[Graywolf; 2022]

Like every other moody queer English major, I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson in undergrad. The book’s content was fine, but I was floored by the structure and possibilities of the lyric essay. The structure of Bluets seemed to break open the potential of a book, and I was greatly impacted by the autotheory conception that our lives could serve as empirical evidence of critical theories and history. How often was academia removed from the very subjects it attempted to serve? What was the point of critique and theory if not to relate these insights to personal, lived experiences? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many queer authors veer towards decentralized narratives through stitched vignettes and varying topics; our own history, ways of being, and modes of expression rarely seem to fit into traditional narrative structures. The lyric essay was the first literary reflection I encountered of myself and my community, in all of our contradictory and intertwined parts. As a recently out nonbinary person, I was transfixed.

When I heard this winter about Lars Horn’s debut book, Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay, I thought—finally. A transmasc lyric essay. I had been waiting for this book. In Voice of the Fish, Horn takes readers on an autobiographical sojourn into the mind of a transnational, transmasculine writer and savant of the aquatic. Through an analysis of the poetic depth of water, Horn writes lyrically about their complex relationship with their mother, their alienation from their body, their trek across Europe and the US, and a disabling accident. In aquatic history and philosophical musings, Horn finds a vehicle for their pain, wonderment, and identity formation. Horn recalls Anne Carson and Billy-Ray Belcourt in their lyricism, and at times their poetic prose is as ornamental as that of Ocean Vuong. Voice of the Fish is an ambitious book, with vignettes of history, literature, memoir, and poetry. Yet Horn weaves these different literary disciplines into a holistic portrait of a life on the margin. I was surprised by how much I related to the story, how I felt Horn was writing a more mythic version of my own life. This type of transference came easily to me, and perhaps may to many queer people. When trans representation is a rarity among the plethora of cis-het narratives, queer insights and shared experiences from queer authors or artists feel strikingly personal.

Horn is a writer, translator, and teacher at Columbia University. According to their website, they were relatively unpublished as a nonfiction writer until their book was released, with mainly excerpts of Voice of the Fish published in periodicals such as The Kenyon Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Voice of the Fish won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2020 and was published in 2022. It appears to be a culmination of Horn’s ongoing archival-like process of collecting information; in an interview with Cameron Finch, Horn talks about their compulsive compilations of facts, stories, and images, which they may collect years before the information becomes relevant to their writing. As Stef Rubino writes in a review of this book for Autostraddle, “Horn’s work is essentially an archival one, writing themselves, their body, their gender, and the enigmatic nature of their identity, which ‘exists for the most part as unseen, unworded, unintelligible,’ into our world and the historical record.” Voice of the Fish is also an archival project, one that struggles against the proclivity to simplify a gender or story into bite-sized pieces. But how can this erratic methodology of collecting myth and mementos frame a life in process?

When Horn travels through Europe and the US in Voice of the Fish, they experience transphobia and cultural differences, and find allyship in unlikely places. Their gender remains illegible and unintelligible to the general public in most places. The threat of hate crimes, and more benign cultural misunderstandings around gender and sexuality, effect an alienation of the self that many transgender people can relate to: “How does one write of a self that is fundamentally displaced? Of a self that, for decades, has seen and not recognised its own body?” While these themes are common in transgender narratives, Horn’s relationship to their own dysphoria and their intellectualization of their gender provides new insight into a collective trans identity and subjecthood.

At a young age, Horn struggles with their pronouns. Before the international polemic of nonbinary pronouns, they write about themself in the third person masculine, and struggle to correct themself to the first person. Already this troubling of pronouns indicates an estrangement from gender by distancing oneself from first person to third person, and it indicates a plural subjectivity that nonbinary identities often inhabit. This plurality expands into Horn’s relationship with their body. “I have always felt as if my body moves itself—possesses its own will, character, its own thoughts. I experience my body as other, but also as another.”

