Call Me Vince
draft 12: an unexplanation / an assemblage / a rumination—on art, & self, & the artistry of being
Say what you will, and scratch my heart to find
The roots of last year’s roses in my breast;
I am as surely riper in my mind
As if the fruit stood in the stalls confessed.
Laugh at the unshed leaf, say what you will,
Call me in all things what I was before,
A flutterer in the wind, a woman still;
I tell you I am what I was and more…
---E. Vincent Millay, from Sonnets and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver
Late January, 2020
Envelope-glue mosses my tongue, sending its fuzzy spores off the roof of my mouth to spiral through stretched lips into the aerial plankton, which floats above the atmospheric migration route of butterflies,—those bursts of delicate color in the clouds. It tastes of joy. Or maybe it’s my odd delight in Flag’s bus stops that sends me skipping down the street, my foolish grin sticky with the memory of four letters slipped into the mailbox signed Vincent/Vince.
It’s the waiting. That’s what I love about bus stops, I think. There’s a practiced patience I find nowhere else in life that nests in my canvas book bag each time I pause there, infinitely slow-startled by the rainbow-streaked shelter of glass, refracting time onto a yellow curb,—the bus stop, I mean.
I mean to say: that stillness, which slurs the passing traffic / fractured snow / sideways sleet into a jazz-daze of discovery, is much like Silence, whom I yearn after in Millay’s words an afternoon later (after skipping), as I wait for route ten to sweep me home.
Silence is a goddess in a poem; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ode to Silence”— frozen to the page by my cold-cracked fingers—is so rife with sound that I’m compelled to murmur the words & taste them, & I fractal into just another mad person at the bus stop,—another lost to the lovesickness for language.
Maybe April, 2015
Edna St. Vincent Millay, who, for a while, in the 1930s, published as E. Vincent Millay & who was known, to some, as Vincent, is my introduction to poetry. I am convinced I will be a scientist (an all-knowing being of clarity); then I read “Witch-Wife” & become enamored with Millay’s descriptions of the voice, which in this, my first love, is “a string of colored beads, / Or steps leading into the sea.” I want my voice to be worth such description, & I want it fiercely.
But your voice,—never the rushing
Of a river underground,
Not the rising of the wind
In the trees before the rain,
Not the woodcock’s watery call,
Not the note the white-throat utters,
Not the feet of children pushing
Yellow leaves along the gutters
In the blue and bitter fall,
Shall content my musing mind
For the beauty of that sound
That in no new way at all
Ever will be heard again.
First Days at Seattle Pacific University, 2015
My courage fails. Despite being consumed with the flame of wanted name, fire writhing more mandarin, more red than Millay’s hair, I’m not able to say it. As the first-years pass their names around the class in first-lecture, it sticks, burning like citrus-on-sore-throat within me. It’s my turn: again, & repeated. “I’m Sarah,” I say. & I don’t say: “But people call me Vincent,”—because no one calls me Vincent, not yet.
Later Days, & Later Yet
Now it’s late October, & no one knows my name as I dash through the Fremont torrent from a wet, concrete-urine bus-stop to the door of Ophelia’s Books. I shiver in through the paint-chipped frame & enter the warmth tinged with rabbit must, which curls up the spiral staircase from a page-packed basement below where the shop cat winds through sagging shelves. But dripping rain, still on the ground floor, I’m summoned by name to the Staff Picks column (wedged within Fiction, across from the Little Commie Nook) instead.
It’s Millay: The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s hard-backed in grey, but sleeved with a sheened photo of her draped in magnolia blossoms; it’s the first book of poetry I own. I begin to collect words—in notebooks & bound books & recitations—& I decide to wait. Maybe in my next re-making, I will be brave. I will be Vincent.
& now it’s August,—not the next year, but 2019—& I’m moving to Flagstaff, Arizona for graduate school,—not creative writing, but anthropology. It takes my whole family, plus my new roommate, to haul the scuffed cardboard boxes up a flight of stairs (at 7000’) into my new apartment. We all gasp the ponderosa-tasting air, thinner than Le Croix—with what feels like the same amount of oxygen—& I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have stacked a quarter of the UHaul with books. Three boxes contain only poems. I am fondest, still, of that hard-cover miracle from Ophelia’s. I press it to my heat-slicked chest, once my family has gone, on the night before orientation. I have waited: this time I will be brave.
