[Sidebrow Books; 2020]
Julia Bloch’s poetry collection The Sacramento of Desire links the desire for a family through using assisted reproduction technologies to the inevitable economic and complex biopolitical factors that govern that choice; in doing so, she meditates on the nature of corporeal existence, and the ability of language to embody such an existence, as well as questions of gender, control, and the nature of time. It is a multivocal book; a chorus of voices interweave with her poetry, creating a sense of the importance of community. But Bloch is aware of the limits of language and this problematizes her idea of writing a story about her subject. The book does not contain a series of easy solutions; it contains a shifting narrative, open to changing thoughts without resolution. Thus Bloch allows the language to move freely in an indeterminate space of possibilities. In this way, the poems are generous and open ended, pluralistic.
Michel Foucault, in History of Sexuality Volume One (Vintage, 1990) defines biopolitics as a “power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” Medically assisted reproduction manifests this power, and has become a huge global business. But biopolitics is also the power to let certain lives die, and there are certain factors of control that are problematic to navigate, especially for queer and transgender people. Fewer reproductive clinics welcome non-heterosexual clients who, according to the system, presented an undesirable image. Nicole Rank, writes, in “Barriers for Access to Assisted Reproductive Technologies by Lesbian Women: the Search for Parity within the Healthcare System” that “Lesbian women face the greatest barriers because their lifestyle is viewed as non-traditional and even morally wrong. They also lack the benefits of legal marriage that are available to heterosexual couples. These women face religious and moral objections to access by doctors as well as other providers of ARTs (Assisted Reproduction Technologies). Additionally, they face financial, insurance, and legal barriers to fertility treatments.” Trying to find their way in this environment can cause women to feel frustrated and lonely. That is why community is so important; it is a central and important aspect of this book. Bloch writes, in an interview, in answer to the question, “Who is the audience for this book?”:
I definitely wrote it for the people who appear in the book. I wrote it for my community. I wrote it for my family, my friends, my poet cohorts. But I also wrote it for people who I don’t know yet. I feel like I’m writing into a tradition, specifically feminist poetry, that is interested in making connections between experience assumed to be ‘personal’ and more ‘political’ frameworks or lives or contexts. I’m also joining a tradition of poetry that doesn’t believe that there’s only one voice in a poem; there are a lot of voices in the book.
The chorus of voices in the book is composed of quotes from various volumes of poetry and critical theory. But beyond this community, the collection animates a desire that is inextricably connected to loss, to memories on the edge of consciousness, to Bloch’s feeling of unease with her position as both as an academic and as a mother. And yet she does not resolve such issues and prefers to linger in an open space of shifting realities and hopes. It takes courage to do this; it is part of the book’s strength.
Bloch’s language is abstract yet lyrical, multivocal, and linguistically heterodox. She uses medical terminology as well as colloquial phrases in her shifting narrative voice. The medical world codifies a body in order to naturalize it so that it conforms to the legal-medical foundation for its existence in a social-political space. But her poems are open-ended, unconcerned with resolution or fixity: “ok so start tonally walking around this topic endlessly No mastery, no center, just paraphernalia.” Furthermore, the non-center of this book is ungovernable, has no sovereign. It is not mapped and defined. Bloch writes, “We all want to be new, we all want to be finished, but we are not new, we are exactly we are not exactly as planned.”
She catalogues the responses in her body, all the while trying to find a language that is corporeal, embodied, that is, literally of the body: a sign that she is fertile. These complex emotions are exhibited in the following excerpt:
Cramp/no cramp, cramp/memory, fear/awry, perceptible laugh in the cunt may I log on to this terminal while we wait, clots smear bye-bye dancer purple scarf sandwich maker clutch of cells each with its discrete corridors I’ve got it right here in my pocket, draped in muscle, this story . . . clack clack clack goes the young laptop who pretends not to listen to our lesbian cruising so slick and interruptive, once I would cut an outline for the approval and wait for it to spill into fullness but now am just listing flesh dissolving into no-time yet I did hear a lady say you have a beautiful brain to us you are life-size
This language, sonically harsh at times when necessary (clack clack clack, the hard “c” and “ck,” when characterizing the laptop) involves a materialization of the body in the world. She speaks of clots smearing and a “clutch of cells” evoking the processes inside her body. Throughout the book there are references to blood, mucus, cells, tissues, infections, syringes, which suggests the processes of knowing when she is fertile. But Bloch can’t “chart some sort of launch as if futures were engraved.” It is in a certain respect out of her hands. At times, she wishes for one thing: “to get this done.” At others, she acknowledges, quoting Elizabeth Willis (significantly changing the “for” to “from”) “an assemblage is a body from which there is no escape.” This would mean a certain finality which can be frightening. The “lesbian cruising” is “slick and interruptive” as opposed to machinic; where “machinic” (men invented the machine) suggests a robotic, steady motion as opposed to the flexibility or porousness of her language. She can feel her body dissolving in an attempt to achieve fullness; a loss of self; the emergence of the other; time seems to be of no consequence. Furthermore, this muscle, this story, is in her pocket: a story not yet realized; also, a story impossible to write: “Story is a loop — no, that’s broken.”
