And thei upon here lust excused.
For love hateth nothing more
Than thing which stant agein the lore [teaching]
Of that nature [what nature] in kinde [naturally] hath sett.
—John Gower’s interpretation of “The Tale of Iphis and Ianthe”
Stories get muddled like bay laurel mushed into rock by a footprint. Wave of chlorophyll scent rises up, draws you close to the floor.
once upon a time,
there was a transformation.
Iphis took the time I gave him and tucked it in his dirty overalls. Scratched at the ribcage under his baggy denim. Laughed slow when during recess Ianthe would gently poke her finger through his holey socks to tickle his callous underneath.
When asked how he was, Iphis shrugged his hungry weight and this movement vibrated down into his scabbed knees. His back bent like old bobby pins in the carpet. He told me to tell you he’s exhausted of a struggle timeless and public like his dad’s beat up sedan—wood-paneled and gray with WASH ME cursived on the glass.
He told me this is the wrong time.
No, I’m telling you it’s the wrong time.
Once upon a time,
a Cretan had a desperately hungry father
and his mother loved the
rigidity of boyhood into him.
To get away, Iphis floundered on the beach,
pondered the thing—his thing, their thing—
between him and Iante. He
watched sand crabs burrow
deeper the further he dug. He
was arid and
wet inside, he
held this division deep and
transformed into a desert.
We can ignore the specifics: the stretching
and tearing of ligament, the drying out of blood,
the lack of rain, the absence of choice.
First and foremost, this poem would not exist without M. W. Bychowski’s critical work “Unconfessing Transgender: Dysphoric Youths and the Medicalization of Madness in John Gower’s ‘Tale of Iphis and Ianthe.'” Her website is loaded with amazing interpretations of past and current culture, and everyone should go through and explore her work.
Before I found her article, I was hunting for some connection, any connection, to a female-to-male or, even more personally, a female-to-nonbinary, trans identity in Western folklore or myth. Of course this impulse is fraught with imposing my own cultural context and gender on whatever legend I’d find. I decided to bring that tension to the forefront of this poem, and have Gower’s Iphis deal with me directly.
Avren Keating is a poet and visual artist who lives in the East Bay Area. Xe’s keeping busy pursuing an MFA at Mills College in Oakland, raising a new puppy, and interviewing other transgender and gender-variant poets for xyr podcast “Waves Breaking.” You can find Avren at @MxAvren on Twitter and the podcast at wavesbreaking.com
Original artwork by Brooklyn based artist Krissa Saldaña.