September 7, 2018KR Reviews

Synthetic Economies

feeld. Jos Charles. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 2018. 80 pages. $16.00.

The word “synthetic” appears twice in Jos Charles’s debut collection, Safe Space. First, in a scene of early recognition of trans experience, it refers obliquely to hormone replacement therapy—“. . . I would live / on synthetics”—but the poem ends with a warning: “It is confusing that / words trick us” (5, 8). Later, in “Glenn U Bastard,” it is a term of identity: “I am synthetic // I am mercuric.” Charles’s new book, feeld, is synthetic and mercuric in both method and product—searing, hazardous, and artificial to an extreme effect not seen in poetry since James McPherson’s 1760 Ossian cycle, though with no pretext of a lost original. Words trick us indeed: feeld is a hermeneutical workout, error inbuilt in the act of reading at every step, a heady mix of archaic spelling, fragmentary anecdote, and cris de cœur. “[C]all thees copse” (35) could be a directive to name a small grove of trees, or to dial 911. “Linden” could refer to soft timber with heart-shaped leaves, or to slang I don’t know, or to the city in New Jersey. Is “skeine” meant to be “skin” or “skein”? Is “nevre” “never” or “nerve”? Does “hiv” point both to “hive” and HIV? Meaning is relentlessly multiple, and piecing together the resonances of Charles’s artificial orthography leaves the reader both fascinated by and unmoored in the fields of discourse her speakers inhabit.

Pfizer Inc. knows this tactic too, and capitalizes on it: Premarin, the trade name of its synthetic estrogen compound, splices the words pregnant, mare, and urine. Charles notes the origins of the drug—“mye estrogyn / the urin concentrat off pregnynt mares” (11)—and reverses the terms of value: “ / i cant aford not 2 [/] nede / a mare / ” (42).[1] Horses, especially mares, are harbingers and holograms throughout the book, crossing spaces where bodies reveal their functions in a transactional sexual economy. (29) Statements of identity, such as “i am sadeld /   i am a brokn hors” (1) and “ / i am a horsman 2” (43) come up against the recognition that external forces are “marketing mye partes . . .” (29).

feeld is as concerned with capital as it is with gender: “. . . it is horribel [/] off corse to be [/] tangibel / inside kapitel” (9). When embodiment acquiesces to “masckulin economyes” (11)—when, for example, “the cis boyes waring jim shortes & tragick shaydes  . . . [are] speeching off the feemale laybor & skeine” (30)—it has disastrous consequences for the female subject. The “she” of these poems is bound by terms of purchase, debt, and credit: “she is not the greene [/] but its pirchesse  /       a det [/] without credit ” (25). In fragments like these, the book proceeds piecewise to interrogate the nature of “caschyng subjectivitie” (10). “Caschying” suggests cashing in on, caching or storing for future use, and also borrowing: “ u r born [/] boye /             grl / or worker [/] be /   all this bad det  /” (10). The predicament this dynamic poses for the gendered speaker in the landscape, counting her “usurous breasthes” (40), where “breasthes” is both breaths and breasts, is keen: “eviktion is an æstetick act  /  & æffekt bye definision a cruele economicks . . . ” (34).

feeld issues its cryptic and circuitous critique of the Capitalocene by radically queering the pastoral—James Wright’s “A Blessing” detonated inside “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” I hear in the word feeld not only “field” but an alternative past tense of “to feel,” as if, as the linguists say, it were a weak verb not a strong one—a deliberate skewing toward the soft. What the mare feels in the field depends on the impossible question of how to value affective experience both inside and outside the economic field, that is, how to represent felt experience—vulnerability, dread, desire—in terms that are not always already co-opted. (Another trade name for synthetic estrogen, perhaps aimed at the menopause crowd, is Enjuvia—the poets aren’t the only ones stitching syllables for effect.) Situating affect, Charles observes that “ontologicklie  / [/] nayture is sumwere else” (21). The pastoral requires a vantage point, a stable figure in the field, so how can a poet write from the position of both witness and object, figure and ground: “ / & if the hors knew [/] the feeld from its bit  / [/]  wut is or isnt a book” (20)?

