Jay Besemer

Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016

Jay Besemer’s third collection, Chelate, takes its title from a chemical process that bonds one ion to another. The word, which literally means “to grab” or “to bind,” reflects the project of the book, as Besemer chronicles his experience undergoing gender transition at the same time he is diagnosed with a chronic illness—the binding of dissonant realities, forced to coexist within the constraints of the body. In Besemer’s framing, the chemicals injected into and extracted from “the cities of the body” call into question the integrity of our physical selves: “my architecture rejects me : build something else :: ”.

In Chelate, the body is a site of ravaging and renewal, and as such deploys a range of modes, utilizing the language of war (“ablative armor intact : the will to survive is strong”), of technology and computation (“the process of my own cognition timed out”), and of cosmic wonder (“my god, this space: vast & empty & echoing with wind envy”). At his strongest he achieves a vivid cross-pollination of images: “this half-submerged raft of starmeat we sit on” feels apocalyptic, yet intimately hopeful. While the book centers itself on the instability of physical identity and language, the poems are formatted in rectangular blocks, punctuated with colons to separate individual phrases and double colons to mark the end of a poem. Despite the dense uniformity of the block structure, which mimics the body’s constrictions, the juxtaposition of charged individual syntactical units in these poems results in dynamic movement and activity.

Chelate is divided into five sections, and as the collection proceeds, the tone shifts from the abstract (“activate a mouth for every encounter : a validated task-flow complicated with need”) to the more concrete, as the “I” becomes fully pronounced. The fourth section in particular, titled “My Inheritance,” combines Besemer’s fractured syntax with a more meditative lyricism, and the result is a clarity of voice despite ontological uncertainty: “all I ever wanted was a quiet life : to pursue silence like a doe, arrow nocked on a string : what do I do now that I’ve brought down my quarry…” In its search for a truth of embodiment, Chelate explores a variety of modes and identity markers, concluding that although language can be imprecise, its descriptive powers can nonetheless help satisfy the “demand to be taken, again & again, just as I am.”