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[…] coverAva Hofmann’s recent […] is a powerful and exciting speculative take on transfeminine becoming. Taking the form of a medieval manuscript of charms and spells that has been found, edited, and reconstructed by an unknown contemporary scholar, the book engages with speculation on several levels. First and foremost, as a collection of spells, it operates as a work of fantasy. Its enchantments construct the world in which they were purportedly written down as both a historical and imagined past—especially as they feature elements which give the sense that the medieval composers of those texts had a privileged knowledge of our present that would only be possible if they had magically seen us, or traveled into the future, before returning to construct their charms. The poems write into these gaps, and show that, taken together, such spaces are the foundations of acts of becoming, or transformation and growth. Their other ingredient is often seen to be desire. […] is, as Hofman puts it in her “Changelogue,” a book that is writing towards “a core of desire and want” (p. 68v).

Throughout the collection, Hofmann makes ample use of that signifier of missing words she takes as her title. Poems like “for the treatment of dysphoria” and “for the treatment of gender” grip those gaps and pauses, like this line from the latter: “[…] home into garbage […] // full of grieving […] fear of […] a girl: [ . . .] you […]” (p. 18v). Beginning and ending with a pause, this brief passage highlights the ways in which transformation and transition—processes that may literally be “the treatment of (false or damaging) gender”—are leaps of faith. Is this the fear of a girl, of being a girl, of not being a girl, or does something else entirely fill that ellipsis? Hofmann denies her reader the satisfaction of knowing, but in return gives them the gap itself, the chance to see how being and becoming are both a matter of bridging the gap between ourselves and the selves we make.

The reader’s willingness to explore this gap at the heart of being—of possibility, of the threshold—is bound up in the poems’ imaginative power. To really read them, you must accept Hofmann’s speculative conceit that these spells are from a several-hundred-year-old manuscript, even as you look at audio waveforms (augmented by the “editor” with QR codes that take you to performances of the relevant charms) or the cover copy of a contemporary book on banking that has been provocatively stamped “NO FUTURE.” This fantasy of the past adds texture and feeling, juxtaposing the historical and the modern and asking whether our contemporary categories of being are as fragmented and accumulated as the documents that make up the manuscript within the book of poems. The answer to this question must be yes, and that makes it all the more important as the manuscript inscribes its uniquely transfeminine mode of existence, becoming ever more itself as Hofman reappropriates social accumulations.

In “to reveal secrets (III),” Hofman makes this explicit, placing a fragment in the bottom corner of the page alongside a 1481 German woodcut of two hermaphrodites. The woodcut is captioned, in quotes, “coming out was the process of learning that i wasn’t the trap, but that culture was” (p. 57r). She puts the transmisogynistic language she encounters in service to her own devices and demands, so that it magically reveals the secret—that she is correct, the problem is culture. By promising that this fragment was found, not made, that the spell is authentic, she uses speculative effects to solidify the impact of the poems. This is not just a declaration of the truth; it makes itself true. Her poems make the world through the very focus on becoming that the “Changelogue” highlights.

This sense of transformation is vital to the book’s larger speculative project as well. By taking its magic seriously, […] pulls its reader into its world. […] is as much a grimoire as anything else: there are poems like “for the treatment of exhaustion,” with its distinctive magic circle and instructions to “[…] shave off bits of gravestone into your food to [ . . .]” and “graffiti this sigil upon a […] bland roadway. Then, chug three […] and go to the nearby gay bar & dance [ . . .] & take a picture of yourself smiling & winking and text that picture to a friend, captioning it with your best canned one liner” (p. 27r); they would feel at home in a guide intended for practical magical use. What world might have such enchantments? One in which, hundreds of years ago, a record was made of something that feels so distinctively modern, where a sigil is inscribed “carbonation” and “sodium benzoate,” and you can send text messages (p. 27r)?  One that grabs us by the throat and demands we think with magic, both past and present? This incantation that demands the caster “proclaim loudly to nobody in the room ‘who even cares about my genitals anyway?’” (p. 27r) reminds us that this spell seems to be designed for a contemporary trans magician, rather than the medieval scribe who “wrote” it. The temporal blurring combines with the fantastical underpinnings of the charm. We make our worlds and ourselves, and that magic is incomplete, as the manuscript itself is. This incompleteness is necessary for it to work. The gaps in the spell not only provide verisimilitude to the fiction of the manuscript but are the core of the magical power presented within it as well.

