Intersex by Aaron Apps
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015; 88 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
The cover imagery of Aaron Apps’ Intersex lets the reader know this will not be a tidy read. The scissors cutting upwards along the monolithic, phallic title . . . this is a messy read. The self is a sloppy congressing. This is a splicing and re-splicing and layering of the identity and image and self-meat. Having read this memoir immediately following reading Dear Herculine, these collections are so intimately linked and sutured together, I feel they should be read jointly. Although the latter wove letters to and narrative regarding another historical intersexed body, Herculine Bargin, both memoirs focus on problematic bodies, stark images of these problematic bodies, the shame surrounding them, and the nearly impossible language used to articulate the experience of being a body, let alone one that doesn’t cooperate or obey, one that cannot be easily categorized within the male/female binary. Intersex delves into far greater personal detail regarding the poet’s childhood hormone treatments, having outward maleness decided for and forced on him by parents and doctors, and the violence of being socialized as male. The collection opens with an instance of the poet rushing to use a public restroom and not immediately realizing he was in the woman’s restroom until a mother and her daughter entered. After graphically describing the bowel movement that has gotten everywhere including his fingers, the poet is ashamed of his body. How his body functions. How bodies pollute. He is ashamed at having a little girl see his “fat, masculine frame falter past her.” Apps writes, “Bathrooms are gender ciphers—to be in the woman’s room with my body is to be in the wrong space, regardless of genitals. To be androgynous or intersex in the bathroom in a way that doesn’t pass is to put gender at odds with sex, is to be policed by the scrutiny . . .” This state of not being able to “pass,” of the being at odds with one’s own body, begins when the course of the poet’s body is decided by supposed experts and his parents. An obstetrician talks of ethics, sociability, and proper action regarding this child’s body, the “strange knot” to be altered, untangled, all kinks to be worked out. A body in “need” of correcting. Apps reflects on visits to pediatric endocrinologists to be examined, prodded, and shot full of hormones. Shot with a phallic needle full of testosterone, a violent act that enabled the flourishing and furthering of cruelty. The poet recounts torturing and killing small animals as a child. He writes, “I, a dumb little needle monster manipulating them; I, a violence done, doing violence; I, a boy boying it, it a thing. My little dick a needle.” The phallic monolithic nature of the “I” both in linguistic representation and in action. The violence of “I.” The rigidity of maleness, the “masculinity, in naming, stains deep” everything. The “gendered needle” that stabs and floods the poet to give him his outward him-ness. On a more personal level than Dear Herculine, Intersex discusses the impotence of language ascribed to sex. “Hole or hole? Whole or hole? Hole or line? Prick or slit? Cock or cunt? Excuse my language. I mean, excuse my regression to genitals that hold language, but, I mean, there is nothing more tangled than the state of the perceiving sex . . . The ignored space, the ignorance space, the line off the main line, the line that frames the very way an I goes in the world.” There is also a series of variations on a photograph of a medical examiner’s hand pinching the phallus of a terrified, shamed hermaphrodite that become increasingly altered, cut and pasted. The altered images shift from just the hermaphrodite’s genitals, to just a close-up of the horrified face, until the image is just the genitals cut and prominent in the foreground over the blurred face. The genitals substituted for the face. The genitals overpowering and identifying the personhood. Click the image, cut the image, re-frame the image and the identity. Apps does this as he inserts descriptions of his adolescent boy self cutting and dissecting frogs, cow eyes, fetal pigs, and cats. He notes “As more and more creatures come, more creatures are dissected. More creatures are subject to violence” just as this photograph depicts violation, trauma, a violence done. The violence of being. The crevice of “I.” The violence of “I” and how an “I” should identify and move in this world. The animal “I” that loves and is love.