It is tempting to play a certain type of woman. The delicate, dirty woman. The hardened and sweetened woman. The TraumaWoman who employs said trauma for the sake of poetry. I am not a woman. I have no gender. I wish I could claim a title like “nonbinary woman,” which would allow me a language for my pain, albeit one not of my own making. Anything attached to womanhood would perhaps justify the way I write (maybe even make me money) – trauma and womanhood are presently desirable topics, so long as they do not question the authenticity of gender itself.
My womanhood was done to me many times that I wish I could write about as still-a-woman, but wiser. My womanhood was done when I was caught up with a group of kindergarten girls, pretending to be pregnant women as we did at playtime. The fear that settled in the space between my throat and stomach when my classmates pretended to push. My womanhood was done to me at seven years old with a tiny pale pink training bra, one that I did not need but knew I needed to practice for. I put it on and it hurt like a girl is supposed to.
When I got my period, I shouted. I screamed that I would never be a mother and therefore did not need this bloody, oozing reminder of my own body’s capabilities. I was marked; branded by the redbrown stain in my underwear, never entirely washed from its cotton crotch. I was told that one day, as the clichéd refrain goes, I’d fall in love with a man and a maternal instinct would emerge from wherever the blood poured from and I would be okay; I would (re-)normalize.
I learned that, even when certain sorts of bad or edgy woman creators are sometimes allowed to be good-adjacent, to be a GoodWoman is to package trauma in a particular way. In tandem with healing, in tandem with forgiveness, and
packaged in line-
The expectation now is not necessarily to hide one’s traumas but instead to obfuscate them with beauty.
I used to define myself in opposition to womanhood by virtue of my intense gender-dysphoria, the careful detachment between my Self and my sexed and gendered body. By seventeen I learned that this was an exceedingly common experience that I shared not only with non-women, but with people who claimed womanhood, too.
Now that bodypoetics and traumapoetics have exploded in popularity, there rises the expectation that those who create them must also perform acts of forgiveness, healing, recovery. It is not enough to suffer and grieve for the past/passed self. Rather, they must follow a linear course of struggle, change, recovery and peace; reversion to a goodness that they once abandoned and now must get back. Poetry is a lot like a woman because it must be beautiful before it is seen.
I feel myself in this same trap. Both I and others are expected get over trauma and pain and the bad brains. Perhaps then a handful of us will write a cute poetry book about it. It will be mass-produced and widely purchased and some terrible terrible men who have done terrible terrible things will buy it, read it, and feel better because this pain has been muted for their convenience. And it will be held up as the opposite of all of those BadWomen who don’t know how to forgive and forget.
And for those of us who are not women, who cannot and will not be women, who have been forced away from womanhood and/or choose to flee, there is a form of this which is especially insidious. There is the implicit assumption that I will end my gender deviance by age twenty-five; returning to some womanhood, however strange and disorienting it may be. That I will relinquish a body and self to be controlled by those in power once more. That I will be a poetic mouthpiece, espousing the correct way for these bad TraumaGirls to behave. My womanhood might always be deemed counterfeit but that is how it’s supposed to be.
(this is not a poem it
is my truth it is
my confessional it is
pain; i see it is ugly and i will
I am like a woman in that I am frequently touched. At a café the blonde, thirty-year old yogi with the smell of fried eggs and pepper on her breath pumps my shoulder with a blue-veined hand. My disgust scarcely registers in my brain before her laugh distracts me, high-pitched and whiny and accompanied by the nervous click of manicured nails on some hard surface. I had briefly forgotten her name as she rested her hand by my collarbone, right between shirt and bare neck. I wished I had left the shirt in the hamper for days before scrounging it up to wear once more, wished I had let my close-cropped hair extend into the oily tangled nest it once was, wished to be a little girl, sick and contagious, releasing barked coughs at any unsuspecting outsider in my way.
When this happens to me I will myself not to freeze. I will my tender stomach not to tighten when some hands kiss my belt loops and explore my jacket pockets. Sometimes when I am lying in bed, I feel a sudden urge to jump from my body but not from myself. I have the urge to defend the self gracefully against others’ eyes and hands and teeth. When the surgeon’s office photographed me topless, I valiantly attempted to say “no” as I am supposed to. In fact, I said the word several times. I attacked valiantly in protest. My abdomen knew it was being toyed with before it was touched, tucked safely beneath the mens’ button-down, chosen as it was loose enough to conceal the breast mounds and masculine enough to nudge my gender close to a question mark.
