Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Author: So Many Cats

Family, Race, and the Monolith in Cereus Blooms at Night

“Pohpoh cupped here ears and aimed them at the house. She heard nothing. She imagined bedrooms with a happy family, a fairy-tale family in which the father was a benevolent king. There would be a fairy queen for a mother, and enough little cherub siblings to fill a very large shoe or pumpkin carriage, their fat, pink faces smiling even as they slept” (156).

 

In the above passage, Pohpoh’s imagination reveals not only what she associates with happiness, but also what she desires herself (the latter can be gathered from the idealized, almost envious tone of her fantasy): a nuclear family, one that fits the monolith in structure with a male head of household, a loving mother, and multiple siblings. This desire to fit the monolith underscores the suffering that Pohpoh has faced because of her unconventional family structure. Without a mother to protect her, her father has been able to viciously abuse her. (It is worth noting that Sara would not be needed as a protective figure in the first place if Chandin were the “benevolent” figure of both the monolith and Pohpoh’s fantasy.)(In other words, Chandin may be a very human kind of terrible, but he is still terrible.)

Changing directions a bit, it is also significant that the children in Pohpoh’s fantasy are “pink” in the face. Pink faces suggest whiteness, which in turn suggests that Pohpoh associates happiness and normalcy with whiteness instead of with other people of color. This relates back to Chandin’s own attempts to escape his racial identity and be as much like the white missionaries he encounters as possible. Although Pohpoh doesn’t go as far as Chandin, she seems to associate both whiteness and conventional family structures with the happiness that she lacks. In fact, one can argue that whiteness is as much a part of the monolith as heterosexuality given the fact that being white is often treated as a standard from which all other races deviate. Thus, the racial aspect of Pohpoh’s fantasy family is not separate from but related to the actual structure of that family, forming another way in which the family that Pohpoh associates with happiness (and safety) embodies the monolith.

Finally, it is understandable that Pohpoh would desire a life that is shaped around the monolith, as living differently from the monolith has only brought her suffering; however, we know from her interactions with Tyler that she does not view the monolith as a restrictive force, for she accepts people who live outside its confines. Thus, it is a structure that she desires for her life, but not the only way to structure a life that she will accept.

Carson, Stesichoros, and Tradition

“He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet,” (3) Anne Carson writes of Autobiography of Red’s supposed author, Stesichoros. In fact, what Carson’s book does innovatively is occupy that middle ground between tradition (Homer) and exploding tradition (Stein). Carson goes on to write of the Homeric epic, “being is stable and particularity is set fast in tradition.” Indeed, at least in Tender Buttons, tradition is what Stein sets out to wreck. Words are repeated until they have lost their meaning, the exact opposite of the stable being and set tradition established by Homer, whose “epithets are a fixed diction with which [he] fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute” (4). Carson describes this tradition as “the still surface” of a “code” (5), suggesting that Homeric tradition assigned words and objects specific connotative meanings (those same meanings that Stein set out to break in Tender Buttons).

Autobiography of Red differentiates itself from the styles of both of these poets, using synesthetic moments and anachronistic settings (combining the world of ancient Greek myth with modernity) to create a piece of writing that simultaneously draws from tradition and challenges tradition. Carson writes, “Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up” (5), suggesting that, with the advent of “Stesichoros’s” style, suddenly words were free to take on new connotations. At the same time, Carson’s work does not obliterate tradition in the method of Stein. Instead, it draws from tradition in order to make something new, shifting what was already there.

On Lisa Dordal’s “The Living Room”

“then down the narrow hallway / to the back of the house, past / the empty rooms of siblings long moved on.”

 

In this quote, the “empty rooms of siblings long moved on” refers most obviously to the now scattered state of the speaker’s family, her (most likely older) siblings having grown up and moved out of their father’s house; however, there is a darker implication in this line. Those empty rooms could also be taken to symbolize the empty space left behind by dead LGBTQ+ people who, unlike the speaker, succeeded in taking their own lives. This can be supported by the use of the word “siblings,” which indicates that the people in question are innately like the speaker, who we know is a lesbian from reading other poems in Mosaic of the Dark. The existence of this symbolism doesn’t mean that the speaker hasn’t passed by her grown siblings’ old rooms on the way to her own room; however, it does add a second layer of significance to that passing. Meanwhile, the line break in the second to last quoted line emphasizes the word “past,” which in turn emphasizes the people who preceded the speaker (both her literal siblings and the figurative siblings who died). There is a tension between these two groups, as one group is absent because they grew up and the other because they will never grow up. Furthermore, the emphasis on the word “past” is significant because the speaker, in this moment, likely believes that she only has a past. She is, after all, attempting to give up her future.

 

In Tendencies, Eve Sedgwick references some horrifying statistics about LGBTQ+ youth suicide. That reality—that even today, LGB youth are three times more likely than straight youth to attempt suicide, and four times more likely to make medically serious attempts (see this) (A note: we don’t even know that much about the statistics concerning transgender youth, but one study found that 41% of transgender and gender nonconforming adults had attempted suicide in their lifetimes)—forms the context of this poem. That reality is also why poems like this are important. This moment in the poem focuses on the past, on the “siblings” who came and left, yet there is an implied future for the speaker as she imagines her father’s careless words, “Asprin? he’d say. / Asprin can’t kill you.” While what this reveals about the relationship between the speaker and her father is its own tragedy, there is some relief in knowing that the speaker herself lives on. She does indeed have a future, a future from which she recounts this experience (the poem is in the past tense). Though there is value in remembering the past, including those who have passed, this poem does more than linger on the tragic history of LGBTQ+ suicide. It also suggests that the future exists, that at least some LGBTQ+ youth survive to adulthood, that LGBTQ+ stories are, as we discussed in class, “survival stories.”

“She smells of the sea”: Sexuality and the Senses

“She smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.” (73)

The connection to the ocean is significant. Sexuality as fluid. Sexuality as connection—that is, as taste and smell over sight. There is no separation by viewing, no watcher and watched to create an object out of a person. Taste and smell are visceral and they bring the narrator and Louise together. There is no distance between partners.

This happens in conjunction with the curious language of exploration, i.e. “rockpools when I was a child” and “to run my fingers around the rim.” Here, in this passage, the narrator comes to know Louise’s body. He or she explores through sex, and there is a certain child-like quality to this, this tendency towards play and taste and smell.

What I’m really trying to say here is that maybe people grow out of equal connection. Maybe the tendency to produce a viewer and a viewed object during sex is a learned one. Maybe we grow into this distance as we learn to prioritize one sense over the others. This passage connects taste and smell and touch to a time of innocence, of ignorance. Not willful ignorance, but the kind of ignorance that can and must be remedied through exploration.

The narrator is exploring and thereby learning about Louise’s body in this passage, and through this, he or she comes to know Louise.

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