Chelate by Jay Besemer
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016; 130 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


Written during and about the poet’s hormone therapy and gender transition, Jay Besemer’s Chelate explores the interzone between self and body, between outsider and insider, and one’s fight against estrangement from oneself. The dictionary defines chelate as “of or noting a compound having a cyclic structure resulting from the formation of one or more hydrogen bonds in the same molecule.” In Besemer’s collection, chelate is also the formation and coexistence of two selves, two genders, and the chemistry between two simultaneous realities that coexist during his transition.

Besemer walks the reader through the landscape of these dueling realities with such grace and aplomb as he grapples with the confusion that comes along with this new identity. He writes, “time for a dream language :” in the collection’s opening poem and proceeds to take the reader into a realm of exquisite linguistic play and lush wordscapes. Imagery such as a “half-submerged raft of starmeat,” “licked like sugar from a stethoscope,” and “a rose in the teeth:” are just some lines that showcase the poet’s excellent craft.

What sets Chelate apart from most contemporary poetry is that although it is confessional, there is an “I”—albeit a lowercase—its structure and composition are unlike most standard confessional poems. These poems are tightly knitted together, in almost paragraph-like formation, with colons separating one line from the next.

Besemer’s use of the colon expertly gels with the contents contained in his poetry. The poems are delightfully disjointed in that each colon asks the reader to pause and consider the thematic dualities contained in the collection. They interrupt the reader and force the them in and out of the line’s natural flow. The colon is “the diamond that sprouts in the spaces between words:” and illuminates all the language that exists before and after the arresting pauses. Besemer’s use of the colon most importantly demands the reader come to terms with the magnitude of each line and the weight of each carefully wrought phrase.

Besemer’s poetry deals with the fallout of the binary structure cracking open and spilling out—with what we are left with when we cannot be so neatly contained or defined. He writes, “when the moisture of our words has saturated the walls: when making & unmaking have become the same action: when the light in out hands has the taste of honey: . . .” Here the reader is enveloped in such warm, inviting language despite such anxious and existential questions that Besemer forces the reader to consider—questions about how it feels for him to teeter between two selves during such an emotionally fraught journey.

As previously mentioned, Besemer’s “attack of glandular wish” is the undercurrent in this collection. The important work of the body, of “the membrane that makes wonder & keeps it safe::” permeates these poems. Jay Besemer admits, “i want nothing but the wings i dropped in a ravine upon my mistaken puberty:.” To belong, to exist in the body and soul that feel natural, warm, and right. This is the crux of the collection—radical self-love and acceptance that seem so painful and elusive. Besemer asks, “how many bodies are we: how many selves: how many worlds::” and the answer is we are imperfectly infinite and inescapably human. We must be seen. We must be loved. We must endure.