Oliver Baez Bendorf’s gorgeous, curative second collection, Advantages of Being Evergreen (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), was written in the wake of the 2016 election, the dawn of a new era of queer antagonism that continues today—I write this while the Supreme Court hears arguments to determine whether there will be federal recourse for LGBTQ+ folks fired (and by extension denied housing/refused service/etc.) for our sexuality or gender expression. Bendorf engages with the despair inherent to being a queer/trans person at this moment—similar, and yet distinct from every one that has come before—and then, calling on language, ancestors, nature, and the life force within, transmutes that despair into poems that heal, locate resilience, and even spur joy.
Perhaps the central question of the collection is how to perform this much-needed transformation. In one way or another, Bendorf keeps asking: What is a spell? If there’s no meaningful difference between a spell and a poem, can poems do magic? And, if so, how? Fittingly, the first place Bendorf locates powerful magical energy is in language itself. The series “Breath I,” “Breath I, I,” and “Break I, I, I” bear the most literal resemblance to incantations, relentlessly shuffling through the alphabet until meaning turns slippery and words evolve into moving, guttural sounds: “haunted headlights hemlock heron hold holler holy honesty horn howl” (“Breath I, I”).
Constantly changing, dying, and being reborn, nature is the book’s source of deepest magic. Bendorf recognizes the natural world as profoundly queer and utterly genderless, serving as an unbroken mirror to reflect the soul—“in the presence of all these / grey herons / coming through an open sky / everything falls away” (“I Think I’ve Already Come Back as Something Else”). Nature’s mystery also allows for divinity, too often weaponized against queer/trans people, to be met and conversed with in poems like “The Carp”: “Lord, if it is you, command / me to come on the water. / Or is it only a falcon this time?” Here, Bendorf is ultimately able to experience a type of communion: “What I want from the river is what I always want: / to be held by a stronger thing that, in the end, chooses mercy” (“Who Spit into the Pumpkin, Who They Waiting For”).
Another site of spell-making is the body. Although Bendorf’s body has been literally transformed by top surgery and hormones, he conceptualizes these medical interventions as small parts of a larger, more mysterious metamorphosis. In the opening poem, “Field Guide,” he asserts, “There must be someone who remembers the voice of the girl. It isn’t me, but it must be me.” Bendorf acknowledges the absence of ritual around such a profound rebirth, so he imagines one: “There must be a window. A ladder. A compass. We must have new names . . . There must be a boy and there must be a girl. There must be. There must be” (“Field Guide”).
Another source of magic is queer kindship, wherein the self can be fully seen in all its permutations and complexities: “Some friends call me fairy, dyke, & I’m all these things” (“Rainwater from Certain Enchanted Streams”). There’s no overestimating how such acceptance can transfigure not only the self, but also life itself, which becomes “beautiful and kind / for a moment that passed quick / as a storm” (“Rain and Ticks in Tennessee”). In the embrace of a loving community, magic can be harnessed into “Ritual”: “With Carlos’s arrow, we / shot / new / constell- / ations / into / the / sky / (believing / that / new / ones / were / possible)—“And then, the speaker watches as “my whole life rose up, / ghosts into flame.”
Empowered by these various mystical forces, society in all its darkness can finally be faced, since it no longer serves as the arbiter of whether the self will be validated or rejected. Queers can even decide for themselves, in “Web,” that “our ancestors must love our queerness / now that they are dead (but of course / they might not).” And, in this state of power and safety, emotional range can exponentially expand, making possible mourning for “So many gay / bodies on fire, offerings to / gods who don’t deserve us, gods of punishment, gods of plight” (“Rain and Ticks in Tennessee”). Queer/trans dead can then even be reborn, given expression through the queer/trans living in “Dear Rane Arroyo”: “I speak / with your voice now—you tilt open my windpipe.” By honoring the dead, our worlds can come together and queer/trans people can move through the living world with “teeth of our dead around our neck” (“Knot: A Gathering”).
Finally, the relinquished past self can be embraced and integrated in “My Body the Haunted House”: “I carry your body (in / my body). I live for both of us now.” The self, like nature, is now beyond gender and yet encompasses all genders, is “reflected in both / beard and lace” (“Elegy”). As these important and defining aspects of identity fall away, what remains is “The heart a distant geode” (“The Carp”) lighting our way.