It’s almost midnight on a Saturday, and I am on suicide watch for two trans friends, two others are in crisis, I’m behind on paying my bills, and my caseload at my social work day job is on fire. Meanwhile, the establishment of the “LGBTQ movement” seems more interested in defending the rights of police to join Pride parades than it does actually helping trans people of colour and working-class queers survive. How wonderful to be living the queer writer-activist dream. As Chicago-based Black trans femme poet KOKUMO puts it in Reacquainted with Life: “are you invested in making the world a better place for all? / or just you and yours?”
In this moment of intense survival struggle in personal life — not to mention the current political climate of rising global right-wing fascism — it seems like there could be no better time to write about KOKUMO’s bombastic, fantastic Lambda Award-nominated Reacquainted with Life. Fresh from Brooklyn’s Topside Press, the debut poetry collection is an artistic coup that seizes the queer literary and political establishment by the shoulders and demands a reckoning. With her electric voice, searing gaze and unrelenting dedication to speaking truth, KOKUMO blasts through the bullshit rhetoric and tokenism that too-often engulf queer and trans communities in order to expose the raw struggle to survive at their heart. In the first line of the prologue, “GALACTIC BITCH-SLAP,” KOKUMO declares:
“1. Rape is theft.
2. Privilege is amoebic.[…]
13. Community is not currency.
14. Pain is not a rite of passage.”
The poetic intensity rises throughout the rest of the book. KOKUMO speaks both in generalities as well as directly to the complex dynamics of competition and intra-community violence that are an open secret among queer and trans people. This chord strikes particular resonance with me — as a social worker for trans youth, I’ve heard too many stories about community bullying, public shaming and social ostracization of the most marginalized: racialized folks, homeless folks, people living with mental illness. In my interview with her, KOKUMO says:
“Reacquainted with Life came to be after I had to leave the Trans Movement for my mental health. And it genuinely perplexed me how a movement said to have been my salvation could have been my doom. The tokenization. The femme competition/sabotage. The light-skinned supremacy. The respectability. The toxicity of having to constantly fight my oppressors and then the people I was dually being oppressed with […]
“This book came to be when I said I wouldn’t go quietly. I wouldn’t off myself so they wouldn’t have to deal with what they’d done. I was tokenized by my own ‘sisters’ and abused by men I called ‘brother.’ And again, I had to deduce that I wasn’t the only one. The thing they never tell you about ‘movements’ is that the engines run on the blood of the least ‘palatable’ […] Reacquainted With Life came to be when the movement told me I didn’t matter, but my soul said the fuck I don’t.”
Dispensing with poetic subtlety in favor of raw kinetic energy, KOKUMO nonetheless achieves enormous nuance of political and emotional expression. Where most writers might fear to tread, poems such as “Love Is Not the Revolution,” “Apology Panderin” and “White Feminist Barbie” speak without apology to the experiences of those who have survived not only queerphobia and transphobia but also the psychological and sexual violence of the queer movement itself.
Here is the truth that KOKUMO tells: Queers hurt queers. Ideology is not the same as love. Beneath the pretty words and shiny political analysis of the revolution lie harsh realities of transmisogyny, white and light-skinned supremacy, fatphobia and abuse. Movement leadership has done little to change the lives of the most marginalized. Consider “The Fame Monster (To the POC/LGBT Elite) (Part Une),” in which KOKUMO decries movement elites as “nothing more
than the ring leaders of a circus for abominations / with the nerve ta b choicey, / bout who get ta hop through the hoops.”
This poetry speaks to the gritty reality of life for queer and trans people who are fat, dark-skinned, crazy, poor – but it also affirms that life.
“This book was written expressly for fat femmes, for dark femmes,” KOKUMO says. “For fat dark femmes. For survivors. For perpetrators. For the survivors who have perpetrated. For the perpetrators who have survived. For the people who have the most plausible reason to abandon sanity but maintain a relationship with it because we have work to do. Bricks to lay. And bridges to burn.”
The book finds its climax in the titular poem, “Reacquainted with Life,” which is also the author’s favorite: “[This poem] is about returning from the abyss,” she says. “It’s about the world calling you trash, treating you as trash, but you still feeling a vigor and indignation […] Lazarus shit! I rose again. When I had what seemed to be more reasons to die than live. I still chose life. And no one or thing, will eva’ convince me to do anything otherwise.” This sentiment echoes strongly throughout the poem itself:
“wade through rocks
punch fist through earth
reach for the moon as if it were a life preserver”
Reacquainted with Life is powerful, necessary and not a moment too soon. It holds the map to a new way of thinking, of living, of being as queers. It asks us to sweep aside our shiny ideology and take a hard look at what we are doing to and with each other. It gives survivors of revolutionary movements — which, after all, tend to eat their children — the space they need to breathe.
And it is giving me the space I need to hold my own heart, on this night when everything seems to be on fire and in the morning, another trans youth might not be alive. In moments like this, the movement doesn’t save my life. Nor does community or the revolution. It’s poetry. Poetry, and the love it takes to speak the truth.