Dear Herculine by Aaron Apps
Ahsahta Press, 2015; 104 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


What is a body, and what does it mean exactly for one to inhabit a body one has been assigned, especially one that doesn’t “fit” or cooperate with society’s notion of how a gendered/sexed body should? Aaron Apps’s Dear Herculine, a hybrid of memoir and epistolary writings to 19th-century French intersexual Herculine Barbin, explores the mess of body, the mess of sex, and the mess of the “I.” This collection deals with the slippage of body, and the slippage of the language we use to describe it. Not only the slippage and meat and guts of the physical body, but the searing shame surrounding the corporeal. Shame makes all the warm sounds, is a line I myself wrote a few years back, and I feel that hotness rising from every word of this text. Apps writes that his body is “full of a deep animal shame”—that he is a “creature-thing” hiding under his layers of clothing, merely “helpless prey” when all those layers are stripped away. The body itself is a “shame structure” and that we find the glimmer of love “within the auspices of shame, shame that is a shared structure in all architecture.” Apps gives glimpses into his own intersexual journey, chronicling his rounds of testosterone injections as a young child and teen, “the feeling that you don’t measure up to the gazes aimed at you,” his path “set against the idea of a body you are expected to be,” and the confession that he sees any image of a man as an object he fails to meet. Again, what are bodies? Bodies are “Distinct entities, wounded, in need. Two holes that need to be filled by each other’s polychromatic gut clay.” Spliced into the memoir and the letters to Herculine in which historical details of his/her life and reassignment are given are drawings sometimes one per page, sometimes diptych or triptych, of hermaphroditic genitalia. While Apps continues to dissect the language used to describe a body, its sex, these images drive home that flesh is to be dissected, that we are often reduced to and defined by the meat between our legs, the “flesh taffy” pulled and ripped and spun. The clinical cold of anatomy. The putrescent ooze of body, of language. The seepage. Trauma at the suture, at the intersection of body/utterance. The intersection of the author’s own intersex. “I see not labels, but an inextricable etymology of entomology. A metamorphosis of designators and suffocated categories that are sutured into every inch of flesh, irremovable . . .” the poet writes. Not only is this language melded and beholden to labels, but Apps notes the decay at the very outset of the problem. Many of the letters to Herculine are “atrophied” prescripts—withered before they’ve even been fully attempted—a self and a language to describe it that is in a constant state of decay and erasure. In one such prescript, Apps writes, “This body, this I ecological, cannot step outside of the words ‘freak,’ ‘hybrid,’ ‘impostor,’ ‘pervert,’ ‘unfortunate monstrosity.’ I let the words compose the way I go in the world.” Apps compares gender to an electron, spiraling and unstable, nearly impossible to capture or study. The messy “I” raging against the two physical options given to contain it, even though it quite possibly flows between “five thousand sexes” in between male and female is at the crux of Dear Herculine. “This ecology of letters makes queer, animalistic love with the reader it engages—erotic, biological, cannibalistic. Herculine, you are the reader it cannot touch. I am the reader it cannot touch,” Apps writes, yet I have probably never been more moved by confessional poetry or memoir on such a level as this collection.