Grasping one’s sense of selfhood is dependent on the selves around us and the way we project ourselves on other human beings, consciously or not. These other beings may also constitute themselves as mirrors that are, more often than not, cracked and not exactly self-flattering. Becoming and staying self-aware, whatever this might mean, becomes a strenuous exercise, a quite dizzying one that may also lead you to conclude that one’s self is more likely to be an iridescent illusion that guarantees dissatisfaction and anxiety, especially when one is expected to conform to certain social conventions and identify herself accordingly. In the rather short but high-pitched Fleshgraphs, Brynne Rebele-Henry rejects any such easy detectable self in favor of a collection of kaleidoscopic selves, by using her own body as an organic archive of episodes, but also as a filter that might end up clogging every once in a while. It’s the bodily reactions to the things happening to her that define each of these somewhat residual selves that ride out any self-conscious censor to tell the story while also giving a new meaning to it.
She angrily transgresses everything she is expected to be: her corporeal condition as a slender human animal and the distinct taboos this condition calls for, family/peer pressure, and sex/gender assignment. But this is only the beginning as she continues to embody various versions of herself, all documented in writing that somehow manages not to be scattered in the same manner that Brynne’s intimate confessions are mercilessly thrown at you. It’s a squash game of feral senses and experimental lyrics, but without any winner as the sustained use of satire in Fleshgraphs asserts exactly this: that no version of self gets to be better than another. There’s no competition between different selves, just an uninterrupted interplay of shifting and overlapping self-perspectives that dares you to stay the same during reading. But you might eventually fail at this as these fleshgraphs become a part of your own flesh – by enhancing your senses and insinuating themselves as grafts in the memory of your body and its newly stretched boundaries.
Her body washes in, a tangle of seaweed and her grandmother’s fake sapphires. He is disappointed about the way her body is shaped. “I thought she was a whale.” We watch her arching her back, her eyes sand-coated magnifying glasses. Ambulances never occur to us, we say later, when the light is a funeral home disco in our un-made-up faces. We just wanted to see some mating whales, we say.
Almost like a trained ventriloquist, Brynne Rebele-Henry’s writing exhibits distinct speakers who all seem to be sharing a rather dark sense of humor: survivors of rape, mothers that give birth to monsters or have to go through stillbirths, trans-persons, lost and never found aliens, sex workers, drug addicts who self-mutilate, women suffering from postpartum depression. Fleshgraphs also abounds in glamorous yet unapologetic allusions to sadistic impulses, lycanthropy, violent deaths, epidemics of digital narcissism, gonzo pornography, cannibalism, slut shaming, sexual role playing that breaks with the human/non-human binary and pepper it with ingenious sex toys, suicidal/homicidal tendencies, obsessions with surgically-enhanced bodies (after all, fake is the new real), and child molestation to name just a few. At first, such allusions may “scratch” hypersensitive retinas and come across as too brutal for one to take in at a glance – in fact, they might even require you to put the book aside for a moment or two. But their excruciating fury is actually the harmony underlying the corporeality of one’s fractured childhood and puberty – how this corporeality can be simultaneously experienced as menace and blessing in disguise, especially when the child becomes aware of the painful split between her and the rest of the world, both on a psychological and physical level.
The virginity I sort of have weighs against my twenty-nine-year old thighs. I’ve tried bars, construction sites, funeral homes, clubs, restaurants, small businesses, hookah bars, no takers, single mingle, prostitutes, candy, escorts, speed dating for your inner bisexual, craigslist, real estate agencies, gyms, carwashes, sex shops. I’ve tried bondage, nipple piercings, bodycon dresses, platforms, makeup artists, two thousand dollar hair salons. I’ve taped printouts of bad porn on my clothing. I got a tattoo that says “fuck me.” I’ve tried two hundred shades of red on my lips.
With its hybrid, turned inside out poetics, Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs has the fierceness of Butoh performances. It smears rigid boundaries between poetry and prose, conventional language and the female body it tries to pin down by erasing nuances and devising labels instead, and ultimately, between the ideal (usually self-made) self and its multiple versions refracted by personal experiences and the world that is confronting our perceptions. Easily dismissing any shallow interpretation as mere teen angst or polished bad ass-ism, these fleshgraphs are also a close-to-the-bone hint that our vulnerable bodies, these masses of flesh sensitive to pain (whether we are taking pleasure in it or trying to escape it altogether), might just as well be our only and ultimate reality.
Brynne Rebele-Henry was born in 1999. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, The Volta, So to Speak, Verse, and Adroit, among other publications. She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Award from the Poetry Society of America.She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
M H cross-stitches dissonances at Drunken Boat.
Fleshgraphs is published by Nightboat Books. Author bio courtesy of the same.