My courage fails. In the morning I catch sight of a professor, to whom I already signed an email “Sarah,” & I follow the signage through the Social & Behavioral Sciences building & sit in the room &, when my time comes, I say: “My name’s Sarah.” & I think maybe I’ll be Vincent for my PhD. What’s a few more years? I’ve waited,---though it’s not the bus stop sort of waiting: this one is smothered in fear. While at SPU I am fearful of assumption,—that my assumption of this name will be met with others assuming that I assume this name for its gender, not its particularity. I don’t want to be a man; I don’t know yet that there are many words for trans. & I think maybe I don’t deserve the name Vincent. Her flippancy, her ferocious attunement to life’s beauty & terrors, & her ease with words, all are mangled in my four years of almost-introductions; I’m ruining Vincent,—my gesture toward the poet, yes, but also (more quietly, less known) myself.
I don’t know if there’s an end to how long I’ll wait.
Early January (The Holidays), 2020
My dad floats two coffees over to the breakfast nook—the new one, in Virginia—& the warm haze dripping off their rims blurs the wall-of-windows view across Turtle Pond into a pointillist flutter. The bird feeder, rife with nuthatches & cardinals, & the distant leaf scars on barren branches all become brushstrokes. Both mugs swirl with steamed milk & cinnamon, &, once they’re safely nested in double-handed cradles on the table, we continue speculating our January futures, elbows passing over the latest issue of the New Yorker toward scones & collisions, offset by the drone of NPR.
Mom’s just heard about Iran: “Wait, what happened?” After my shorthand explanation (has the radio been turned off yet, or am I speaking over it still? maybe we’re both saying the same things), Katie makes an offhand joke (which I later read is unacceptable) about a draft reinstated for WWIII, & my dad suggests we all petition for bone spurs. The whole country, every person, should dodge the draft on account of bone spurs, like Trump did. (Of course there will be no draft—the US exceeds recruitment numbers every year. In a country where joining the military often seems to be the only option for many people born into poverty, poverty is our draft.)
Katie says that the bone-spur medical note is unnecessary: instead, we should all just come out. We all know that queer people aren’t welcomed in the military. Before anyone has time to consider what she means by that first “we,” Katie concedes that there is a drawback to this strategy: “then we’d have to deal with Pence’s concentration camps, though.”
“Conversion therapy,” I supply, reaching for another scone. If I were a better writer, or had a better memory at least, I’d supply more details here—what happens next, the context, how everyone responds—but I’m not thinking about writing (or about anyone else) as I break the mounded corners from my scone & recede from our conversation. As the close press of breakfast, egg-yolk scent—& of the heat of our rescue dog on my feet—mutes like the sound of moss in rain, I’m thinking about how the timing for authenticity never feels natural. I’m thinking, distant now, of that simple slip of words “come out.”
In my memory, it’s the summer I turned 17,--- the summer I told my parents I was depressed. Or, as I sometimes say, accidentally, I came out to them as depressed. This sort of coming out, like Katie’s suggestion, also disqualifies me from armed combat. I linger on that thought—my unfitness—while letting crumbs flake from my fingertips. When I say “I told my parents I was depressed,” I mean I leave them a note. Or hand it to them. I can’t remember. I just remember that there is a day this summer when the unsaid becomes too dangerous, & I don’t have the courage to say it, so on a scrap of paper I confess, & I weep as they read it because I am terrified—as I was terrified the day before that they wouldn’t believe my act of normalcy—that they today won’t believe my urgency because yesterday’s act was too convincing. Or worse yet, that they’ll feel betrayed by the ongoing lie of my existence. I wonder if it would be easier to stop existing than to rupture the facade.
"Is something the matter, dear," she said,
"That you sit at your work so silently?"
"No, mother, no—'twas a knot in my thread.
There goes the kettle—I'll make the tea."
That paper still exists somewhere. I find it,—in memory again—palm-sized and creased, when I pack up all my belongings up from my childhood home. My parents are moving to Virginia, & I'm leaving for graduate school in Arizona. In the old house, I find my antisuicide note, & I decide not to throw it out. Or maybe I do throw it out. I remember feeling like I can’t, even though reading it again, for the first time in five years,— but what matters is that it is a note. I never actually say aloud: “I’m depressed,” not at first. I don’t just bring it up in conversation. Because when such matters come up naturally, I can’t say “they won’t draft a bipolar mess like me” (despite a whole post about my bipolar on my site) & I certainly don't look anyone in the eye when my mom remembers, nodding, that Trump said something about no trans servicepeople.
I don’t say I’m trans. Instead, I begin to write you all a note. A note that ruptures, but makes it easier to survive.
