Other Ways to Wear a Body

Transness and elegy intertwine in K. Iver’s debut collection.
A figure sits on the hood of a red car and looks across a river at another figure on the opposite bank.

In their debut collection, Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco (Milkweed Editions, 2023), K. Iver grieves a past lover, Missy, who took his life in 2007. When Iver met Missy in high school in the late 1990s, Missy, who was assigned female at birth, knew himself to be a boy/man. Fifteen-year-old Iver accepted this, perhaps without fully understanding it. Two decades later, having recently come into a (nonbinary) trans identity themself, Iver reexamines the relationship through a present lens that’s more intimately conversant with transness both personally and sociopolitically. In a series of tender, vibrant, intermittently searing poems, Iver fixes their time with Missy between the twin gazes of their adolescent and adult selves.

It was a brief but formative romance, cut short by parental pressure and Iver’s own frantic uncertainty around this new queer desire. As they remember their lost beloved, Iver reimagines Missy in the form he may have preferred. (Because Iver has publicly acknowledgd the poems’ autobiographical nature, I alternate between "Iver" and "the speaker" for ease of discussion.) “I loved a body / you didn’t,” they observe in “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name”:

            My younger self wants the word
to rebuild, rather than stop at the blond hair,
middle part, low ponytail, the impressive
manliness with which your hips carried
utility denim. I tell my young self to flatten
her memory’s landscape. Picture two scars
liberating a torso. A first name that doesn’t hiss.
Soon, a Brooklyn apartment. We pretend
it finally happened for you. It really did.

This impulse to “rebuild” the past guides the book, which steers between fantasy and its limits. At times, Short Film adopts the subjunctive mood—what could have but has not happened—and similar methods to “pretend.” At the same time, the speaker seems cautious about this strategy, unnerved by the possibility they are reanimating someone for self-serving purposes while aware of the painful futility of imagining what can no longer happen. In this sense, Short Film is keenly concerned with the ethics of elegy, doubting the project even as it commits to it. From “Anti Elegy”:

Missy, my grief     is righteous
& problematic.    It floods the last
four walls hold-    ing you & begs
for time. It hurls    absurd reasons
from a future: a    handful of trans
film stars human-    izing a handful of
trans characters.      Better doctors.
My grief says it’s     helping but argues
only for me.

Writing on his own relationship to elegy and transness, Cameron Awkward-Rich explains that his trans identity was in some important way made possible by seeing the cardboard tombstones his high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance put on display in the halls to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. “Trans became an intimate possibility in reference to strangers’ deaths,” he writes. “For this reason, trans has always felt, to me, entangled with elegy.”

Iver’s collection presents a similar entanglement. In this case, Iver’s transness may be always bound up in or constructed in relation to Missy’s transness—and accordingly shaped by Missy’s death. But elegy suffuses the book even beyond this core entanglement: also grieved is the author’s past self, the femme-presenting high schooler they were with Missy. In “Boy Meets Them,” Iver reflects on the gap between their past and present genders:

In 1996, when you wanted
me, my long hair offered its youth
to bleach & coiled heat. My makeup labor
clocked twenty minutes for each eye.
You had a type & it was me, two hours after
waking for school.

Here and in other poems, the return to that earlier self leads the speaker down familial paths as they explore their younger gender presentation in relation to not only Missy but also their emphatically feminine mother. The above poem continues:

I’d watched my mother
do the same, leading with lacquer, frost,
& shoulder pads. She didn’t know,
I didn’t know, there were other ways—
so many other ways—to wear a body.

A number of poems more fully inhabit Iver’s adolescence, adopting a removed, spectral, second-person point of view that underscores the distance between selves. From the prose poem “Second Position (Home Practice)”: “It’s just you now and your mother’s sadness down the hall, a comfort not at all strange when the bright pink of her room is only seven steps away and there’s nothing safer than this distance between your own feet…” As you hops around to mean Missy, then Iver, then Missy again, a close choreography is established between the two central subjects, though Iver is always leading the dance. There are other yous too. The poem “god,” for example, is a kind of antiprayer: “Lord, when I loved you, / I didn’t know // so many of your men / would exile so many of us.” Elegy becomes a tool of trans historiography as much as an opportunity for Iver to reckon with their own personal ghosts.

Another key entanglement is temporal, as past and present twine and untwine. The collection shuffles between three decades: the late 1990s, when Missy and Iver are dating; 2007, when Iver learns from a phone call that Missy has died; and the present, when Iver composes this manuscript. Through the interactions among these moments, Short Film swings open, pivoting from the project of missing Missy to indicting the transphobic legislative and cultural violence that Iver partially blames for Missy’s death—and that persists long after it. From “Anti Elegy”:

                                  If you were here,
still drinking cold      tea in a cold diner,
men in state capitol    conference rooms
hours down the high-   way would still
draft bathroom laws    for adults.

This attempt to conjure an alternate present in which Missy hasn’t died is in tension with the ongoingness of the trans injustice that failed to support his life. In resisting a kind of progress narrative that would distinguish the Bad Trans Past from the Better Trans Present, the speaker belies a desire to assert such a story:

                                             If you
were still dying    like the rest of us,
I wouldn’t tell     a young ghost how
far we’ve come    as if I believed how
far we’ve come    was enough.  

A similar tension returns in “Missy Asks Me What the Next Century’s Like.” Iver’s response to Missy’s imagined question offers a trans-owned bar and bookstore, an 11-year-old whose hobby is trans liberation activism, and teen drivers “exactly our age, still flannelled and anxious.” And, they note, “Some of us still die. More of us want to.” The frank obviousness stings.

