The Poetry Project

“In the end, what I get to share is disobedience”

A Review of Nora Treatbaby's Hope Is Weird by Rosie Stockton

It is difficult to imagine a more treacherous concept than Hope. Inextricably linked with its notorious conceptual ghost, “utopia,” Nora Treatbaby’s chapbook Hope Is Weird decadently unravels Hope and its alibi, futurity, in their role in the world-building project of wages, work, and gender’s always impending clampdown on transness. Hope takes center stage as political weapon and affective rallying cry of liberal democracy’s empty promise of equality and justice; but Hope is also invoked in decolonial and communal demands as a refusal of fear. Hope and hopelessness also course through polemic debates of queer futurity and queer negativity. In the title alone, Treatbaby knows exactly the discursive and political battlefield the poems are waltzing into and takes a laconically ambivalent (and profoundly title-worthy) stand on the issue, declaring “hope is… weird.”

Described as “a transpoetics at gender’s edge,” Treatbaby’s chapbook is marked by a devotion to beauty and commitment to the struggle of living it. Emerging as a voice in the contested chorus of queer utopian poetics, Treatbaby’s poems are always situated in the speaker’s transness, taking it as a method of traversing time and a way of finding pleasure in a World bent on discipline, efficiency, and accumulation. Opening with a direct address to “Earth,” the poem’s grammar takes the form of an epistolary to a lost lover—the speaker being the one who has left and who is trying to return, and who has something to explain:

Hello Earth
I have driven to the edge of who
I can be (I am also a sphere)
and I am a woman. It’s what
they tell you when
you tell them you are

Formally, Treatbaby’s poems follow the movement of a rainstorm: the stanzas gather and disperse as wispy clouds, condense into thick, darkened prose blocks, spit out tightly enjambed verse streaming down the page––reaching, as the poems insist, toward Earth. Clouds are a luscious metaphor for the misty experience of transness: of dodging the disciplinary categories of the white colonial gender binary and living through the full libidinal potential of its disavowal. As Treatbaby writes: “it’s a good thing clouds can’t / fail at what they do,” as they fulfill their promise of morphing shape and flux of molecular form.

In one passage, a rainstorm becomes the condition of possibility where the speaker finds something beyond the “edge of who I can be.” Treatbaby articulates this as a set of instructions on how to dissolve category and reenter the “blur:”

If the world swells to the right size, like when hard rain disturbs an afternoon, a window opens. Through it, you can see the blur you have been removed from. Crawl through this window. You fall upwards infinitely. It feels like quitting your job. Birds thank you on your way.

Treatbaby daydreams the conditions where we might sneak out of the World as if we are sneaking out the window of our childhood home. This metaphysical daydream is about the End of the World, if we understand the “World” as expressed in categories always trying to contain us in order to keep this World operable. If the World is what determines “who I can be,” then Treatbaby wants to find the edge of that being, live in excess of the category it demands, and inside the blur that we are as inseparable selves.

The edge of categorization is something Treatbaby’s poems loop on: to feel, to frustrate, and to annihilate. Womanhood itself emerges as gender’s containment strategy in the face of the fracturing, dissolving potential of transness. This, as Treatbaby figures, is the relation of “the World” to “the Earth:” gender is a policing mode of identification that extends a violent “Worlding,” one that blocks transness’s potential undoing of category itself. Here, binary gender is the hardened form of “lava’s behavior.” Treatbaby questions this hardening: “I step out / to consider why my transness / doesn’t feel like a bird at all.” And echoed by one of my favorite lines in the book: “Of all the feminisms I want to feel / Like a woman before they turn you into one.”

Who is responsible for category colonizing being, and “when did Earth exit?” In these poems “they” so quickly becomes indistinguishable from an “us.” “It is a strange feeling to be / Stranded on your own plane,” laments Treatbaby, when being “turned into a woman” is often the pre-scripted fate of seeking to “feel like a woman.” In these moments Treatbaby flaunts with raucous nihilism and resigned complicity: “Category doesn’t need to toil to worldbuild the Earth it commands. It is in our own practice to look the objects of the universe in the eyes and lower them to the level of a name.” Under this regime of political being, “the self is the lawman.” If Treatbaby teaches us one thing, it is to revolt against the cult of self-knowledge. For when she writes if “I can know myself through the dream synonym of statistical measurement,” she follows up with the hard-hitting critique of the fundamental tenet of Western philosophy, “To know oneself / isn’t any kind of freedom.”

This is a book that refuses to occlude the ways in which our captivity is reflected in our own practices. We can’t help but gender, even the plants. Even so, Treatbaby insists, “There is echo inside of category,” an echo that signals a void at the heart of gender—of womanhood—that allows for the gendered self’s “liquidation.” “We are holding disaster / at a distance with the bare facts but you are not / headed towards death as much as collapse has / been placed inside you.”

Collapse is placed inside us—as Treatbaby puts it—the future is already here. Death isn’t elsewhere. Look how we flee it even as we approach it. In this formulation, gender becomes the object cause, rather than object, of a trans desire. I follow the dream of the poems, the “swell” of the end of the World figured as an uprising demanding decolonization, as the window out of this World and its genders and into the blur of transness. Treatbaby’s poems surge through the nihilistic lament of language’s trap in order to risk a different type of freedom: one where you quit your job, refuse self-hood through illegible practices of identity formation, and submit to gender as a site to scam in the service of embodiment, pleasure, and “the conditions in which love is possible.”

