In the following lyric essay, poet Isa Guzman discusses “I Think Body,” a sequence of poems published at Public Seminar in which Guzman examines trauma, language, and their personal journey of gender-confirmation within the context of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
i say morning off-white ceiling insect corpse light dent fixture twenty-year-old piece of double-sided tape breath breaking mirror sun through gate’s red curtain
I say to the ceiling: “I wish I wasn’t here anymore.”
My body hadn’t been cooperating with me. I was constantly tired. A long-term relationship had ended. My graduate courses were taking their toll on me. Nothing made sense to me. I had no future at that moment. There was no space to be me, to feel comfortable being me, and I thought in that moment there never would be. It was nobody’s fault. And it was totally my fault.
Everything was quiet. There was no answer back. My collection of books and papers sat in piles all over my room, as I had laid in bed.
The truth is I hate every inch of this frame. There had been moments when I perceived my body as desolate land. There was never a way in. There was never a way out. There had been many nights when I wished I could wipe it all away. I settled for going through the motions until something breaks in the last minute. The last minute was always coming.
i speak child regret the world hid hide flesh marked and numbing body here: boy
Growing up in Los Sures, Brooklyn was wrestling with decay. Used crack needles scattered in every sideway crevice and playground. Abandoned buildings on every other block. Dealers on stoops. Carjackers tracking the night for their next steal. My Spanish-speaking mother raised me on her own. There was nothing I did without her.
Overprotectiveness defined my formative years.
I was never allowed to play with other kids. I was never allowed in other people’s houses, even my own family members.
My mother’s paranoia about my health. At nine months, I had almost died from the measles, which led to a quarantine at Woodhull. If the medicine didn’t work by the morning, I wouldn’t make it. My mother claims she stayed in quarantine, keeping vigil over my gasping body. She needed me to survive. I did.
At home, I was under constant surveillance. Every few minutes my mother would check up on me in my room. My door had to always be open. If I coughed, she would barge in. If I sneezed, she smeared me in Vicks and Agua de Maravilla. She even had a shirt blessed with holy water for the moments I was really sick. Extra-large.
Fit me like a dress.
In those years, I could only be afraid of my body. I was living at the edge of imminent failure. Every day felt like my last.
My mother had validated these fears. She enjoyed the moments she held my shaking body. I needed her there, and thus she felt validated herself.
It came down to abandonment issues.
Her parents had both passed away in Puerto Rico when she first began working in New York. Her siblings had cut off all connection years before I was born. She was alone. My father was too drunk and unfaithful to be much of a partner.
I was born the only outlet she had.
i spoke cut dress purple cry elbow back window dust through silent games of television static hair ends
I was bullied in school.
I never liked playing with the boys. Games of one-ups. Who could hit the other harder? Who could run faster? Who could trick someone? Who was smarter?
It got worse grade to grade, each game escalating with violence.
How hard could they hit each other without giving up? How much could they say before someone cries? Who could they steal from? Who could they jump? Who could they instigate a fight between, and watch for laughs?
Every day was traumatic. There wasn’t safety at school or at home. I didn’t feel safe inside my body. Every night, I would watch late-night TV until the channel signed off and the bars and tone signaled me to sleep.
i spoke body cut of language wound dead fire escape relief relief relief
In the middle of all this, there was something obvious to me: I wasn’t meant to be a boy.
To be better was to become a better man. Man up, but the man in the mirror never came. I searched my face for something else. I wanted to become a woman. Identified more readily with girls around me. Enjoyed talking and playing with them. Felt safe around them. I was jealous of the way they acted with each other.
Every Saturday, my mother took me down to Gran-han, the Avenue of Puerto Rico, to shop for clothes at the V.I.M. My eyes were spellbound by the mannequins in dresses, stylish outfits, lingerie, or fajas. Each stood in confident poise. Raised chins. Hands on their shapely hips. Distinct busts. Long flowing wigs. Penetrating eyes. Red lips. To me, every girl grew up to be this type of woman. Every woman I saw had power in their bodies. Every woman was beautiful. Every woman had poise. Every woman was strong.
At the store, I would wander away from my mother and drift along the girl’s and woman’s sections, staring longingly at the clothes. Held dresses against me while looking at myself in the mirror. Sometimes, I would even crawl into the circular racks, surrounded in a fortress of dresses. I felt right. The fantasy broke with my mother screaming my name.
Once back home, I stared at my own developing body in the mirror. Everything about my body was wrong.
