“The author is dead!” has been a consistent postmodernist refrain discouraging readers from reducing meanings of literary works to mere biographical outlines of their authors.
Joy Ladin’s “Transmigration Poems,” published this summer, goes against such a worldview, as the poems of the collection are intensely personal, confessional. The poems bring autobiography to the heart of the collection. They are the memoir of transition of Jay Ladin — father of two children, professor of English literature at Yeshiva University’s Stern College — to Joy. The story has, unsurprisingly, captured media attention, garnering the “Ye-She-Va” heading as well as more sympathetic notes.
The immense force of Joy’s writing is in the ability to calmly hold up the inevitabilities of the trade-off, unknowing, and confusion — and sculpt them into poetry. The consistently calm, steady tone of voice (marked through the usage of short lines and complete absence of exclamation points and question marks) given the context, seems impossible, intuitively self-contradictory, and thus wrought, pumped with tension and power that upholds it.
An immigrant — between continents or sexes — all too often uproots the old identity for the sake of the new one, or else gets hopelessly bogged down in the mire of nostalgia. To walk in the margins is hard enough; but to also retain the presence of mind (and spirit) to document the experience of transition is like trying to breathe in the cosmic vacuum. The rhythms of Ladin’s poetry are such cosmic breaths.
With one identity shed and the other not quite yet assimilated, at times, Ladin’s poetry trims off all matter of the physical existence, holding up to readers nothing but the frail, stark, metaphysical essence of the in-between.
Somewhere Between Male and Female
Somewhere between male and female
The soul gets lost
Where are you calls the mother of the soul
But the soul never had a mother
get back here this instant the father demands
But somewhere between male and female
The soul failed to be fathered
Male and female
Split at the seams
Leaving the soul naked
Criss-crossed with scars
Male scars and female scars
Breast scars and testicle scars
Scars like doors
And scars like fingers
Fingers point at the naked soul
Doors slam in its face
The soul is still alone
It is only dreaming
It’s been discovered
In the space between male and female
Where no one will ever find it
When You Leave Your Children
When you leave your children
To become yourself,
Your self leaves
To become a child. Calls to ask
When you’ll come home.
Sobs when you answer.
Your self will never understand
You couldn’t bear
Was the only life
You had to give her.
The self you thought
You would never have
Sobs on the other end of the line
Like a child who knows
Without being told
You are never coming back.
The Soul at 14th and 2nd
Cold but happy among the hundreds
Of other souls
Wreathed in the haze
Of roasting chestnuts
Souls buying socks souls buying chestnuts
Souls consumed by various hungers
And souls who drift beyond hunger
Each soul naked to the others
Revealed to the least
By the shadowless light
That flares and glimmers
Like flame beneath chestnuts
When soul brushes soul