Winner of the 2014 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, selected by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
A book-length epistolary collection of hybrid-, trans-, and inter-genre prose, Dear Herculine is an intertextual project that recalls portions of the 19th-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin’s memoirs, discovered and re-published by Michel Foucault. The medical reassignment of Herculine’s gender eventually led to his/her death in February of 1868. Herculine’s experiences are set against and interwoven into the author’s experiences as an intersexed body through the epistolary form.
“Dear Herculine, a harrowingly eloquent cri de coeur, melds consciousnesses and bodies across one and a half centuries, from 1832–2014. Intersexed writer Aaron Apps to intersex reader, the long-dead martyr to early gender-reassignment surgery, Herculine Barbin, speaks from a place so far inside of the abjected subject that it comes out the other end as estranged, engorged and gorgeous language, in letters comprising ‘two intersexed bodies composed of multiple parts, and the mess of flesh and text that stands between.’ Unlike Yeats, who desired to be consumed in artifice to escape the human condition, that of being ‘sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/[That] knows not what it is,’ Apps plunges into the carnal killing floor with his nineteenth-century interlocutor, binding their fates as he is ‘shackled to a rotting double, rotting in the space between, rotting in the space of the letters.’ Apps’s fearlessness and the beauty of his prose inspires, pushing poetry, kicking and screaming and expiring with shame, to where it desperately wants to go. A brilliant achievement that defies the triumphalism of that descriptor, Dear Herculine is a cache of love letters urgently needed to heal this world.” —Maria Damon
from A LETTER CONCERNING THE FORMATION OF SHAME WITHIN ROOMS
* * *
The sea is its own room, beating its foam of boneless jellyfish against the sand embankment, translucent.
During the summer the students in your school go sea bathing, kicking up the jellyfish with the stiff ends of their animal feet. Carnal. You refuse to go, constantly. The idea of stripping down to the bare flesh, exposing the thick hair on your arms and body, your undeveloped breasts, your unshapely hips, your thin masculine frame, frightens you constantly the ways a gazelle is frightened when a cheetah leaps at it with extended claws.
Your black eyes vibrate out of your skull with nervousness.
Your muscle fibers twitch.
Your shame is the constant humming of a profane danger.
* * *
The beach remains an expectation, a social pressure, and a sea that pushes you towards the sea. Foam against foam. Form against form. And when you do decide to take the trip to the beach, all of the girls rush to the water and strip off their outer layers before launching their bodies into the froth of the entering tide. Their red lips are salted, seaweed curls around their toes and gives them a wild wild joy. You stand on the shore as a spectator, trapped in a kind of modesty. Trapped because you see their breasts plunging below the surface with each wave, a salty wet mash of erotic flesh amid pulsating sea creatures, and you worry that your own body will offend their image. A masculine stick set against undulating fluid hair and black-green seaweed, set against the idea of a body you are expected to be.
Wet bodies. You worry about what their bodies’ image will think of your image, screen on screen, so you stand behind the screen high on the beach with the dune grass. At a distance. In your eyes, blood pools. Hiding from predators, your nervous eyes thick bowls of black borsht, egregiously salted with sea broth, teeming with infectious organisms in the massive slurp spit, replicating their surf selves. Animal set against animal.
