by Jendi Reiter
Little Red Tree Press, 2022
A quick scan of the table of contents of Made Man, Jendi Reiter’s third poetry collection, indicates that the reader is in for a comitragic, day-glo accented, culture-hopping, snort-inducing, gender-interrogating rollercoaster of a ride. Titles like “It’s Not Sensory Processing Disorder, You’re a Werewolf,” “My Longest Female Relationship Is With My Subaru,” “Don’t Get Your Penis Stuck In The Bubble Wand,” “Dreaming Of Top Surgery At The Vince Lombardi Rest Stop,” and “Buzz Aldrin Takes Communion On The Moon,” erupt from the pages with a fierce irreverent energy, and we know at once that this is not a collection to be savored quietly by the fireside in slippers with a cup of herbal tea. We also sense we will be entering a smart, challenging, multifaceted world.
In the author’s words: “Made Man explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through persona poems in the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters with some aspect that is constructed, technological, or hybrid.” And further, “…these character studies open up onto a broader consideration of humanity’s relationship with technology and the shadow side of male dominance of nature.” But far from being a didactic examination of gender identity and our tech-obsessions, these poems are often laugh-out-loud funny, as the table of contents would suggest. Reiter is a founder of the Winning Writers organization, and oversees its literary contests, including the nationally-acclaimed Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, so they are well-grounded in the business of tackling complex subjects with a comedic toolkit. In “All Cakes are Bastards,” a wry persona-poem take on the gender-reveal party phenomenon, the in-utero speaker says,
they drove, masked, to the mall for plastic feet
to spear into frosting
in the dry wind they dreamed
of lures or lace, of my two choices
under an orange sky
as I slumbered normal in the blood-rich sea
as ash fell on the green courses
as I grew into my ultrasound assignment
they directed the baker’s hand, putters
or pearls, rifles or ruffles
the sugared script radiating pink and blue…
There is humor, to be sure, especially in the title which draws us in, but the humor darkens around the edges, with references to out-of-control fires raging across California (one ignited by a gender-reveal fireworks display gone awry), the COVID-19 pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands and knees of the police. It’s an ironic and scary world to be born into, especially if one will be wrestling with their assigned gender.
Reiter shifts tonal gears in poem after poem, dragging the reader along at a dizzying pace, creating a sense of disorientation that is evocative of a long journey of transition through a surreal, often unwelcoming cultural landscape. In “Dreaming Of Top Surgery At The Vince Lombardi Rest Stop” they imagine “the great men of New Jersey”: Walt Whitman, Joyce Kilmer, Thomas Edison et al, availing themselves of the men’s room while the speaker intones, “O, Vince Lombardi…/ I believe you would agree…/ that purity of heart is to will one thing.” In the title poem, “Made Man,” the hormone-injecting subject veers into scriptural syntax:
and was made
man or a god barely an age
to shave, that mirror-ritual of boys
aping the father,
making their bones
The pace slows in the poem “when people look at me I want them to think, there’s one of those people,” an intimate elegy for Lou Sullivan, thought to be the first transgender man to publicly identify as gay.
Reiter shows their aptitude for given forms, dropping in odes (“Butternut squash, you are the War and Peace of vegetables”) and ghazals (“My body is the Tomb of the Unknown Penis”) to great effect. The penultimate poem in the book, “Transfag Semiotics,” is a mini-crown of sonnets, an extraordinarily crafted sequence where the speaker drills deep into their quest for identity:
Sometimes you vanish like a father
or a breast. Drop the handkerchief,
the theory, drop to your knees. Whether
you can explain it or not, do you want to live?
Faggot is becoming. What is a man?
I experienced what I wanted to understand.
It’s an absolute tour-de-force, and the comedic gestures fall away as Reiter grows deadly serious about the cost of becoming, of being made, and ultimately, what it means to authentically be.
In the current season of culture wars, where state legislatures are enacting “Don’t Say Gay” bills, and trying to reframe gender-affirming treatments as parental abuse, Made Man stands as a testament to the humanity of trans people everywhere. It’s also chock-full of intelligent, often hilarious and sometimes biting poems that will leave you spinning and exhilarated. Jump in, crank down your safety bar, and head out for the ride.