Both of You But Better
Gender entails an act of translation between interior truth and social performance. Binary gender roles in particular are marked by external and internal assessments of difference, where the constituent elements of boy and girl align like a primary school lesson on antonyms, ignoring the complex dynamics of power, privilege, and personhood that jostle beneath these words’ surfaces. As unsatisfactory as it is, this gender-essentialist system still holds society in its grip, even if at the individual level, what boy and girl mean is far less predictable; personal results may vary. Rebecca Hazelton’s new poetry collection, Gloss, examines the rhetoric of gender roles through poems that distill and subvert essentialist language with concussive force. As the collection probes the invisible but very palpable infrastructure of a gendered status quo, it exposes just how much we want to believe in the safety of gender norms instead of acknowledging the gray zones between social expectation and internal truth, between stricture and structure.
Gloss is divided into three parts—“Adaptations,” “Counterfeits,” and “Self-Portraits”—and at every level, the meanings of the word gloss multiply, blur, and bleed into one another. As Hazelton plays with the relationship between gender roles and the images that perpetuate them, she subverts the stereotypes and dichotomies we unthinkingly accept. Using social expectation as a dark mirror, the poems employ a logic of “both/and” to reconfigure our scripts around gender, so that a larger, more complex composite can emerge. In “Self-Portrait as Thing in the Forest,” the speaker examines a gowned woman whose image functions like a Rorschach test. “Behind this dress, / [are] two women / in the mess of one body hardly covered / by the stiff beauty of lustrous rustle.” Both versions are a gloss of what it means to be a woman, whether the gloss fits or not, and the woman beneath these images is just as susceptible to an interpretative gaze as an inkblot image. Whether the woman is seen as a bride, a femme fatale, or a truth that encompasses both depends not only on who’s looking but on what they’re prepared to see.
Throughout the collection, the poems’ subjects aren’t just passing through the world. They’re also trying to pass through the images that surround them and to traverse the distance between personal understanding and public presentation. Often these forms of passage connect through Hazelton’s use of the pronoun you to blur the line between a poem’s speaker and reader, between the individual and the social. The opening poem, “Group Sex,” sets the tone. In an encounter with her lover, the speaker’s perspective splits between an embodied and a disembodied view of the self. Shifts between the two are marked in the speaker’s diction, and she presents herself as both “you” and “she.”
There’s you and your lover and
there’s also his idea
of who you are in this moment,
and your idea of who
he should be, both of these like
both of you but better—
…You could watch the two of them
As the speaker disassociates from herself in order to perform as the media ideal of a woman having sex, “you” is no longer a discrete pronoun anchored to the page. It becomes another place where categories bleed together. That demanding, damning “you” makes everyone from the speaker to the reader a participant in the action. It’s the twin gaze of social expectation and a pressure that exists at every moment alongside and within the self. Both precedent and promise of the volume’s trajectory, this poem establishes Hazelton’s idea that modernity requires people to become voyeurs and curators of the self, and throughout Gloss she finds all kinds of moments where this feedback loop between internal and external worlds reveals the intricacies of identity.
Whether through images from the silver screen or the small screen, the domestic or the literary, the scientific or the religious, Hazelton personalizes social norms and shows how the distance between societal messaging and a sense of self shapes us. In particular, Hazelton’s examination of what it means to be a woman or a man reveals a trickle-down economy that manufactures a whole host of other assumptions.
Many of the poems interrogate the intertwined role-play of gender and sexuality manufactured by a culture that still views heterosexuality as the norm. In “When He Is a Woman,” Hazelton volleys assumptions about gendered behavior and sexuality across the page. Beginning with the title, the poem plays with the gender of the speaker’s partner and the way gender is outwardly marked. As the poem unfolds, Hazelton turns supposedly stable social defaults into areas of duality where an understanding of “both/and” is the only way to resolve the poem’s tension. When the “he” is a woman, the poem’s speaker is a man, and as a man, she’s aware that
When he is a woman I feel optimistic,
when he is in a dress that
his small frame, when the heels
he walks in put his round
hips to sway,
all these things make the smoke
above my scotch
on the rocks. In this, as in
all things, I am traditional.
The poem’s language shows that when it comes to the ways gender shapes expectation, you don’t just need eyes to see; you need to know what you’re looking at in the first place. When something that doesn’t conform to our assumptions confronts us, we’re forced to consider the possibility that our assumptions not only describe a reality—they create one. In destabilizing the rhetoric of gender and attraction, Hazelton proposes that we rethink what we have supposed to be real.
Anger is also a palpable presence in these poems, and there’s a thrilling, incendiary impulse in its clarity. In poems like “Gunpowder,” anger about the layered assumptions that are an outgrowth of encoded gender expectations reveals that
In friction, we see what rubs
and what breaks off, and in the
we tell others, there is an
for fire and its hungers.
I said love, and that is a match. I said believe me, and that was
There’s a subtextual tension between media depictions of women in love as soft, yielding receivers and of this speaker’s love—volatile, consuming, active. Once that love’s introduced, it’s swiftly followed by one short phrase: “believe me.” Believing the speaker means believing a woman’s testimony about her own experience in the world and the reality that this experience creates. The juxtaposition of love and belief combusts in the final lines, and the explosion reverberates throughout the collection.
When it comes to gender, no one is neutral. No one is exempt. Cisgender people need to talk about gender in a way that goes beyond “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and really examine the ways they are cultured and why they negotiate their genders the way they do. Hazelton takes up this work, finding the knife-edged tension between belief and truth, need and reality, desire and fact. Her poems expose the scripts cisgender people, especially women, are cued to perform by media, culture, or their own internal worlds and proclaim it’s the vast in-between—what’s silenced—that warps our assumptions until only one thing’s certain: “If the woman is the call / to the other’s answer / the answer is to keep calling and calling.”