Intersex, by Aaron Apps. Tarpaulin Sky Press, May 2015. 88 pages. $14.00, paper.
Blood bubbles, silver fat, gut foam, chestnut fluid—you’re not supposed to look at or think about these things, but that’s the name of the game as a reader of Intersex.
With his memoir of lyrical essays/prose poems and photographs, Aaron Apps—who also authored Compos(t) Mentis (BlazeVox, 2012), and Dear Herculine (Ahsahta Press, 2014), winner of the Sawtooth Poetry Prize—submerges you into the typically private experience of the body, common excretions and all. As participants of his private experience, no reader remains protected from normative ideas about the body, but Apps constructs a space where that’s okay—even the new “norm.”
Intersex is labeled “memoir,” but it’s really more like autotheory (think: The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson), collaged as it is with narrative and block quotes from feminist scholars. The photographs—of “abnormal,” intersexed genitals—also propel the book forward just as naturally as the text.
Indeed, Intersex comes alive at the “intersection” between memoir and philosophy, text and photograph; the poetry-essay-photograph hybridity establishes a fully bared intimacy between author and reader. Sometimes that intimacy arrives to the reader at such an intensity that one can’t help covering the pages out of fear of being seen fraternizing with the so-called “obscene.” (I certainly admit to this!)
The book opens with the first of six “narrative lines”—or thematic groups of poem-essays—called “Barbeque Catharsis.” This opening—to a scene that takes place over eight pages—begins with an unspecified “us” eating “butterflied pig carcasses … burnished to black … half-spherical blobs” of “gray-pink animal.” Here’s an excerpt of the final sentences from that opening:
We ate vegetable matter. We ate like we were eating each other. Sauce on our lips and cheeks, sauce on our fingers, sauce on our soiled napkins, sauce on us like we are wounds. Sides on our fronts. Dingy foaming all in our guts and enlarging drips on our sides.
Lovers feasting together.
App’s juxtaposition of love and violence here presents the linchpin upon which the book revolves. “We ate like we were eating each other,” he writes, depicting a human-animal experience in which, as guts and blood, we’re prone to destroying others and ourselves. This crucial theme of woundedness follows readers through App’s personal story about growing up intersex.
As promised, the upcoming pieces of “Barbeque Catharsis” delve ever deeper into Apps’ body. Here, after he’s consumed barbeque and entered a grocery, Apps reveals himself running to the bathroom to take a dump, where he realizes suddenly that he’s in the woman’s room.
I keep wiping. I’m filthy. I’m moist with sweat-reek. I hear voices echo in the bathroom.
“Mommy! I have to peeeeee!” a small girl’s voice squeals before she giggles.
“Get into the stall. I’ll be right there,” her mother answers.
The woman’s room. That’s why there were no urinals when I entered. I thought there was something strange about the space.
How can I leave? What will the little girl say when she sees my fat, masculine frame falter past her? What will she say if she sniffs me up into her nose cavities?
The spare prose here—“my fat, masculine frame”—reveals a switch in “code.” Apps’ language visibly contrasts with the earlier ornate prose, which intends to display the body as immutably disgusting/fascinating. The movement signals a politics at play, an environment where only a select number of bodies are judged (despite the fact that all bodies are in the unclean environment of the bathroom). Here, App’s body is more vulnerable because of his presence in a room where he isn’t “supposed” to be.
The choppy sentences of Apps’s metaphorical revelation also help us see, for a moment, the social constructedness of gender politics at work—since gender, unlike sex, is mutable—and how these gender politics affect the relationship of Apps’s body to other bodies, despite the “contradiction” of his sex. How some bodies are wiped clean of judgment in certain spaces, and others aren’t.
Sometimes Apps blends theory and narrative in a startlingly visceral depiction of intersexuality; this lyrical excerpt, for instance, from midway into the book, “explains” the narrative lines’ significance to his narrative:
Welcome to the intersection of my intersex, my fellow animals, I will point you to the appearances of shuddering and violence that I trace as a finger the wire lines of a grotesque harp. Let me tell you: this is a vibration of an essay echoing out from my whole body when I crack my fingers on the instrument that has lines drawn out of sinew. These are vibrations along lines, feel them spark like growths upon growths that can be viewed on the top of the pool, but that also run all the way through, concentric out from the line the stone or fruit that fell from the bank followed as it splashed down into the silt.
So much anguish in this, and as the book continues, one moves through each of the anguished “lines,” thematic “crevices,” and fleshy “knots” of genitals toward a universal, somatic landscape of woundedness that also holds and loves you.
This is a startling and lucid book that bravely upends notions about intersexuality and the normative body in general. Everyone should buy it immediately, read it, and then read it again. Then buy a copy for their friends.
Sarah Katz writes poetry, book reviews, and short fiction. She studies poetry in the MFA program at American University in Washington, DC, reads poetry for Folio, and works as Publications Assistant for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), where she reads and edits essay submissions to The Writers Chronicle. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, jmww, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and others. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.