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Double Trouble: On Queering Form

A Chapbook by Sarah Berg

Table of Contents Introduction ….....................................................................................................................4 THE TRUTH! (after Woolf).................................................................................................5 how can it not know what it is (after Scott) ........................................................................7 They Will Never See Each Other Again (after Kushner, Shakespeare, Pullman)...............9 From Achilles to Patroclus (after Miller) .........................................................................11 Fragment (after Sappho, Mendelsohn)..............................................................................13 Analysis..............................................................................................................................14 Bibliography......................................................................................................................18


Introduction The aim of this chapbook is to explore, in poetry, methods of queering form as employed by the chosen texts. I also chose to focus on the theme of doubling in these methods. The primary texts referenced from ENG 237 are: Orlando, by Virginia Woolf Angels in America, by Tony Kushner Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, and selected poetry from Sappho. I also chose to reference other primary texts, which include: Blade Runner (2004), directed by Ridley Scott The His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman, and The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, which all do their own specific work to queer specific forms. All texts will be discussed individually, in reference to how I engaged with them and their themes in each piece of poetry, in the analysis that closes out this chapbook. Also, many of the poems will engage with my personal experience, which also may be explained at the end. Each poem will be paired with a quote, or quotes, from referenced texts on the opposite page to direct focus.


“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.” - Virginia Woolf, Orlando


THE TRUTH! Or, a sudden revelation (and its accompanying flimsy sense of bravado) rushing, it arrives and flings itself upon the bed languid and already tired of its own self. It announces then: “A thousand pities for the woman who must be both a noun and verb. Who must live for much longer than his loves and lovers will, dragging along the tip of a pen for centuries, hung up on wanting another and an other, of course all he can do is dance her way through this damned limbo.�


“I don't get it Tyrell, how can it not know what it is?" - Rick Deckard, in Blade Runner


how can it not know what it is like someone spliced a real one with a soft fiction, that’s me getting body-searched for seams like listen I really can see it now, drawing aside the curtains of your two eyes and beckoning. I knew it, that there was some citrus slip splitting your milk. see here, and here, I thought you would be smooth but my finger just trips on the stitching that joins you, do you like that I can see it, in your mouth, through the words it keeps saying, words like queer, and quiet and this mouth of mine tastes girl spit and something fermented, opens, says tell me.


“But Balthamos couldn't tell; he only knew that half his heart had been extinguished.” - Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

“Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain't there. Roy Cohn: And Heaven? Belize: That was Heaven, Roy - Tony Kushner, Angels in America


They Will Never See Each Other Again HALF ONE Have you heard? The angel’s in America tonight and his boyfriend’s in another America somewhere else, a warmer country you have never felt. HALF TWO Warm enough to make a home? HALF ONE Yes, and for the both of them. HALF TWO Then the one in other-America, is he waiting? HALF ONE Yes. That’s all he does these days, it seems. Wait around at home. exit HALF ONE, quietly HALF TWO Hey – wait.


“Name one hero who was happy." I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason's children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus' back. "You can't." He was sitting up now, leaning forward. "I can't." "I know. They never let you be famous AND happy." He lifted an eyebrow. "I'll tell you a secret." "Tell me." I loved it when he was like this. "I'm going to be the first." He took my palm and held it to his. "Swear it." "Why me?" "Because you're the reason. Swear it." "I swear it," I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes. "I swear it," he echoed. We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned. "I feel like I could eat the world raw.� - Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles


From Achilles to Patroclus This and this and this� Words like drops of nectar mixingat long last, a burst of satisfying heatwith the grime between our rough hands and our rougher lips. Needlepoint words, drawing blood kindly, as if they were your hands on a wounded man, as if they were your teeth in my shoulder. Our love embroiders this tent heavy to breaking. Torn and the purple fades from our brows. The sun breaks like a yolk, spilling over sizzling blades underneath. You and you and you. My heartbeat, the war behind my eyes, you, each echo of the ghostly hammer on our armour, each pounding footfall in the fray, you. I hadn’t known that you held me up until I fell from your great height. And this world fell with me.


“Shivering with sweat, cold Tremors over the skin, I turn the color of dead grass, And I'm an inch from dying.� - Sappho, fragment



The common theme of most ancient responses to Sappho’s work is rapturous admiration for her exquisite style or for her searing content, or both. An anecdote from a later classical author about the Athenian legislator Solon, a contemporary of Sappho’s and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, is typical: Solon of Athens, son of Execestides, after hearing his nephew singing a song of Sappho’s over the wine, liked the song so much that he told the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why he was so eager, he replied, “so that I may learn it and then die.” Plato, whose attitude toward literature was, to say the least, vexed—he thought most poetry had no place in the ideal state—is said to have called her the “Tenth Muse.” The scholars at the Library of Alexandria enshrined her in their canon of nine lyric geniuses—the only woman to be included. At least two towns on Lesbos vied for the distinction of being her birthplace; Aristotle reports that she “was honored although she was a woman.” All this buzz is both titillating and frustrating, stoking our appetite for a body of work that we’re unable to read, much less assess critically: imagine what the name Homer would mean to Western civilization if all we had of the Iliad and the Odyssey was their reputations and, say, ninety lines of each poem. The Greeks, in fact, seem to have thought of Sappho as the female counterpart of Homer: he was known as “the Poet,” and they referred to her as “the Poetess.” Many scholars now see her poetry as an attempt to appropriate and “feminize” the diction and subject matter of heroic epic. (For instance, the appeal to Aphrodite to be her “comrade in arms”—in love.) The good news is that the surviving fragments of Sappho bear out the ancient verdict. One fine example is her best-known verse, known to classicists as Fragment 31, which consists of four sapphic stanzas. (They appear below in my own translation.) These were singled out by the author of a first-century-A.D. literary treatise called “On the Sublime” for the way in which they “select and juxtapose the most striking, intense symptoms of erotic passion.” Here the speaker expresses her envy of the men who, presumably in the course of certain kinds of social occasions, have a chance to talk to the girl she yearns for:


