Feature image via Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s Twitter
“So sometimes I forget my own power. So sometimes I need to be hurt in order to heal. So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine. (So sometimes I need to be reminded I have a body) […] So sometimes there is something refreshing about the intimacy between strangers: its unfamiliar familiar honesty, its piercing candidness.” – Alok Vaid-Menon, “Massage”
For as long as I can remember, I have fled from my body in times of pain. Years of training in mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy have yet to take this from me. Disconnected from physical sensations – my beating heart as a male stranger grabs me on the metro, the grinding of my wrist bones caught in my ex-boyfriend’s drunken grip – and emotions like fear and rage, I soar into a place without feeling. Without home.
I knew too much
about myself to stay alive. I stayed
alive. I wrote names on my body with
pins, nails, knives, fire, anything
that would mark the flesh.
This kind of violence is a shrine
to itself. The way it touches you
without breathing, thinking, feeling
– I AM DRAPED IN HEAVENLY SKIN, There Should Be Flowers
Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s second collection of poetry, There Should Be Flowers, is a journey back into the flesh, the physical world, and the simultaneous joyous and painful complexities that come with living inside skins that are marked with the stigmas of femininity, difference, madness, and grief. With signature lyricism and frank emotionality, Espinoza reclaims those two attributes of life that women (and especially trans women) are forbidden to own: our bodies and our feelings.
“I embrace my sadness because to name it and to perform it publically gives insight into what this world does to women, to trans and gender nonconforming people, to gay and queer people in general,” said Espinoza, who prefers to be called “Jen” or “Jennifer” in person and described herself as the “gayest gay who ever gayed,” and “criest cry who ever cried,” in an interview with Autostraddle. “My Twitter content and my poetry is about finding some kind of outlet for my pain as well as creating a space to perform that pain for an audience, to communicate my subject position the only way I know how.”
Espinoza’s perspective on emotion is reminiscent of cis digital artist Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory, which articulates the expression of feminine sadness – and particularly the sadness of young women and girls expressed on the internet through selfies – as a necessary political theme, in opposition to prevailing social attitudes that characterize sad girls as frivolous and shallow.
There Should Be Flowers is Sad Girl Poetry par excellence; it’s emo high school poetry blog material refined to a high art while remaining deeply accessible, which is to say accountable, to an audience that reaches beyond the often rarified (read: white, university-educated) demographic of most literary circles.
That is, the poems in There Should Be Flowers are raw and direct and say exactly what they mean: Sometimes it sucks to live as a trans girl of color in a colonized land. Sometimes it sucks to have a body that you didn’t ask for. These are poems whose rhythms and cadence are palpably shaped by the context of the internet – Espinoza has a sizeable Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook following, including yours truly – and are deepened by it.
I read another comments section of an article
about trans women and I want to die. To not exist. To let
them win. I don’t let them win. I circle the drain
and kiss my fingers hello. I welcome them back. This complex
trauma responds only to the dialectical. Only to the
heat and the cool, the death and the life.
– I IMAGINE ALL MY CIS FRIENDS LAUGHING TO TRANNY JOKES, There Should Be Flowers
Yet Espinoza’s work also departs from the Sad Girl aesthetic in her exploration of land and belonging, a subtler counterpoint to her central preoccupation with the body. In this, she joins a long tradition of North American women of color writers whose work explores the (deeply wounded) relationships between identity and geography.
I identify as the earth
and as everything
that has ever happened to me.
I’d swear on my name
all of it is true
but I don’t have one. Not yet.
– THE SUNSET IS SO BEAUTIFUL, There Should Be Flowers
“I’m always thinking about bodies as land, and land as bodies,” says Espinoza, “the way they are both named, occupied, colonized, stolen, and destroyed—how the line between a body and the land it moves through often becomes blurred—how the body itself feels like an injury.”
There is a sharp, gorgeous pain to reading There Should Be Flowers, an intimate exploration that feels at once universal and also incredibly particular to trans women of color (or at least to this particular TWOC reader). I don’t know any trans women of color who aren’t familiar with dissociation, with the strange magic of forgetting the body that at once allows us to survive daily inundation in dysphoria and violence while also imprisoning us within ourselves. I don’t know any of us who don’t dream of discovering a place where our bodies don’t feel like scars upon the landscape.
Skin is grown in fields
and names are made
There are histories of blood
behind the words.
You taste it in your mouth
and it is like water
The stars dissociate.
The moon eats itself.
– I HATE THE POEM, There Should Be Flowers
Reading this book feels like tracing the lingering marks over the places where I used to hurt myself in order to remember that I was alive – a reminder of survival that is, yes, sad, but also sweet testament to my survival. Espinoza’s gift is her use of exquisite language and arresting images to capture this contradiction of self-destruction and resilience that lurks inside us, a piercing glance that is compassionate, but not pitying, into physicality of trans women’s lives.
“I think art can transform the way readers see and approach the world,” says Espinoza, “and that’s maybe something I’m trying to do on some level—to give names to things that haven’t been named, to misname things that have been named, to fuck with all those signals that supposedly determine who and what we are.:
There are couple aspects in which the book does leave me yearning for more. There Should Be Flowers cleaves so faithfully to its central images (the word “body” appears 84 times in the 100-page book) that at times it runs the risk of inundating the reader and thus obscuring subtle shifts in mood and message from poem to poem. And selfishly, I sometimes long to see Espinoza turn her exquisite gaze onto other trans women and the ways in which her relationships with them impact her experience of body and land.
Still, these are minor qualms against the scale of Espinoza’s shimmering talent and ambitious project, which is essentially to re-member the trans feminine body: To give it back its skin and bone, its delicate organs and bleeding limbs, and arrange them into new and beautiful constellations. There Should Be Flowers is a healing map, a compass that shows us back to the world after having left it for too long – that allows us to live inside the pain and love ourselves anyway.
I will survive it
like I have everything else
for twenty eight years.
All the new bodies
I’ve made. All the things I’ve said.
All the women I’ve been.
– ALL THE WOMEN I’VE BEEN, There Should Be Flowers
Holy WOW! I need to read this book! <3 Everything about this was so intense (in a good way)! I just.. thank you!
Whoa, this sounds so good. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
i love her poetry, and this is such a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on it. (also, i just got kai cheng’s book in the mail today and am SO EXCITED to read it!)
Thank you for sharing! I don’t often get excited about reading poetry, but I can wait to read this collection.
Was impressed by poetry & writer. IMHO as a trans man, the artist missed a line in the last poem quoted, “ALL THE WOMEN I’VE BEEN”.
“All the women I am yet to be!” JJE looks to be one to watch!