In A Burning Tongue: A Review of Soz’s Masculinity Digs a Grave over My Body


Masculinity Digs a Grave over My Body
 (Poetry)
Soz
Red River, 2018
ISBN (Paperback) 978-81-939403-1-0
Pp 58 | Price ₹ 175.00 INR

Review by Basudhara Roy

Examining the paradoxical place of the body in poststructuralist critical theory, Jay Prosser, in Second Skins, writes, “A glance at any number of new titles shows bodies are everywhere in contemporary cultural theory; yet the paradox of theory's expatiation upon bodies is that it works not to fill in that blind spot so much as to enlarge it.” Conversations on embodiment, one will observe, are the least forthcoming in our culture. As Prosser insists, “Materiality is our subject, but the body is not our object. The body is rather our route to analyzing power, technology, discourse, language.” And, indeed, though the body as signifier has been discussed threadbare in critical discourse, discussions of lived experiences of embodiment in the face of abuse, violence, disability, pregnancy, pathology, dysphoria, etc. have remained marginal by far. Bodies, one realizes, are as diverse and heterogenous as individuals are, and the unique truth of one’s corporeality must be lived out and through every moment of each day. However, embodiment, it will be admitted, does not exist in vacuum but is experienced, interpreted, defined, glorified, stigmatized, contested and challenged within a social, cultural and political context with the personal narrative of the body being often, at odds, with its public narrative. Masculinity Digs a Grave over My Body, a slender collection of twenty-two extremely powerful, dissident, and confessional poems by Soz, is a book that attempts to place the body and the plethora of cultural discourses surrounding it, at the centre of its poetic universe, and articulates, through the confessions of its particular embodiment, burning questions about the status of the body in mainstream socio-cultural narratives.

Basudhara Roy

Even a cursory glance at these poems will establish Soz’s corporeal identity for the reader. As the poems and the title of the collection amply illustrate, the voice behind them is that of a transwoman – whose biologically-assigned masculinity militates against her feminine understanding and experience of her body as female. Unable to culturally identify with the man her body was meant to be, or biologically experience herself as the woman that she intensely identifies with, Soz considers herself to be “ a lie/ born out of my mother’s womb.” Negotiating this difficult embodiment and scarred with the need to conform to the gender binary, her poems are intimate documents of her suffering, angst, rage and the existential necessity to belong in the face of this overwhelming betrayal by the body. In the poem, ‘confession | the secret of every ‘body’, she writes:

 

my mother does not know I am wearing her sari tonight, that my body which does not find a home being a man or a woman, often changes sides on this binary to feel at ease with myself. at the prayers held after my grandfather’s death, the audience sat in two groups. i only wanted to sit in between because on the spectrum of gender I fail to find a spot to occupy. so I went and sat with my grandmother instead, holding her as her grief did not come out as tears and the audience was killing her with a façade of pain they did not feel but kept up.

 

Sex and gender, though often experienced as one seamless category or as logical extensions of one another, are two different conceptual entities with widely divergent expressions. While sex refers to the biological or anatomical dimension of being a male or a female, gender refers to the psychological, social and cultural aspects of being a man or a woman. When sex and gender refuse to align with each other and a case of gender incongruence is experienced, it is understood as dysphoria. Dysphoria, in general, refers to an uneasiness or dissatisfaction with something. Gender dysphoria, particularly refers to the experience of having a psychological and emotional identity that does not correspond to one’s biological sex. In Soz’s case, dysphoria is the experience of being born male but feeling a psychological and emotional identity as female. This incongruity can be the source of deep and ongoing discomfort, both physically and psychologically, and the trauma of the experience is further compounded by socio-cultural stigmatization of the phenomenon. In Soz’s poems, one comes across the confession of the inability to speak about the body’s secrets to even her own mother, that most intimate of companions with whom the experience of embodiment is first shared. In ‘i’m not my mother’s daughter’, the poet writes:


in this country,
only women have fought
for inheritance rights.
i too will fight
to inherit my mother’s saris
knowing
i am not her daughter,
knowing
she is my mother.