Where does Hope enter this drama? Treatbaby short-circuits the complicity of the liberal subject with poems that blossom in the gaps between queer futurity and queer negativity, questioning what use Hope might have if earth were no longer owned, separated, bought, sold, or even lowered to the “level of a name.” In queer studies, one of Hope’s most famous abandonments is articulated by Lee Edelman’s formulation of queer negativity, which embraces hopelessness as a way of undoing the social relations and political imaginaries that structure liberal politics. Taking an explicit position against reproducing “futurity”—on the level of society, the family, and selfhood—queer negativity articulates an antirelational stance that could, it argues, unravel the dominant social-political order. Queer negativity rejects inclusion in the future on the terms given by the World as we know it.

Yet Hope Is Weird isn’t embracing negativity against futurity: rather, the poems unravel what Edelman would call “reproductive futurism” through the lens of transness and queer affect. This is a queer affect that articulates the contradictory proliferations of Hope: “Hope is just your inner life [that’s where you can’t get out of]” and “Hope is the liquid entrance to outcome” and “Hope is the category of time that produces more time.” And yet, Treatbaby is constantly searching out something other than production: how to not produce future, which is to not produce “World,” while still reproducing life––life in the form of gathering and dispersing counter-worlds. The answer emerges in a queer negativity that presences its anti-hopelessness rejoinder: “Perhaps there is an alternate process, a wilderness of ongoing continuity, complete and open sustaining.” This alternate process is something Treatbaby sorts through with ambivalence at the register of the wink, the blushing of opaque desire:

I am compelled to pronounce
what happens to me. I wish I could
keep it draped in blue velvet.

Longing to render oneself behind a veil of blue velvet rather than language is Treatbaby’s utopian wish—one not marked by hope or hopelessness as temporal orientation, but recast in the realm of pronunciation: the lexicon of pleasure rather than capture. Words aren’t going anywhere. Instead of emanating toward the future, can they reorient away from time entirely? This is the velvety pleasure of trans*presencing: “It is the time of year I dip my nipples in champagne.”

Unlike Edelman’s limited and thoroughly critiqued formulation of negativity, Treatbaby’s trans*presencing is one that believes the focus on self-annihilation obscures the life-making processes that non-white and gender deviant subjects have always engaged in. This is not only a metaphysical or aesthetic stance: the material life of this book enacts its politics of reproduction. Hope Is Weird is published and distributed by Other Weapons, a sex worker-run zine distro and publishing project which “aims to experiment with sex workers and our accomplices toward material strategies for our autonomy and liberation.” Treatbaby exemplifies this elusive concept of accomplice with a powerful thrust against the violent framework of gender and work. When you buy the book, the money is distributed to a New Orleans BIPOC mutual aid network.

The last lines of the book perform the total refusal of future-as-speculated-elsewhere in favor of a queer presence: “I am / trying to let this era remember the feeling that we aren’t / headed somewhere.” If we are in touch with the feeling that we aren’t headed into a secure future, these poems ask: what does Hope do for queer futurity and trans*reproduction? As such, “hope is weird” becomes an anaphoric refrain in the book. “Hope is weird. Becoming and forming. Each hope is its own utopic receding.” Here, “Weirdness” means more than its colloquial use as an adjective meaning “strangeness.” Used as a noun, weird is defined as “Destiny” with an etymological meaning, “having power to control fate.” This is not even to mention that it is also an acronym as a cultural identity in social science studies: “WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic;” or Zander Allport’s theorization of weirdness as bound to whiteness, exemplified in the slogan of the historically white supremacist city: “Keep Portland Weird.

Treatbaby’s titular refrain reveals the way Hope’s “weirdness” is a technology of producing a certain future that is connected to a controllable fate, eerily echoing the colonial claim of manifest destiny. Today, we see Hope militarized in service of protecting the dominant order and flickering across presidential posters and democratic campaigns. It is not so far-off to propose that state sanctioned Hope reproduces white futures’ dream of control. And transness, following Treatbaby’s poetic longing, corrupts the use of identity as whiteness’s monopoly on gendered selfhood. She writes, “We lose the dream as we are forced to perform the dream.” If the dream is utopia, Hope is only ever in service of utopia’s receding. What is left in utopia’s place is a series of false choices manifesting in the timely image of the vote: “My own grief shared / Is the new voter.” Since Hope and voting are tools of the nation state, Treatbaby articulates an affect that feels like Hope before Hope is wrangled in the service of category and state legitimacy. This queer Hope is as much a feeling as it is a tool for state antagonism, a pathway to pleasure, a mode of being together in time. But Treatbaby asks: “What happens to a tool once it becomes useless? [this is a USA USA kind of day].” To which Kara Keeling, invoking Deleuze, might respond: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

Treatbaby’s poems render Hope an unrecognizable tool of state futurity. No longer an anticipatory feeling, Treatbaby’s mode of hoping is one with a plan and a conspiracy of friends, looking for new weapons:

In the end, 
what I get to share is disobedience.
Me and my friends we
fuck up anything 
that needs us to explain ourselves.
We plan to get back
to you, Earth, by evaporating inside
the question of our value.

If gender loses its capacity as an identity to share, and rather what is shared is a position against power and against the racist, polished walls of World-smothering-Earth, maybe then—maybe now—transness and its attendant poetic forms are a mode of slipping through category and living, with pleasure, through the ends of this World.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Ferreira Da Silva, Denise. “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World.” The Black Scholar, 44:2, 81-97. 2015.

Keeling, Kara. Queer Times, Black Futures. NYU Press, 2019. 13.

Nora Treatbaby is a queer writer in San Francisco. She is the author of the chapbook Ammo in Hairdo (Impunity Press). She has been published in The Recluse, Spoil, Apricity, Baest Journal, and We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. Hope Is Weird (OW 002) was riso printed in May 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana by Max Seckel. It is Other Weapons’ second title. Cover Images by Nick Anderson. Buy it from Other Weapons.

#263 — Winter 2021