Jos Charles

Ahsahta, 2016

Unabashed defiance and vulnerability, subversion of cultural and poetic mores, and verbal accountability and slippage provide the foundations of Safe Space, Jos Charles’s first book. Using as its title the now highly politicized term, Safe Space openly challenges popular and academic discourse about gender, history, and the value of the individual within the contemporary United States.

Charles, a trans poet and activist, writes candidly and poignantly about the personal and systemic dangers faced by the trans community. In “Seagull, Tiny,” the poem widens and contracts to contextualize the effects of transphobia: “When i first // met a trans person at / age 7 // she served us mashed / potatoes // at boston market / Mother winced // and statistically it’s / unlikely she // kept the job / I am worthy / of eating food i tell / myself.” Even survival is fraught with questions of validity.

When Charles opens the poems both to the structural, historical forces that shape existence and to individual experience, their critiques sting with righteous bitterness. In the expansive and restless “The World is Flat,” Charles counters definitions of labor, sanity, and femininity by bringing together the persecution of Anne Hutchinson and her legacy, the brutal history of obstetrics, and the myopic politics of second-wave feminism: “Germaine greer said / u weren’t really liberated until u tasted / ur own menstrual blood Well, germaine, / i don’t have menstrual blood ok / the best i can do is taste my semen.” The poem’s pathos deepens through its mantric nod to Thessalonians: “He who does not work will not / eat.”

Throughout the book, Charles approaches language with an understanding of its potential for liberation (“A poem / that is also mine”) and oppression (“Woe the white // boys talking about rape Rape they say, / like tomato”). This malleability, and the repercussions of the confusion that occurs when “words trick us,” come to a head most explicitly in “Poem for Žižek”: “I love u is the / most political / shit anyone / can say to / anybody” because “no one / says i love u / without saying / something / else.”

Even when they veer into the sentimental, Safe Space’s urgently wrought, kinetic poems ask us to reconsider the role of the individual—and underlying linguistic and structural forces—at a cultural moment when existence “requires / all ur thought and yet it’s absolutely / effortless Even carrots do it.”