Stephanie Burt’s newest collection, We Are Mermaids, is a time capsule of girlhood, a transfiguration of silence into song, a mermaid’s scales rearranged into poems. Each section begins with the unspoken—poems titled with blank space between quotation marks, parentheses holding air—but like the rest of the collection, Burt transforms the invisible into the visible. Each of these introductory poems is an ode to trans women at different points in their lives: women coming out later in life, newly-out trans girls, or the potential of children’s curiosity and gender expansiveness. We Are Mermaids fulfills the promise the speaker makes to herself in the poem “;”:
When challenged about my right
to exist by some precocious reader or editor
who makes my deletion into a helpful suggestion,
I once allowed myself to be struck out;
now, however, I will more likely assert
that I have been around for centuries,
long before anyone asked me to explain.
This collection is a vivacious reconnection to the speaker’s girlhood, even as she asks “what it means / to feel like you’ve come of age too late.” Through first jobs, the briny taste of deli pickles, and comic book guides to trans literature, Burt lets us in to the simultaneity of her past, present, and future.
The first section of We Are Mermaids guides us through the speaker’s childhood, tenderly acknowledging her younger self. We move through idyllic childhood pastorals such as “Potomac River, 1982,” in which:
it was all wonderful
the adults were kind
and never neglectful
bringing fresh water and
grapes oranges and juice . . .
you had to hide
to be alone.
The river is surrounded by “goldenrod-bordered / cleared field,” and there is an abundance of fruit, reminiscent of Eden. There is a dramatic irony to the parents trying to anticipate the children’s every need, or what they “might need in the / anticipated future,” knowing that the speaker reminisces about the needs that she is fulfilling now, as an adult, in cultivating her girlhood. And yet, this poem also pushes against the stereotype of trans children and their parents “always knowing”—always able to anticipate one’s future gender, and instead embracing the fluidity and nonbinary approach to life that permeates the collection. Burt builds bridges between childhood and adulthood in this way—the strings between what has changed and what hasn’t. “At the Parkway Deli” the ten-year-old speaker earnestly tells her dad how much she loves “green sour tomatoes that pop . . . half-sours and dills, sliced lengthwise like canoes” while the adult speaker realizes at the beginning of her transition: “How many years / till I found out why trans girls and women crave salt . . . You can know what you need before you know why” as she relishes in the taste of sauerkraut and vinegar. This thematic flavor resurfaces later in the collection at a different deli counter, emphasizing the collection’s circular temporality.
Young adulthood, however, arrives less pastorally in the poems “My 1993” and “My 1994.” So much of Stephanie Burt’s writing has been in conversation with music throughout her career, including her Colorado Prize for Poetry–winning collection, Popular Music (1999). Like the collection published in her twenties, the poems chronicling the speaker’s young adulthood in We Are Mermaids brim with musical references, odes, and prayers. The young-adult speaker, unlike the child, prefers to stay out of sight and keep only the company of disembodied voices singing of “thirsty anomie” and teenage apathy. By 1994, there is an even stronger sense of longing in communion with these bands: “The opposite of nostalgia—a longing to be / Some place I could never call home—with my wish // To become someone new.” The speaker’s relationships, clothing choices, and wishes are tempered through the music that speaks to her desires, and like the childhood poems, the present-day speaker finally looks back on this moment, creating a double vision of the past and future informing one another.
But the past is only one waypoint in We Are Mermaids, as much of the collection is living in the trans present and future. “Prayer for Werewolves” promises the reader a future not only worth living for, but worth embracing, while the sensuality of “Love Poem with Archery” is embodies the present of the bowstring’s tension contrasted with the gentle touch of hands. “Song of Kate the Pirate Queen” is a triumphant persona poem of self-creation and future-fantasy, proclaiming: “Now I’m your bare-knuckle, blades-drawn, power-politics bisexual pirate queen.”
The realm of transformation is wide open in We Are Mermaids, and as the mythical title suggests, Burt does not limit herself to the human experience. Her persona poems range from the perspective of whales spending generations observing the whale watchers to sentient airplanes contemplating the meaning of their industrialized lives at the service of human convenience. The animal, the supernatural, and the mechanical all seem to echo philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s question: “What makes for a grievable life?” That is: Which lives does our society value? Which lives does the heteropatriarchy value? How do our own queer communities and relationships give value to our lives? By positioning charismatic megafauna like whales against the “Sparrows in the Nantick Collection,” Burt makes us question which animals we view as magnificent and worthy of preserving, versus those we label as pests. Burt finds camaraderie alongside these contradictions and chimeras: “My siblings-in-arms include the tractor trailer / platypus, lungfish, merfolk, and seaplane”; her humor is tempered with acknowledging the reality that attempts to erase anything and anyone who resists binary categorization.
The collection begins and ends in a reaffirming mantra: “We Are Mermaids,” as the titular poem returns at the end of the book as, “We Are Mermaids Again.” It is a reiteration that is undeniably transformed and is still in the process of transforming. Mermaids, to Burt, are an allegory for utopia, for challenging binaries, and diving into the continuous, messy joy of self-discovery. There is no place for perfection or omniscience in Burt’s poetry as she reveals to us: “How little we know. How much // Knowing isn’t the point. We love how the letters can touch.”
About the Reviewer
C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s work has appeared in Poetry, Gulf Coast, Cream City Review, Booth, and the Florida Review, among others. Online at www.cewritespoems.com.