Prac Crit

Fairy Story

by Stephen Burt


by Alison Winch

In the American television series Transparent Maura shows her two daughters childhood photographs that have been retouched to reveal what she would have looked like if she had been raised as a girl rather than a boy. Flicking through the photographs, one of her daughters wonders, ‘Just imagine if you could have been her, your whole life.’ In the same television show there is an alternative time-line starring Maura’s mother, Rose. It follows her journey from the queer scene in 1930s Berlin, through her Jewish family’s persecution by the Nazis, to her immigration to America, and it culminates in Maura’s birth. The final line of the second season is: ‘Congratulations, it’s a boy!’

A photograph is a different kind of thing from a poem and a television series a different kind of thing from a poetry pamphlet. But I make the comparison here because they can both depict alternative possible worlds, especially in relation to what it means to be a boy or a girl or a bit of both or neither. Whereas a statement like ‘it’s a boy’ immediately shuts down possibility, art has the potential to open it up. The postscript from Stephen Burt’s pamphlet All Season Stephanie (from where this poem is also taken) explains:

These poems present episodes, moments and parts in the possible lives of a girl who is both me and not me; they come from the life, or lives, that I could have lived, had I been born and raised and grown up as a girl.

Rather than ‘tell one story’ about Stephanie, the pamphlet looks ‘at parts of what could have been my life.’ The poem ‘Fairy Story’, coming roughly towards the middle of pamphlet, is a small look at this possible life.

‘Fairy Story’ is a slight anomaly in the pamphlet because it doesn’t have Stephanie’s name in the title – perhaps because it’s more about the stories that make up a girl than the girl herself. Sequentially this poem comes after ‘Paper Stephanie’ who knows

the name of the artist who made me and made my hair,
with its scribbles and angles, and my other hair,
with its Byzantine curves and its coils, and my other hair,
that I wore when I was a flapper.

Paper Stephanie has been ‘cut out, / refolded, unfolded’. Her artist is the paper doll maker, Tom Tierney (to whom this poem is dedicated), but also, of course, Burt. And seeing as we’re here, the artist is probably also partly me and a bit of you too.

Paper Stephanie tries to elide the look of the artist when she asks, ‘What if I had a side you could not see?’. The option of this other side; other hairstyles, coloured shoes, earrings, pendants, lip gloss – other ‘lemon-yellow possibilities/ things I might very insistently wish to be’ (‘Esprit Stephanie’) – shape these poems. Just to clarify: I talk as if there’s a beginning, a middle and an end; that all the poems explain each other sequentially. And in a way they do. The pamphlet starts with Stephanie’s first day at school and the penultimate poem is ‘Final Exam Stephanie’. There are also generation-specific events like the 1978 snow storm in ‘1978 Stephanie’.

But time is fooled. Burt says in an interview for Boston Review that Stephanie ‘has always been ‘me’ but ‘she could not have been put together – in life or in poems – much earlier than right now’; much like that retouched photograph in Transparent. Time is both the solid ground of this pamphlet, and the shifting sand. It roots the poems to real-life happenings that mark the chronological life of a girl moving through the school system, but it also shifts to the artist’s present, making and remaking Stephanie as a trans person. In the same interview Burt notes:

As with everything else that belongs in a poem, these experiments involve mixed feelings: ‘should I fear scissors or love them’? Both, if I am a paper doll, or an artist who works in paper. (How much of my old self would I ever want to cut out?)

In ‘Fairy Story’, rather than being cut by another, Stephanie cuts herself:

After I pricked myself
in my ring finger, deliberately, with a pin
because I wanted to feel something in my own body

that I had done on my own
I couldn’t
sleep for a week, or not
for more than an hour at a time.

Pricks, rings, sleeps – the stuff that princesses are made of: pricked girls rescued by heroic boys on white horses. It’s the stuff that normal is made of. But Stephanie is not a princess. For a start she can’t sleep for an hour, never mind years. And she’s not doing normal either. She alters her destiny by deliberately pricking the finger that could wear the ring from the heroic boy on the white horse. She hurts herself so that she can feel something in her own body. It sounds a little like self-harm – something that a teenage girl might do.

Stephanie is also ‘the sun in June’. This sun is key, not just because there is a lot of sun in this pamphlet, but because this isn’t another tragic queer coming-of-age story – like the film Boys Don’t Cry for example. Stephanie is full of possibility, even if it might be painful to achieve. In another poem, Mermaid Stephanie is:

too full of sun, too full of being

                  (‘Mermaid Stephanie’)

In ‘Fairy Story’ Stephanie is ‘ready to set,/ all amber and solar gel, and me craving the lead.’ Solar gel must be acrylic nails or maybe suntan lotion – either way, a girl thing. Like an inscrutable but charming damsel, she is desperate ‘to be found’ but also ‘hard to find’. She sports ‘the longest lashes’ – all the better to flutter with, my dear – and she has ‘the least patience’ and ‘if strangers admire my powers I won’t mind/ having to stand forever, waiting in line.’

