A Critical Analysis of Sue Ellen Thompson’s
By Harold O. Wilson
Aunt Connie asked if I cut my hair
this way on purpose—she’s hilarious.
Sue Ellen Thompson’s, They, is uncommon for a book of poetry in that it distributes postcards written by her adult child, Thomasin, among finely-crafted poems. By collecting and curating these postcards, the author tells a story with this book that lies beyond the capacity of poetry alone to capture. What is that story? What is Thompson wishing to tell us by crafting a narrative that speaks through two disparate voices?
In narrative verse Thompson struggles with the growing awareness that her daughter is not what she expected when the nurse placed the glowing package in her arms. “How could I know my child would be / something I’d not yet heard of, never seen?” This is the voice of the poet, describing, analyzing, and reflecting on her relationship with her daughter.
It is true that all Thompson’s work in this book explores personal family relationships, but the intensity of the poems about her daughter takes us to a new place. Her placement of the poems describes an arc that slowly reveals the poet’s awareness that her daughter is transgender. Her little girl sees, feels, and knows herself not to be a “she” or a “he,” but a “they,” even though the “they” manifests itself primarily as male. This poetry challenges our own gender security by placing us in a world where the old rules no longer apply and a new appreciation of gender identity is demanded. In “Anniversary,” we are at the celebration table with the poet and her husband as they unfold their daughter’s four-page, single-spaced letter confirming what they did not want to know: the letter
whose secrets would require
that we begin from birth again
to know our only child.
There is no bitterness in Thompson’s poetry; there is no rancor and there is no denial. She plays the cards she has been dealt. The book begins with a note of confusion then slowly morphs into an attitude of longing: not a desire that the cards be shuffled and re-dealt, but that somehow a mother might reconnect with this child who is so different and so distant; whose words to her mother are so often “bitten off.” One can’t help but feel that this book represents an attempt to make this connection. An effort to define her child in a way that will enable the author to find some common ground; common ground on which to build an understanding with her child who is neither her son nor her daughter.
In “Flood Zone,” water rising from an “adolescent rain” covers the driveway and seeps into the garage where it threatens cardboard storage boxes and the trunk where Thomasin has stored items from her childhood. The poet opens the trunk to find:
a few CDs, some photo albums,
and in between these, the miniature pair
of work boots she picked out herself
when she turned five. The flood continues to rise
in me as I gaze out over the broad, flat reach
of this unnamed body of water.
This rising flood of unnamed recognition offers more than a hint that common ground is going to be hard to come by. Perhaps if a gender declaration was possible and Thomasin could confirm herself as a “he” or a “she,” the task might be easier, but a “they” significantly complicates the quest. How do I identify you, how do I call you, since “they,” for a singular entity, does not easily roll off the American tongue like it might a British? For that, Thomasin has no answer. A congruence of male and female genders has issued in a “they,” and she can be no other. She has named the unnamed body of water rising in her mother and cannot change who she is to stem its rise. This is made clear toward the end of the title poem, “They”:
…Since neither “he” nor “she”
is accurate, I should refer to her as “they.”
Whether or not I’m okay
with this is irrelevant. If I want to see
her more than once a year, I may
well begin by unlearning the rule
of noun-pronoun agreement. In this school,
I am the student; she, the teacher. They.
In spite of this admonition, Thompson makes a difficult choice and does not choose to use the term, they in the book and refers to her child as her daughter and as a “she.” Perhaps, in this choice, the author betrays an unintended prejudice or a discernable stubbornness by placing a grammatical obstacle on the path to a common understanding. But Thompson is nothing if not gutsy, and by choosing to refer to Thomasin as her daughter, has in a way declared her own independence. “At the Kitchen Window” ends with a silence that could fill a library shelf of books on personal strength. Thompson tells us that her father would sit with Thomasin on the porch in the evening and answer all her questions without saying a word about her tattoos, piercings and triangle of hair shaved off. That is, except one morning at the kitchen window when, watching her in the yard pitch windfall apples into the woods, he said:
“If I didn’t know differently,
I’d think she was a boy.” I poured
some coffee I didn’t want or need
into a mug as slowly as I could
and then some milk, and stirred.
I waited for that thought, and the mood
it cast over me, to settle without a word.
