This is Not a Stunt, a collection of poems by Cath Nichols was published by Valley Press in September 2017. The collection touches on both trans and disability identity, through a mixture autobiographical works with a narrative arc which follows a boy growing up trans in the 1970s. Review by Emmeline Burdett.
The titular poem in this collection, ‘This is Not a Stunt’, recounts Victorian attempts to deal with the ‘problem’ presented by ‘hermaphrodite’* people by confining them in asylums, in which gender roles were rigidly enforced. The point, of course, is that being intersex was not necessarily a problem for the individual, but was, and often is, perceived as a problem by others, seeking to preserve gender binaries at, seemingly, any cost.
It is no surprise that ‘This is Not a Stunt’ gives the poetry collection its title poem, as it introduces many of the themes which feature in the collection as a whole. Nichols’ poems consider gender identity in the broadest sense – mainly intersex and trans – and show how these identities do not cause inherent suffering, but rather how suffering results from the attitudes and behaviour of the outside world.
This is particularly the case with a cycle of poems entitled ‘Bo(d)y-in-waiting’ – a powerful narrative which traces the life of a trans boy, Nate, growing up in the 1970s, and shows how his unhappiness is caused by his situation and others’ incomprehension of it, not by the fact of Nate being trans. For example, the poem ‘Corridor, 1973’, concerns Nate’s experiences at school. It tells us that he attended a girls’ school, as the decision had been taken to bring him up female. The poem shows us his unhappiness there, expressed in rebelliousness:
‘Nathan was aggrieved by some of his teachers and chose
to stand up to their rule. It was an all-girls school’,
It is also during the course of this poem that Nathan makes his first enquiries about sex-change surgery, and it is here that Nichols draws another parallel between sexuality and disability, for Nate is told by the doctor he sees that allowing him to have sex-change surgery would be
‘Like cutting off the legs of a cripple’.
The next poem, ‘Flood’, shows the devastating emotional consequences upon Nate of the doctor’s failure to help him. Two later poems in the cycle explore what the doctor’s words were intended to mean. One of the poems, ‘Three Wishes?’ asks:
‘Did he mean, a cripple might walk one day,
Let’s not harm his legs for now? Or did he mean,
you’re sick, and this won’t fix you?’
The other poem, ‘Life Support’ puts forward various examples of reasons why leg amputation might be beneficial, e.g. frostbite and elephantiasis, and then gets to the heart of the problem by explaining why a person who feels trapped in the wrong gender, and whose appeals for help are ignored, as Nate’s were, might try to take matters into their own hands:
You’d think about it too, if every day you
were taken for someone, some/body else: a man
or woman you’re not. ‘Sir? … So sorry, Miss’.
Just as Nate’s sufferings are due to external forces, so the sufferings of the disabled characters in Nichols’ poems are also imposed from outside. For example, the poem ‘Cloth Ears’, inspired by David Lodge’s memoir Deaf Sentence, highlights the tendency in literature to regard deafness as comic. The highly-imaginative poem ‘Accommodation’ imagines bats applying for jobs in the world of business, but being unsuccessful as their needs had not been taken into account. But, as the poem makes clear, the bats are not merely supplicants, who need special treatment to enable them to participate in society. Instead, they come into their own when in a suitable environment:
‘I wish the senior manager
had seen those bats last night, wheeling, fast
and light across the evening sky, catching moths
and gnats on the curve, returning to roost’.
This poem powerfully gets across the message of the whole collection – that if people are accepted for themselves, rather than metaphorically forced by others into neatly labelled boxes, they can be happy and reach their full potential. It may be that not everyone will agree with Nichols’ equation of impairment, disability and gender identity, but this is a rewarding, unusual and thought-provoking collection which I thoroughly recommend.
*Note from Cath Nichols: The term ‘hermaphrodite’ is used twice in the collection. Once as a split-up title ‘Her M’Aphrodite’ which refers to the god Hermes and love goddess Aphrodite from Greek myth. The other use is in the poem ‘This is Not a Stunt’ which is about the changing history of terminology around gender/sex and trans. Hermaphrodite is the term the Victorian sexologists used. They were investigating sex differences and gender, and experimenting on intersex people. But ‘intersex’ is our modern term not theirs, so I used the old term. I used a book for research ‘Hermaphrodites and the Invention of Sex’ which looks at the Victorian medicalisation of bodies and gender/sex during that period, at the same time as disabled bodies were becoming medicalised.