Harvard Yard turkeys may be a pre-Colombian anarchist community planning to burn it all down. Illyana Rasputin and Sappho may have more in common than the (pretty) obvious, melding to tell a story of pining. Postapocalyptic whales may tell their calves stories about now. That girl you liked at summer camp may have really been you. You may long for something you don’t know exists, hard enough to turn your whole life around. Cinderella is a trans story of longing, but longing for what? The child at a Jewish deli leaning curiously over the pickle cart is a mermaid, is a princess, is a punk. You can know, while you have no idea; you may have many points of view—as you have no voice.
Stephanie Burt’s poetry collection We Are Mermaids explores existences between realities, or rather existing in more than one. Some of Burt’s poems are, as well, visual art, in the shape of a wildflower, run-on like a tangle of violets—or in the shape of a gender-affirming Italian sandwich. “I was made to join together / things formerly thought incompatible, to be neither- / nor and both-and to seek a connection / that does not amount to copulation,” she explains from the point of view of a semicolon. Burt also writes about isolation, using “we/us” pronouns. I want to read all this as making a statement about an affinity between trans people and semicolons; between “@#^%$#!@” expressions and autistic adults: pickles are trans women’s longings for themselves, sauerkraut the colors of genderqueer pride.
Many statements in this collection have two meanings—one linked with the sentence before and the other with the next line. Two of my favorite poems, “My 1993” and “My 1994,” tell stories of knowing and not knowing, of living in the closet as you might live in an actual closet on an alternative music scene:
The boys wore striped sailor shirts and they sang
Like girls and the girls wore striped sailor dresses and sang
Like every first kiss was simultaneously
The Holy Grail and no big deal, which was true
And is true.
Burt backstitches sentences and lines into one another. Each meaning has another meaning if you keep reading. Here, the narrator’s experiences are understood differently when linked to their closeted past and when linked to their queer girl future:
I was proud to be the new
Coat-check girl at a cavernous bowling alley
Recently made over into a cavernous rock club.
I was working for tips. I wanted to say
I was working. Really I was playing
At self-sufficiency. Mostly I was playing
Records nobody else liked for two hours a night
Or four if the next DJ never showed up.
The reading experience itself also covers several realities, at least for for me. One moment I was reading an insightful poem about New Mutant’s Rahne Sinclair, an academic experience. Then out of nowhere another part of me was bawling, because another poem was a deep, kind beseeching on behalf of every misfit, and it implied that there was someone who cared. I then read a different poem, asking myself, “How can an experience be shared by so many of us and also crushingly lonely?” And as I tried to work that out on the verge of tears, I was delighted with the joy of the protagonist, a ten-year-old girl, that there are so many types of pickles.
Elsewhere, the collection includes a section of post-apocalyptic narratives. It reads like personal notes from different points of view, at different ends of different worlds—like visiting the abandoned ruins of a building collapsed across realities, picking up notes and pictures scattered in the dandelions and crumbling debris. Some are nostalgic about different times—perhaps nostalgic about our future, or recent past. Someone unsettlingly tells you about snow, the way people used to be able to find deer tracks in it, to paint it different colors, and keep it in a thing that was named freezer.
Some literary scholars say that detective stories are written as a competition between reader and author. That both find pleasure in the reader not understanding. Burt's poetry is spangled with mysterious, vulnerable, funny riddles to make you smile: small treasures, if you can pick them out and put them together. They are like summer activity pages for adults. There are hidden jokes, clever riddles, and Easter eggs—or rather, there are Seder Afikomans. Unlike detective stories, though, Burt’s mysteries feel like they are hidden for the author’s and readers’ joy in finding them: the joy of discovering affinity, and joy of being seen. Not all things are discoverable, though, and that is OK: Burt shows us joy in mysteries, in guessing and imagining goallessly. As she writes: “Knowing isn’t the point. We love how the letters can touch.”
Burt builds complex experiences. Not in the sense that you need to work hard to reach flavor—on the contrary, these poems are complex but viscerally affecting. If you’re going to work in this collection, it will probably be to explain to yourself what you’ve just experienced. The collection has so many narrators and realities. Throughout this variety, though, there remains a sense of kindness. Not kindness as in politeness, but kindness as in the last best hope for humanity to survive—the kindness of those who’ve experienced some of the worst society has to offer, and let it make them gentler and more responsible towards others, give them more compassion. The most depressing stories of hopelessness have a note of hope: postapocalyptic futures with mermaids; a reprise of a poem about longing—just a little bit sated; a love poem about fixing a dishwasher in quarantine. Burt writes, "Anything, given time, can become a fine / art. Anything can turn over, or decline, / or break, or come back together, or simply change. Put that in your model museum. Put that in your vault.”
In Burt’s poems, the sharpest witticisms are thoughtful about who to hold safe from that edge. I felt like some poems yanked my guts out, but it was never a fumble. It was always thought through and wrapped in enough compassion to make it hit the spot without leaving me as a heap of inverted flesh.
Many people will enjoy Burt’s playful, insightful, painful poetry. But this collection feels like a special gift for some of us. I can’t say this is a book for people who are out of place in society; it is, but I would not attempt such a universalization. People who fit into society are alike; each person who doesn’t fit, doesn’t fit in their own way. Besides—every transphobic novel about a thin, white, cis, non-disabled straight teen already claims to be a story about misfits, for misfits.
For me, there are very few literary works that actually see me, or care about me. Trans stories are binarist or ableist, disability representation is fatphobic, body neutrality is cis, and so on. This has its obvious downsides, but comes with perks. Humans are terrifying. Being seen is dangerous. There is comfort in always being ignored by books, in usually being under-researched enough that even intentional bigotry is often badly aimed. When I want representation I have to claim it, to fight for a version of it that’s been Xeroxed into something else. I get to choose what to fight for. I get to choose the amount of fighting. Having such a gorgeous collection suddenly turn its various heads and look at me, then, feels so vulnerable—but also precious, and so very rare. It might have been a shocking violation, had it not been so kind.