Analysis For every poem, I wanted to choose a specific form, something that was relevant to the original text. For Orlando I chose a double acrostic – a form that I admit, can be considered juvenile, but is complicated by the constraint on either end of the line. The first letter of each line, read forwards, reads “Orlando,” while the last letter of each line, read backwards, reads the same. It is within these constraints that I decided to focus on the notion of binaries in the text, as Woolf portrays an Orlando who is first a man, and then a woman, but also, at many moments, both. Woolf uses a lot of satire in the text, and the effect is clear – she is often pointing out the idiosyncrasies in differentiating gender and gender expression. One such example of this in the text is on pages 138 and 139, where she writes: “If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes... The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had the both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same too.” So, these themes of questioning the binary arose in the poem. The second poem does not originate from any of the texts that we read in this class, but from another class that I took this semester (Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Studies). In watching Blade Runner in this class, I was reminded of our discussions on compulsory heterosexuality. The character of Rachael is forced into a heterosexual plotline due to a perceived ignorance of any other possibility for a female


character to be useful to a plot, besides by being a love interest or a subject of violence (in Rachael’s case, both). Not only must she perform this, but she also must perform compulsory whiteness (especially argued by Tzarina Prater and Catherine Fung in“‘How Does It Not Know What It Is?’: TheTechno-Orientalized Body in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies”), and by extension of both of these things, compulsory humanity. What the “compulsory” refers to here is that any deviances from the norms that are expected to be performed are punished. I personally related to this character especially in the ways that I am “nearly normal.” I am “nearly” white, I am “nearly” straight, but as much as society would like me to be, am implicitly banned from these spaces. The poem, then, is written mostly in direct address towards a persona who is mostly myself. This direct voice is an exercise in making explicit the threats I feel against my personhood due to these doubling identities. The third poem makes use of three different texts – from this class, the plays Angels in America, and Twelfth Night, which is why I wanted to make this poem in the form of a dialogue. These plays also are heavily based on the idea of doubling. In Shakespeare, characters masquerade as their differently gendered halves, and in Kushner, actors are explicitly doubled in differently gendered roles. To supplement the queer themes in both texts, I referred to Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, which is the third installment of his His Dark Materials trilogy. This book, which is classified as children’s literature, features a pair of male angels, from Heaven, who are lovers and spiritual soul mates. By combining these three texts, I fell on the subject of an ideal realm versus the real realm. In Angels in America, the origin of the angels is otherworldly at least. In Twelfth Night, miscommunication reigns supreme under the constraints of social


norms (in terms of gender pairing, expression, and attraction.) In The Amber Spyglass, the angels, named Balthamos and Baruch, are literally participating in a revolt against Heaven, which is portrayed as an alternate universe to Earth, and travel through several of these other universes in their escape. In my attempt to combine these themes, I decided to portray the voices of the poems simply as each other’s halves, and separate them in their dialogue and physically, in the stage direction. The intent behind this action was to actualize the immense distance that is felt by queer people who must exist in the only sphere of reality that is available to them, and the effect of the kind of loss that stems from this. When I decided to take upon this project, I thought back on my own writing, as well as queer texts that have influenced me as a writer. I recalled Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which retells the Iliad from Patroclus’ point of view and (very) explicitly positions him as Achilles’ lover. This was a very formative text for me as a young reader, and I revisited and completely rewrote a poem I had written about it many years ago. This poem follows similar themes that appear in the other pieces in this chapbook by taking the voice of the other member of the pair. It also occurs at the time that Patroclus is killed in both the novel and the epic, and therefore references loss. I mentioned loss in explaining the last poem, and would like to make the argument that the topic of loss itself is queered in these texts. Loss is significant, not always, but often, to the queer experience – through the loss of family, friends, partners, and overall, belonging, Lastly, I created loss itself in my poem after Sappho. For this work, I appropriated Daniel Mendelsohn’s work “How Gay Was Sappho” from the New Yorker, which we


read in class, and created an erasure to mimic the loss of most of Sappho’s body of work that we have experienced. I picked a page that discusses themes relevant to Sappho – such as her devotion to love and women – to mimic her subject matter. The erasure stands to represent what is not seen but has always existed. In conclusion, the selected texts and the poetic exercises I performed in response to them illustrated themes of doubling and of loss in works that participate in queering forms and/or are subject to queer readings.


Works Cited Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. Theatre Communications Group, 1996. Mendelsohn, Daniel. “How Gay Was Sappho?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 13 Nov. 2017, Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2017 Prater, Tzarina T., and Catherine Fung. “‘How Does It Not Know What It Is?’: The Techno-Orientalized Body in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies.” Pullman, Philip, and Chris Wormell. Amber Spyglass. Scholastic, 2017. Scott, Ridley, director. Blade Runner. Original release, Warner Bros., 1982 Shakespeare, William. Shakespeares Comedy of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will. Forgotten Books, 2015. Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Penguin Books, 2016.



"Double Trouble: On Queering Form:" a chapbook. ENG 237 Final Berg  
"Double Trouble: On Queering Form:" a chapbook. ENG 237 Final Berg