[Roof Books; 2024]

Dear Ted,

Reading Hand Me the Limits stirred to life a part of myself that I didn’t know still existed. The part of me still wallowing in self-pity about my diagnosis (Hodgkins Lymphoma, Stage II—I want you to know), the terrible timing, all the things I missed out on. The part that both loves and hates that there is something exceptional about me up for consideration by others, the part that is ashamed to love having a story. The part that still feels deeply sorry for the version of myself in such deep pain (pain literally inside my bones) that all I wanted was touch, but I didn’t know how to ask for it, I felt guilty, I wanted sex badly and was disgusting.

To me, you say, “I cannot help but arrange / hurt and quit myself then / in wound,” and, “I would that our sorrow could be channeled elsewhere.”

Me too.



Hand Me the Limits, Ted Rees’s fourth full-length book blends lyric poetry, pop culture criticism, personal essay, a redacted fellowship application, and a love letter to his beloved mentor, Kevin Killian, to work through and against the tandem shames of desire and living in a cancerous body. At every turn, Hand Me the Limits blurs the lines between sex and cancer such that sex is always at some acute angle adjacent to cancer: “a sort of unspeakable / violence or corner / of a room, greasy / dust a glue that’s hard / to get off,” and cancer always strangely near the (homo)sexual:

dissing the blood

around my skull

or the fey rhythm

my boyish tits bounce

to, prodded by poor

circulation in fingers

or it’s the dent

that cannot be sucked.

For Rees, cancer is sexual; sex is cancerous.

With Hand Me the Limits, Rees joins the ranks of the great chroniclers of illness—the likes of Audre Lorde, David Wojnarowicz, Hervé Guibert, and Tim Dlugos; the great writers of subversive desire—the aforementioned sum Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper; and firmly establishes his place in the New Narrative lineage.

Early on, Rees offers up a new truism: “we begin and end in holes.” And he does. Hand Me the Limits begins with the hole of “rearrangement,” the vacuum where everything gets tossed in to slosh around in the muck—the hole of the hospital:

beeping machines elevators small and large whooshes of

fluid droplets car tires losing air organ being restored

pounding of magnetic imaging cylinders turning inside and

next to each other around hips chest shaved remnants

“Make Me Real, Make Me Sick,” the book’s first prose section, travels back in time to Rees’s pre-cancerous body, but not to a pre-cancerous time altogether—adolescent Rees is witnessing his mother’s stage IV invasive epithelial ovarian cancer, and he is hardening to his exterior by drafting a rich internal world of anger, pain, and bitterness. Rees transforms memories of listening to Hole’s “Olympia” (“Make me real, fuck you”—a “rasping demand”) into an examination of adolescent alienation. This is the kind of essay often called “seamless” for its facile transitions from ruminations on Hole to Audre Lorde to Alice Munro to Nancy Shaw and Catriona Strang, but this essay isn’t seamless. Much like a young punk’s “outlandish fashion”—in Rees’s case, “ridiculously shambling clothes often haphazardly sewn together with dental floss”—the seams show, and they suggest holes.

Rees takes his punk adolescence seriously, for this is when he came to see adults as “culpable in some nefarious act.” “I put my headphones back on: No one cares, my friends,” he remembers. And adolescence is when Rees discovers the power of the “multifarious orgasm,” masturbating with an “astonishing frequency in a vast array of situations in positions.” Rees’s “multifarious orgasm” cleverly harkens back to those nefarious acts of adults—there are many and various ways to dig oneself a hole, and adolescence, whether one likes it or not, is a highway straight to dubious adulthood.

Rees waits until the epilogue, subtitled “My Rectum, My Grave” to reveal the particular horror driving the lyric poetry sequences “Hand Me the Limits” and “Dear Hole.” Once he’s ready, he pulls it straight from his medical chart: “Malignant partially obstructing / tumor in the rectum extending / almost to the anal verge. / Pathology adenocarcinoma.” Adenocarcinoma is, according to the National Cancer Institute, a cancer “that forms in the glandular tissue, which lines certain internal organs and makes and releases substances in the body, such as mucus, digestive juices, and other fluids.” Sexy! The treatment for Rees’s particular cancer involves a surgery “in which the anus, rectum, and sigmoid colon are removed.” Where a hole once was, a hole; where pleasure once was, a hole. To the “unyielding permanence of this absence,” Rees says repeatedly, “I was dying in that hole.” And not only was Rees dying—he was grieving. This is how Hand Me the Limits succeeds, revealing–through all its various forms—the tragedy of the loss of an absence. By way of the project description for a redacted fellowship application, “The Failures of Fellowship,” Rees asks, “Where does it hurt and why?” It hurts in the hole. Why? Because of the hole.

I want to think about Rees’s corporeal writing through what Joyelle McSweeney calls the necropastoral. Rees’s porous organs become host to “mucus, digestive juices, and other fluids,” a site not here, but somehow over there, wasting away away from the public, the humming hospital room a site out of sight. Rees pulls back the veil covering the necrosites of illness and reveals how the problem of his leaky body or “fleshy husk” is really a public dilemma: “My body suffers, the bodies of so many others suffer, and I only have so many methods of placing blame for that suffering, for the ‘squandered’ world I inhabit now.”

Veil back, ass (but not anus) up on the exam table, Rees sighs, “my apologies for repeating myself,” an apology which harkens back to his earlier analysis of Strang and Shaw’s collaborative poem “www.sorry.com,” written while Shaw was dying of cancer. Rees writes, “It begins with an apology, appropriate since an expression of regret is usually the first phrase that leaves peoples’ lips when confronted by illness. Strangely, the apology is often mirrored by the sufferer and becomes part of a recursive phrasal economy of mutual sympathy—an infinitude of ‘I’m sorry’’s resounding through interaction.” Rees wants to apologize for exposing himself. He admits, “I cannot fathom another method of returning to my pleasure and my fullness except by explaining the absence that is my present, that which is most conspicuous every time I feel desire.” Exposure then is the antidote to the problem of exposure, and Rees exposes himself spectacularly: “I place my body on the naked body of another man, and I forgive my tragedy and return to myself, humming against him, saturated.”

Dear Ted,

You speak of limits. Surely they’re there, but they’re all rearranged into something else, something unrecognizable. You say,

“I cannot help but arrange

hurt and quit myself then

in wound, I recognize

how these mean gurgles

swap in and out but

their front resents

their asses, you understand

how language inheres

or doesn’t, tell me more.”

The limits (i.e., the inherence of language (or lack thereof)) are handed to us, but you’ve transmuted them into something without a ceiling, without a floor—a hole—and the dent can’t be sucked, but it can do something else entirely. You’ve re-appropriated shame and self-pity from sources of further shame and self-pity into sources of connectivity across and between the gaping holes of cancer and sex, somehow suggesting pathways from your holes to my holes, where there’s “never more wanting / to be wetter.” In each of your holes I find an invitation—an invitation to the party of the limitless, in spite of it all. Tell me more.



Adie B. Steckel lives in Portland, Oregon, where they co-edit the small press/literary record label Fonograf Editions and work for an HIV/AIDS & LGBTQ+ health and social services organization. Their writing appears in Action Spectacle, A Dozen Nothing, Annulet: A Journal of Poetics, Dream Pop Press, Old Pal Magazine, Tagvverk, Variable West, and elsewhere.

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