Stinson’s “Belly Songs” and examining a self-deprecating stream of consciousness

While the title of this post suggests an exploration of a “self-deprecating stream of consciousness,” the poem I wanted to discuss isn’t necessarily an example of that. “Pretty Fat,” one of the poems I came across within Stinson’s collection of poems, is unique in that it reads like a stream of consciousness with an incessant repetition of words like “so fat,” “ass” and “lard.” The reason that I say this isn’t really self-deprecating is because Stinson is trying to reclaim these words, as we can see at the end where she calls it “gracious flab/gracious bone.” I find the poem quite interesting, and wanted to talk about how it both validates as well as counters the self-deprecating narratives we build for ourselves in our heads.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety/depression, I’m no stranger to relentless streams of negative thoughts like Stinson portrays here. At it’s core, it comes from a lack of self-worth that, in the case of this poem, would appear to stem from an internalized hatred of your own body. Personally, I’ve never had issues with body dysmorphia, but there are many who are transgender or perhaps even suffer from anorexia/bulimia who have those kinds of thoughts daily, and could likely see themselves in this poem. That being said, I feel I can relate to the relentless stream of internal negativity that comes with that kind of conflict since I’ve dealt with that to some degree in my experience with mental illness. This is exactly why I think the resolution to the poem’s central conundrum is so satisfying.

To counteract the negative thoughts, Stinson’s poem re-frames the meaning of these words. She suggests we think of “so fat so fat” not as a negative reminder of something society sees as a deficiency, but as “gracious flab.” It’s a matter of re-framing a “deficiency” into something that you can love and accept about yourself. The reason I like this resolution so much is that it is exactly the same tactic I learned from my therapist to deal with my anxiety disorder. Often times, my relentless stream of internal negativity can become overwhelming and my anxieties come to the forefront in a way that makes their prevalence unavoidable. Re-framing my anxieties is the best way forward because these thoughts can sometimes seem so unavoidable. I think being able to see your own self-perceived flaws as something you can come to love and accept in yourself is a very good message for Stinson to impart upon her readers, which is why I found this poem so personally interesting.

The AIDS Crisis through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic

In the Allison Bechdel comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, I found Mo’s level of concern about the AIDS epidemic to be immediately recognizable. Even as recent as a couple years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to emphasize as much with Mo as I feel I can now.

The first set of chapters, “Risky Business” portrays a debate that has become all too common as the pandemic has worsened. In comparison to Lois, who is acting more freely based on her rationalization that she is “low risk” and doesn’t need to worry about it, Mo is quite paranoid about the AIDS epidemic, even telling Lois she should “stop having sex.” For all of us who have experienced a pandemic, a similar debate comes up. When are we being too cavalier? When are we being too paranoid? In such an uncertain situation, especially when we knew very little about how COVID-19 was spread, it was understandable that people didn’t really know what to do. It’s quite interesting to me to see a very similar debate come up within the context of the AIDS epidemic, and I think that points to the awful government response and rampant misinformation throughout both crises.

One of the later chapters, “Modern Love,” does an excellent job at addressing that sense of anxiety even further. Even with the explanation Ginger gave both Lois and Mo about the AIDS epidemic, Mo is still concerned about getting physical with Harriet. However, Harriet mentions that while Mo is right to be concerned, that she should relax a bit. It’s impossible to track all previous activities that may have exposed you to the virus, but Harriet rightly says that there are plenty of low risk ways to show affection for one another, like kissing, if they don’t both feel comfortable about getting more intimate (which they eventually do anyway). I think this exchange takes on a lot of prevalence in the context of the recent pandemic as well. I, for one, was a lot like Mo in that I hardly left my house for a year when the pandemic hit, and the few times I did I was much too paranoid about every interaction, even though I was wearing a mask and being safe.

