Dear Herculine & Intersex
Ahsahta Press & Tarpaulin Sky
reviewed by Natalie Eilbert
A whole year went by in which I shut myself off to an “I” voice in my work. It felt like a needle piercing skin, and it also felt like incidental air. If it made it into my body, fine. It was also a year of deliberate starvation, and so the fact of my divorce from my demonic pronoun became gruesomely legible. Clarice Lispector, in her book, Água Viva, writes in this epistle-manifesto hybrid, “The secret harmony of disharmony: I don’t want something already made but something still torturously made.” She goes on, “And if I say ‘I’ it’s because I dare not say ‘you’ or ‘we’ or ‘one.’ I’m forced to the humility of personalizing myself belittling myself but I am the are-you.” When we see ourselves in a figure, when we see a familiar strand beneath a century’s thick muscle, we can transpose certain harmonies of disharmonies, and transpose again the “I” with the “are-you.” We can verb ourselves with the vocative. For Aaron Apps, the I becomes material, a black ecology in the primordial sludge, a “Play-Doh against Play-Doh,” a “shadow-meat inside a closed fig.” The I is, for Apps, always an interplay “trapped in a kind of modesty.”
Personhood, if we can even still use such a word in common parlance, endures a metamorphosis when it is put under the knife of humility—that is, a literal cutting of genitals. Aaron Apps saw in the 19th-century intersexed figure, Herculine Barbin, familiar parallels, and his process of similitude spells his breathless, urgent poetry debut, Dear Herculine. On this process, Apps says in his brief introduction to the book, “The initial draft of the manuscript was produced in a period of a month, metabolically in conjunction with Herculine’s memoir, while grieving the loss of a friend.” I have been thinking a lot about metabolism and its relationship to grief language since reading and rereading this book. So much of his thinking reveals a digestion process of place and text, such that even abstractions get crowded by wet skin. “Descriptions of the actual meatiness of things never satisfy easy abstractions,” Apps writes early on in Dear Herculine. So much of his thinking interacts with/subsumes/resists a subject being devoured by time and shame and hormone injections, while devouring those selfsame agents. In this account, the body bloats and ripples in doxastic ecstasy; the curious investigations of corpses stand as a score of religion for Apps, whose childhood was spent in the liminal space between patient and specimen.
His memoir, Intersex, elaborates on this clinical invasion further, such that the horror-cum-sensual viscera of Dear Herculine iterates the narrative lines of a child’s actualized body as it undergoes hormone treatment. Lines and holes are the molecular makeup of this memoir, this memoir which is the sound of what happens when a thin layer of artifice is peeled and a gel is plunged beneath. And so, it reads as a continuation, the I as an epilogue on either side of indefinite pathways to and away from white rooms. In homage to Lispector’s I framework above, Apps offers this dictum: “If I say ‘I,’ it is because I do not dare say ‘we’ as though I could easily move to that abstraction such that I create a gap that binds me to any you.” He goes on: “I personalize it to spark a line up from the vibrating field like a Higgs boson particle that relates to a field in order to permutate a mass.” In other words, the I is an injection.
Image from Dear Herculine
In Dear Herculine, the letter is an esurient device, especially when addressed to a suicided body from [an]other[ed] century, especially when that suicided body is one of “two intersexed bodies composed of multiple parts, and the mess of flesh and text that stands between.” Part of the receiving end of Apps’ “assumed relation” is his splitting open of bodily anguish, his hard stare into the revolting crag of autobiography specific to his experience as an intersexed body, specific again to Herculine’s recorded life. A body erupted from a womb in an always-already state of guesswork, and this birth became a composition to address the same birth that undid Herculine over one hundred years prior. And so the letter exists as the line as much as the remainder, the continuous surface between two endpoints:
If the humanistic tradition, at its diseased palpitating heart, is flinging letters into a void, what does it mean to write a letter to a dead body? What does it mean to assume that my own body is a dead thing too? Dead because dying. Dying because dead. Dead because fed on dead matter unearthed as oil. Dead because lubricated with death fluid. Death because.
(Dear Herculine, 24)
The mess of flesh and text is part of Apps’s singular experience, the extruded fatty masses on either end of a hermaphroditic language that has heretofore been silently examined and photographed for medical records. These images anesthetize the violence of dissection, which allows for the body to undergo sectioning, to wilt as meat against a continuous surface. The gloved hand of a doctor imperializes the intersexed body as a thing mutated against binary configurations. The hands must learn from this alien genitalia by means of abstraction. And these are the same hands that, over a hundred years later, still tug at Apps’s young genitalia for means of measurement and record. We see these hands verb the spectacle in Dear Herculine, and we see these hands reaching up into the boy-body in Intersex, the account abject and solipsistic in both books. There is a reason why Apps is keen to render with disgust the images of bodies, beyond disharmonious harmony. It’s to remove the idea of the thing in favor of the thing itself, in all of its warm and damp and undisguised earth-flesh: “The action is disgusting and beautiful.”
