Dear Herculine, winner of the 2014 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press, is an epistolary work addressed to nineteenth-century intersexual Herculine Barbin, who was made famous when Foucault found and published a document that included Barbin’s memoir and autopsy reports. In this dense, swiftly mutating book, Apps struggles with the permeable boundary between private and public bodies, and troubles what happens when that distinction is transgressed. Often self-reflexive, creating the very mirrors it worries “will break and injure,” Dear Herculine presents a text-based ritual that merges Apps’ speaker with Barbin’s ghost, cultivating a meditation on the production and value of shame. Questions of medicalization and power are woven throughout, and readers are positioned in a medical theater where the bodies being operated upon do not consent to our presence but, rather, submit to it. Images of Barbin’s autopsied genitals appear throughout, forcing readers to stand in for the violent eyes of doctors. The patient is dead, an “actual corpse, the back of a fucking mirror fucking me.” We become complicit in the production of shame, perpetrating the medical gaze.
One of the challenges of this book is its gruesome, frequently exhausting, descriptions of the very animal reality of the human body. Bodies made of “flesh taffy” constantly leech or leak into one another or the ground with the “promiscuity of the rotting blood cocoon.” The pastoral possibilities of the garden have become the cemetery, and the corpses are feeding their own death to one another, creating “an ecology of letters” that “makes queer, animalistic love with the reader it engages – erotic, biological, cannibalistic.” The dense lyricism frequently skirts the boundaries of critical theory, sometimes verging on the didactic as it interrogates what it means to have a body or corpse (and who gets to decide what it means):
I don’t mean to fetishize your death. I mean to say we are both corpses in a way. I mean to say that we always already were animals dying into the soil, inhuman. The paper is the fold of the sad wolf’s howl emitting from the animated corpse.
The corporality of both speaker and subject are never forgotten in this volume, while the gory realities of having both a body and a corpse are deftly navigated through the long sentences, reinvigorating and complicating the ambitions of the epistolary form.