By manuel arturo abreu
Reviewed by Xarí Rivera Maya
When reading manuel arturo abreu's poetry, the tension is constant and productive. This tension is not only engendered through language but through timing—an element of language itself. abreu's poetry politicizes time as it grapples with historical relations in a way that compels readers to reflect upon national imaginaries, race, and memory.
By stringing together meaning unit-by-unit with built-in ruptures, abreu compels the reader to bear witness to an engagement with history that is mercurial, almost whimsical, yet attentively organized. The book's title, transtrender, playfully signals abreu's concern with both the digital as overdetermined archive and site of interconnectivity, framing gender as transitory yet historically constituted. Early on it is made clear that the particularities of trans Afrodiasporic subjectivities bear implications on memory and the archive. The introduction reads: "A body in a white space of forgetting. A nonbinary femhood built from sea salt, blood, and the protection of cascarilla." The diasporic subject is connected to homeland and memory through ritual, and at the same time corporally experiences the ruptures of white supremacy and antiblackness.
abreu lays out the stakes of this writing so clearly that it would be irresponsible to describe their writing as comical, although we do encounter some humor. There are several ways to read this. The easiest way is to mistake it for a lack of seriousness. Another way to read it is as a defense mechanism—humor as a way to hide vulnerability, which may be only partially true in this instance. My impression is that it serves an important social function—humor as a mechanism to gauge the audience's social context. Humor is a way of hiding as much as it is a way of showing. Who laughs, and at what? These questions largely determine who is on the inside and outside of a knowing public. The following is an exemplary passage from "If I could vote, I'd vote for Cardi B":
White women tossed aside the Wages for
Housework picket signs, entered the workforce, and
hired black and brown women to do domestic labor
for almost nothing. The old American way: animal
white infant suckling a dark nipple, cooing for the
absent referent. A cuckold encased in amber.
[. . .]
Apparently, not shaving is only feminist if you have a
I mean that's chill you identify as an animal
But I often got called a monkey growing up
So forgive me if it seems like I'm humoring you
And I know now to treat white people like pets
The trick is to put a Starbucks in the gulag
The larger poem that contains this stanza amounts to a charge against a colonial and capitalist white feminism. abreu is able to weave a historical analysis of white women's relationship to black and brown gendered labor into a proper mocking. The humor functions to both make a potentially white audience uncomfortable, as the poem ridicules a particular kind of performative white feminism that conceptualizes human liberation without consideration of other social positionalities. The "[a]pparently" calls out a key aspect of this ideology—that one must have a "white pussy" to participate in this exclusionary form of feminism, and therefore a feminist must be a white cis woman. The managers of this brand of feminism do not take race into consideration, as they believe being likened to animals is a liberatory gesture. Upon reading these lines, the in-group audience both shares in the collective disgust at the out-group subject being addressed by the speaker, and also derives pleasure from the last lines articulating a humorous vengeance: "So forgive me if it seems like I'm humoring you." The tables have turned, and now it's their turn to have a laugh at the "animal white." Unfortunately, the laughter fades as the poem comes to a close, and the reader returns to the sad reality in which these racist relations remain very much the same. These poems are living American history.
Resulting from lapses in time and timing throughout the collection, the reader is faced with gaps that leave us uncertain, witnessing memory in all of its absences and presences. In "Untitled (Shame)," abreu writes: "the memory itself is murky / but the whole it leaves / is so crisp it seems ironed." While memory is convoluted and difficult to decipher, historical power dynamics work to construct something purified. Out of the ruins of what has passed, a completeness is assembled that generates political force. The political force generated is not always weaponized towards justice, abreu warns in "Untitled (Argument Structure)," writing that, "nostalgia is violence." Some ways of relating to the past are reactionary and effectuate violence on the most vulnerable subjects. The wholes that are constructed are necessarily based on exclusion. In this political moment, how can one read these words and not recall the provocation, "Make America Great Again"?
From the ruptured language, we cull the timeliness of critique like abreu's. Memory can be a trap. In "Untitled (Agamben)," abreu writes: "memories of false expression / tender spiral including dying season," effectively referring to a cyclical movement of time in which tragedies and injustices repeat themselves. In the untitled poem written for Demian DinéYazhi' and Melissa Bennett, they write, "My side of the island is not real," in reference to the history of the Dominican Republic and its relationship to Haiti. National identity is not natural. Yet, it is powerful enough to erase lived histories and replace them with exclusionary fantasies that become real through the violences of borders and expulsion. In transtrender, the reader is compelled to confront the ways that national memory transforms western subjectivities into pseudo-truths which mobilize essentialized understandings of identity—as well as the ruins that global antiblack nationalist imaginaries leave strewn on the path to hegemony.