(a Venn Diagram Production by Litmus Press / Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, New York, 2009)
Bharat jiva by kari edwards
(a Venn Diagram Production by Litmus Press / Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, New York, 2009)
kari edwards, according to many who wrote about hir in NO GENDER, was a being committed to engaging deeply with hir environment and other people. One of the manifestations of this—and I have experienced (been blessed by) it—was kari’s ability to make you feel that sie is truly listening to you when you talked together. And it wasn’t an act because when kari responded to you, the nature of hir response was usually one that showed much thought and sensitivity about what you both were discussing/exploring. I found that a sizeable source of kari edwards’ powerful charisma was hir sincerity, and that kari cared about you, regardless of who you are.
Thus, I have always, as the saying goes, felt close to kari edwards, though the offerings in NO GENDER remind me that I didn’t really know kari (or know hir as fully as many of NO GENDER’s authors). Indeed, I came late to my acquaintance with kari, meeting her shortly after I moved to San Francisco about 10 years ago, long after sie’d already caught people’s attention as a visual artist, student, teacher, activist and caring friend. And even after we met, we didn’t socialize together and usually only met in person at poetry readings (which I’ve never really attended with much frequency). Our backgrounds are also different; I’m an ex-banker who turned to poetry-writing at age 35 and kari, as hir partner Fran Blau says in her contribution to NO GENDER, was “a refugee from the world of visual art” who then taught sculpture and performance art at the University of Denver for 12 years, who later worked at a homeless shelter, and who became an advocate for transgender rights.
It wasn’t difficult, though, for kari and I to find common ground. For example, when I shared my explorations of (the limits to) post-colonialism, sie was an effective conversationalist not only because of hir intelligence but because of hir empathy. To put it reductively, it was evident to me that kari's struggles as a transgender created an empathy with all struggles.
NO GENDER elucidates on many of kari’s struggles, but also how kari’s empathy inspired and helped its authors. A moving example is the contribution by Lisa Jarnot—an excerpt:
The real gift kari gave me was an entrance point into the history of and evolving politics of the transgender movement. Sie gave me a chance to reconcile with my own modest insecurities about gender and desire, and more importantly to come into a clearer understanding of the socially-constructed aspects of who-we-are. These days it feels beside the point to make the judgement of male or female or male-to-female or female-to-male. Kari was kari, and when I think of the people I love, there’s a real beauty in the places where the boundaries of gender begin to melt.
This last summer when I was teaching Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw in a class at Wesleyan, I got an email out of the blue from kari. Sie and hir partner Fran were at the end of their stay in India and preparing for a return to San Francisco. Sie’d happened upon the class website, wished sie could be there, and provided a reading list for my students:
McCloskey, Deirdre N. Crossing: a memoir
Richards, Renee with Ames, John. The Renee Richards Story: Second Serve
Wilchins, Riki Anne. Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender
When I told kari that the students were overloaded and agitated with the radical perspectives on gender, sie wrote back to tell me that I was doing my job. Sie included the advice that sie sometimes gave out as a counselor:
“parts are parts…you can name them any things you want. But if it feels good go for it.”
There’s a lot to come to terms with in kari’s death: hir work as a writer is remarkable, unique, and simply high-energy trans-genre beautiful, and hir commitment to social justice emanated from the core of hir being. Sie gave an awful lot to a world that often didn’t have much to give back to hir.
“Sie gave an awful lot to a world that often didn’t have much to give back to hir.” Sadly, I believe that this captures too much of kari’s life. I know sie gave me more than I ever could return.
It’s usually tricky (and often silly or even stupid) to relate a person’s biography to that person’s poems. But I find it makes sense to do so with kari edwards—for instance, when I reviewed a few years back her book iduna (O Books), I noted how her font-designs created multiple designs of text and seeming layers from the page’s flatness—the overall effect, I hought, evoked flesh. Is it silly, or simply obvious, to note that kari’s experience with the body, including (relatively) radical transformations, would lend itself to such an approach? All I can say is I felt a sense of recognizance when I read the following from the editors' note to NO GENDER:
By “attempting language” as a way of combating the oppression of forced identification, kari shared with so many others this desire not to write the self into a genre, rather to find a space where gender could be written out, where a body can exist just as a body—not a body gendered, but a body othered, a queer fluid body, “a body without organs.” (footnote here says: kari Edwards via Deleuze and Guattari via Artaud)
This resonates; one can open Bharat jiva at random—and I do so now for purpose of continuing this review—and come across something like:
with a hollow ribcage, my throbbing skeleton
continues on an excursionist outside, headlong
into an apex of corpses strewn on cash
register trail. but first, I must tell you of the
million dead children, fast food shrinking
bodies, eyes burnt for the privileged and let us
not forget, force fed through metal pipes,
fattened pate de foie gras. but that is another
story, and I must pass onto more plausible
explanations by the text, where plausibility is
plural in triplicate, with surrender to customs
for approval, paid off government officials for
expedience, blind eye’s turn from the shifting
curtain of vital collateral. the throbbing
continues, there is a morning call to prayer, an
encasement of a village by sound waves, and
all this could explain the sequence in various
ways; could explain the quest, could explain
the novelty, could explain the island episode
with its three part mini-series, or the semi-
cultured girl Friday volunteer opportunities.
