Stephanie Burt’s sixth poetry collection, We Are Mermaids, touches on the surface of things and slips below into the saltiest depths and touches there too. Poems discuss the ways letters touch each other and how hands hold other hands. In “Love Poem with Archery,” Burt writes, “It’s like touching without touching, / except when there is, also, touching.” A poem titled “( )” that personifies parentheses describes their function as “your cure // for shapelessness, for your persist- / ent feeling that you will forever / remain immaterial, that you are better / off that way, that there is nothing or // nobody you are ready to let yourself touch.” As these different instances of “touch” leaped at me from the page, I was reminded of a line in Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem that goes, “you become a little of everything you brush against.” This is touch’s power, the vulnerability of exchange, even the confusing ambiguity between wanting to touch another person and, as in Burt’s “Love Poem with Summer Camp Reunion,” wanting to be what you feel compelled to touch. When we touch, we exchange oils, DNA, skin cells. We rehome bacteria. These transferences reveal how interconnected bodies really are and how the notion of a discrete body is an illusory invention. Overlaying and intertwined with physical matter are the many scripts and inscriptions, both those we write for ourselves and those written for us, about gender, sex, what’s natural, what’s unnatural, what’s “real,” and what’s “myth.” The magic of We Are Mermaids resides in how deftly it swims through these questions and how much room it leaves for the questioning reader. Oriented toward a queer futurity’s potential, these poems rarely land in certainty, except when they do, because certainty is a possibility too.
Burt reminds us that the surface reflects to the observer just one story, one script, and when we dip below what initially appears, we meet numerous realms and ways of being as mysterious and lovely as the unknown that flourishes on the ocean floor. The collection is dedicated to “all the letters in our alphabet, and the people inside them.” Capable of breath above and below the water, Burt’s mermaid serves as a guide below the surface of the alphabet and across false barriers and binaries. As a fish-human hybrid, she recalls other theoretical hybrid figures that explain conditions of being, but also offers a counterpoint to figures like Donna Haraway’s techno-futurist cyborg. Rather than floating disconnected from her origins, the mermaid locates an “origin” where “the thermophiles / sip at the fumaroles, / whose sulfur steam would kill a human being.” I found myself thinking about other versions of “becoming mermaid” as I read, especially of Bhanu Kapil’s 2015 hybrid work Ban en Banlieue, where a woman jumps out of the fire and into the ocean during the ritual of Sati. Through a simultaneous process of decay and healing, her legs fuse after being nibbled on by fish. While Kapil’s mermaid leaps outside of imperialist and patriarchal narratives that transpose onto her a specific vision of “human” agency and desire, Burt’s mermaid transgresses the binaries of gender, sex, and species. She is a mythic evolutionary joint where fish meets human, language meets matter, and a disruption to a linear narrative where Homo sapiens’ ancestor left the sea long ago on our way to becoming human. The mermaid traces back to the depths: “The salt of the ocean is always the salt of tears, / melancholy but at the right / dilution, or concentration, life-giving.”
Many of Burt’s poems enact José Esteban Muñoz’s claim that “queerness exists as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.” In queer time, the past must remember the future. This is no more apparent than in the poem “At the Parkway Deli,” where Burt’s speaker describes regularly visiting a pickle cart as a ten-year-old:
I wouldn’t stop telling my dad how much I liked it:
green sour tomatoes that pop
whenever you cut or bite into them,
intricate as a satellite inside . . .
jade disks with peppercorns, sugary like tart candy,
yet not dessert, and good for you. How many years
till I found out why trans girls and women crave salt.
Coming out makes your blood pressure go down.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I would stand outside until I was 41,
waiting to be let in. You can know what you need
before you know why: shredded cabbage and mini-cukes
and sodium ions in water, and vine-ripe tomatoes
preserved in mustard seeds, coriander, allspice
and vinegar for no one knows how long.
The poem references a phenomenon where trans women crave sodium while undergoing HRT; the speaker’s desire for pickles as a young girl calls into this future. This poem also demonstrates Burt’s expertise in building a collection; despite being placed in a vastly different context, the salt in this poem speaks to the mermaid as a saltwater creature, to the tears that form the ocean. The mermaid is future-facing, too, but the future she witnesses is what Muñoz would call “the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” The mermaid creates a meeting place between the past and an imminent future that merge in her body’s resistance to being just one thing.
The mermaid also recognizes that the surface is a place to splash and play, and the poems that compose We Are Mermaids are no exception. I was delighted to find the book’s sections introduced by poems that personify punctuation marks. For Burt, punctuation brims with queer potential. Of the semicolon, Burt writes, “I was made to join together / things formerly thought incompatible, to be neither- / nor and both-and; to seek a connection.” The semicolon is a mermaid too. Of quotation marks, she writes:
We have a soft spot for drama,
and for memorization;
we like to share whatever we have been told.
We liken ourselves to tadpoles, to works-in-progress,
to fishhooks, to earbuds, to loquacious
teens, and to their vintage Princess phones.
This poem outlines a brief history of marking the spoken-out-loud, but it is ultimately a poem about the relational and communal act of listening as it concludes:
We come in several shapes but are never
heartless, or pointless, and never entirely straight.