Horn’s relationship to their body, already fraught and complex, takes a turn after they are attacked by a random assailant. Shortly after their terrible assault, they tear the muscles in their shoulder to their lower back. While there is no logical relation between the two events, “the injury always felt like an echo” of Horn’s trauma. They become immobilized and lose the ability to speak, read, or write for six months. There is no medical explanation, and Horn writes that they don’t know why or how they lose these language-based abilities. For anyone, let alone an academic whose entire profession depends on these cerebral abilities, a kind of death takes place. Horn’s body, already unintelligible to themself and the external world, is further alienated, not unable to communicate. The way they best explain the absolute horror of their body and medical malady is through two dream-like sequences of being operated on. In one poem, “The boy who cannot speak is on an operating table; an eel is removed from his body and transferred to a kidney dish”; in another, a recurrent dream, pike is removed from Horn’s body. Fish may represent illness, a cancer to be cut out and placed aside, as if in Horn’s subconscious their body is made of water, and the illness, the words trying to escape, are just fish that need to be released. Horn’s lack of participation in conversations throughout Voice of the Fish is an apt picture of someone who struggles to communicate with the outside world, and instead tends to a vibrant interior world, as they listen and see without reciprocation.

In the chapter, “Anything That Makes a Mark, Anything That Takes a Mark,” Horn explores the thematic relations between writing, tattooing, and water, and remembering their experience getting significant texts tattooed across their body after losing the ability to read and write. Woven into these memories are the history of tattooing and visually striking vignettes: an artist stamping water for performance art, an artist inking their entire face with calligraphy, a Greek king ordering the “tattooing” of the Hellespont strait. This chapter delves into their new development of a literate self outside of traditional literacy and into the physical, as well as entering a new methodology in which to interact with the external world: “Tattooing my body after I lost the ability to speak, read, and write was not a nostalgic gesture, but rather a movement away from language-centred meaning. A commitment to the slipperiness, the fleshiness of coming to the world, first and foremost, as a body.” It is an act of reclamation of themself, through their body and literature: “And I thought back over the books I could no longer read, how they hummed now beneath my clothing, whispered against its seams.”

And perhaps the reclamation of language and Horn’s body is what leads them to organic modalities of writing and expression, since it is through visual art, texture, and “three-dimensional construction” that they begin to re-learn how to write. Rather than sequencing words left to right, top to bottom, Horn describes filling in the page intuitively and visually, almost akin to asemic writing, or the way Renee Gladman describes drawing in Calamities. Horn writes, “Each sentence came like this. Fragmented, exploded. Built from the inside out.” Though Horn regains the ability to speak and write, they never fully regain the ability to read, and still get headaches and visually ruptured sentences. However, they do not see this as failure, or that there is no space for themself in the world of literature. Rather:

I’d like to think that those bodies, bodies that fail to adhere to norms of language, that don’t manipulate words in the ways they are told they must, I’d like to think there is space for them, for me, to speak. That maybe experiencing the world as less worded, as gesture, vivid image, can be seen not as lack but as resource. That they can bring some unusual angle, strange value to writing, reading, to how we communicate.

Horn stresses that there should be a place in the canon for differently minded people—whether disabled, abstract thinkers, or visual interpreters. And in Voice of the Fish, Horn demands this recognition, and proves the value of a physical, tactile relationship to words. The ideas around language, the body, and gender are only a smattering of the vast array of topics and themes in this book. Voice of the Fish is a book for those who enjoy poetic prose, rigorous ideas, and details of history; a book for anyone interested in subaltern lives, in critically analyzing language and literature. Horn’s life, as fantastical as it may seem at times, exemplifies the eccentricity, peculiarity, and intensity crucial to many trans people’s narratives. It is not always meant to be relatable or seem tangible. Voice of the Fish serves as a melancholic introspection of a life on the edge. It is a rupture of prose that offers insight into our own fractured egos, a manifestation of grief, and still, resilience.

Maxwell Van Cooper is an emerging creative nonfiction writer and Library Trainee at the Free Library of Philadelphia. They are working to receive a Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) with a concentration in Archival Studies. Max is also the co-founder of an online publication, tk.collective. Two of their lyric essays were finalists for the Tucson Festival of Books 2024 Literary Award. Learn more about their work at www.maxwellvancooper.com.

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