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Dear Herculine

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Aaron Apps
  • Date Published: January 2015
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-934103-57-9
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 104pp
  • Price: $18.00
  • Review by: Trena Machado
“This letter is about our lives simultaneously, and the mess of memories and body parts that emerges from our selves.” Thus writes the contemporary narrator to Herculine Barbin, an intersexed person born 1838, given a surgical sex reassignment which led to his/her suicide at twenty-nine in 1868. There are about fifteen ways to have an intersexed body, from not XX (female) and not XY (male) to complete gonadal dysgenesis. An intersexed body automatically makes one an intersexed person. The intersexed person does not fall within the guidelines of the social organization based on the clear-cut sexes, male and female, which, in turn, is amenable to the prescribed roles of gender.

The narrator tells us, “I layer the space between others and myself as I proceed through my days, making sure that the façade of my gender is never broken.” He is in hiding, his “secrets impastoed into the skin” because below the decoy of layers of loose clothing, he is “helpless prey.” In his letters, across the distance of nearly a century and a half, Herculine is told about being medically examined:
I am animal [ . . . ] And when she [the doctor] comes and she tells me to pull my gown up so she can inspect my genitals [ . . . ] it evokes a raw and blood fear in me. [ . . . ] When she finishes, she looks at me with pity. And nothing feels worse than those eyes glowing sadly like the yellow eyes of a panther.
The narrator has constant fear being found out: “I avoid PE just so they don’t see my fat flesh, my estranged sexual characteristics, or my genitals” “[ . . . ] the eyes of your classmates gleam their animal judgment at you as the room ignites with each boa-bolt of lightning.”

The body is ever the marker of exile, “x is a different variable than y in a world where there is no overlap.” Finding a way around this exile in order to find commonality and to fit in with society, the narrator goes back to the beginning of humankind as “a spherical whole, self-sufficient, powerful within the world.” The gods keep them around for themselves to provide “offerings so they give the bodies intercourse.” Breaking through the illusion of normality, normality a superficial order covering up the real order that death actually rules and is the “regular state of things”. . . and “What if divinity is stripped from the equation?” All life shares death in common. In this life, despite the final reality of death, the narrator, searching for connection, reads the autobiography of Herculine and writes her letters. He has found “his kind” in Herculine, “I bleed out my eyes liminal filth. I become that intimate with your text, your memoirs.”

The body, the animal body, the body reduced to genitals, the body too aware of its fluids is the total horizon, the end point that must be traversed (or avoided), “We scream our insides out into our insides.” Sex is intricately connected with shame, the shame of being other. His youthful probings with another, “Nothing but my strange flesh under the waves of your fingers [ . . . ] as you reach into the shadow of my phosphorescent genitalia.” Not fitting the expectation of “how a body should look [ . . . ] I have no model of myself to abstract myself against.”

Apps has provided a look at the body and feelings that magnify being human in a way seldom expressed or felt in a text, the body peeled, skewered, opened, displayed. Born of nature, a body coming into the world with an appearance like everyone else “almost” but not having the singular one aspect required to provide entrance into a social order based on the binary majoritarian’s self-defined criteria to permit or deny entry. The social categories based on the biological male and female are specific: physically, visually correctness of external image in flesh.

Dear Herculine locates genetically determined sex hybridity in the living tissue of difference and felt experience that cannot be bridged except in connection of human being to human being, and the broader endeavor of meaning in being alive. Life itself, everyone’s commonality.
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Review Posted on July 01, 2015

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