One would have to believe that with the publication of this slim volume, Thompson has broken her silence. That word is now spoken. And even if all we had were these poems, the poet’s voice defining Thomasin and their difficult relationship, that would be enough. But there are these postcards. Single minded in content and addressed only to the grandfather, they are non-reflective and offer no comment on the relationship of the daughter to the mother. They stand alone, isolated among the poems like individual poppies sprung up here and there in a well-manicured field of clover.
The overwhelming tone of Thompson’s poems expresses an attitude of longing and the postcards capture the object of that longing. Their purpose appears to be to give voice to the relationship Thomasin had with her grandfather and to celebrate that relationship. This is made clear in the poem “Postcards.” Thompson would find the cards to her father on the nightstand when she visited him. She tells us that they were the only way she had of knowing what her daughter was up to during the years her phone calls dwindled to almost nothing. The cards would be signed, “Thinking of you, Pop.” From these cards, the poet tells us she was under no illusion “which shelf he occupied / in the library of her affections.”
“And how did that make you,
her mother, feel?” a shrink
would no doubt ask, and I
would have to answer
that it made me happy—happier,
I think, than if those cards had been addressed
to me. Here was a man who’d waited
19 years for a grandson, who had kept
his wishes silent as six granddaughters
were born. Here was a man
who liked to spend a summer day
fishing lazily along the Merrimack,
winter weekends stacking cordwood,
and here was a child who wanted to be
at his side, doing what he did. They seemed
to have an understanding: she would give him
all the love that she could spare
for generations preceding her own
and in return, he’s never say a word
about her tattoos or her piercings
or her boyish haircut, or ask her why
she hid her breasts and let
her mustache show. He would simply think
of her as the grandson he’d been waiting for,
and she would always think of him
as the man she wanted to be like
when she was old and had
no grandson of her own.
The understanding between Thomasin and her grandfather expresses in this poem a rapprochement that harmonizes their relationship and allows for a give and take that implies acceptance. It indicates a mutual need and the ability of the other to satisfy that need. “Understanding” is a word well-chosen in the poem and perhaps might serve to define the relationship with her daughter the poet desires.
So what then is the basis for this rapprochement, this understanding between Thomasin and her grandfather? Clearly Thomasin is comfortable with her grandfather, confident that he accepts her free of judgment. She will get no surprises from this grandfather. Rapprochement implies a common need: so what is the common need to be met in this relationship? The poet tells us it is her father’s desire for a grandson, and Thomasin fills this need. He embraces her unequivocally, and she has the confidence to enter that embrace. So what need then does Thomasin bring to their relationship? In the beautiful and moving poem, “My Daughter Visits Her Grandfather During His final Illness” the poet intimates that Thomasin’s need is the affirmation she received from her grandfather. The poems suggest it was not an acceptance he expressed but one that he lived, one that Thomasin could feel.
He keeps asking me when
is she coming, when
will she be here and I
keep saying she’s on her way
from Philadelphia, probably
in Connecticut now, in Manchester,
barely a half-hour away, and
there she is at the door.
He doesn’t see what I see:
a girl-boy, woman-man with a sparse
mustache, with a chest made flat,
with thrift-shop pants hanging off
her ass. He sees his grandchild,
who climbs in his bed
and reads him his get-well cards
and newspaper headlines,
spooning egg into his near-
toothless mouth, patting down
the thin hair that the pillow pushed up,
telling him easily and repeatedly
what she hasn’t told me in years.
There are no demands from Thomasin’s grandfather. Only that she be there. And this is perhaps Thomasin’s need: the freedom to talk and talk with the man she wants to be like: its reward, a silent affirmation.
So one role the postcards play in this story is to sharpen the focus on the object of the poet’s longing. They are here to say, this is the relationship I want to have with my daughter. This is the voice I want to hear from my child. But might not the reader see it as an idealized relationship?
One could argue that the insertion of this organized and curated group of stand-alone postcards in a book of finely-crafted poems is simply another way for the author to confine her daughter to a single definition; a means to romanticize the voice from the cards. Their placement, in isolation from any contextual word from Thomasin herself or her own perception of her relationship with her mother separates Thomasin from the postcards, thereby reflecting the poet’s way of projecting a desired relationship with her daughter.
This might be a compelling argument if the postcards were insouciant, but like the poems, they too are finely crafted. Carefully written, they are self-contained gems of expression that carry a literary weight of their own. In the poem “Postcards,” cited above, Thompson describes them as, “row / after row of miniscule block letters / pausing patiently before the fenced-off plot / she’d set aside for sheltering his name….” The honesty and richness of these postcards in style and content, overrides any conscious or unconscious control the poet might have exercised in their selection. Each card expresses an independent personality with its own unique and powerful voice.
