I love this book so much it hurts.
I read a poem. I’m overwhelmed. It is so good. There is so much goodness in it. It is exquisitely, painfully, good to read. I want to read more, but I can’t read more. I can’t bear it.
I found The Soft Life during a trip that changed my life. I flew from Oakland, Calif., where I live, to Texas, where I’m from. From Texas I would fly to New York, where I once lived, to retrieve Joni (my ten-year-old pit-mix). From there, we would take a rental car west across I-80, all the way back to the San Francisco bay.
In Texas, things got weird. In New York, I was still reeling from them. Over coffee, while prairie dogs chirped at each other and a group of bikers held an AA meeting, my father had made an announcement: she is trans, and her name is Rhiannon.
I was on valium when she told me. It was June. I said, “Happy Pride.” In the bathroom, I texted everyone: “uh my dad is trans???? lol???” I stayed on valium the rest of the time I was in Texas.
A week later, I walked the Printed Matter Zine Fair a few times before I bought anything, but I knew I wanted The Soft Life from the moment I saw it. I was drawn to the pale pink cover, the wispy white tendrils threaded between the bold green title, the first line of the first blurb on the back of the book, which is a line of Bridget’s poetry.
I wanted into “the confessional nest” Bridget writes from. I wanted to be held somewhere that I could say what I felt. Even though—probably because—what I felt was unspeakable, unknowable, completely foreign to me.
Suddenly, I was in Wyoming. (It was not sudden. It was turbulent and then mundane, as road trips often are.) I was spending two nights in a converted horse trailer at the Last Chance Camp in Cheyenne. My dog ran with horses. I ate an entire pound of spinach with salt and lime. Before the sunset, I read The Soft Life.
The Soft Life often reads like a religious text or a mythology. The holy icons: flowers and witches, milk and sweets, spit and tears, someone named Kimberly, a creature called Snakewater, necks, Paul Bunyan, Saturn, the grass. But the translator is working with fragments or has left out significant context. Who is Kimberly? Where has Snakewater gone, and why?
The poems in The Soft Life don’t “make sense.” They favor image over narrative. Rather, the narratives they portray are surreal, as foreign as my feelings were to me on that trip. Rather, they favor gooey words that ooze with sound and potential. Words like “delirium” and “phosphorescent.” Like “vamping,” “psychopomp,” and “submission.” They vacillate. The oozing dialect drips into the banal (“What a lot/of work it is. To live again./To live at all.”) and the erotic (“Doubly penetrated/god oh wow.”), into the gossipy (“She sucked/a flower off by the fences.”) and the declarative (“Submission is submission is submission is/the grass.”). Perhaps this is explained in the poem “Confusional,” where Bridget writes: “Language liked to lure us.”
And yet, when I read these poems, I know exactly what they mean. Since returning to California, I have brought the book with me on train rides and trips back to Texas. I carry it like a talisman. Like a bible. I can open to any page and feel the wisdom of Bridget’s images and internal rhymes. They feed me like the sacrament.
These are religious poems, in a less abstract sense. They draw from varied sources. Sappho, the ancient poet and possible priestess in the cult of Aphrodite, makes an appearance. So does Judith, from the Old Testament. Bridget references John Donne’s Devotions (published in 1624) — a series of meditations, expostulations, and prayers related to his journey through an illness. She includes The Way of Perfection, a book by the Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila. She alludes to the New Testament’s book of Revelations.
The book begins in valleys. It introduces us to martyrs. It considers forgiveness. It gives us “The folded/prayer position of two hands/around the neck.” It worships the sun.
I am not, generally, a religious person. I was raised in the Methodist church and I enjoyed communion, the fresh-baked bread and the Welcher’s waiting in the church kitchen after service. I was always hungry. I still am. But I never internalized the teachings of Christianity, beyond the basics of “be nice to people.” Had I been raised in a church more committed to ritual, I might have felt differently. I have always enjoyed ritual and quiet contemplation, which St. Teresa encourages in The Way.
I have always enjoyed poetry, which is itself a form of ritual and contemplation. I have nurtured, despite everything, a belief in magic, because I have seen poems invoke and incant. I have seen, as I saw with The Soft Life, poems answer my prayer for help.
What I felt was unspeakable, unknowable, completely foreign. “Shocking, but ultimately unsurprising,” I heard myself saying, over and over. And later, “The problems we had before she transitioned didn’t go anywhere.”
The question a therapist asked me, kindly: “For better or worse, the archetype of masculinity for your whole life has dissolved. Now what?”
“Trophy Dad” is a short poem. It has fifteen very short lines. It’s a frustrated poem. The first lines repeat themselves like a mantra made out of the void:
I don’t know
They call for “someone/to complain to” and to hate on exes with. If it weren’t for the title, you might think the speaker is lonely, just looking for a friend. But the second verse turns towards nostalgia: “I remember/everything/I’ve ever won.”
I have been remembering so much lately. You learn a thing like this, about someone you thought you knew, and you don’t see anything the same anymore. When I was a baby, but old enough I can remember, Rhiannon held me and pointed at the sky. “Before you were born,” she said, “you looked down from heaven and you chose us.”
But nobody knows for sure. About the soul, I mean. Or about family, and how to win at it.
A trophy wife is a woman worth showing off, shiny, proof of someone’s achievement. So what does a trophy dad prove? But family is more like a lottery. It’s mostly about luck. Luck is mostly about faith. If the archetype of masculinity in a person’s life is their father, and the Western conception of God is also a father, is it unbelievable that a girl would make a god out of her daddy? Whatever luck you land with, for a while you might believe you’ve won.
“Trophy Dad” ends with “Just a gold/cup for me/to fill with spit.” A trophy is a void as much as its absence is.
In an interview with Bennington Review (the only interview with her I could find), Bridget mentions the recent death of her father. With what can you fill a father-shaped void? Spit? Poetry? God?
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (1/28/22) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Buy The Soft Life from W O N D E R.
Read the interview with Bridget Talone in The Bennington Review.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Watching the sunset in Cheyenne, Wyoming with Joni (my ten-year-old pit-mix).
Photo Credit: Hannah Lamb-Vines.
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The Soft Life book cover courtesy of W O N D E R. All Rights Reserved.