Simultaneous, 2017 & 2018
I think compulsively like a mantra each time I see them: “That’s the sort of woman I want to be.” The first time I see Hannah, I’m startled that I’d want to be a woman, but I settle into the sentence as each glimpse makes route the words. Han’s another English major, only a year ahead of me in school, but I meet them in a physics class. In class, we learn about the refraction of light, mostly, & I never speak to them except for once, in a bathroom, at the end of the quarter, when I say loud against the flushing sound that I like their haircut (or maybe it’s their hooped earrings that I compliment,—most of what I remember is nervousness). Instead of conversation, I watch them for months, enamored. It’s what I call “a writing crush”: when I fall helplessly in love with someone’s words & the way they speak them. & now I'm in the throes of an ardent writing crush for Han,—for the first time wanting not only words, but also the mode of being that creates them. A selfhood crush, if you will.
It’s their voice. That’s the resonant desire, I think. Han’s voice lingers in the air,—self-assurance heady like plum cake. It’s a feedback loop wherein the genius is the muse. Sophomore-me is convinced that each word Han speaks is worth Millay’s description. Each is a scrap of infinity,—both the broad & infinitesimal. One phrase is a scrap of brown paper fluttering from storefront shadow to sun-flooded sidewalk crack. & the next is a fish-scale glimmer that tastes like Olympic rainforest & feels like a reflection of myself. Their words are alternately precise & murky with the nuance of being. So I continue reading their words even after the quarter ends, even though I never mustered the courage to speak with them or to wonder what in them was the brush of my own future that I felt.
“That’s the sort of woman I want to be.”
In the October 2018 issue of them., Han publishes a photo essay, titled “What I Learned About Being Nonbinary Through Documenting a Year of My Life.” It’s as if Han knows in that shared class what I am thinking: “I have been good at being a woman,” they will write, & I, in that October future, am appalled by those words. The sort of woman I want to be is non-woman / outside of woman / what I was and more. I am not ready for this. I am appalled, yet elation pinches at the balloon swell of my fear.
The sort of woman I want to be is more-than-woman, & that thought flares through me, illuminating so many moments of my life as if with gold leaf,—a holy manuscript of recognition. Before I can slam the book shut (click closed the link), I see another line & read toward it: “I stay quiet,” Han writes, “and pretend I am not suffocating my own self into silence and deterioration.” The burning of an almost-name sears through my throat, & this is a moment of courage contained, but it’s also a moment that smolders.
Han reflects on their own words—their sharing, their community—& supposes that “honesty makes honesty possible and language exists to better the ways we can be together.” Silence is not Millay’s yearned-for-goddess of serenity; it’s loneliness. & we, all persons, are meant to be together. We’re not meant to snuff out our selves. As a second Vincent writes, with words about painting that are true, too, to the recognition of self: “it’s not a bad idea for you to become an artist, for when one has fire within and a soul, one cannot keep bottling them up — better to burn than to burst, what is in will out.”
January’s Middling, 2020
What is in comes out: when classes begin, I introduce myself as Vince.
The heat-low evening darkens, & as I weep in bed & relief, it occurs to me that people might think I’ve named myself after the second Vincent,—van Gogh. It occurs to me because he is more famous, & shares a similar diagnosis,---because I've read all his collected letters, & I write letters, & I find solace in his words about poetry & his fierce declamation of our madness. It occurs to me mostly, though, because a film flashes advertised across my screen: the film’s called Loving Vincent. Each frame in this reflection on Vincent—but also on perception & humanity’s desire for intimacy—is hand painted in van Gogh’s trace brushes. The swirls, soft like my covers, embrace me in eddy,—the tender draws me in.But you do not join me.
This Vincent is a different self-resonance, & he deserves his own fractured-mirror description. I move my reaction to a different folder, & I step into the most recent moment.
Now (The Presentary, Which, By Now, Has Passed)
I delete four sections (the beloved remnants of earlier drafts), & begin formatting the remaining sections—the ones you’ve read—so that I may fit these time-bound-particularity fragments onto my website. This mosaic-making is dependent on the light-scattering quality of the momentarily broken,—& the broken momentary. That is to say,—this is a work in progress, as am I.
My mom calls me as I walk to my office at NAU. She wants to know how the day is—if the sun’s yet kissed me good morning—but she also wants to know what “Vincent” means to me. My courage slips into the gaps where words fail: I am Vincent,—not Millay nor van Gogh, but my own. I am an inexplicable assemblage of moments, & you can call me Vince. The January freeze is counterbalanced on my face by cheeks fanned raw-red in the wind as she listens & we speak. I reach my building, its shadow creeping toward my feet, as concurrently, in Virginia, her lunch break ends.
“Love you, Vinny,” she says, & then there’s dial tone.
It’s after the above’s Now—the future?—& I lick an envelope to seal it, & my mouth becomes a whole forest of moss.