Due to some of these parallels, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that some of the narratives and controversies of the COVID-19 pandemic gave some people from the LGBT community who experienced the height of the AIDS crisis a bit of deja vu. The severity of the disease and anxiety around social interaction brings up similar issues in both cases. Even with COVID-19, there were some groups that were “high risk” and some that were “low risk,” just like we saw with the AIDS epidemic. As a result of these parallels, I think it’s clear that as a society we need to make more of an effort to learn from and prepare for these health crises, so that we are better equipped to fight whatever the next one is.

Significance of Depiction

In the final two chapters of Eli Clare’s, Exile and Pride, he examines depictions of disability and gender intertwined with expressions of sexuality. It’s quite impressive how Clare is able to weave each of these topics together in all their complexities. In the chapter “reading across the grain” he discusses how disabled people are often treated as “asexual undesirables,” (Clare 130) and advocates for normalizing disabled sexuality to the point that disabled people can see themselves as sensual rather than “broken, neglected, medicalized objects of pity,” (Clare 137)

This point brings up a potentially difficult question to answer, which is this: is Eli Clare giving too much power to society’s depiction of disabled people? Should it matter to disabled people what able-bodied people have to say about disability? My answer to these questions, and likely Clare’s answer as well, is that because disabled people are so often pitied and treated as lesser than, depictions that break that common, discriminatory mold are often seen as triumphant. It speaks to Clare’s definition of the word “disability” from earlier in the book, which characterized disability as society’s failure to accept/accommodate for different identities and/or impairments.

These points about the significance of depiction are brought home in Clare’s final chapter, “stones in my pockets, stones in my heart.” The moment in this chapter that stood out most to me was the story Eli Clare tells on pg. 146. Clare recounts a time when he had an artist draw a picture of him, and goes on to talk about how that depiction was significant. During that time, Clare was still often read as a girl, both by his parents and by most people around him. However, Clare’s mother tells him about an experience she had when running into the artist later. When she tried to thank the artist (Betsy Hammond) for the portrait she had drawn for her eldest daughter at the carnival, she was confused and asked “Didn’t I draw your son?” After hearing this story from his mother, the portrait gained a new significance for someone trying to come to terms with their gender identity, and Clare completes the story by reminiscing about how she, “looked again and again at the portrait, thinking, ‘Right here, right now, I am a boy.” (Clare 146)

The story Clare tells here brings up a very important point about the depiction of different genders, disabilities, and sexualities. The portrait is significant to Clare because the artist saw her the same way he saw himself: as a boy. The joy he feels when he looks at the portrait does not come from solely the depiction itself, but from the validation of identity that comes with it.

Connecting Stryker’s “Transgender History” to “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” by Judy Grahn

Within the collection of poetry of “The Work of a Common Woman” by Judy Grahn, “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” really stands out to me as a unique poem. Written more like prose, the poem is a satirical story which points out the ridiculousness of the medical community’s treatment of transgender people, and LGBT people more generally. There was a lot of overlap between this story’s themes and Susan Stryker’s second chapter of “Transgender History,” in which Stryker talks about some of the prejudices LGBT people face in getting the medical treatment they need. Because these two pieces of writing are in such strong conversation with one another, I thought it would be worth examining how they compliment each other, in order to understand why Grahn’s poem is so effective in shedding light on some of the unfortunate realities that Stryker points out in “Transgender History.”

As Stryker notes in the section “The Social Power of Medicine,” the advancement of surgery so that it was not a death sentence was very significant to transgender people who felt compelled to physically change their bodies to better reflect their identities. However, in the middle decades of the 19th century, there was really no concept of these “elective surgeries” as we may call them today. As such, surgeries at this time required a pre-requisite of “sickness.” This created a dilemma among transgender people, where they had an opportunity to receive the operation they needed, but in order to do so needed to accept the medical (and societal) diagnosis that transgender people were “mentally ill” in order to receive treatment, a diagnosis that was absolutely false.

