“[desire] marks the limit at which self-enclosure dissolves / and I dream a highway back to you,” reads the epigraph that begins Bradley Trumpfheller’s debut chapbook, Reconstructions (Sibling Rivalry Press). This epigraph perfectly embodies what is about to unfold in the coming pages: inventive language interrogates memory, imagined worlds blossom out of reckoned-with histories, and “whole flocks of I-statements cartwheel into” an incomparably pure practice of yearning. Taken partially from Jaleh Mansoor’s critical text, Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia and from the Gillian Welch song, “I Dream A Highway,” the epigraph exemplifies Trumpfheller’s ability to merge the cultural with high-brow, intellectual radicalism, rejecting any potential attempt to alienate the two from each other. More than anything, Reconstructions honors this practice of rejection and insists that better futures are possible, time does not bind us, and each of us, every single one of us, is alive.
The chapbook’s first poem, its proem, “Do You Kiss Your Boyfriend With Those Verbs,” is separated from the rest of the poems in the collection. It acts as a mode of orientation for the rest of the work as a whole, as the reader is introduced to Trumpfheller’s affinity for verbing and their vulnerable and insistent emotional logic. “[N]othing worth saying stays still long enough to say it,” declares the poet, before imploring: “instead of loss, say every day we are moving // closer to when getting out of bed seems possible…Never say heaven unless you mean the past // tense of to heave.” Trumpfheller’s transformative use of language follows their resolute thesis that anything is possible, because everything already exists. Reconstructions is all about a radical envisioning of what is already here, to create a new, better world. Revisioning the capabilities of language, without limitations informed by classist, colonial structures, is an integral part of this practice.
However, how much can really be done? When the English language has historically been weaponized into one of the most violent colonial tools used by oppressive and subjugating institutions, how much space can be truly carved out by and for the people it oppresses? As a trans poet who uses they/them pronouns, much of Trumpfheller’s work confronts the tension created by the proposition of existing in a space between and that of creating something entirely new. In a poem titled, “Asphyxia,” they write:
According to my uncle, the word redneck comes
from coal miners in West Virginia who wore blood-red handkerchiefs
around their collars when they shot cops for the right to unionize.
When I say this to the man making an exit of me at the club, he asks
why I care about people who want me dead. Still, how I’ll buck
under his hand, spit scythed & sweat into pretense, my neck bled
to pass for paradise.
In this short excerpt, the poet offers the reader a glimpse at the struggles and complexities of an apparently contradictory identity. Although we enter this scene of the poem without introduction, we can assume the discussion between the poem’s narrator and its subject was not unprovoked—the discomforting slur, redneck, is used, and the narrator feels a sense of urgency to respond with some sort of validating opposition. A “redneck,” then, becomes a kind of superhero, complete with a small cape, dangling from the neck of some shadowy figure, a blurry-faced embodiment of Southern pride and values. Yet, as a queer speaker, the narrator is challenged on their idealization of these revolutionaries. The question is as offensive as it is inconclusive, something that the narrator acknowledges towards the poem’s close. After a series of images of the speaker’s family suffering, they lament: “One state, two state, red state, blue state, show me / the place no one wants me dead & I’ll show you a girl dragging / a door from the water.” It becomes clear that, although the poem’s title, “Asphyxia,” refers explicitly to the act of choking while having sex, the narrator too feels suffocated by the myriad and paradoxical ways they are told to interpret and understand their own identity.
Yet, Trumpfheller refuses to allow the speakers of their poems to be stifled by pre-existing limiting narratives of what or who they can be. In the same way that placing restrictions on writing a poem can also act as an invitation to create something truly remarkable within a form, the poet’s wild inventiveness with language and imaginative world-building unabashedly shines when they are confronted with threats to their self-expressions of their identity and their desires. Wherever pain might exist, possibility begins to emerge in its place. “Once & could-be-future girl, believe we’re not like you,” Trumpfheller writes in one poem; “What happens if we begin already angels?” they ask, in another. This musing is not reckless, nor is it defined solely by longing. Rather, it denies all temptations of oversimplification, approaching the very concept of time as a tangible, moldable thing with thorough reckoning. Thus begins Trumpfheller’s dance with time; they approach it with the same orientation towards wonder that the reader has come to expect throughout the collection. In one of the best-titled poems in Reconstructions, “Time’s Not An Arrow, More The Place An Arrow Touches Us,” the poet writes, “Mostly I’m astonished we have an entire word / for the direction opposite a clock’s // progress.” All this negotiation with language and the perception of time as a linear construct explodes in what is my favorite poem in this beautiful work, “Tomorrow, No, Tomorrower.” Here, Trumpfheller continues their fascination with the tangling of geography, lineage, and desire, all the while engaging adorably and respectfully with the natural world around them. “Pardon me, dandelions, / have you seen my ghost, six foot nothing, // has an interstate for a mother but also a mother?” the poet asks before continuing with their radical revisioning of the world: “Hurry up & sunspot, daylilies! / The cops aren’t going to awe themselves / to death & we have / a dictionary to laugh across.” I’m in love with the possibility this poem offers, and its ending! “Nothing gets futured without its own spitshine / & I’m already not not not not not not miraculous.”
I want to end this review by emphasizing this point: though I detest describing creative work by writers belonging to marginalized communities as simply “brave,” I’ve struggled to find an adjective that more aptly describes the gentle power in Trumpfheller’s voice. They are unapologetically determined to craft a liberated world and remain undeterred by what may occasionally seem like insurmountable quantities of labor necessary to accomplish such goals. “Mom won’t / say where she left what was left of her dress,” this extraordinary poet writes, “so I put a third moon in the poem / to have enough dead light to dig by.”