The narrow gutter that literally ruptures the lines of “Anti Elegy” flows down like the Mississippi River. Iver and Missy grew up white, working class, and southern in Mississippi. Casting around for targets to blame for Missy’s death, Iver settles on place. “Your villain has yet // to go public,” they write in “Mississippi, Missing, Missy, Miss—,” personifying the state. “She’s larger than the highway. … Today: your villain is a place.”

Iver periodically plays on Missy’s first name, as in “Tupelo, MS,” a prose poem that advances as a series of missing items. “Crop dusters have gone missing. Storm clouds, missing. Every owl has gone missing. Entire foothills,” the poem begins, lamenting climate change, landscape change, and, later, the loss of indigenous language and the juke joint songs Elvis filched. Then the turn: “My lover went missing today. My lover went missing fifteen years ago. When neighbors spoke to him, they spoke to someone else.” Missy’s loss becomes part of this larger drama of regional loss.

Like “Anti Elegy,” “Tupelo, MS” is one of a few poems whose titles tell readers what they are not. Another is “Nostalgia,” which opens the book by repurposing the biblical myth of Adam and Eve and infusing it with trans possibility: “In the beginning, the grass and trees and birds are already tired of their assigned names. They consider rebellion. The green blades think of rounding, feathered wings dream of swimming a backstroke, but someone assigned ‘woman’ beats them to it by eating something edible.” The speaker's own origin story takes over, starting with the hospital and a childhood characterized by love, beauty, violence, instability—introducing the content of later, family-centered poems: “In the beginning, there’s much holding. There’s not enough holding.” The poem’s rollout of beginnings arrives at one last new start: the speaker’s first encounter with Missy, “a boy, fully clothed in flannel and denim. He tells you, only you, that he’s a boy.” Their queer desire for one another becomes the forbidden apple, “a fruit bored with sinless afternoons and aching for teeth.”

Revision is a frequent tactic in these poems, often proposed through fantasy and, as aforementioned, “pretend.” These speculative strategies are rooted in the speaker's foundations in theater and ballet, especially the fairy tales they performed as an adolescent dancer. For example, from dancing in Sleeping Beauty, they learn that “The ballet can’t perform without / fairy tale. The stage is safe for magic, / or at least pretend.” Another lesson: “Already / you are learning the off-stage rules / about who gets rescued. Who throws / flowers, who catches them.” What might at first be understood as a standard lesson about heteropatriarchal gender—the girl gets rescued, the girl gets the flowers—becomes more complicated in the wake of Missy’s death. A person like Missy is not rescued. A person like Missy would not be, has not been, rescued. Missy was not rescued. There is no pretending away this fact.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for revision. Remembering phone calls with Missy in college, Iver writes, “From one dorm room landline to / another, your wish list     sounded like / a fairy tale.” It wasn’t, of course. It was desire. It’s true: transformation can be miraculous, a kind of fairy tale. One declares oneself another gender and voila! Reality shifts. It is pretend until it isn’t. It is fantasy until it isn’t. It is desire, and then it’s real. Only, as Short Film continually reminds us, anti-trans forces are strategically working to constrict trans reality and trans lives.

If Iver’s poems acknowledge the limits of their own fantasizing, they adamantly support the vitality of trans reality. Many harness the power of trans manifestation by imagining alternatives and investing in pretend. “Fantasy with No Secrets” wistfully revises Missy and Iver’s courtship: “Instead of staring at each other on the landing / you touch my face and lean in. My mouth opens // to soft possibility.” In “Fantasy in Which There Was Nothing for Us to Survive,” Missy chooses to join not the Army, as he did in life, fighting in the Iraq War, but the fire department, and “our parents who / at first cried in their palms but read enough books / on supporting queer children there’s no / reason to leave town no / hidden / torches waiting for us to fall asleep.” These fantasies provide critical revisions and imaginative possibilities, expressing the longing for new realities to emerge.

Fantasy seeps into Iver’s poems about family as well, offering a way to write over gender violence and generational trauma. “Fairy Tale Prologue” wants to cast Iver’s mother in the role of Vivian, the sex worker and love object that Julia Roberts portrays in Pretty Woman—but the fantasy won't hold: “in real life, [she] makes $8 an hour answering phones.” Reality and fantasy talk back to each other constantly.

In addition to using fantasy as a revision strategy, Iver reframes reality through forms and strategies that create new ways of seeing through distance. The title poem uses the language of cinema to capture Missy frame by frame, scene by scene: “Time for opening shots / of gravel, a small brick house // where my beloved comes of age.” “Family of Origin Content Warning” delivers its information through a series of content warnings that summarize instead of describe: “This poem / may unfold, in detail, a husband’s violence / toward a wife. May run time in a circle.” Then, as warned, the scene’s violence unfolds.

A twin poem, “Family of Origin Rewrite,” arrives later to swap out that content in favor of fantasy—in this case, a fantasy of upward class mobility and economic and emotional stability. “My father teaches ethics at a university,” it opens, and then pauses, as if the speaker is daring themself to dream bigger. “My mother teaches ethics at a university. / They save. Their money. Buy / a large bungalow in Connecticut. / They continue. Saving.” The stutters of the syntactical breaks read as though the speaker can barely support this alternate vision they’re faltering to unfurl. “My father waits. For my mother to heal. / Before asking for sex. She’s good. / At saying no.” Regardless of how much the speaker tries to bend the poem toward an otherwise, painful reality glares through.

These fantasies ache with the force and futility of their desire—as do those that imagine Missy still alive or a world in which Missy could be still alive or a world in which Missy and Iver might have loved one another more simply and openly. In the closing lines of “Anti Elegy,” Iver writes, “I say to the water if you were here, / you’d be here.” In this entanglement of transness and elegy, reality and fantasy intertwine to assess the transformative power of desire and its limits.

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2023

Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring. Their work has appeared in 4ColumnsBOMBBookforumLos Angeles Review of BooksThe New...

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