We might think that surviving crisis would mean growing small or escaping to more hospitable locales. Kayleb Rae Candrilli, who sets many of their poems in the Appalachian region of western Pennsylvania, charts a different path forward. The poet imagines how growing up trans in the “Pennsylvania thicket” might offer an alternative to mere survival. Candrilli universalizes the trans experience, providing important insight into embodiment, joy, and intimacy.
Water I Won’t Touch is the Philly-based poet’s third collection, after What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017) and All the Gay Saints (Saturnalia, 2020). Candrilli has received many of the top literary prizes—including the Lambda Literary Award for transgender poetry, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, a Whiting Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. All of these accolades are evidence of a prolific and promising career for this young poet.
The crisis in the catastrophe
Many of Candrilli’s poems examine the crisis of rural America—plagued by violence, addiction, and pervasive toxicity—and how that crisis is wrapped up within the larger catastrophe of attenuating masculinity. In the poem “Sand & Silt,” for example, Candrilli writes: “In the beginning, there was a boy / who touched me as he shouldn’t have. / … / I know this boy is now / a violent man / with a large collection of semi- / automatic rifles.” In another poem, Candrilli’s speaker recalls how their “father has always hated / women, though / he has always needed them.” Candrilli suggests that part of the root cause of this crisis of American masculinity is an inherent denial and rejection of what it nonetheless requires. Violence and addiction are some of the consequences of this unreciprocated intimacy.
By their own account, Candrilli is “from just another / American valley dense with opioid smoke.” Candrilli’s poems are full of such descriptions of growing up in this sort of Anytown, USA, where “not much survives … Though it wants to.” Depressed by neoliberalism and blighted by the opioid epidemic, this version of rural America has come to be defined by cycles of suffering and dysfunction: “Violent men want me to be a violent man. / Or they want me dead.” Masculinity either recreates itself through the crucible of violence or it destroys.
Part of this narrative is a pattern of addiction, which passes from one generation to the next. The speaker of “Water I Won’t Touch” recalls, “I never learned / to drive because I knew one day / I would learn to drink.” When filtered through memory, this fated addiction becomes a source of intimacy and kinship for Candrilli’s speaker. The poem “On the Abuse of Sleep Aids” reminisces, “back when my mother shared / a bed with my father, she took / three benadryl every night / … / and for years, we stayed drowsy / together.” Yet addiction is also an acute source of pain: “Yes, I’ve checked the wrists / of my father doped well into the sky—his eyes white as clouds lit by moonrise”.
Possibilities for feeling and being
In light of the sheer scale of the opioid epidemic, it would have been enough for Candrilli to narrate the vital, yet ordinary acts of everyday survival. Instead, many of Candrilli’s poems suggest that one solution to the crisis of American masculinity is to be found in the possibilities afforded by trans embodiment. In the poem “I Challenge My Father to An Arm-Wrestling Competition and Finally Win,” Candrilli’s speaker recalls their fraught relationship with their father and his complicated history of addiction: “More than a decade has passed since I saw my father, / in the parking lot of a Wilkes-Barre strip mall. More than a / a decade since he took my sibling to the Hawaiian Islands / and dosed them with oxy, meth, and heroin.”
Instead of disowning this legacy, Candrilli claims it as part of their own trans narrative: “I have so few fond memories of my father, / but what I have, I hold. / He read me the entire Kamandi comic series, / and I studied The Last Boy on Earth. / I learned how to survive an apocalypse / and how to be a boy.” To be a boy, in this sense, means claiming the example of their father without repeating its violent lessons.
What is innovative about Candrilli’s narrative of transness is their insistence that it does not disavow the complicated lessons of gender receive from a cis-normative society. Instead, transness subsumes them within its broader poetics of embodiment. Writes Candrilli, “i am thankful to have been born / his daughter // because if i had been born my father’s son, / forget about it.” There is also a current of universalism running through Candrilli’s poems, which suggests the example of trans embodiment belongs to everyone: “Haven’t we all chewed / through something tough and survived?”; “I want to invite all American men / to our wedding”; “My original body had many marvels / but I always wished it for / someone else.”
It is as if Candrilli is asking “American men” to take on the lessons of the trans experience and to be liberated by them. In Candrilli’s poems, transness is resolutely future-oriented, generating more possibilities for feeling and being than American masculinity currently allows. “i can feel love now,” they write, “like my father never has.” In Candrilli’s subtle yet generous poems, the trans experience becomes a conduit to a broader world of possibilities, including the possibility of love and joy.
Image description: The cover of Water I Won’t Touch by Kayleb Rae Candrilli. A perfectly square swimming pool full of blue water is seen from above, with a pale background. It has five different diving boards across the top side and three tiny human figures on the left side. The book title is printed over the pool.
What, When, Where
Water I Won’t Touch. By Kayleb Rae Candrilli. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2021. 96 pages, paperback; $16. Available from Canyon Copper Press.