Bloch also uses what she refers to as archival language, seemingly more formal and technical, against language drawn from the applications of potential sperm donors. Her language is not hegemonic; it freely moves around the subject, pursuing lines of thinking, prompted by the quotes she inserts in the poems; the language can be characterized as containing a multiplicity of sounds and voices that become the strategic means of re-ordering thought against the established norms concerning gender, language, and the body; this allows her to question ideas about femininity and naming:
Fuck that name haha. It’s a terrible so feminine name haha. It’s an awful simpering and weak I want it fallen on the floor stomp on its feminine face. Burn its femininity like spies and acid fingers. It’s bad though to hate femininity like that isn’t it because what’s left then without the femininity aren’t you feminine isn’t femininity a scale isn’t it a panting chair. But I care for the others.
Here she speaks a language that is not her own (to the extent, of course, that no one owns the language) and makes it vibrate with another accent; the words are not grammatically “correct,” and phonetically deviant. For Bloch, “the body is feral, meaning of a deadly nature or dead by distraction.” She commits a subversive act born of desire and pain; the passage is also a commentary on gender and community. In an interview, Bloch says: “The book is largely about thwarted desire, a desire for a child who does not appear. And so that makes that desire a painful experience. But it’s also about what can be the wonderful experience of dwelling in that feeling in an ongoing way.” If we accept that no one should be deprived of their rights, regarding assisted reproduction as well as any other based on sexual orientation, then there is a possibility that we can change the script of this calamitous stage production we call life.
The Sacramento of Desire is also about the importance of time and the experience of it for Bloch: “From late menstrual to early ovulation, it’s easier to say the thing unless it isn’t, one and one and two and seven and seven and the face empties. Timing is participatory. Timing is actual, whereas other actions are diaphanous.” The changing face of the future (“Uterus contracts with pleasure and with future”) creates a new emphasis on the present, the here and now, and even though the threat of no future hovers overhead like an impending storm, the urgency of these poems, expands the potential of the moment and, creates new linguistic possibilities out of the time at hand (“vulva on the table, anatomy is just as calendrical”).
But there is another order of time, another calendar, more primitive, spiritual, based on the astrological chart. It is a queer time, born of strange temporalities. Queerness is constituted by its difference from conventional imperatives of time. Judith Halberstam, in “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies,” writes “Queer uses of time and space develop . . . in opposition to the institutions . . . of heterosexuality . . . ” In the following quote Bloch writes about this alternate time:
Later at the table Emma says the seventh house is contractual, house of dialectic; Libra, house of enemies, house of people you marry and people you hate; Saturn in your fourth tines her Uranus in eighth so there’s clattering shock and sex and swimming in the underworld; there’s no form outside the lesbian form. Aquarius new moon suddenly here like the demon Glory’s ringlets . . .
In The Sacramento of Desire, the experience of this time has the power to create a spell by opening up a space for women apart from the dictates of the Calendar, created by men. As she writes: “there’s no form outside the lesbian form.”
In an interview, Bloch responds, concerning a question about how she would describe the book: “It’s about the desire for making a family in a world that can make that very difficult, especially for queer people who don’t fit neatly into the categories that are offered them. It’s about encountering the assisted reproductive industry and navigating Western and alternative medicine.” The way we live now is a matter of speed and productivity; we have internalized the over-worked production scheme at the basis of capitalism, and become willing subjects. The sexual organs seem always to be abstracted from the body, a source of shame, generating an ethical or moral problem. Queer women and men face the techno-patriarchal governmentality managed and enforced by the various financial institutions when it comes to assisted reproduction. Nicole Rank, writes:
Some providers (clinics or individual doctors) may refuse to provide fertility services to homosexual couples based on these religious values [Catholic, Islamic, Jewish] . . . One of the biggest controversies surrounding assisted reproductive technologies is whether insurance companies should be required to provide coverage for fertility treatments. Lesbian couples cannot marry in most states, and very few employers provide insurance coverage for domestic partners. Even when this coverage is made available to same sex couples, these couples do not necessarily meet the statutory or medical definition of infertility. Ultimately, the question here is one of equality and justice: if insurance companies do cover assisted reproductive technologies for heterosexual couples, is it appropriate or ethical to deny coverage for these same fertility treatments to lesbian couples who also desire a genetically related child?
The Sacramento of Desire is a powerful feminist work that deals with assisted reproduction, the complex biopolitical and economic factors that are involved in that choice, the nature of corporeal existence and language, and the problems of control, gender, and time. We can only change the future, look towards a better one, by not repeating the past, by reading those books that challenge us and make us think, as well as keeping in view the terms of a community, creating a sense of solidarity, and for this reason I am glad that The Sacramento of Desire exists in the world.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books, including a translation of Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions, 2017), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. His most recent book is a co-translation of Succubations and Incubations: The Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud 1945-1947 (Infinity Land Press, 2020). Forthcoming is a book of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum Books, 2020), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). Twenty-four of his short films have been shown at Anthology Film Archives. He is presently working on editing a book on the filmmaker Harry Smith.