Standing forever doesn’t sound like an activity that someone with the least patience would crave. Or how a fairy story usually unfolds. Quentin Crisp said something like, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style’. There is something queer about failing, especially if you are a girl failing to like boys, or a boy failing to like girls, or you are a boy wanting to be a princess, or a girl failing to be a princess. Stephanie is a girl who wants to fail. In an earlier poem, when she is at kindergarten, she says,

I don’t want my mommy; I want to be a mommy,
to pretend to be a mommy and to fail.
                  (‘School Day Stephanie’)

Failing can be a refusal to be made by someone else. It can be a way of being yourself. In ‘Fairy Story’, Stephanie doesn’t want the happy-ever-after denouement. For her, being looked at is the finale. Although she will be waiting in line, always failing to get that heroic boy, (in two poems time she will wonder ‘“but if I did like boys”’ [‘First Kiss Stephanie’]), she will be seen. She takes that romantic fairy tale word forever, and puts it where it shouldn’t be – in the middle of the story.

Stealing small objects is a minor pastime of adolescent girls:

I stole a shiny cylinder
of cucumber lip gloss from the CVS

These lovely s sounds – and the lovely way they look on the page – reveal another story about boy-and-girl-sex: Adam and Eve. Only it’s cucumber rather than apple and it’s ‘a serpent’s-tooth from the leaves of our beech tree.’ The illicit lip gloss and tooth seem to have given Stephanie some of kind of knowledge as she weighs up three different kinds of desires:

Until recently
I could not tell any difference
between ‘I want to meet people like me,’
‘I want people to like me’
and ‘I want to go out of my way to meet people like me,

except that I want there to be nobody like me

I read this (and the poem and the pamphlet) partly through my memory of being brought up a girl who thought of herself as a girl – and one who mainly liked boys too. It’s a different kind of memory that’s linked to the solid ground of being or doing girl, rather than the author’s shifting sands. Because of this, I worry about getting this reading ‘right’ – if there is such a thing. (Also, and of course, there is always something grimly violent and shut down about practising gender and sex. I wanted to be Tintin as well as wanting to be wanted by Tintin; my wanting of Tintin was more nebulous…).

I craved likeability, but I also wanted that to-be-looked-at-ness of the feminine. The two things aren’t the same, even if they both involve not being yourself. One is about that stuff that little girls are made of – niceness. And the other is about the lonely distance of being looked at by other people, as well as by yourself: ‘I want there to be nobody like me’. I also wanted friends – people like me.

I read these three statements as generic and linked to girlhood, but they are Stephanie’s idiosyncratic thoughts and she isn’t my memory of me. This is one of those shifting sands moments when time is befuddled, opening up to the presence of the artist, Burt. Because of this, the people ‘like me’ who Stephanie would ‘go out of my way to meet’ would be those people are also succeeding to fail at gender. These lines are about taking a risk in order to meet people who are queer like her; they are about wanting to be seen and coming out.

Stephanie desires ‘only a mirror in air/ and a series of shimmery alien sympathies’. This is not a mirror-mirror-on-the-wall affirmation, but one hangs in air like a kind of fairy tale selfie. If Instagram had existed in the 1980s all those likes and hearts and comments could have been the mystique that told her she was the fairest of them all. The poem ends with Stephanie’s award-winning thank you speech:

Thank you for all the time that you and your friends
let me pay attention to me paying attention to me.

Friends populate this pamphlet. The death of her best-friend’s grandfather teaches her that we only have one body: ‘I was used to believing in more than one of me’ (‘Funereal Stephanie’). An ex-friend teaches her about shame, and the Mean Girls reveal how hoop earrings can be slutty. (This reminds me of the eponymous film: ‘Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut.’)

I haven’t mentioned the word narcissism, mainly because it is unfairly used to criticize selfie-taking girls. Selfies can be a way of saying ‘hello’ and ‘I’m here’ and ‘this is what I look like’ and ‘this is who I am – pay attention’. It can be a way of letting other people recognize and acknowledge you; getting other people to pay attention to you paying attention to yourself – who you are, what your place is, who you might want to be. Being really seen is to be given value and this is crucial if you are girl. It’s also crucial if you are trans. As Burt explains in the Boston Review interview:

I like being out in person, in real life; I much prefer having to explain some things over and over […] to the feeling of keeping a secret. I’d rather be seen.


Fairy Story

by Stephen Burt

After I pricked myself
in my ring finger, deliberately, with a pin
because I wanted to feel something in my own body

that I had done on my own, I couldn’t
sleep for a week, or not
for more than an hour at a time.
I was the sun in June; I was ready to set,
all amber and solar gel, and me craving the lead.

I want to be found but I wanted to be hard to find.
I have the longest lashes and the least patience,
and if strangers admire my powers I won’t mind
having to stand forever, waiting in line.

I stole a shiny cylinder
of cucumber lip gloss from the CVS,

a serpent’s-tooth from the leaves of our beech tree.
Until recently
I could not tell any difference
between ‘I want to meet people like me,’
‘I want people to like me’
and ‘I want to go out of my way to meet people like me

except that I want there to be nobody like me,
only a mirror in air
and a series of shimmery alien sympathies.
Thank you for all the time that you and your friends
let me pay attention to me paying attention to me.’

From All-Season Stephanie (Rain Taxi, 2015). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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