Charles takes up these issues, and forestalls any settled meanings, by relentlessly troping the body in the landscape: orifice implies surface, hole implies field. Each poem proceeds metonymically. Wood and forest suggest virility and masculinity, wood in the colloquial erotic sense. Field, pasture, and plain suggest surface, acreage, hole, invagination: “a dreem  /  a grl  /  the feeld is an æffekt yes” (45). Inquiry into “æffekts” (nice to see the revival of the Old English grapheme ash, “æ”) allows moments of beauty and lyricism to erupt:

a tran entres eather lik a mothe  /  wile tran preseeds  /  esense  /  her forme is contingent on the feeld  /  the maner sits cis with inn a feeld  /  wee speeche inn 2 the eather  /  wile the mothe bloomes  /  the mothe bloomes inn the yuca         (24)

In passages like these, feeld explores ontology by working through the symbolic imaginary: “the tran knos  / [/] bieng at the hart off it / ” (38). The inquiry, more than any answer, is what allows the book’s final poem to open with a reinvented lyric viewpoint: “i a woake 1 mornynge  /  2 see the hole whorld off thynges befor me / ” (61).

In the process, the orthographical queering means that the reader is assured only of getting much of it wrong—is it moth or mother, manor or manner, either or ether? feeld’s insistent both/and polysemy is understandably most fraught surrounding gendered labels for identity, and variations on the terms “grl,” “boye,” “husbande,” and “wymon” appear in many contexts. Any dip into the history of the word “hoard” reveals gendered terms to be changeable—mercuric and mercurial. The word “mare” itself, from the Old English mearh, comes from a Germanic base with cognates in Celtic languages that mean “stallion.” The word girl was gender neutral as late as Middle English, a term for a young one of either sex, and the word child, by contrast, often referred specifically to female offspring, as late as Shakespeare.[2]

Nor do you have to dig far in the dictionary to find transphobic terms: John Trotter Brockett’s 1829 Glossary of North Country Words includes “horsegodmother,” “a large masculine wench, not among the purest and gentlest”—the horse here is a figure of gendered disparagement. Language is used to police gendered identity, often to oppress—to insist a person is this but not that—but it does so on the shakiest possible grounds, and Charles’s dive into the lexicon destabilizes any false sense of assurance we might have of linguistic fixity in the present. Her lexicon’s archaic patina— alder, goosepimple, brackish, tether—transposes the discussion of what makes “wymon” women into another key, and blows the field wide open. It is also richly evocative—“pockes in the pewtre agayn” (28)—and textured with a robust Old English vibe: “wrecken with the wringynge” (28).

This poetic reckoning takes two shapes: fragments and unpunctuated independent clauses are divided by slashes, and those pieces are arrayed either in poems with variably indented lines or in justified blocks. The slashes repeatedly enact rupture—“gashe inn that sintacks” (28)—and semiotic discontinuity—“a pleet  [/]  inn wut sintacks” (29). Charles’s procedure recalls the whittling of the lyric landscape we see in the second version of William Carlos Williams’s “The Locust Tree in Flower,” where Williams pares the poem down to the erotics of “come / sweet / May / again.” (“Come,” in feeld, is always “cum,” whether the sexual meaning is ostensibly relevant or not.) Many poems and statements about poems pay lip service to the idea that drawing attention to the linguistic surface invites the participation of the reader, but feeld really makes sure it happens. It foregrounds the process of interpretation, the ongoing dance of estrangement and disorientation and recognition, and highlights the ways acts of reading can themselves be transgressive, errant. A “spor” is both “spore,” a one-celled unit that can give rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, and “spoor,” the tracked evidence of an animal or person. feeld continually throws the reader off the scent.