There is just so much compressed in the distilled poems of Bharat jiva. So much that it’s useless for me to explicate on them…but let me offer another excerpt (by opening the book at random):
who will be the first to quit talking
in intimate unfolding
Decontextualized from what might have pushed kari to pen those words, does not this couplet resonate/resound in our era of social networking? “Social networking”—I type that and I hear kari laughing…
Ultimately, I feel a lot of grief in Bharat jiva. For me, the grief overwhelms even the anger that would logically arise from kari’s observances/experiences. Though Bharat jiva was written as a result of kari's trip to India, I think it fair to say that hir experiences encompass more than what sie experienced there; kari traveled there with partner Fran Blau in 2005 to live in an international spiritual community called “Auroville” (in Tamil Nadu). “Bharat” is the Hindi term name for India, deriving from “Bharata” a tribe in the Vedic tradition (many Indians, especially Hindu nationalists, prefer “Bharat” as they consider “India” to be of foreign origin). “Jiva” means “living spirit.”
Bharat jiva is the posthumous publication of hir last manuscript and begins with two epigraphs:
The will to live is the ground of our existence.
Its negation is our salvation.
Oh to be not anyone, gone
This maze of being skin
After a preface, Bharat jiva is comprised of two sections: “process” and “aftermath”. The surface narrative, then, can be quite accessible—kari (and I deliberately say the author’s name here rather than “poems’ personas”) experienced and wrote about her experiences (in “process”) and then meditated/wrote about the implications/significances of those experiences (in “aftermath”).
But the “aftermath” offers no resolution, no definitive Conclusion to what kari experienced during the process. “ Aftermath” begins:
nothing to say any more,
expelled from injured paradise
incarcerated in plural driven substitutions
nothing to imagine anymore,
given another calmer euphemism
left blank for another weak absuridty
One can sense the disappointment that kari and Fran Blau experienced in India, that as I believe kari told someone (that I read in some blog post I can’t recall now) in so many words, “People are no different in India than anywhere else.” Also from Blau’s essay is this knowledge: “When we left San Francisco to move to Auroville…we did not harbor any illusions about the place; the ethical, artistic and spiritual problems that we encountered there were huge and not easily resolved.”
Synchronistically, as I was writing this engagement, I happened upon esteemed poet CA Conrad’s post about kari and Bharat jiva, available HERE. I was struck by Conrad’s discussion of anger vs peace in the collection, specifically how he finally gets the “peace” that was found in Bharat jiva by another reader, Thom Donovan. But Conrad’s initial sense of the book was one of anger (please click on link as I don’t wish to reduce people’s opinions here). I can understand where both poets see anger and peace, but what I primarily see in Bharat Jiva is grief. Here’s the end to “aftermath”:
it taunts with a succession of proofs and
whose house swarms with rats
coming from whose faces
only offer momentary purity for a bitter
where nothing is true and all is false
(By the way, it’s paradoxically one of kari's greatest achievements and yet perhaps least important that kari wrote such engaging, palpable poems without overt narrative references to the body, without relying on the body and its limitations...even as the significance of body is not denied. If I had reviewed Bharat jiva on its own, without also keeping NO GENDER in mind, perhaps I’d wax longer on this stellar poetic (technical) achievement. But for now, kari’s life—which means hir activist concerns that are still so problematic today—must be privileged in my thoughts…)
So does kari’s life end in a “bitter / end”? I don’t think so—one does learn from Blau’s essay in NO GENDER that, notwithstanding the disillusionment from their India experience, they had been preparing to return there before kari suffered the heart attack that killed her body. But that heart attack did not, as the saying goes, “take her life.” Kari edwards’ Jiva, “living spirit,” clearly continues as exemplified by the existence of the NO GENDER project which both continues by itself and promises as well the further continuance by others of kari’s fight for justice.
For now, it’s all right that kari edwards’ last manuscript has no neat conclusion or neat ending. After all, does not injustice continue?
And perhaps I’ll be easy on myself, too, for the messiness of my articulations—things like grief and anger tend to make stuff messy. (And I also so miss kari...) Perhaps the more important thing is what kari was in the process of doing when kari died: returning to those sources of anger and grief, and _____
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) over at Litter Magazine and at Tributary. The book's "Afterword" essay by Joi Barrios is also newly-available online at OurOwnVoice. If these reviews get you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.