about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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A Review of Chelate
by Jay Besemer

Spencer Dew

What is (gender) transition? A translation? A claim? It engages—and must endure incorrect—acts of naming, but it is also resolutely beyond language, at once enfleshed and an issue of desire.

The poems collected here—in a book taking its name from a chemical term for an organic compound bonded to metal—thus at once reflect on and refract that experience of transformation, of correction, of self coming into self. “i am the solution in suspension : chelate myself into a new man.”

Besemer’s work here is with words. He formulates pieces out of fragments, making a commentary on and testament to his transition that mirrors, in poetry, the way that transition is also ultimately a process of making—of “meaning for me” and of me. Both lived process and textual practice hinge on chemistry—in the popular sense of the word, some elusive but ineluctable spark. As Besemer says, “it’s a dance, like carbon tetrachloride : they push, you push, meat gets made.”

Yet “the meat of me made of words,” and late in the process “dead words [hang] from his body like sated ticks.” The tension between the linguistic and the embodied runs throughout these piece. There is the profoundly felt sense that words are not enough: “who will consume the narrative body i make, who will devour my signifier: who will put their hands down my pants & stroke my subject position” Besemer asks. And these poems simultaneously express anguish over the “struggle against that overwrought metronome of classification,” the “casual cruelty” of imposed identification in and through words, an act which equates to dismissal, to “erasure & negation . . . [of] the man demanding to be.”

This act of naming is simultaneously celebrated and resisted. It has an obvious, magical power, even in its most banal applications (“say wooden : say laboratory : say barista” one poem intones). It can conjure: “what’s my name : say my name,” he writes, summoning poetic energies of ice and fire, wild onions, flowers in a window box. At the same time, however, it is such dangerous sorcery, and so startlingly inexact, an attempt to pin down, trap, freeze. Besemer thus also insists that he is “like the diamond that sprouts in the spaces between words : between assumptions made : it seems to be adaptable : in the blank earth sleeping diamonds resist names.”

Failure of recognition is, in these pages, a “cross-wired” transmission, as when two people, attempting to talk, in the same room, feel like an experiment in interspecies, intergalactic communication. “how did we get so stripped & scalded when all we wanted was to love ourselves : each other : this half-submerged raft of starmeat we sit on” he asks. Such emotional desolation is accentuated by evocation of rust-belt bleakness: describing the “depleted town” redolent of slow-cooking porridge, the horizon littered with “plastic wraiths” of tattered bags.

Like those fluttering fragments of plastic, Besemer swirls a great display of range and talent around a central theme, passing lenses and curtains and mirrors and veils across the “certain nudity of this experience” of transition, speaking of and through and to, even as the process.

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