Kay Ulanday Barrett is a pilipinx amerikan transgender queer poet, performer and educator. Their second poetry collection, More Than Organs, launched this month with Sibling Rivalry Press. It examines grief and love, and poetically dreams ‘Brown, Queer and Trans futures’. Reviewed by Glasgow-based poet Etzali Hernández.
I have been following Kay Ulanday Barrett’s work for several years now, and with every project they blow my mind. Their new poetry collection, More Than Organs, is no exception.
Describing the book, Kay says it ‘questions “whatever wholeness means” – for bodies always in transit, for the safeties and dangers they silo.’ Their poems also ‘remix people of colour as earthbenders’. Indeed, they create striking images of the manipulation of soil and rock by ‘Black and Brown girls’ with seemingly Avatar-esque abilities.
There’s something utterly exceptional about More than Organs, partly stemming from Kay’s skill in connecting with their audience, particularly those who share similar backgrounds and life experiences. From the moment I started reading, the book took me on a journey of ancestral prayers, deep community roots, and self-healing. What do you do when everything you’ve ever known was created in opposition to your survival, when you’re set up to compete with your own identity?
I’m wary of pigeonholing Kay’s work as only a poetry of political resistance, as their writing is profound on many levels. The stories in More than Organs come from surviving versus living, in a world that sees many of us as threats wherever and whenever because of race, gender, disability and class. Kay’s commitment to their communities, life experiences, and true self overpowers any political statement that could be made.
Their poem ‘song for the kicked out & weary (after Sonia Sanchez)’ touches a personal spot, and makes me reflect on the longing for ancestral healing in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour) communities. This vital need comes from the entitlement of whiteness and how it has permeated our communities, destroying ways of living together interdependently that existed before colonisation.
Together we are a prayer, no matter what.
Together we are an anthem despite their hetero fuss.
Together we are stronger than the world’s unsaids.
Together we are as mighty as our ancestors up from the dead.
We are bigger than the skylines that hold us.
We are bigger than the sirens that stab our hearts.
We are bigger than the talk of boystown progress, rainbow flags, & bars.
We are bigger than bleeding our blood to the stars.
‘Together we’ and ‘we are bigger than’ have become part of my everyday prayers. In these two stanzas, I see part of my life reflected, captured eloquently in full splendour. Kay’s style is bursting with a sense of freedom, and has more than enough strong imagery to help you play small videos in your head while you read. They tell a collective queer brown story that’s long overdue, and provide much-needed representation for younger queer and trans BIPOC.
By the time I reached the end of More Than Organs, my mind could not contain the book’s multitudes. It took me on an emotional ride from queer trans brown love, to grief, to ancestry, to resistance, to homage, and finally to community elders. Kay’s words are divinely and powerfully embroidered into a silky thread throughout the book. Their impressive range draws the reader back again and again, immersing us deeper into their cosmos with each poem.
You might ask if there’s anything I didn’t like about this book. My only answer is that it ends, and leaves me longing for more. As a brown queer non-binary writer myself, it’s rare to encounter the representation I deserve. Which then makes me ask my own question: When can I have enough? The words Kay has so beautifully crafted are a necessity in a world that screams for change.
…what stories does your blood tell?
we could say, howl, say part limping
tree and part starlight. we could say that
you’re a survivor of systems that stretch
you out broader than any creature of
wingspan can imagine. never mind,
the destruction, the parched throat, the
pill cocktails, the ‘sorry, there are stairs’.
– ‘pain, an epistle’
In four eloquent sections, this book invites reflection on what it means to be a disabled queer trans brown person in these times. Constantly longing for, and being told or forced to leave for, the place you are supposed to belong to – while also being reminded that you are always part of a displaced diaspora spread across the world. More Than Organs is a fierce, honest and vulnerable prayer book filled with memories, gratitude, love, joy and loss over 93 pages.
A must-read for any poet from a racialised diaspora looking for stories that represent them. And for those who are part of the establishment in one way or another, More Than Organs is an opportunity to delve into a universe likely unknown to them.
More Than Organs is available from Sibling Rivalry Press or your local indie bookshop.
Etzali Hernández bio audio:
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.