Liquidity and Softness

Safe Space
Jos Charles
Ahsahta Press, 2016

Illo for Haley Markbreiter's review of Safe Space, by Jos Charles.Written by Jos Charles, founder of trans lit mag THEM, Safe Space tracks sex as a network of liquids, morphing. In “Lov Poem,” penetration leads to seepage: “When I place my blue eye / up ur gash I see the fiscal light / O it leaks and leaks in the open air.” Orgasm as the joy of cumming and the U.S. Treasury dripping out, ecstasy qua federal debt forgiveness. In “Trigger Warning,” Charles describes the digestion of cum: “u swallow and take a body / out a body Later u shit a body.” Just as Bini Adamczak’s “On Circlusion” asked us to think beyond “the affliction of penetration” and its “arbitrary division of bodies into ‘active’ and ‘passive,’” sucking and swallowing become acts of pleasure-giving and consumption, neither explicitly sub nor dom.

Have u seen the solids in the beautiful weeping bag
Lion of Judah, have u seen a man ruddy
lips when it swallows a horse.

The penis organ becomes passive—a weeping bag to be filled—while swallowing becomes agential, a feat of how much you can pack inside.

Safe Space’s interest in liquidity extends out from sex and into a more general push against structural obsessions with hardness and solidity. Critiques of rape culture are linked to American settler colonialism’s fixation with boundaries and property; “Poem for Zizek” reminds us that, in America, people are only people when they come with solid land attached:

of individuality,
that is, claim
to territory

“Origin as Wet Dream” cites Giuliani-era ideologies (or Reagan-, Trump-, or Reconstruction-era ideologies) of “law and order,” whose values of “stability,” “safety,” and being “hard on crime” reframed an existing politics of disposability.

The nightcold rendering risk as so
much meat in our bellies

Stability its gesture The causal

Hierarchies of who could be murdered in order to (supposedly) keep white straight America safe. False myths of safety knit by straight white men, disguising deaths as something more than eugenics and economic calculus.

Against this politics of hardness Safe Space comes like rice pudding: liquidy, soft, warm. Charles sees “radical softness” in ways that parallel visual and sound artist E. Jane, for whom self-preservation, self-love, vulnerability, and sensuality are a protest against a disposability politics that encourages marginalized people to be hard and self-hate—or sacrifice themselves in political martyrdom (as liberals thinkpiece about it from calm, open-plan offices). If self-hate facilitates acceptance of oppression, and decimated political leadership destroys movements, then, to quote artist Lora Mathis, “radical softness is a weapon.” Charles’s softness permeates the book’s confessional tone, and its lyric form; the poems are intimately addressed to “u.” But Charles’s softness is also utopic. “I would live on / feeling safe / and spilling secrets,” they write in “Seagull, Tiny,” imagining the pleasures of gossip without the corresponding potential or desire to hurt. Secrets can be known and spilled because, in this world, everyone is friendly and no one will judge.

But Charles’s softness also cannot help but betray hints of powerlessness and fear. Mini-horses are a frequent motif. In “Offal,” organs float detached from the body, squishy and small. “Modified heart / string Tub of penis / piston.” In “Beanfield,” Henry David Thoreau becomes a swaddled-up babe. This soft aesthetics of miniature is, on the one hand, a way to shrink and defang often oppressively macho figures—horses, dicks, Great Male Authors. Charles makes them non-threatening and adorable. But, as Sianne Ngai points out, the aesthetic category of “cuteness” can also be an aestheticization of powerlessness. In an interview with Cabinet Magazine about her 2013 book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Ngai argued that cute objects are “formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening.” The connections between cuteness and powerlessness feel especially apt and especially devastating in regards to Charles’s use of childhood autobiography: being beat up by their dad, raped by an uncle.

This tension within Safe Space—and within the aesthetics of radical softness in general—is one that Charles maintains. Softness is an expression of feeling powerless and afraid, and also an expression of power: the strength to recognize that you are deserving of self-care and love. It is also an attempt to wrest “cute” and “soft” symbolism away from its traditional referents of powerlessness. Within Charles’s anti-capitalist, anti–settler colonial, anti-America critique, softness means taking bubble baths but showing up to anti-cop protests as well, and Charles reminds us that the two aren’t contradictory. In this is a point about the act of reclaiming cultural terms, which is that they are usually not an attempt to further fix us into one place, but are, instead, a reminder of our right to multiplicity.
Haley Markbreiter is a trans/non-binary writer living in New York.

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