That scent leads, unabashedly, to the bathroom. Throughout feeld, the “feemale [/] depositrie room” (2), the public restroom, is a critical site where meanings converge and collapse. The pastoral field becomes the political field, site becomes citation:

/  gendre is not the folde but a siteatione  /  see feemale depositrie room  /  see the surgeary banke  /  see the cundishions fore mye speech  /  see what seddles  /  inn the depositrie room  /  wen i passe  /  bieng a tran  /  unfolded  /  bieng buckeled & unfolded inn the room          /  (53)

A citation can give credit, or it can be a punishment for a violation, and here in the bathroom—a site of the policing of marked bodies and also of recent legislative and media hysteria—the signifiers surrounding the trans body become almost radioactively heightened. This poem ends with the monostich “boyes r not alowd in this pome” (54), a line that reclaims—rewrites—an interdiction that was likely thrown hostilely at “the tall  [/]  wymon wasching handes  /” (1) in a ladies room.

Charles’s author’s note to feeld, circulated separately by Milkweed, explains, “I enter a bathroom and am posited as what? . . . . Our scene is a stall, a citation, an admittance to an institution (which itself is the institution). All of our toilets flushing. That is where gender is, not exhaustively, but wholly, totally, where things bloom” (3 – 4). As in Chaucer, as in Shakespeare, language that attests to the vulgar and the scatological, the bawdy and bodily-fluidic, the prurient and pornographic, is language that pushes back against power. Charles’s remarkable discursus points to theoretical touchstones in Gayatri Spivak—“[s]ometimes it is best to sabotage what is inexorably to hand”— as well as Fred Moten, Clarice Lispector, and others. If a reader goes to it for clarification they will be disappointed, but if they go to it for verve—it reads like a character in a Thomas Hardy novel holding forth under duress on Derrida.

Writing the gendered body has always been complicated, and Charles never lets it not be: “hemorage sets the scrypt” (38). One of the most recurrent words in feeld, “hemorage” is actually not Chaucerian—it doesn’t come into English until the late seventeenth century, from the Greek for “blood burst.” The word circulates in feeld as an image of dire wounding, a figure for copious but life-threatening effusion, a reference to surgery, and a signifier of femaleness via menstruation. It also becomes a figure for gender itself: “gendre is not the tran organe  /  gendre is yes a hemorage  . . .  gendre lik all sirface is a feemale depositrie room” (16). It’s not sanguine, not the Latinate blood-root that brings us a word for cheerful, but hemorrhage: “10000 fresh orifase to blede” (30). The image recurs to remind the reader what’s at stake: “. . . / how manie  [/]  holes wuld blede  /  befor  [/]  u believ  /  imma grl” (55).

What’s at stake is survival: “did u kno not a monthe goes bye  /  a tran i kno doesnt dye” (58). feeld never lets the reader forget the imperiled condition of being a marked body. Each line creates friction that prevents easy access to a story that can be readily circulated or commodified. An early poem offers the assurance that “tonite the hemorage pases” (8) though we don’t know when it will return, and it also reminds the reader that “/ bieng a tran is a queery of crisees & r brused handes r manie” (8). feeld is a series of queer queries: where those inquiries will lead in theories of trans poetics takes me out of my lane, though I suspect this book will have an impact both as an example within and generative of that theory. Once in a while the voice is direct—“stop caling me he” (41)—but more often it requires painstaking discernment of complexities, discernment that holds space for the pain that demanded that complexity: “  i care so  /  much abot the whord i cant  /  reed . . .” (33). We can’t read this book in a familiar way, blithely absorbed; the field requires we learn to read anew.


[1]The poems themselves contain slashes / in the original, and are also often lineated. When I quote from a lineated poem, I use [/] to indicate my notation of where a line-break occurs.

[2] McWhorter, John. “Words, For Her” (podcast). Lexicon Valley., February 6, 2018.

BK Fischer
BK Fischer is the author of three books of poetry, Radioapocrypha (Mad Creek, 2018), St. Rage’s Vault (The Word Works, 2013), and Mutiny Gallery (Truman State, 2011), and a critical study, Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry (Routledge, 2006). My Lover’s Discourse, a remix of Roland Barthes, is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions this fall. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Paris Review, Jacket2, Boston Review, FIELD, WSQ, Ninth Letter, Blackbird, Modern Language Studies and elsewhere. She teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University and Taconic Prison in Bedford Hills, New York.