Postcard: Lakota Wolf Preserve, Columbia, NJ
Hay Pop! I went on a 24 hour getaway
with some friends to the Delaware Water Gap,
two hours north of Philly. We floated down
the river in tubes all afternoon, camped
for the night, then got up early
for a “wolf watch” at a place nearby
where 25 timber, tundra and arctic wolves
now live. There were bobcats, who’d been someone’s pets,
and two red foxes. All were either born
in captivity or rescued from roadside attractions,
so they weren’t afraid of humans. I was thinking
about that cougar you once spotted
in New Hampshire. Next time you see him,
tell him there’s a home for him here in New Jersey—
isn’t that where you spent your “wild youth?”
I miss our early morning walks. Love, Thomasin.
Immediately, we are surprised to hear a voice that doesn’t fit the daughter described in the poems. This is not the Thomasin we expected. Here is a person, full and complete in her own right; a person apparently comfortable in her own skin. The insecurity, defiance and bitterness we might expect do not exist. This voice is warm, caring, full of life and confident in itself. Open and free flowing, one does not find a nervous need for control or a reticence of expression.
Postcard: Vintage Philadelphia
Dear Pop—I had a great time visiting
last week with you and your two sisters—
Anissa and I spent the whole ride home
talking about how much fun it was
hanging out with people in their 80s.
Aunt Ruthie pinched Anissa’s arm
and said it felt like it was made
of rubber—guess there aren’t too many
young people where she lives—
and Aunt Connie asked if I cut my hair
this way on purpose—she’s hilarious.
Anyway, after listening to so many friends’
post-holiday complaints about their cold,
offensive, older relatives, I feel
particularly grateful that I have
such energetic, charming ones!
Stay warm and eat some
vegetables. Love, Thomasin.
It is clear from the tone of the cards that Thompson has also placed them in the book to celebrate her daughter. In contrast to the difficult relationship expressed in the poems, Thompson is saying, this, this also is my daughter. Any grandfather worth his salt would walk through fire twice to have a grandchild like Thomasin. It wouldn’t matter her gender, the tattoos or piercings she displayed, or how oddly her hair was cut or her head shaved. In each card, she reaches out to her grandfather and takes him in. And even though the postcards might appear to be about herself, they are all in fact about him and for him. In every card she makes him a part of her experience.
In the last poem in the book, “Inheritance,” Thomasin’s grandfather has died and she is offered anything she wants to take from his house. What does she take? She takes items that are incredibly personal: yellowed handkerchiefs, a leather belt, the pajama bottoms he wore at his death, and finally a button that said, “I flew a B-24.” They are items of no commercial value and might well have found their way to the Good Will box if not for Thomasin. But we can imagine from the poem that these items are of inestimable value because they carried the intimate imprint of her grandfather.
So these are the two voices Sue Ellen Thompson offers us in her book, They. One speaks to us of confusion and longing through the medium of poetry; the other exhibits a fully independent personality speaking through small pieces of paper sent through the mail. What story then is the author telling us with these two disparate voices? The dynamics of family relationships are terribly complex and almost impossible to figure out; even for the members involved. The story Thompson is telling us with this mix of poems and postcards is fairly straightforward, however: it is that of a woman longing to have to have a relationship with her daughter similar to the one she sees in the postcards. But the voices she offers us are disparate. We can see that they address the wrong people. The voice of the poet speaks to us of a daughter who tells her mother little and seldom visits. The open, embracing voice offered of the daughter in the postcards is reserved for a grandfather who is now dead.
We are optimists, however, and believe that something more than détente between a gifted mother and daughter is possible. But Thompson’s book ends with no reconciliation, no rapprochement, no understanding established. And perhaps that’s because we have only the poet’s perspective; Thomasin does not engage the relationship with her mother. In the postcards it is never mentioned. If there are cards from Thomasin that speak of her relationship with her mother, we are not privy to them. What the author has given us are two independent, unrelated voices speaking past each other. The common element, however, the common ground that stands starkly before the reader’s eyes, is the grandfather. It is in this man—so dear to both mother and daughter, whose life and death are spread lovingly through the poems and postcards—we place our confidence.