Image from Dear Herculine
I do not fully grasp what this image means as I continue to look at it. I do not wonder about it, it wonders about me. I keep returning to this image like a thirsty animal to a desert pond.
(Dear Herculine, 43)
“Love and sex both cause mutation,” Chris Kraus says in I Love Dick, “just like I think desire isn’t lack. It’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.” And so that claustrophobic mass sinks down the surface in Apps’s work; the mass tenors itself to the dark proteins below surface. The heft of Apps’s descriptions sag the page with shame, suckling, decay: “All our bodies are indiscrete, flooding.” Inevitably, his inter[s]textual takedown of the abstraction of the sexual body human-centipedes:
These letters are the memory of two bodies coupled until amalgamated by putrefaction. Two hermaphroditic bodies tied to each other’s corpses face-to-face, mouth-to-mouth, limb-to-limb, with an obsessive exactitude in terms of how the parts correspond. A dull black-blooded chamber music that runs through all of the chambers enveloping everywhere. Shackled to a rotting double, rotting in the space between, rotting in the space of the letters. Letting our agency become the agency of worms gliding through the dangerous dirt voids. Our skin obscures into grey brown rot, and spreads out into a continuity of black slime. We become the environment feeding the environment, ass to mouth. We become the promiscuity of a rotting blood cocoon, as we bubble into dark beautiful foam.
(Dear Herculine, 26)
Jim Harrison wrote epistle poems to the suicided early 20th-century Russian poet Sergei Yesenin in Letters to Yesenin, during a time of his own suicidal ideations. History is static, the letters to that history a transaction of occurrences. He writes, “The age gave you a / pistol and you gave it back, gave you two wives and you gave / them both back, gave you a rope to swing from which you used wisely.” There is the sense always that in order to write epistles to the dead, we must first locate the tangles that keep us alive and they dead, as Apps flings letters into a void. Wisdom and utter failure merge and pool in the same procession. Still, our dead idols are smiling corpses or else ash or else daguerreotypes of lived experiences, which now merely symbolize death. Apps, though, is not interested in nothingness. It seems for him death is where our putrid molecular makeup comes to life and asserts itself as the only real uniform sex and subsequent intercourse: “My body breathes fluid out into your body, Herculine. My body breathes your breath through your memories. We who are intersexed leak-breathe through our animal pores such articulating slime. We consume and are consumed.” Here, the elemental rattles the hippocampus, and memory is the slime to better rim a hole. Protrusions and gaps interrupt the hegemony.
In Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, she writes, “Throughout the nineteenth century, disease metaphors become more virulent, preposterous, demagogic. And there is an increasing tendency to call any situation one disapproves of a disease.” The trajectory of Dear Herculine is gradual: the letters to Herculine Barbin are a means of looking at intersexual skin not through these archaic metaphors but through the erotic; and in answer, Apps must also deliver the news that the fear of gender has not changed really much at all in all this time. That disapproval manifests in shame unto shame. He lives in Florida hidden in shame; then he lives in history books, like Herculine, to seemingly “give us an explanation of the structures of social life.”
Image from Dear Herculine
If Dear Herculine is that historical explanation of structure, Intersex is a personal belittling of explanation. He lives not against the death-errands of the letter, but inside the torpid womb of Florida, minced by all his childhoods. Boyhood is editorialized. As Apps puts it, “Revision will come later.” A pediatric endocrinologist separates the century-old diagram of an intersexed body from the speaker, but there is cruelty everywhere. These visits become that future revision. The boy forms hands that fascinate in the death and anatomy of small creatures, and the body, as it grows toward and against injection, segments into a thousand selves. He is made of lines as shapes—on and off his person—round into genital purpose. He writes,
The hole is a different breed of hole than the holes I find in my flesh, that the flesh is as it imbibes and extrudes. This hole is different from the hole that means lack, means desire. Different from the holes in the wires. This is the hole that forms between things when they are denied fluidity. This hole is the negative that forms when the whole is denied, as distinct and effervescent as its infinity of nodes may be. This hole is the dim, thick air around the tangled lines that formed me. When I speaks, I speaks out of a certain language that is formed against this hole, this negative. I speak with an I that is not quite like the I that I describe as a cock, as erect boyhood. But my tongues are speaking in tongues, here, inverted.
