by Cass Garison | Contributing Writer
Haptic Verse: In Imaging Vessels
Burnside Review, 2021
I first read Haptic Verse: In Imaging Vessels while in Olympia, Washington, a small, queer, state capital surrounded by mountains and harbors. I was on a weekend trip with a partner, and we had walked down to the marina to look at the water. In the residual shadow of this book, each boat I saw felt like a body with implicitly gendered features. The feminine and masculine attributes of each vessel, instead of being at odds, seemed to function in smooth and complete synchronicity.
“Haptic Verse: In Imaging Vessels” is an expansive and gorgeous chapbook that contends with the body, gender, nomenclature, sailing, language, what it means to be seen, and, of course the haptic. It takes the form of collected poems, which each serve as an “imaging vessel,” comprising in its entirety a tactile and proprioceptive experience. I want to take the time to walk through a few poems in this collection that felt critical to the armature of the collection.
In “Navel Architect (an attempt to utter a pronoun as if it engendered me),” one of my favorites from this collection, the playfulness of the language and punctuation are striking and form the vehicle for a deeply personal undertone. Each line, each stanza, fiddles with language in ways that question the malleability of gendered terms via the use of brackets, demonstrates their unutterableness when it feels manifesting them is impossible. The poem begins:
I imagine me a fa[ ]ther
as fa[r]ther as
a far[ ]her[ ]
held in the umbilical distance
of a bracket-sex:
This poem is concerned with the phenomenon of perspective and perception. Perspective, when it comes to queer bodies, holds an additional gravitas. This comes out especially in the line “a far[ ]her[ ]/ [t]her[e].” It is as though the speaker is trying on multiple modes of being, working into the one that is most accurate and empowering for them. There are, because of the potential for additional letters and the infixity of the language, hundreds of ways to read this poem as there are hundreds of ways to read the body and its intricately gendered features. Gender, to the speaker, is comprised of so many elements of co-existential bodily experience and language. So many moving parts. This poem destabilizes the masculine terms like “father” in favor of feminine alternatives. This poem is a gorgeous hymn to queer liberation within the confines of a neoliberal capitalist society. The brackets in this poem present a parallel world within which one has exceptional control over their body and the external perceptions of its gendered features. I am so pulled by its moments of imagining, imaging. Haines writes, later in this piece, “imag[in]e I am an image in/ your eye.” This continues the theme of perception and plays with repetition that contests the concept of gendered fixity. Haines has constructed, via this poem, a visceral image of the trans body emerging without disregarding the rubble and mess that one must build from.
This focus on image and imaginings are a recurring theme throughout the collection which addresses image both directly and indirectly. One of my favorite poems, imagistically, is “Scaping the Floodplain.” The word scaping, as many other words in this collection, holds many meanings. A scape means “an extensive view, scenery” or “a picture or representation,” coming from the word “landscape.” It is also an archaic variant of the word “escape.” Words are used so thoughtfully and multilaterally in this collection, not just to embody one idea or image, but to hold multiple potentialities simultaneously. This piece feels to be not just a poem, but a song, a shanty, a call of sorts because of its high and melodious lyric. It begins with a series of commands:
Clear the loam of its undue shrubbery
the glaciers made their exit brief,
leveled the crop-plain for seeding.
Strike soil soft as residual tide drift
with the sharp end of a well-crafted song.
This poem presents one of the speaker’s clearest expressions of their body’s interaction with the land: the act of clearing the loam of all its old growth to make way for something new, for something brilliant via the seeding. The old must first be cleared away for the new to take root. This is an argument that can be tracked onto the trans body as well. The body and the land mirror each other in their growth and development, in their ability to be beautifully reset and be born from last year’s “undue shrubbery.” I am so pulled, in this poem, by not just the concept of song but how it is physicalized, what Haines makes clear a song can do. A song has the ability to change, to transform the land as it can transform the body through its recitation. And each time a song like this is sung it is slightly different, slightly reformed.
Another line I am so compelled by in this poem talks of hunger. Haines writes, “The crops careened into brilliance;/ the plain became my hunger’s home.” The topic of hunger, of want, is also one that reappears throughout these poems in different iterations: the hunger for a body that’s authentically recognizable to the world, a desire-like hunger for other bodies’ connection, the hunger to be intimate with the land. These poems are in conversation with the tenets of language itself, its complications and limits as it relates approximately to the body and otherwise. Individual letters are the building blocks for particularly gendered experiences, experiences that Haines is interacting with. Later on in the collection we encounter a poem that is put in direct proximity to the first poem I brought up through its witty titling; it is called “Naval Architect,” as opposed to “Navel Architect.” From this poem:
A father who brokers in a curve’s drag
Knows a hull’s noticed most often for its disturbance
To the water. I am writing by these same scales,
This speaks again, and with increased clarity, of what it means to be in a body, particularly in a body that performs in a way that defies societies expectations in a way that is marked as dangerous, via the clear and beautiful analogy of the vessel of a boat. Familial and ancestral perceptions are hardest to break out of, especially for the trans body that is so loaded with certain expectations. Expectations for a particular future dictated by birth sex, expectations for romance and interactions also dictated by birth sex. Expectations that the trans body must liberate herself, themself, himself from. This takes a sort of thrashing around that cissexual bodies don’t have to encounter, thrashing like a fish trying to release itself from a hook.
This poem deals with the liminal space between what it means to be seen and what it means to see oneself. It deals with the language we construct to designate our own body, to move a body in and out of the gendered expectations that feel right and fitting for us. A theme I am caught on, in this poem, is the focus on language. A line toward the end states that the speaker is “trying to imaging ‘living’ as a transitive verb.” Of course, there is a doubledness to this word transitive. Life must be something, to the speaker, that gives to us as much as we give to it. That builds us as much as we build it. It is not a passive or an active, but falls somewhere delicately in-between.
I admire Haines’ fearlessness to take us where their mind goes, and exactly there. I appreciate the mental denotation of how concepts of the vessel depart from and merge with the physical body, the two entities forming both separation and interconnection. I have seen many of these poems in their earlier forms and feel incredibly lucky to be able to come back to them now, with a renewed perspective given to me by time. This is an energetic, original book that was an absolute pleasure to read. I moved through the book both with ease and curiosity, kept on my toes by the strangeness and pleasure characteristic of the poet’s language and sonic play in this collection.
Cass Garison has an MFA from University of Washington, Seattle. They have work published in Poets.org, Gulf Coast, Booth, Foglifter, Washington Square Review, and others. Find them at CassGarison.com or on Twitter at @CassGarison.
Haines Whitacre is a poet and teacher living in unceded Duwamish land. She holds an MFA from University of Washington and is the author of Haptic Verse: In Imaging Vessels (Burnside Review), Accounts of Wreckage (Winter Texts) and Ali Mapu (Edipos Editorial). Her work has long been nourished by two waterways—the Chesapeake Bay and the Salish sea—and the many musics along their shores.