I spoke length time repetitions chant trauma into the cut then what made me this than that
At nine years old, I tried to castrate myself.
It was during the time of nineties shock media. The idea that a singular act, however violent, could make me a woman seemed right to me.
I found a pair of scissors in my drawer. It was terrifying. I remember sitting at the edge of my bed, looking down at myself, ashamed. I agonized over how I should do it. Should I cut the blood flow first? Would it hurt? Would it be less messy? I was nine. Nine. I positioned the blades at the base, and in one swift motion, clamped the scissors shut.
Nothing happened. The scissors were too dull. I cried into my pillow.
Every night, I kept dreaming I would wake up a woman. Every morning, there was nothing.
At twelve years old, I attempted suicide.
By the time I was fourteen, I settled for ideation and self-harm. Would cut myself and pop pills. Pursue risky behavior, including sex and running away. Throughout high school, I would ditch class and walk around the most dangerous parts of the neighborhood. This was how I coped.
I’m writing for the first time joyful light elation. Hard glass still shard after shard spectacles of the what to come next mirror. Jubilant reflection to arrive. I’m here, still.
Imagination was liberating. Committing myself to exercising my imagination into art led me to become a writer. Exercising my trauma through words saved me countless times. It wasn’t a cure, but it kept me going. And when I shared my words with others, I started to connect. So many people within my community face the same uncertainty that came with trauma. And we’re all still here, in the persistent song of our truths. In that persistence is joy. The joy of familia. The joy of community. The joy of love.
Yet the question of the body remained.
I recognize my body as the source, the trigger, for any attack or depressive episode. In the middle of last year, the question of my transness came back into my life.
I am trans. I started transitioning this past summer, after my thirty-first birthday. It hasn’t been easy. Each step is a struggle to find my bearings. The hardest part is the unearthing of past traumas.
Even before writing this testimony, I hadn’t accepted my mother’s abuse as abuse. Maybe I still don’t. The shame is overwhelming. Here I am, rehashing memories, and the truth is so clear to me. It also hurts.
I know many of my days are going to be like this. Every day another fight for the dignity of my body, my safety never being guaranteed to me. I know this. Yet, this is a truth I have to dedicate myself to.
To dedicate my writing to.
I started a project a year ago titled “I Think Body.” With my interest of embodying myself through text, each page would act as a room or mirror; text encircling a single word: YO. In this way, I wanted to emulate the feeling of entrapment I felt through my childhood trauma. The physical manipulation of the text, and its locations on the page, alongside its labyrinthian pattern, kept the reader inside this landscape of trauma. There was a way in, but there wasn’t a way out.
Every word has a story. We call these stories etymologies. You also have words that are culturally specific and connect to moments of time (near or far) that are integral to the development of a culture. My studies of the Nuyorican Movement, the Black Arts Movement, and spoken word gave me the initial insight into this fact. My MFA program introduced me to other schools of thought, which further complicated my understanding of the Word. Schools of poetics such as the Cambridge School and the Futurists taught me the power words have in their interactions with one another: how the potentiality of meaning can be developed through the situation of words on the page. To write a poem, or to write anything for that matter, requires some reflectiveness, conscious or unconscious, of how the words are situated in any given space.
This conclusion led me to another idea I am grappling with in this project: Every word has an emotion. If every word has a story, every story comes with an emotion which shapes how these words are perceived within any given society. Each word is stories within stories; emotions within emotions. The situation of words in a space has the potentiality of emotional resonance, which, when reflected upon, can lead to empathy.
Language is more than a system of communication. It is, I would argue, a complex phenomenon which ties our consciousness to one another and to ourselves, our being.
“I Think Body” started off in free-associative language through which I attempted to exorcise the feeling of trauma. I was also interested in bringing in the language of the subjects I had been studying, as part of my process of self-discovery: gender, womanhood, spirituality, politics. I also brought in the language of pop media: music lyrics, popular poems, fashion, and dance. My goal in all of this is to explore this infinite potentiality of the self within my multitudes. To find a way into myself, but also the ways out and into the world. To connect viscerally with myself and the world. This is a project of healing, of accepting myself through reflection and empathy.
I am happy to be able to begin showing you this work. To show how possible and real I am.
To learn more about Guzman’s poetry, listen to Guzman read their poem cycle “I Think Body” at Public Seminar.
Isa Guzman is a poet, artist-coordinator of the Titere Poets collective, and MFA candidate at Brooklyn College.