It’s so hard to have a body. Isn’t it?
I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense or as a throwaway comment-question. I mean it pragmatically. It’s so hard to have a body. We’re born, and we’re forced to live in these vessels of flesh and bone that were chosen for us through random selection and the natural laws governing how biology works. As we grow, we’re subjected to the laws our society places on bodies regarding which ones are good enough, pretty enough, thin enough. Which ones are worthy of saving; which ones deserve praise and recognition; which ones are male and which ones are female; which ones are strong and which ones are not; which ones function properly and which ones are “defective.wp_postsIt is so hard to have a body, and yet, this very basic aspect of being alive is rarely acknowledged.
In Lars Horn’s debut memoir and winner of the 2020 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay, Horn describes just how difficult it is to have a body. Not just any body — a body that defies easy categorization, a body that exists between definitions, one that moves freely between them, their trans body. Through vignettes from different moments and experiences in their life — from being used as a model in their mother’s performance art, to living in Russia and on the French-Belgian border, to surviving a vicious attack near their home, to getting tattoos as a way of reclaiming ownership of a body that seemed to be slipping away from them after a tragic weightlifting accident — and the history of the discoveries of various species of fish, the creation of aquariums, the stories of the lives of various saints and mythical gods, and the Russian revolution, Horn attempts to track and illustrate what it means to live in a body that “largely resists feelings of ownershipwp_postsand poses the question: “What might gender look like written beyond the blurring of a male-female binary?”
As Horn narrates the various experiences and encounters of their life, they construct a world where fluidity between meanings, between the human world and the natural world, between ourselves and other people, and between our conceptions of who we are and who we should be is not seen as dangerous. That it is almost expected. That it’s normal, even. The connections Horn makes between themself and scientific doctrine, history, and the mythological illuminate the complexities of living in the world as a trans person while building a brand new one, one where we can use these stories and our own to show it is possible to live between and live without demarcation.
In a particularly resonant passage, Horn writes:
“I’d like to believe that coincidences might be concordances, echoes between bodies, actions at distance. That just maybe there is an order to things—distant, imperceptible—that something carries between us, something ritual, well-worn with a warmth of gold against skin. That the bodies we brush against can bring us things, be they easy or difficult, weighted or light. That faith might occur as movement, an effort towards slowness, softness, towards some kind of breadth.”
Horn’s work rewrites how so many people think of identity as a fixed thing that is constantly knowable to us, that is an inherent part of our humanity. To Horn, identity is as aqueous and difficult to capture as the Moray eels that hide from our sight by disappearing into the coral of their watery homes:
“My relationship to my body feels custodial, guided by archaic movement. As if, I — soul or spirit — must look after it, as if, in turn, this body will carry, will show and teach and guide me: how to reconcile all the elements of myself, how to hold them, play of light over hands. I’ve come to realise it’s a slightly strange way to live, to lead one’s life as if there are two of you. And yet, I do. People often ask if I feel male or female, where I lie on the gender spectrum, whereas, in truth, I just feel like a soul in a strange craft.”
Often, we use our bodies to define ourselves, but what happens when we’ve never felt at home in them? Horn navigates this tension between themself and their identity and their body in a way that feels vital to understanding the experience of being nonbinary and transmasculine and a part of our current world. And what’s especially magical about Horn’s work in this text is that they don’t necessarily attempt to come to some final answer about the questions they pose. In fact, the more Horn introduces us to the parts of their world and the world we’re all a part of, the more questions they seem to be posing to us.
As the book concludes, it becomes obvious that the work of this text is bigger than Horn and their body alone. The text of the book is fragmentary, often jumping between the narration of the various stories of Horn’s life to the historical and scientific information they are juxtaposing it with, and is anchored by a recurring listed essay recounting an experience they had at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Although the nature of the form might be a little difficult for some, the form is part of what makes Horn’s work so appealing to me. Although they don’t explicitly say this, Horn’s work is essentially an archival one, writing themselves, their body, their gender, and the enigmatic nature of their identity, which “exists for the most part as unseen, unworded, unintelligible,wp_postsinto our world and the historical record. They leave us with a sense of possibility of what could be, and as their “body finally breathedwp_postsat the end of the book, they give us the permission to let ours breathe, also.