Joy Ladin
Sheep Meadow Press ($15.95)

by Warren Woessner

Someone once wrote that there are only two plots to a story: "a man sets out on a journey" or "a stranger comes to town." Transmigration, by Joy (once Jay) Ladin, is a collection of poetry that tries to develop both of these themes: a male becomes a female and thus takes up physical and psychic residence in a new body.

In her own words, he (Jay) felt dead: "To be dead you have to have been alive, and though I walked, talked and so on, I knew I had never really been alive." If form in fact dictates function, Jay was not functioning very well, and Joy was not functioning at all. How much of what we take for granted as the very essence of our being will shift or simply fall away if we to change from one sex to another?

Part One of Transmigration is entitled "Marriage," but it does not contain predictable confessional poems about the disintegration of a conventional union due to one partner's repressed identity. Rather, the poems are mostly about the separation of Joy's persona from Jay's. The images circle and repeat themselves, trying to define what it is to break up with yourself:

I never meant to live,
To become the flesh
Of disappointment groping toward you
From the empty side of the bed,
The life you won't believe

I never meant to live. ("Steam")

This is powerful material, but sometimes the poems seem to get lost in their emotional maze:

I want to love
The want that is talking
About the failure that is loving
The love I am failing

Talking and failing
Failing and unfailing
I want to talk
About unfailing love ("Unfailing Love")

These poems are more like a pilgrim's progress through a strange land, where the pilgrim takes two steps forward and one step back as he/she proceeds toward an uncertain goal past a myriad of hazards.

The second section, "Transmigration," primarily meditates on the soul of the transformant. Although some readers may crave more concrete imagery, the atmosphere Ladin establishes is appropriate to her exploration of such unknown—and unknowable—territory. In the particularly vivid "Somewhere Between Male and Female," Ladin recognizes that the genders

Split out the seams
Leaving the soul naked

Crisscrossed with scars
Male scars and female scars
Breast scars and testicle scars

Scars like doors
And scars like fingers
Fingers point at the naked soul

The book's third section, "A Difficult Birth," is a difficult read, as Ladin moves back and forth in time and place. The poems here are full of death, fear, pain, and finally resolve, as in "Finding Your Female Voice":

Your voice breaks
On the scale of want.
You need to add inflection. The want
Men speak in a monotone

Women sing and scale. Sound and feel
The voice you want.
The voice you voice.
The want that voices you.

In "Maiden Voyage," the last section of the book, Ladin seems to be seeking a new lexicon; according to the poet, these poems "were composed entirely of disparate words found in the Dec. 2006/Jan 2007 issue of Cosmo Girl." Oddly, this technique helps Ladin to find her voice; rather than rehashing the expected magazine fare of make-up, orgasms, and fashions, these poems are like stories long hidden in code, offering vivid snapshots of the challenges that emerge as the transmigration comes to an end:

You thought
Your death would soon be over
You did the routine for years:

Broken-hearted girl
Hiding in a complete stranger,
Trying to choose to survive.

Girl, the information is out there:
Main characters.
Are not supposed to die

Of the birth of their lives. You
Are in an episode
You haven't been watching. ("New Year, New Body")

Whether or not this is a journey the reader will ever take, Transmigration offers to stamp the passport and usher the reader into an ever-shifting landscape of loss, hope, and love.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010