Call Me By My Other Name by Valerie Wetlaufer
Review by Emily Faison
I’m still not sure if Valerie Wetlaufer has written a history in verse, or simply folded history into poetry, but either way, Call Me By My Other Name leaves readers gasping with both horror and understanding.
A news clipping epigraph, rewritten in verse in “Helpmate IV,” shapes the tone and the historical realness of the book, describing the imprisonment of Frank Blunt, born Anna Morris, and the grief of partner Gertrude Field. This history weighs heavy on the entire collection, but rather than reading like a historical fiction novel, the reader gets vignetted glimpses of a period in time through verse.
Poems featuring moments from Frank and Gertrude’s fictionalized life together cut no corners with lines like “Born Anna in the fields / under the sun, born goat-tender, / sister-keeper, son-in-a-dress” (“Naming Spell”) and “I’ve been in trousers / since I was ten. / Prison dress wilts around me” (“Distance Cuts No Figure”). These poems, and others equally blunt, do the heavy work of plot without sacrificing the grace of verse. Wetlaufer builds verses with a kind of intimacy surprising for the lack of primary source material, relying instead on poetry to tell her story.
Not every poem directly addresses Frank and Gertrude’s story, but serves to establish the mood of the period through details like “Dots and dashes intertwine on paper for lovers / faraway” (“The Telegrapher”) and “The fires of home blazing, / my petticoat awash by the river” (“Cupid’s Itch”). Immersed in a sepia world that still rides on horseback and wears “corsets and aprons, bustles and bonnets” (“Epidemic: Diptheria”), these poems blend the romantic and stoic to develop the accuracy of emotion so crucial to historical fiction.
Call Me By My Other Name’s late 1800’s setting, joined with the realization that Frank’s story could just as easily happen in 2016, brushes over the whole book an eerie sense of unsettled time and place. The idea that this collection of poems “also takes place in the contemporary moment, so it’s not entirely in the world of the 19th century” defends the juxtaposition of dated midwestern images of milking goats, diphtheria, and corsets with “leather cock cool against my thigh” (“Helpmate II”). Rather than anachronistic, Wetlaufer’s bold blending of past and present makes her poetry even more tangible. Frank Blunt was arrested in 1894, but today’s queer community faces many of the same challenges that Frank and Gertrude bore.
The fluidity of time matches the fluidity of gender that drives the book as Wetlaufer examines contemporary gender roles under a 19th-century historical lens. “Memory or imagination is transported to another time and place,” Wetlaufer earnestly explains in a recent interview with The Southeast Review, “my poetry should encompass a wide array of time periods.” By bringing a strange tale from another century into a book of poetry of the new millennium, the poet suspends gender roles in a clear gel of time that allows the reader to examine the issue from a place of intimate detachment, if that could be possible. Like science fiction uses futuristic settings to pay attention to real-world problems, Wetlaufer uses a singularly arresting event in the past to address issues of gender norms, sexuality, individualism and community plaguing American culture today.
Throughout the collection, stark images of 19th century gender are offered up for scrutiny, from “weakness for sturdy breasted lace” (“So Long as Men-Folk Stay Away”) to riding horses “astride even in skirts” (“Unstoned”). Each time a poem offers up a specifically feminine detail, like “We go on collecting hat pins, dusting stairs” in “Anna,” the poet immediately underscores the feminine with Anna’s insistence, “I do not usually look so like a girl.”
The poem “First Theft” offers a striking examination of gender roles played out pragmatically. The line “A Real Wife needs a ring” questions the validity of Frank and Gertrude’s relationship with startling familiarity, but the poem moves quickly from the Frank-as-Provider’s fear of inadequacy to the hope chest, a would-be signifier of a marriageable young woman. Yet “Still a girl, & all your dreams ready / for the trunk—your hope chest, / eager to be filled.” reveals an empty chest that begs the question, Can everything a woman can dream fit into a small wooden trunk?
The exploration of gender roles peaks in one of three poems titled “The Author,” in which Wetlaufer describes women who live together for a long time:
side by side, years stretched between
us like laundry. Top and bottom,
butch and femme, lover and beloved.
Wetlaufer doesn’t shy away from the cultural stigma attached to terms like butch. On one level Wetlaufer appears to reappropriate and embrace the oft-insulting label butch, but as the poem continues,
Nothing is static. Everything shared.
Each contains both birds.
All things are feral.
Tame: a myth.
Inverting the reader’s understanding of these terms as descriptors of gender, the line “each contains both” mocks the irony and futility of labels like butch and femme. Gender performance becomes inclusive rather than exclusive, as “tame becomes a myth,” revealing that expectations of femininity are truly nothing more than expectation, rather than reality. The poet’s use of “feral” evokes a freedom of gender expression that is heartbreakingly stolen from Frank as he is imprisoned.
Frank’s position in jail, and subsequent stripping of masculine identity, highlights their courage. Reminding the reader that “There is always a story beneath the story” (“The Newspaperman”), these poems are as radically courageous as Frank Blunt in 1890.
Emily Faison is a graduate student at Florida State University, where she writes about YA authors and YouTube.