Though the later research of Ulrich, Kertbeny, and Hirschfield have contributed to a better understanding of the biological realities of transgender people, many of the prejudices and generalizations still remain. The prejudiced psychoanalysis of Edward by the doctor within the story is meant to represent a long-standing trend for not just transgender/LGBT people, but other minorities as well. The poem is characterized by the doctor’s shortness and quick generalization of Edward without listening to the whole story, treating her more as a case study than as a person. His diagnoses are not painted by his evaluation of Edward, but by his views of LGBT people based on long standing stereotypes, like when he assumes that Edward has multiple lovers, that she has penis envy, and that she exhibits the Freudian idea that she wants “to kill her mother.”

The fact that these attitudes could still be held by medical/psychiatric professionals when Grahn wrote her poetry collection in the 1960’s and 1970’s, well after the origins of widespread transgender medical prejudices that seemingly began in the middle of the 19th century or perhaps even earlier, shows just how deeply systemic discrimination can impact minority livelihoods. Though her poem is obviously slightly exaggerated for satirical effect, what Grahn is trying to get at is just how much these prejudices can persist in a community even after they’ve been disproven, and how harmful these prejudices can be towards LGBT people who are trying to discover their unique identities. This is brought home by Edward’s declaration towards the end of the poem about herself that she is “vile,” because whenever she turns to someone like the doctor in the poem for help, they tell her she’s suffering from a “deadly affliction” and that she’s “sick.” Taken within the context of the LGBT history Stryker examines, Grahn is shedding a light on the systemic issues that have persisted over time for LGBT people that need to be rectified.

Gender Identity in “Diving into the Wreck”

“Diving Into The Wreck,” a poem penned by Adrienne Rich, seems in my view to be grappling with the complexity of identity; and more specifically gender identity. It’s an exploration of self that culminates in the speaker’s discovery of a mermaid following a journey through the wreckage of a traumatized mind. While the truth of the speaker’s identity lies somewhere beneath this wreckage, but the speaker doesn’t even know where to start, or even what they are looking for until they find it.

Diving into the wreck, in this case, is really meant to mean that the speaker is diving through the wreckage of their own mind in order to look for self-actualization and validation. It is an entirely introspective journey, as evidenced by these lines from the third stanza, which say, “and there is no one/to tell me when the ocean/will begin” (Rich, lines 31-33). It’s a journey of self-exploration, with the vast ocean serving as the mind and the various wreckage serving as the trauma and self-doubt that stands in the way of self-discovery. The journey is made that much more significant by the fact that it is a journey only the speaker themselves can take.

Because the speaker’s assigned gender and general appearance are each left ambiguous, the reader has no idea how similar or different their inner persona (“the mermaid”) is from their outward persona (“the speaker”). However, because it is buried in this deep wreckage, it is clear that this mermaid was being hidden for a long time, as evidenced by the mermaid’s description as a worn-down figure, “whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes/whose breasts still bear the stress/whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies/obscurely inside barrels/half-wedged and left to rot” (Rich, lines 78-82). Because of the discrimination that transgender people face, and the lack of acceptance they often receive for their identities, it’s not a stretch to presume that perhaps the speaker, subjectively or perhaps even intentionally, buried the mermaid deep within the subconscious and away from the hurt and trauma that wounded them in an attempt to protect themselves, even though they knew it would make them unhappy. In that context it is easy to understand the lines, “I am she: I am he” (Rich, line 77) and “We are, I am, you are” (Rich, line 87) as ruminations on the speaker’s gender identity.

Furthermore, the final stanza of the poem can be understood as the speaker and the mermaid finally taking action to resolve the dissonance they feel despite being one and the same. When the speaker concludes the poem by saying “We are, I am, you are/by cowardice or courage/the one who find our way/back to this scene/carrying a knife, a camera/a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.” (Rich, lines 87-94) it is clear that a change is imminent. To anyone familiar with the concept of dead names, the lines “a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.” stands out in particular. For someone in the transgender community, a change in name to better suit their inner self is a way to cast aside the artificial identity they had constructed before and finally be themselves. As such, this line signifies that the speaker can ignore this “mermaid” no longer, and at long last they are finally going to become one, as they were always meant to be, and will face all the good and the bad that will come along with it in hopes of living as a more genuine self.