This is best shown in my two favorite poems in the whole collection, “the charm squares” and “the beheading game.” Early in the book comes “the charm squares,” a series of magic talismans inscribed with text to be read in any order. The gaps come at crucial moments, obscuring what little guidance the imagined editor would give for their use. As a result, the reader is left entirely alone with the fragments, and must decide how to approach each one. This energizes the squares, which thus capture the possibility of magic, directly, in their very form. Like a magic square that displays the same word or phrase in many directions, these squares compile their meanings up and down, left and right. They declare “cast iron panopticon strip mall” and “cast iron mine. Crypt 5 thousand computers’ labor to administraight clay signs” to be equivalent statements, though both form only part of the charm (p. 15r). These poems say that the resistance to interpretation, the refusal of sense and its stable categorizations, is itself a magical action. They dare the reader to inscribe them, to participate in enchantment themselves, to be as ungovernable and desiring and malleable as language.

This conscription of the reader into magical production is then completed in the poem that is, for me, the emotional heart of the collection. “the beheading game” is a retelling, of sorts, of the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem, labeled as “a charm to heal terrifying nightmares and dreadful visions of destruction,” is a haunting version of the legend, emphasizing the violence and grim physicality of the story. As the reader progresses through the bits of paper, indexed with numbers and letters, that make it up, they become a participant in a dark game of safety. The poem walks the reader through the game as the poem walks through the beheadings, as in C-2: “gawain swung first […] splattering // blood-like from the giant’s goo siphons [ . . .] gas line, spewing oil […] another cleave // cutting spoiled gobs of fat from […] the final hack cut out one of the giant’s wombs // […] filaments of gore […] screamed. she […] she […] // […] but she did not die” (p. 34v). In this moment, we see the horror of the knights’ game of back-and-forth beheadings, but also the opportunity it provides. The poem guards against nightmares and destruction through the spectacle of change. The giant does not die; she cannot, and her dissection is a chance to remake who she is—to counterdefine her against the casting of the Green Knight as a threatening man. Rewriting the story of Gawain and the Green Knight as both horror and pantomime, this poem illustrates the trans and transformative possibilities of both magic and genre.

In all, […] uses its speculative setting to capture a unique perspective on transformation and becoming, coloring its narrative of the past with contemporary trans sensibilities and its narrative of transition with folk magic and the fantastical. These poems speak powerfully and honestly about the centrality—both to magic and to those practical actions of becoming which include transition—of wanting. What is required is a desire strong enough to make the world and the self over, to enact the self onto the world. This realization, powered by the reader’s participation in this making—not only of themselves, but of the book they read—builds over the course of the collection. As it conscripts us, the book insists that our world is as fantastical as its setting, calling us into its magic and insisting that we learn from it—before returning us to the mundane world in which we think we live. The experience of [ . . .] is fully shaped by a transformative force, making its reading a challenge and a delight. It wants to be read, to be gone through one word at a time, to be experienced slowly and over and over again. The reader’s efforts pay off, transforming them just as the grimoire promises. When you enter the world Hofmann makes, you cannot help but take some of it back, letting its magic act in reality as much as it does in fantasy.

Tristan Beiter is a queer speculative fiction nerd originally from Central Pennsylvania. His work has previously appeared in such venues as Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, Abyss & Apex, and the 2022 Rhysling Anthology. When not reading or writing, he can be found crafting absurdities with his boyfriend or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter at @TristanBeiter.
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