“In this second collection of verse and lyric essays, after Compos[t] Mentis, Apps speaks to, empathizes with, and commemorates Herculine Barbin—the 19th-century memoirist given posthumous fame by Michel Foucault—as one intersex, or ambiguously gendered, person to another. The book is clear, forceful, and moving in its concerns: ‘I’m interested in the formation of gender. The way bodies with weird formations slip and exist below expectations. The way we form and un-form in the fluid when thrown out of the womb gush.’ Apps writes about growing up with an obviously unusual—apparently an intersex—physical body, and that bodily estrangement, along with early sexual experience, lies at the root of his work, which finds ‘no tranquil answers in the simplicity of facts.’ Sometimes sexy, though haunted by self-disgust, Apps is ‘a grotesque puppet,’ and ‘a raucous sac of sex.’ Apps uses Barbin’s story along with images from the animal world—slugs, octopi—to push back against the ‘labels tattooed into every pore of my flesh.’ The results—part memoir, part analysis, part outburst—become not just memorable but pellucid and teachable: the volume might be important far outside the precincts of poetry, a classic for young people trying to figure out, and then to say, who they have been who they could be, and who they already are.” —Publishers Weekly
“Aaron Apps saw in the 19th-century intersexed figure, Herculine Barbin, familiar parallels, and his process of similitude spells his breathless, urgent poetry debut, Dear Herculine. On this process, Apps says in his brief introduction to the book,‘The initial draft of the manuscript was produced in a period of a month, metabolically in conjunction with Herculine’s memoir, while grieving the loss of a friend.’ I have been thinking a lot about metabolism and its relationship to grief language since reading and rereading this book. So much of his thinking reveals a digestion process of place and text, such that even abstractions get crowded by wet skin. ‘Descriptions of the actual meatiness of things never satisfy easy abstractions,’ Apps writes early on in Dear Herculine. So much of his thinking interacts with/subsumes/resists a subject being devoured by time and shame and hormone injections, while devouring those selfsame agents. In this account, the body bloats and ripples in doxastic ecstasy; the curious investigations of corpses stand as a score of religion for Apps, whose childhood was spent in the liminal space between patient and specimen.” —Natalie Eilbert in Sink
Dear Herculine is my attempt to dwell with Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite as another intersexed body, composed of both flesh and word, who feels connected to the descriptions to be found tenderly therein. Dear Reader, Dear Herculine is an epistolary collection that finds its center in an intertextual project that recalls portions of the 19th century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin’s memoirs. Herculine’s experiences are set against and enmeshed into my own experiences as an intersexed body, as a hermaphrodite, through the epistolary form.
Dear Reader, within medical discourse the term “hermaphrodite” has existed as one of the more neutral descriptors of intersexual conditions. More derogatory terms such as “freak of nature,” “hybrid,” “imposter,” “sexual pervert,” and “unfortunate monstrosity” pervade medical literature up until the twentieth century, and even as such bodies as ours were granted the category of “human” or “person” they were placed into a space of inescapable categorical duplicity, hovering between male and female on a material level. Dear reader, this book is a collection of letters that subverts itself in an attempt to subvert such language. These words that I both partake in and am subject to. These discourses that compose me as I comport into them and decompose through me as I undermine them. Dear Reader, they are the thing always lingering in the back of what is said, shaping the trajectories our words take, composing the ecology of our facticity.
This book is historical, but not. Embedded in the historical approach is a desire to fix a problem, to overcome it, to be the hero who masters the past into a progressive narrative. This book is not effectively dealing with history: it is subsumed by history, consumed by history, overcome by it. This book presses itself into history without pushing forward and it dwells there, albeit temporarily, in a depression, in a stasis, because such openings of thought are precious, too. They are wounds full of wonder and transparent juice.
Dear Reader, to be transparent: I feel hesitant to describe the book from the outside. The entire effort feels metabolic, feels necessary, feels like a flood of material in an architecture of limitations and possibilities that compose our shared spaces, our shared spheres, our shared envelopes. When I read the book anew, I feel as though I am watching a stop motion video of my own decomposition alongside the decomposition of Herculine Barbin unfolding in the architecture of a room that envelops. I tuck the letters into this book’s envelope and our two bodies foam into each other and I watch material move through the dimensions of the room, through the pages of the book, into all of the corners of the envelope. Dear Herculine is not a text written in conjunction with another to produce a detailed, well-wrought and considered reflection; it is exploding material. In short, poetry, the contorted word, is the only response to the insurmountable omnipresence of death. In short, we tremble together as we taste any fistful of dirt taken from this reflective ground. Dear Reader, welcome to the soft miasma of our epistolary.