Brave World
Response to Stacey Levine's " Transgend/Ear"
(Golden Handcuffs Reveiew #5, pp106-109, and on the website)

Lou Rowan

This marvel of a story touches notes with so many sympathetic vibrations in itself and in us that it should be reread, reheard.

Like a case study, " Transgend/Ear" isolates the main character, Brigg, with his mother and brother (unnamed, so as to sound " objective," and to allow Brigg to explore their figurative resonance in him as he remakes his life). Another unnamed character, a floor-waxer who happens to be there when Brigg mails in the papers that will " establish" his new sexual identity, is rendered entirely via Brigg's sense of desire for him.

Thus the premise is an experimental stance, the sensibility of a clinician for whom all psychic and physical distortions, disasters and transitions are to be observed dispassionately. After all, if doctors like loved ones were overwhelmed by symptoms they'd be ineffective. We're observing Brigg's inner and outer " debridement," and if we are to experience the progress of a wound, we must be prepared to accept and ponder the alien in our bodies and lives.

In the exhausted jargon of commercial reviewers, experimental has come to mean weird or willfully difficult. Both of which could describe my " normal" first impressions of foreigners like manifestly homosexual or transgender people. But maybe I'm no longer so stupid and uneducated to take those reactions seriously. Maybe the truly new can happen, despite the constrictions from what I can designate my " culture" only in an anthropological sense.

The new happens in this story not only because the writing is so well-informed psychologically, but also because its simple rhetoric of discovery is so affecting. This about Brigg's previous self:

He always had had so much energy with which to hate her, but now, hearing her, he ached to his palms for her, the lost, ugly little thing, a stubborn wart of long years who never had anything good in life. (109)

And so the story's power derives not only from its emotional openness—the brothers can fight physically and verbally, Brigg can go back to his mother as a " grown man," he can " hear things," he and his brother can explore a radical alienation from their bodies—but also a fresh, direct figurative language that illuminates the characters, making their perhaps-unusual situation affecting. The " wart" excised, the sentence above would demand rather than open itself to our sympathy. Or imagine this paragraph without the " fur...bready aroma:"

He had few friends. He wanted to lie down and rest and wait for his body to push out a caul to protect him and that would be fine. Inside the dark den he would lie still, collecting warmth and a low, green fur that would coat him nourishingly with its bready aroma because his skin was so sweet and new. (106)

If you have the courage to change your " identity", then what happens inside your head and your family? That's a large territory for four pages. Stacey Levine has said that she appreciated the requirement of concise, direct grammar required at her former alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism. " His body worked differently from others'; it was new and it hurt, and then it stopped hurting, or he got strong enough to overpower its hurts." Simple assertions like these contain no indecision or modifications with dependent clauses. We're there, we really mean this.
But it's the poetry of the language that takes us inside, reminding me of Babel in his intensity, his fusion of consciousness (or I would prefer imagination) with event or fact, whatever word denotes the " objective:"

Then he went deeper and dreamed of glassy lakes of rock islands, or a cat telling him the foods it liked—smooth dreams that were gifts to himself, for they smoothed and debrided the parts of him that were shreddy, raw.

There's no attempt to characterize or symbolize these dreams; they are an aesthetic (" smooth") event whose pleasure is a balm. The imagery is conveyed by single words (" debrided...shreddy")—note how often Levine recruits adjectives to serve multiple functions. Likewise, the brother's " coming around" from verbal and physical assaultiveness does not render him lovable, but a waking nightmare " with the bluish-blackish face of a parakeet."
--New notation and harmony for this story alone.