Review by Petra Kuppers
“Wings are being read as they are being spread like thighs. It is possible to read a body without knowing how to read the words that might be used to describe it. Inscribe by presence.”
The prolific j/j hastain writes queered priest’s words, steeped in thick somatic cauls, in sexual winged ecstasies, in a punk Sappho scene. This experimental novel takes the reader to the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s academy on Lesbos. Readers find new perspectives on her writing and teaching, enter into her love-making scenes, witness teacher/students in erotic touch.
The experimental poetic narrative is accessible, with multiple entry ways through touch, sensation, fantasy, reflection, historic investigation, academic lingo, trans/feminist tensions, complex inclusions, and actual quotes from Sappho strewn throughout the book.
A story emerges: Sappho’s academy is shaken by a newcomer in the circle, Phaon, a trans person. Phaon longs for Sappho, and we witness a sexual encounter, followed by an apart-ness. The book’s ending comes abruptly, and risks conventionalized narratives of what happens to lesbians. It might leave some readers unsatisfied or bemused – but then, the poetic density of Sappho’s academic practice denies an easy closure, and allows time to reflect on destiny and violence, on trans pain, on edge space.
A prose poem rather than short story format means that a reader can upend the narrative arc by flipping through the pages, land on somatic intensity and erotic scene. See how your bodymind responds to the wing touch. Recreate the narrative, make it yours, make it fit your contours, your wing span, your reach. Luxuriate in the cover: an abundant baroque red, gold and black texture field, complete with a face or mask (taken at Rebel Salon in Denver).
It’s delicious to read j/j’s work at night, in bed, remembering schools and erotic fantasies of stern and loving teacher/gurus, remembering Monique Witting’s The Lesbian Body, and so many other other-world guides. Here is an academy space apart, emerging from gender ruins that name old structures: crushes on dyke teachers, luxuriant pleasure. Sappho’s academy is a concrete set-up, an agencyful carefully constructed thing to house her tribe, a tribe in transformation, one ready to find out what the new beloved in their midst brings to them.
“Can S conceive of a reason to transcend the anatomy of her academy?”
Can lesbian soma play and trans narratives embrace, love, play, stay embodied and open?
“Functional utopia could never have been accurately imagined prior to it being accurately lived.”
j/j hastain’s punked world traces edges of real queer lives, of real space transformations, of history recreated with material effects in living bodies, of bodies in change, of poetics in change, of feminist/trans challenges and their spatial policing, violences, exclusions, and openings. It’s a gorgeous book to think change.
Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community performance artist and a professor. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (2016). Poems and stories have appeared in PANK, Adrienne, Beauty is a Verb: New Poetics of Disability, textsound, Streetnotes, Drunken Boat/Anomaly, PodCastle, The Sycamore Review, Future Fire, Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective, and lives with her partner Stephanie Heit in Ypsilanti, Michigan. petrakuppersfiction.wordpress.com