Review: Amy Kinsman's "&"

Review: Amy Kinsman's "&"

Amy Kinsman
(from the back of the book)
Amy is one of the most interesting poets I know.  I have known them getting on for two years now and we meet almost precisely once a month as Amy hosts the popular Gorilla Poetry open mic, where I am also a regular.

Amy is genderfluid and uses gender-neutral pronouns.  They edit Riggwelter online journal of creative arts.  Amy also regards themself as both a performance and a written poet — a bifurcation I attempt to bridge myself...
Amy's book & (pronounced "Ampersand") won the Indigo Dreams Pamphlet prize in 2017.  Last week I attended its Sheffield launch and was reminded what a remarkable book it is.  There are seventeen poems in this pamphlet occupying 29 pages and ten of the pages are taken up by the two longest pieces: Iterations of self and it's like this.  There is plenty of good stuff elsewhere, but I am going to focus on these two, both because they're really good, and also because they are the ones that (for me) tell the strongest stories about the author.

In the first of these, iterations of self, Amy dissects their identity using "jonathan", an identical twin occupying the same body ("Jonathan" being the name Amy would have had if they had been assigned male at birth.)  Through the thirteen sections of this poem the characters "you", "jonathan" and "amy" iterate different approaches to their various identities.  Each section characterises a different theme to tell us something about the overall self: masculinity, femininity and hallucination are three examples, and the whole picture builds incrementally from these pieces as we proceed.  Let me quote two sections from quite early in the poem:

iii. self as electron

contemplate the light, its red and its violet. consider the theories postulated by quantum mechanics: perhaps there is only one particle in all places at once. conclude that you were made in the dark.

iv. self as repetition

at the kitchen table, your grandfather cuts a barbed spiral of identical paper girls. they push themselves up from the surface and arm in arm they go, singing amy, amy as they march eyelessly towards its edge. what to do with all these little girls? there are so many of you, heaps and heaps of you. your grandfather is calling you by your mother's name and you don't have the strength to correct him as you sweep the scraps into your hand and begin to devour them.

iterations of self

Amy kinsman

Here we see some of the scope of the dissection.  An electron of course is neither particle nor wave, and also (before its wave function collapses) neither here nor there.  Wave function collapse happens because of "observation" (scare quotes because after a century there is still no rigorous definition of this) and metaphorically observation cannot take place in the dark.  Therefore this persona, created in the dark, has an uncollapsed wave function; is simultaneously red and blue.

In the self as repetition we see the "cookie cutter" nature of traditional genders.  You look "girl" therefore you are girl, you should act in girllike ways, and the "eyeless" paper girls haven't even thought about it, and just took what they were given.  How awkward it must be to express a newly minted gender to a grandparent who hasn't the background to understand, and by extrapolation how strongly established (e.g. old) structures must reinforce these stereotypes.  In fact, in this section, the character has no strength for explaining yet again.

The final section of this poem, xiii. self as ampersand, I believe provides the collection's name.  Here, rather than simply assuming multiple selves can be pasted together, we instead see a need to disassemble some parts and reassemble into something different and new: if still flawed.  In software engineering we call this refactoring: transforming a functional system into a something different but still functional.  The closing phrase:

this time i want it enough. even the gods have built imperfectly, stumbling towards completion; look at us.

—is loaded with the hope and difficulty of this.

Amy jokingly sold this pamphlet to me with the brilliant advertisement: "it contains the long one about my sex life", and it's like this is that poem.  This also is structured as many numbered paragraphs, but in this case all entitled: "it's like this".  Many even commence with the identical words: "two of your lovers stand before you."  This is because each presents a number of actual or potential lovers.  Pairs, groups and types of lovers are contrasted, or presented in scenarios which highlight various relationships or attitudes.  Again the overall picture builds throughout the poem, let me quote two sections:

vi. it's like this:

two of your lovers stand before you. the one on the left is the first person you ever loved though you only know this in retrospect. the one on the right you only recently realised you are in love with. the winner is whoever's name is the first out of your mouth.  both of them are women with scrutinising gazes whose eyes glisten with mania through their curtains of dark hair. both of them lower their deep brassy voices.  somebody turns off the light. all of you are counting the seconds.

vii. it's like this:

you are having a threesome with two of your lovers, both of them men, both of them avoiding looking the other in the eye. one above, one below, the two of them are locked in a tug of war over the spine of your being. the pressure builds.  you cry out i don't bend like that, but they continue as if they have not heard.  your bones splinter at sacrum and coccyx. you snap in two. the winner is the one holding the larger part.

it's like this

Amy Kinsman

Amy is bisexual, so lovers with a range of genders appear.  More than this, every section returns to a question of who is the "winner", reflecting the poet's polyamory:  a monotony from continual questions such as "which of us do you really love?"  Thus only the poem's simplest level is about the poet's sex life (full of humanity as that is) and at deeper levels expresses the frustrations we all have (but the genderfluid, bisexual and/or polyamorous must feel more acutely) in the effort of explaining what we are to those around us.  This comes over most clearly in that the protagonist has difficulties with lovers (i.e. section vii above) but almost as many difficulties with other people reacting to lovers, for example:

the mother of the one on the left will say are you a lesbian with an honest indifference. the mother of the one on the right will say an english girl with an indifference which must be practiced. your mother will say are you sure you want to be with someone like that in a tone that reveals she likes neither of them. the winner is everyone's mother.

it's like this

Amy Kinsman

For me these two are the most important poems, and also my favourites...  There is much else here to attract the attention but I have already written twice as much on this excellent collection as I intended.  I will just briefly mention anton yelchin, which muses on his tragic accidental death, descent in which an anonymous character falls to Earth after a grand endeavor, and disappearance of the poet: the enjoyment of which I leave as an exercise for the reader.

it's like this ends as the poet takes off their laurel wreath.  I prefer to interpret this as tactical withdrawal and not a complete resignation from the fight.  It is important not to resign, we have to keep on fighting.

Amy Kinsman's & is available from Indigo Dreams at £6.00 + pp.

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