Cameron_AwkwardRich.JPG

Cameron Awkward-Rich

In doing research for my dissertation, I spent some time wandering around in digitized newspaper archives, looking for traces of lives we might now call trans. Many of these traces didn’t add up to a full story, or fell outside the frame of my argument; in any case, I have a haphazard collection of articles about people who were caught—by the law, by post-mortem exam—living as “the other sex” that I could not make use of in a more disciplined, scholarly way. Thankfully, as a poet, I am more interested in and able to explore the kinds of questions and speculations that such an archive prompts than I am in getting at the facts of the matter. For example: What are the ethics of making use of material that only exists because a violence occurred? What are the resonances between past and present, what are they made of? How can I speak with the dead?

One of the traces of a life I haven’t been able to let go of, or adequately follow up on, is this story about a black person named Lawrence Jackson who was arrested in late 19th century Chicago for wearing a dress. It’s a strange account, even stranger than many similar stories, because apparently Jackson offered to self-exile from Chicago, in lieu of having money to pay the fine. Even though Jackson’s solution made sense within the logic of anti-crossdressing laws, which were all about removing “problem bodies” from public space, the judge threw them in jail anyway, because he felt “a little punishment would be beneficial.” I wrote this poem because I couldn’t get this story out of my head.

Most of my poems begin in my notebook, so this is actually probably the second draft, the text from my notebook but with a shape. In revising, I first took out much clunky/unnecessary language. But most of the work of revising was deciding how many of the details of the story needed to be in the poem, the right balance of transparency for the reader and intimacy with Jackson. I took out what was the third line (“the papers called you…”) because it seemed to abruptly interrupt that intimacy – Jackson, probably, already knows what they were called. Same thing with what were the first three lines of the last section. I think those lines were just my way of getting myself back to my present and “I draw a frame around the frame” already does that. But, also, this boring meta-commentary about how I feel about finding the Jackson story interrupts the intimacy (and, if the poem is working, shouldn’t be necessary). I suppose I re-shuffled the sections because I wanted to emphasize the parallel between the first and second sections, between the representation of Jackson and the representation of me, and to introduce the idea of the potentials that lie just outside of any frame earlier. Also, it felt important that the poem be in all couplets—again about doubling between me and Jackson, past and present—except for that one line which is just a list of mechanisms by which a gender nonconforming person can find themselves trapped. I got rid of that bit at the end about birds, because I don’t know what it was doing there… I guess I was trying to explain how the body could be “not a question,” but it becomes a question again in that attempt at justification. So, no birds. Finally, the word “room” in the first line became “frame” after I inserted this poem into my manuscript, because “room” in that book takes on an overdetermined meaning that doesn’t make sense in the world of this poem. Oh! And “//” became “…” I don’t know why!

(The poem was originally published in Indiana Review, though this final version is slightly different than that version.)

< REVISION >

still life

to Lawrence Jackson, arrested in Chicago for wearing a dress, 1881


A figure in the frame. Black dress slit
up the thigh, a voice issues from the seam.

I sit in the dark & watch your hips.
Your practiced walk.



Somewhere, there is a photograph
of me in strapless dress. Me, flexing

my grin, my skinny arms. An image
won’t show you the fight

at its edges—my girlfriend shining
like a pearl, her father’s finger

on the shutter, the compromise
beneath the skirt.



If I can see you only in this moment
you are caught, what kind of we

does that make? Rows of dark bodies
hunched against the page, above

the page. In the archive of ink
& yellow trees, there you are

before the judge, offering to leave
the city, to walk away with nothing

in your pockets. No pockets.
This, you think, is what they want

from you. To look & not see you
standing.



What happens after that?
The trail ends with you, framed

by dark. They don’t want us to leave,
exactly. Instead, to not have to look

to know we’re there. Anything
can be made into a cage—

garment, sentence, cage.



I draw a frame around the frame,
a bright afternoon in Indiana

on your shoulders, dress
black & spun in a field of gold,

dress a knot of brazen black
birds, the body not a question.

< draft >

still life

to Lawrence Jackson, arrested in Chicago for wearing a dress, 1881


A figure in a room. Black dress slit
up the thigh. A voice issues from the seam.

The papers call you an almost woman.
I sit in the dark & watch your hips,

your practiced walk.

//

If I know you only in the moment
you were caught, what kind of we

can that make? Rows of dark bodies
hunched against the page, above

the page. The strangest thing
is that you offered to leave

the city, to walk away with nothing
in your pockets. With no pockets.

This, you think, is what they want
from you. To look & not see you standing.

//

Somewhere, there is a photograph of me
in strapless dress. Me, flexing

my grin, my skinny arms. What an image
won’t show you is the fight at the edges

of the moment—my girlfriend shining
like a pearl, her father’s finger

on the shutter, the compromise
beneath the skirt.

//

They built a room & locked you in it.
The problem is they don’t want

to not see us, exactly. Instead
for us to adhere where they can’t

see, but know we’re there.

//

Already, you are queen of Chicago.
My head shakes somewhere

in the future—Envy? Disbelief?
I draw a frame around the frame,

a bright afternoon in Indiana
draped on your shoulders,

dress black & spun in a field
of gold, dress a knot of brazen

black birds, the body not
a question. Birds eat & birds fly