You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The rain’s been going hard since last night. I wear my hair long, draped over my face. Before school, my mom nags me in the kitchen: “Pull it back. Don’t you want to show your pretty eyes?” She wants to be sure everyone sees me as a girl. I pretend not to hear, take my Pop-Tart to my room, turn up my Walkman.
I rewind and play one song over and over again the whole way to school. I’m learning to play by ear on a borrowed guitar. I’ve drawn the top half of a fret board to scale on my folder, so I can press my fingers there, practice.
At the entrance, I tuck my Walkman into my backpack, slouch, and drift. I’m a ghost in the halls, fingering ghost notes. I want to be invisible. My middle school has over a thousand kids and in its world I am daily asked: “Are you a boy or a girl?” I don’t tell my mom this when she asks about my day.
This morning, I’m a little less tense because of the rain; I know I’ll be able to stay in my favorite teacher’s room. She compliments me on my eyes, my attention, my hair. She’ll also pretend not to notice when I sneak my headphones under my hoodie. I plan to work on skateboard designs and eat at my desk. Until I realize I’ve forgotten my lunch.
A black fortress of umbrellas guards the sandwich cart under the awning across the quad. I hike up my hood, charge into the cold, blast my Walkman.
A swarm of girls blocks the line. Because I don’t want them to notice me, I try to make myself smaller, and squeeze in to wait. I feel something poke my ass. I don’t move, don’t know what to do. Stabbed again, I turn to see seven, eight, nine of them laughing. I face the one wielding the umbrella with the long silver tip. She’s twice my size. I screw up my “pretty eyes,” try to make them ugly. Her friends laugh louder, and her face a sharp flash of teeth. Hard and filled up by them, she throws back her head, then lunges forward, jabs the umbrella at my crotch.
Boy or girl?
Pierced. I feel far away. Buried. As if from deep in a tunnel, I make out the mute echo: “Fight, fight, fight, fight!” Finally, a security guard steps in. His hand on my shoulder breaks me from the trance. I’m taken to speak to the school counselor.
But I don’t remember all of what happened. Did I try to take her and her friends? Maybe I called her a bitch.
After school, the counselor calls home. My mom wants to know: “What in the hell’s going on at that school?” But he blames me, says he’s concerned. My favorite teacher gave him some “poems” that I’d shared with her. Only, they’re song lyrics for the heavy metal band I imagine I’ll be in someday. He says “angry,” “dangerous,” and “harmful to herself.”
Maybe I am. I don’t know because all I can feel is the sting, again, of being cut. This time the blade digs under my skin, knifes its way into the muscle pulsing from my throat, chest, and gut. Now, it seems like what he’d said might be true. I feel like I could kill. Maybe I do want to die.
At some point much later I realize I want something else, something beyond mere survival. But even getting to this thing, let alone getting the thing itself, is hard when you’ve felt for so long like you’ve been staggering around with a blade in your back and another pointed at your sex.
My closest friend was music, so I made songs. To meet the music, I had to go inside of it. This meant going somewhere deep in myself. For a very long time, this saved me.
As an adult, even after years of therapy and transition, there was a period where I found myself lost. After having come so far, surviving so much, I wondered how I could be in such despair. I could not listen to music. My senses were heightened; sound was painful. Melody made me anxious; where would it take me?
As a kid, the music I loved had made me feel connected. Now I was only lightly tethered, and floating.
But this time, for some reason, I couldn’t crank my Walkman. I called friends for help. I was able to come closer to them than I’d ever been. I’d never before let friends see me in the midst of pain, but I couldn’t hide.
Like a mantra, my dear friend and fellow poet Nathan Hauke quoted Creeley’s phrase: “beloved company,” and reminded me of Robin Blaser’s “Image Nation 5”: “horizons / are companions.” And like mantra, this is a practice.
I love Foucault’s sense of friendship as a way of life. For me, poetry, too, is a way of life. Friends were kind enough to help me, to remind me. We seek one another and I am companioned even in my quest. When friends sing together, even if the poem’s occasion is despair, it is always also a love song. Such poems are friends that beget more friends.
By ear, I am still learning to play.
A friend shows me a poem. Like an antidote, I read it and feel that blade sliding, now a gentle plant-stem, from under my shoulder, sprouting little by little. A sun must be rising.
I show my friend my poem. At first, I feel naked. But then, like the arrows of Mara, once aimed at the Buddha, they turn to flowers. I gather them into a bouquet. The sun does rise.
I offer them to my friends, to my “beloved company,” and then to people I’ve not yet met. Or the people who never got to meet me, not really: my own kid self, a self that was censored, made afraid to show himself; that girl and her friends; my teacher and counselor; even my mom.
Now, every flower holds a moon in its mouth, breathes a silver mist. A mirror shines.
Some friends, like some poems, save you. Maybe they offer accompaniment, the bridge: fight, fight, fight, fight.
Ely Shipley’s first book, Boy with Flowers, won the Barrow Street Press book prize judged by Carl Phillips, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His poems and essays appear in the Western Humanities Review, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, Florida Review, Phoebe, Greensboro Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Witness, Diagram, Gulf Coast, Fugue, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Purdue University and a PhD from the University of Utah. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, CUNY.
12.03.14 by Ely Shipley