Towards a Radical Sexual Politics: An Ace/Aro Girl Writes Back! - Kelly Weber’s new book of poems Review

by Ankush Banerjee

TOWARDS A RADICAL SEXUAL POLITICS: AN ACE/ARO GIRL
WRITES BACK! – ANKUSH BANERJEE REVIEWS KELLY WEBER’S
NEW BOOK OF POEMS

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Title : You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis
Author : Kelly Weber
Genre : Poetry
Language : English
Publisher : Omnidawn Publishing, Oakland,

California
Year : 2023
Pages : 132
Price : $ 22.95
ISBN No : 978-1-63243-124-0

Kelly Weber (she/they) is the author of a chapbook, All My Valentine’s Day are Weird, and a full-length collection of poem, We are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022). You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis, their second full length collection of poems, was published in October 2023. 

In one of their 2022 interviews, they mention that their first collection, We are Changed to Deer… grew out of what they felt was “a lack of poetic lyric about asexuality (ace, i.e. a sexual orientation in which one has little or no sexual attraction to others), aromanticism’ (aro, i.e. a romantic orientation in which one has little or no romantic attraction to others), and queerplatonic intimacy (i.e. a relationship categorized by close emotional bond {greater than friendship} and/or a non-romantic relationship). Hence, largely Weber’s work, and particularly You Bury the Birds…, seeks to formulate an affective and aesthetic vocabulary of intimacy through the lyric. 

To some, this may seem like a tall order given that even in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum the ‘A’ or asexual shares a somewhat contentious relation with other queer identities. 

The question of ‘queerness’ arises when, as Judith Butler puts it, the ‘sex – gender – desire’ triad does not cohere with laid down hetero-normative and hetero-patriarchal praxis. In this regard, Annamarie Jagose articulates queer as a critical stance that questions “normative consolidations of sex, gender and sexuality – and that, consequently, is critical of all those versions of identity, community and politics that are believed to evolve ‘naturally’ from such consolidations” (1996). Even before this, Halperin argued that “queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” (1995). Juxtaposing Jagose and Halperin’s understanding upon ace and aro queer politics would lead us to believe that ‘asexuality’ not only throws a challenge to hetero-normative notions of how ‘sex-gender-desire’ must be aligned, but also queers the queer paradigm, by its abjuration of what is considered the naturalised i.e. sexual acts, both among hetero-normative and queer people. Rohitha Naraharishetty succinctly articulates the sexual politics of this contentious space occupied by aces/aros by arguing that, “asexuality shares a particularly tumultuous relationship with queerness. Where queerness has been defined by sex – expressing it, having it, and most importantly, taking pride in it – asexuality de-centres the primacy of sex in our culture”.

What we must not lose sight of here is that if the mediation between ‘the body’ and a ‘sexual or romantic act’ is considered an important prerequisite towards enactment, consolidation, and embodiment of sexual identities (linked to broader notions of personhood), then where does that leave an ace or aro (and his/her/their bodies) person – who consciously desists from affective and performative aspects of sexual/romantic intimacies?  

This is the fundamental, underlying question that Weber takes up in their poems, which are a visceral exploration of contentious sexual politics accompanying subjectivities and lived realities of ace/aro persons. What we see in poem after poem is how ‘the non-binary ace body’ resists being interpelleted into the hetero-normative sexual politics, and the emotional and moral costs that such resistance levies on them. 

In Ode to his Knife Collection (p. 44), a striking poem that narrates an ace girl’s struggles of dealing with a presumably hyper-masculine man/partner who “Once pressed a knife against my throat/ just to prove his control to our friends/”, and tries to rescue her from her queerness, “to feel like a man”, Weber writes, 

“and when he asked me again and again/ that summer all 
the roads flooded/ I learned every way to say no/ is the wrong way/ too
gentle to count/ or too harsh not to wound/ the angry boy crowned in
his father’s cigarette smoke/ If I cut open this skin/ will a pelt thicken
the wound?/ If our friends stop talking to me/ because I refuse to talk
to him anymore/ if everyone they feel so sorry for him/ for losing a 
friend/”   

thus capturing an important problematic. The ace speaker of the poem not only has to contend with patriarchy’s all-patronizing rescuer-complex, but also has to deal with social pressures from peers whose roots lie in the naturalization of hyper-masculine behaviours that are deemed more acceptable than someone professing asexuality as an orientation.

In many places, Weber also draws attention to the difficulty and limitations of language – not only in terms of how to write about the emotional lives of aces and aros, – but also, about what emotional vocabulary may be constitutive of ace/aro relationships. Though, ironically (and quite strikingly) their poems are never linguistically or emotionally deficient, even while highlighting the deficiencies of language, when they write, in Another Roadkill Poem,   

“I guess I’m trying to say, in the wings of birds and the mason jar full of silty water and prairie aster on your dashboard, is I trust our commitment to mercy even when we can’t language it” (p. 96),  

Or, as they write in Ode to the Drift Glass Necklace My Friend Gave Me,

“she said it’s good/ when you can finally find the words for your
queerness isn’t it/ and it was like finding finchsong braided in my
marrow/ for the very first time/ everyone needs someone/ to do that
for them/ give them permission for a more honest language/ to live/
like a blue and green bottle sawing the lake shore/”  (p. 51).  

But forging a new language does not always result in feeling the freedom of communicating meaningfully or being understood gracefully, given that so much around us, specifically in terms of language, is framed, fixed and articulated through the hetero-normative lens. Hence, when they write in Queerplatonic (Windbreaker Crown)

“To escape the coyote smiles
          of people in school, pretend to like a boy,

Act like hot means something besides your neck flushed
          when he asks you to dance and you say yes

then neither of you move from the bleachers
          because you don’t think you can sway
into that much of a lie.

To escape being branded by a word
bury it in frozen dirt
beneath bluestem, until you hit ash
from millions of years ago,

until you hit your tongue
and then cover it with a howl, bird wing, little song”   (p. 27). 

we grasp the frustration and angst of having to straight-act under peer/societal pressure; though this later finds a searing objective-correlative in the image of hitting one’s tongue and then covering it with a howl. [emphasis mine].

In some of the poems one also stumbles upon a sort of consolidation and celebration of an ace/aro identity, simultaneously wedged with a militant ‘writing back’ to ideologies which oppress and try to shape the identity politics of ace/aro individuals. For instance, Letter to an Incel from an Ace Girl, they write, 

“eventually I want to want
but attraction never arrives/ except as a sort of softening
into someone’s kindness”  (p.55)

and much later, we are stunned by the self-assured dignity of these lines, 

“my friend and I perch
          at the edge of the reservoir
stare down into blue water
          knived with fish
and tiny teeth of fox
          and fawn
sewn along the slurry bottom
          and I wish
I could hear her heart knocking
          just that close
where the water
          sucks at absence
of flesh
          confessing my hands
bound to her soft quiet
          I don’t call this being alone
                    I don’t call this being less than whole (p. 57)

as well as the manner in which they reconceptualise the notion of intimacy between two non-binary bodies – intimacy that isn’t necessarily sexual, but is infinitely more humane than a hyper-masculine Incel pressing a knife on his lover’s throat. 

Kelly Weber has fashioned a new vocabulary of intimacy which not only goes deeper, much deeper than a sexual act, but also affirms the part-radical, part-poignant, but very humane possibilities of the body. 

Ankush is the reviews’ editor at Usawa Literary Review.

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