The body, as Soz’s poems, present, is a complex and difficult terrain to transact. The most unique and private of referents for being and the self, the body, one discovers, is anything but personal. It is a site subject to relentless socio-cultural scrutiny, socialization, policing and interpretation, with the result that it can only be a liability to forever account for. In ‘a letter to my closet’, for instance, Soz says:


since i was born
i was born in
this body along with its cracks,
along with its crevices.
this body has only been a burden.
cover it, they said.
close it, they said.
shut it, they said.
covered it, closed it, shut it.

The most immediate of homes, of anchors and of places, the dysphoric body fails to home its self. Masculine in its appearance and feminine in its experience, the body is a house divided against itself, so much so, that in ‘firaaq’, the poet states:


my skin
cannot be in a relationship
with itself.

it will have to be peeled
and separated for that.

Richly metaphoric, movingly eloquent in their expression of grief, and powerfully cognizant of the social injustice that inheres within cultural endorsements of gender ideas, these poems, as Mark Greene writes in his Introduction to the book, are “the work of someone who is still constructing who they are. As such, what Soz writes is raw, sexual, challenging and deeply self-referential. It is a mirror searching for courage, seeking the curve of the feminine along the silhouette of the masculine, searching for the pieces of fragmented identity among the errors and failings of being male and female.” In a world, where masculinity is power, these poems reflect the underside of the experience of being considered a male and the sacrifices that the construction of masculinity demands. In ‘there is no god, only the state’, for instance, the poet states:

masculinity is demanding its due ego. my tears are not respected, and so pleasure does not walk into my body. it stays on the door as a thief, at least until the state leaves. histories which have guarded the entrances to my body are meeting histories guarding another’s. pleasure waits and waits but the state stays. Pleasure leaves a letter to my tongue, ‘i wanted to meet you but you were busy.’

 

Again, in ‘a love letter to masculinity’, Soz writes:


dear masculinity,
if I give you away before birth
i can save my tears
and
the expense for your last rites.

The poem, ‘on paper, a home means nothing’, is, perhaps, one of the most powerful and memorable poems in the collection, drawing attention to the fragility of home for the marginal, to its inadequacy, its vulnerability, its deferral and the impossibility, as a whole, of ever finding and keeping it:


what of violence
which is another word
for home,
unnamed violence
like unnamed files
stored on the desktop
we do not delete,
unquestioned violence
like unquestioned silence
that waits to be a ceiling
that needs to be broken
to see through
the fractured walls
we do not notice, the leakages
we do not repair,
unless the water leaks…

Emphasizing night as the only time when the dysphoric body, free from cultural constraints, can be experienced as itself, and female clothes as the only home that it can possibly have out of its own divided skin, these poems make a strong case for the poignant liminality of queer space and time, and the necessity of bringing such discourses into the cultural mainstream. Refusing to resort to capital letters at all in valourization of her marginal identity, using images drawn from the natural world to establish the naturalness of gender fluidity and consistently urging the need to re-examine the efficacy of the binary gender model, these are poems that, indeed, as the pen-name of their creator, Soz, indicates, are on fire, and need to be read by the world at large so that their militant voice may seep deep and spread far.

In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Jane Hirshfield writes, “Any art able to move us holds somewhere within it both the courage and the knowledge of tears.” Poetry, being innumerable things in itself, is also an attempt to heal through cathartic self-expression. Catharsis in poetry comes, above all, from discovering the right tongue for our most unsettling experiences and from putting into exact and satisfactory words a knowledge that is particular, subjective, idiosyncratic and marginal. The search for the right words, the right expression, the right tongue is seldom easy. It rarely comes without great agonizing and critical self-scrutiny but once it does, the poem becomes a space for healing not just the writing-self but every consciousness that pauses to read and reflect in it. The poems of Soz, every reader will admit, constitute just such a space. While they certainly empower the poet through the agency of narrativizing the journey towards her identity, they also constitute a potent space for healing from the experience of incongruence between the self and the world. And to conclude with Hirshfield’s words:

They bring hope. They bring community, inscribing into our thirst for connection poetry’s particular, compassionate compact, the inseparability of our own lives and the lives of others, of all that exists. They bring tears. And they promise that these are banquet recognitions we may enter and eat of, if we look and feel through even the briefest poem’s eyes.


Basudhara Roy is the author of two books, a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). She has been an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University and has earned her doctoral degree in diaspora women’s writing from Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Basudhara’s areas of academic interest are diaspora writing, cultural studies, gender studies and postmodern criticism. She lives and works in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

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