail (or AT). There I was given the name TigerCakes. When I stood before a judge in 2005 to get my name changed to TC, I told him this story. I was sure he was going to block me from the name change because I wasn’t passing at all. I had zero publications at that point. He just said, You mean to tell me you hiked the whole AT?
Sometimes there are problems with friends. One of us wants to talk about it, lay it out in detail. Inevitably, the other wants to talk less. Or at least talk about something entirely else. Bodies, individuals, and groups inherently crave homeostasis. Rilke said, We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us. I’ve been both of these friends. Although it hurts initially, living with a piece of glass in the body is neither as rare nor as dramatic as it may sound.
A little over a year ago, I joined a running group. One good friend had just killed himself, the woman I was in love with was no longer interested in dating me, and I had just watched another friend fall over 50 feet in a climbing accident. She yelled and I looked up. Nothing but orange rope and her ridiculous body falling through the sky. When I’m not teaching writing at the University of Arizona or organizing events for Casa Libre, I’m leading wilderness trips in Colorado for Outward Bound. I got back to Tucson and decided to train for a marathon. The actual running wasn’t ever that appealing. When WS Merwin asks, How shall I live? all I hear is, Who shall I be? Three months into the training I injured myself and have not yet fully recovered. The new normal scares me. When I tell you that I love you, what I really mean to ask is, Can I change?
My grandparents have figured out how to do this amazing thing where they navigate their discomfort with my gender expression and their absolute love for me by calling me a modified version of my name from the past. I don’t see this as disrespect, although I used to. It’s resistance, yes, but they are not resisting me. Moe is gender-neutral, a bridge, but they would never cop to that. Moe is just a grandchild that they are still proud of. A granddaughter no longer completely unrecognizable to them. A house. A relationship to a house. Redesigned. Somehow we and somehow you, somehow I. Somehow still manage to exist.
I lost track of the differences between us. The woman I was in love with was leaving. I was beginning to transition away from visibly female to something the world would call “man.” Who was disappearing? Who was showing up? Gephyromania was written between bodies—between who I loved and who was leaving, between who I was and who I would become.
The poems started as a notebook with the word “bridge” written across it. I was wicked sad. I was so tired of talking about me/her/us. My friends were tired of hearing about me/her/us. I needed a place to put me/her/us down. I needed something else to carry us/her/me.
For a long time I’ve been more interested in the form a poem takes than its content. That might be an overstatement but it’s at least true that I’m as interested in the form as I am the content. William Matthews said this great thing about subject matter—that we all write about the same four subjects anyway, so there isn’t anything special about what—the only thing of interest is how. So, even though I have a trans and genderqueer narrative and some of these poems are explicitly about that, most are trying to work that out through form.
I see the page as a body and how I have used that body, or it has used me, for experimentation, silence, shape, music, rupture, image, etc. interests me. It is, undoubtedly, experiments in poetry and with language that led me to and into and through my transition—which is something I’m still in and probably will be forever—there is no endpoint, as far as I can tell, to the transitioning body—and so even what I’m writing today (seven years into my transition), I see as a formal representation of my gender. My question is always: how to get the body in the poem, how to find my body on the page.
My best writing happens outside with a notebook and a pen. Other than dismantling homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism, I want my writing to be an experience of openness within restraint. Rather than generative, I often use limiting techniques. I wear a compression shirt in the shower. I give myself line limits and expectations so that I can break them. The dancer standing absolutely still during a 32 minute Trisha Brown dance piece in which other bodies are moving about the stage—this frozen body continually rearranges the space. Expansion within contraction.
The writing is the body :: the freedom is the constraint.
I’m thinking about silence and white space. I’m thinking about Mark Doty who says that Dickinson and Whitman are different poets in part because of the size of their lungs—literally how much breath they could take in and push out. At a time when I felt like I was leaking out everywhere, my breasts constantly spilling out of my shirt, my voice undermining any attempts to pass—I wrote territories of folding—and you can see how I was aching for silence—to be smaller and smaller (to have a smaller and smaller voice but, perhaps, to begin to learn to take up more space?)—and then to succumb to the page. And then take the sonnet crown. How I would vacillate between needing this expansive silence, white noise to swallow me whole, and then composing these tightly wound 3–5 page poems. How I needed the rigor, the dancing in a straight jacket of form. 7 sonnets back to back, the last line of one becoming the first line of the next until the last line of the poem curls back to the first line of the first sonnet—the form seems to evolve back into itself. I push out against that always while also willingly taking it on—so there is tension that interests me—the tension between holding and being held —sense and perhaps not sense—music and not music—the story of the thing and the embodiment of the thing and the thing itself and the hand.
Bridge: a musical interlude, a passage over, a joining, a contrast, a way across. That I would eventually either get back to who I thought I was or I would find a new face to which to return. It was a serendipitous time. I had no idea what I was doing. I picked up the reverse dictionary and found a listing for manias and phobias. Gephyromania literally means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. There were months and years like this. I just kept writing it down.