And so we are in this extruded ecology, this map of a body made feral by and then conditioned to shape. Bhanu Kapil, in Schizophrene, a book composed of light touches for condemned bodies of mental illness, gives us another way of looking at the surfaces we mold over a body of work: “Folds generate density on a contour map but for what? A map is a kind of short term memory: the genealogy of an historical time versus the chronology of geographical form.” A memoir is a map, and in letters to the dead, a genealogy is carved out. So too this short-term memory is given gross vitality in memoirs. I will never forget the opening of Intersex because it made me physically ill to read—and I generally have a strong stomach. We are given a different contour map, one made of shit and grease and all the liquid movements inside the body that want—badly—to drip and leak and plop outside the body. This shapes and impresses a geographical form, too, with supreme success. Apps will never offer up the body without contamination, though he would never call the jolting stuff of the body contamination. In this first part, called “Barbecue Catharsis,” Apps writes,
My bowel movement gives me post-coital melancholy. When I lift my ass from the seat, I can feel the thick fluid peeling up from the surface of my skin, like pulling my hand off a table coated in the dye-flushed fluid that surrounds blackberries in pie filling. It’s sticky on my skin.
I wrap my hand with a profuse coiling of cheap, rough paper. I wrap it until my hand is white, mummified ball and I make tentative gestures at the edge of my ass until I feel the mass hit wetness. When I look at my balled fist, the mahogany stain runs deep. Orange and green vegetable matter rest in specks on the surface. I wipe until my fist wad is saturated, and then I strip it off and make a new one. I rinse and repeat. Except I don’t rinse, shit gets on my hands. I wipe, I toss. I wipe, I toss.
The body is an explosive weight, despite how this liquid bursting is generally mummified in the skin. “The beauty of the thing all vibrating and haywire because we are shit. Biological refuse. Gorgeous decomposition. The stuff extruding from a shame structure,” writes Apps in Dear Herculine. Is the intersexed body somehow more dead? Intersex is at conflict with the doctor visits, the forced injections into his gluteal muscles, the parents who must ask of themselves and this newborn body, “What if it doesn’t fit in? Why should it have to go through that?”
Image from Intersex
The I returns to remind me of its irrepressible needs inside and outside the body, the itness of being in I’s possession. There is resistance. Clarice Lispector, later in Água Viva, says “For now, what sustains me is the ‘that’ that is an ‘it.’ To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. But these are the pains of childbirth: a thing is born that is. Is itself. It is hard as a dry stone. But the core is soft and alive, perishable, perilous it. Life of elementary matters.”
I remember a core element in Dear Herculine isn’t just the infinite layers of body shame; it is the way we are complicit to the letter’s unfolding of grief, a grief that is always caught in the eye of the confusion of gender. In this latter part of the book, Apps repeats the sentence, “In the dark you go to see her body because your desire called to you.” Here we are in Lispector’s life of elementary matters, creating the self again from a body laid out on yet another surface. Brian Teare eroticizes the loss of his lover to AIDS in his collection, Pleasure. He writes, “Between the real and what’s desired; / between sickbed rags, blood-tinged / scat and colognes, sweat / and cum, who isn’t historical / anymore?” The letter presumes a future history. Apps is aware of this lunge to and fro disappearance, that disappearance is of utmost material in the epistle form. He entangles the dead with the erotic because there is more dignity in this decision than our typical grief-fumes. He writes,
In the dark you go to see her body because your desire calls you to. You bring a fist full of ivory to L., little linked beads, and you slip around her neck. She penetrates your idea of her—the sphere of her head fitting softly between the many spheres of the polished beads. The slight spheres dangling on her neck, the slight spheres of sweat accruing on your brow.This shiver of bodies that replicate. Such sexual atoms glimmering. You say, “ accept this and wear this for me.”
Dear Herculine, 67-68)
Apps makes us look at these images, dislocated, severed, tabled, and he means to ask us what we do in the heat of their blast. Will we subtly put a hand over the image of the splayed genitalia on a crowded train? Will we look up and meet the eyes of the passenger who notices how we stare at the pixilated anatomy? Will the response to such images be a holding on of shame, of embarrassment, of interest, of curiosity, of desperation to make sense of identity? Will I squeeze harder on the tampon inside my vagina as I stare at the gray clitoral cock before me, as I stare again at the abstract hand robbing the genitals of that same abstraction? When are we the deaths of our bodies enough to respond to these corpses removed of death? Apps delivers and delivers his deca[y]dent manifestoes on sex, the body and the body’s explanation. He doesn’t once say sorry; the shame is packed away as to be its own surface-energy, packed with wriggling soil. Instead, he gives us atrocity, he extrudes a fatty intercourse. The lifeless life of his grammar leaks with dark unstoppable ceremony from the text. He says to the revolted,
Again I am writing atrocious material in order to ward off anyone from liking it in the way one likes material, standing above it, back stiff and postured appropriately. I gesticulate materials in and out of my dead skin like a barnacle, glugging seawater, worm-tongued.
(Dear Herculine, 29)