I felt an exquisite proximity to womanhood when I laid back; when hovering white coats made me a sack of meat. They grasped my breasts. Measured. Gave me a raking, shameless once-over that I otherwise may only have experienced had I traded my baggy jeans for suitably-fitting ones; traded my oversized flannel for one two sizes smaller. Womanhood is having a body— a body that stares you in the eye with its bizarre reflection of scattered pamphlets and silicone implants and the photograph of a brunette whose hairless, toned legs fell beneath a silken dress, whose breasts had been graphically sculpted to perfect her silhouette, whose bizarre, open-mouthed expression called erotically to some other aspiration-struck young woman caught between desires, confused with fleshy softness so close to the touch, flushed with a familiar want and denial.
When you ask me about where not to touch I am breathless with gratitude. Gay women and a handful of other non-men are still the only ones I can laugh with, the ones who sat naked in their own bodyhate as I sat in mine, both of us saying wordlessly I know. I know. What a predicament. How strange. Just go with it. Do this but ignore the body. I suspected the nurse that prepared me for my mastectomy to be a butch. She was handsome, dignified; fat with a silver-grey crew-cut, tender and strong. Her voice was a smooth, dark coffee. I fell into an anesthetized slumber with her and her husband on my mind.
She paused openly to consider me and my girlish name; perhaps thinking back to the other clients she has had with weird genders but perhaps named themselves after planets, natural phenomena, biblical men, and the like. There was no heartfelt truth-spilling on my end, no sweet and jellylike confession to slip through the cracks between my clenched teeth, no cry-spoken words, I’m the same person I’ve always been! No desperate assertions that I am real, no kneeling, no begging for respect, no fear of upsetting outsiders by bringing up my strangeness. Just that rare and delicious pause of consideration.
I have something in common with women in that I am a taboo. I am to be spoken of in terms I don’t understand, given names in other languages, stared at in curiosity or terror and never spoken of aloud.
I, Sarah, trailed to the M/F restroom by a nurse who took the bloody fluid drains from my sore chest a week after my mastectomy. She asked brightly, “So, do you have another name in mind?” I was then a woman of sorts, shrugging off identity for the sake of survival and convenience. My reply: “Yes, but it’s a surprise.” The surprise I avert so frequently by introducing myself not by my five-letter name, but instead with a hurried phrase, sarahtheythem. Sarah, they who survived girlhood by the skin of their teeth and forsook a womanhood alien to them. Sarah has a name that speaks one language and a face, chest, voice, demeanor which speaks another entirely.
sarah is an ancient
idea, an ascension a
distinction. princess I am
called to give up
when god is heavy
I want to open up the life I can hide behind esoteric phrasing. I want to shut up about trauma dysphoria embodiment. I want to close my book of subpar poems because they are profitable, not good. Women and I know what it is to be a black hole of emotion, the space in which an apparently-masculine rational sense goes to die. Marked bodies are easily targeted when their marks are not spoken aloud. When the transgender person praying to the scalpel for salvation and the breast cancer survivor for whom the prosthetic breast is a shield sit beside each other in a pool of silence and shame, it seems mutual understanding is a foregone conclusion. It is not.
I feel I am kin with the women who lack breasts, who assert their authenticity only to be derided. I am kin to the disobedient woman precisely because I am not a woman, because no one is correctly a woman, because everyone fears being a woman, because the woman striving to be a paragon will die by a thousand dull cuts. The TraumaWoman is loved because she toys with the subversiveness of feeling while still embodying that which men revile. The one who sells the hurt she believes is her own invention; the one who sells her own demise because this is my way out.
There is no way out. There is no way in. There is clumsily aping womanhood and for some there is a wholesale or partial rejection of it. I quit womanhood before remembering there were bills to pay. I am too far gone to be rehirable, I never wanted that disgusting job anyway, I never wanted to labor toward nothingness and be told of my own inherent uselessness.
I graze my own chest to claim what has left it, pinching my nipples until the pain is familiar, shrug away from veiny hands and pray for frank and unpitiful writing. When I’m done I mark my back with testosterone gel until it dries and sores, I think about a fantastical story, I rub lotion in circles round my dry, flaky chest. This will not be poetry you can rip from me like a second skin. They’re gone. No milk in there for you. Nothing to lap up. No sadness, neither creamy nor sweet.