If you ever see just one of us,
On encountering these punctuation poems, I recalled the introduction to a 2015 issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, edited by Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein, titled “Tranimalities in the Age of Trans* Life.” Rather than seeking legibility for trans people within the limited confines of the Anthropocene’s “human,” Hayward and Weinstein argue that trans studies and the “animal turn” offer a productive meeting point to instead reflect on and critique its limits and harms. Specifically, they suggest that one place this meeting occurs is in the “typographical register through the conceptual operations signified by the asterisk.” Hayward and Weinstein provide precedent for Burt’s queering of punctuation when they describe the asterisk as “a diminutive astral symbol miming a starfish’s limby reach [that] follows trans and attaches to it, attaches it to something else . . . a viral latching-on to membranous surfaces of words.” Here, the asterisk grows from the sea, recalling the regenerative-capable arms of a starfish, reaching out to interface with the surface of language. Words compose a “membrane,” suggesting that language functions as a permeable surface. The surface holds, but also permits and denies entry. It needs to be noted here that while “trans*” originated to create space for those who did not feel “trans” referred to them, many see the asterisk as an exclusionary mark when “trans” can function as an inclusive umbrella term. In this way, decisions about whether to use the asterisk also demonstrate a process of permission and denial produced by evolving language—who is permitted and who is merely affixed? Nonetheless, I find Hayward and Weinstein’s discussion of the asterisk useful for thinking about other ways punctuation enacts queerness through gesture and contact. For example, they state that “[t]he multipointed asterisk is fingery; it both points and touches.” In Burt’s punctuation poems, parentheses speak:
We, too, feel uneasy alone; we believe we exist
to keep you safe and self-contained, at the cost
of making you seem, or feel, like you might not matter,
or not from the outside,
or not too much.
We try to protect you. We have nothing to hide.
As the poem continues, the parentheses also become fingery, stating, “we resemble finger- / nails, or a French manicure, / reaching out with both our hands.” The dash is “fond / of far-off lightning, and completed connections, // and and and and and and and and.” For Hayward, Weinstein, and Burt, punctuation adheres possibility to the surface of language, emphasizing touch, relation, conjunction, event over limit, hierarchy, speciation, even knowledge. In the collection’s final punctuation poem, “Ligature,” Burt writes: “Knowing isn’t the point. We love how the letters can touch.” It is okay to connect feeling to wordplay without quite knowing where you are going.
As a work reflecting on the limitations of the “human,” We Are Mermaids is also a terrific addition to the literature of the environment. In Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures for Posthuman Times (2016), Stacy Alaimo suggests that “it may be worth considering what sort of cultural work evolutionary origin stories featuring fishy mothers or fathers—or, more appropriately, an intersex aquatic ancestor—could perform.” When humans are connected to fishier origins, essentialist, binary constructions of sex and gender necessarily come undone. The mermaid offers a visual metaphor for this connection, but she isn’t the only way that Burt engages environmental narratives. One of my greatest moments of pleasure reading the collection was when I realized that in the poem “Whale Watch” Burt has reversed the expected perspective—it is the whales who watch us:
If you approach the surface
calmly and early enough
on a breezy day like today,
you might see them go by.
Long ago they would stay
for hours in their huge metallic
shells with fin-sized bolts,
some trailing chains as thick
as an estuary eel;
they would gather at the top
of each shell, and all look out
as if to say goodbye
to a wave, or to a cloud,
or to ice, which your
great-aunt may still remember.
As the poem progresses, the whale-speaker reveals that we are in a far-future after ice has melted and humans returned to wooden boats and oars:
They cannot hurt us,
though long ago they could.
If you stay nearly silent
long enough, you might
be able to hear their chirps
and specks—a work song, perhaps,
or one of the greetings or
warnings they emit at the upper
limits of our hearing.
Your calves will likely have
more luck than you.
Though the poem risks the consequences of anthropomorphizing—and indeed the whale’s perspective and voice are quite “human” as the poem moves through observations about this future humanity’s boats, diets, and limited diving capabilities—it invites the reader to consider the absurdity of centering the human narrative when the survival of our species is intimately connected to the survival of nonhuman species. This recognition opens possibilities for new kinship formations, meeting places between species, temporalities. It is a startling realization to know that we are not the only ones who might observe and mythologize, even as these observations and stories likely take no form that we could conceive.
In offering a fishy origin story, the mermaid accomplishes what Alaimo describes as “dwell[ing] in the dissolve, where fundamental boundaries have begun to come undone, unraveled by unknown futures.” These unknown futures certainly threaten environmental disaster as the mechanisms of late capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy fail to address causes of the climate crisis. However, these unraveling boundaries also offer the opportunity to rethink the systems that violently maintain them. Burt uses speculative thinking to imagine the alternative futures that may rise or ooze or regenerate into being. In the collection’s penultimate poem, “We Are Mermaids Again,” Burt invites her readers to become mermaid—even argues for its necessity:
Eyes on the distance, past
homes that remain
above the tideline on the coastal plain,
we listen for the overlap of salt . . .
The first line plays on the idea that the “past”—the deep oceanic past but also the time from which queer ideality is distilled—harbors a far future where there’s “nothing for it . . . except to be the mermaids.”
There is much in We Are Mermaids on which I have not touched. I have not, for example, given the sentences the attention they deserve; Burt’s syntax eddies and whirlpools down the page to land in a perfectly placed rhyme, sincere statement, unexpected pun, unanswerable question. Voices come from beneath our feet and over our heads, shift between the autobiographical voice to persona, offer realism, myth, and magic. Burt expertly wields the melancholy “I,” the generous “you,” the joyful and expansive “we.” You’ll meet bisexual pirate queens, werewolf friends, and you may even get Rick Rolled, though I won’t tell you where to watch for it. There are many love poems. There are landings soft as lily pads, numerous endings and, always, a way to begin. Of the exclamation point, Burt writes:
I can announce
the end of everything,
the feeling of dangling, of having
the world on a string,
or else a new day.
We Are Mermaids. By Stephanie Burt. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2022. 96 pp. $17.00.