The Poetry Project

On The Call-Out by Cat Fitzpatrick

Liam O’Brien

“Let the Spring Rewind”

“Christmas succeeds Christmas rather than the days it follows,” John Crowley wrote in his novel Little, Big: whenever the day arrives, it seems to elude the intervening year and live in its own bubble of time, composed of prior and future Christmases. I sometimes feel this way about literary events in the trans scene. One arrives, and it is as if one has never left—time suspends itself in little cups of wine, flushed hugs, women telling funny stories about video games. At one late excursion into this bubble (World Transsexual Forum, which Jeanne Thornton and Anton Solomnik were hosting at Brooklyn’s Franklin Park), a grinning Cat Fitzpatrick took my shoulder.

“Liam,” she said, “I believe I owe you a drink.”

“Cat, is this because I’m reviewing your book for the Poetry Project?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, and bought me a Pinot Grigio. The world of trans lit is small and incestuous. It’s impossible to read The Call-Out as a trans person of a certain age and relationship to Brooklyn without asking oneself (or a companion in gossip) who’s who in real life. Cat’s voice is so recognizably her own: chatty, witty, provocative, teasing. It’s pleasurably like settling into that bubble of endless trans lit party, a knot of friends gathered around one glowing raconteur. “Then what?” we ask, and “Oh, why did she do that?” We gasp, we exclaim. And we have one advantage over the party listener—if suspense becomes unbearable, we can cheat time and skip ahead to the outcome of the latest disaster.

The disasters are plenty here, though they orbit around the dramatic call-out of the title. This is a book about trans life in Brooklyn, from dancefloor to bedroom to literary reading. It weaves together the stories of several women who are linked, though they may not know it, by sex, by proximity, by friends or exes. They’re linked as well by the narrator, Laura: a woman who notices the budding desires of others and the trouble they aim themselves for, and who takes pleasure in being a chronicler until she finds she can’t stay out of trouble herself. The people of The Call-Out are deliciously familiar. You know them, or you’ve seen them at the club or in the bookstore. You’ve wondered about their flings and their clashes—now you can get all the details.

Intrigue and vivid characters are reasons enough to pick up The Call-Out, but it’s also an exceptional curiosity: a book in sequences of lively Onegin stanzas. This stanza, named for Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, is fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter, faithfully rhymed (ABAB CCDD EFFEGG). Cat’s engagement with it is not just a novelty—it’s an intervention. She is at her finest when dancing through the maze of formal requirement, and her wit and humor never flag, even when the material takes on discomfort or darkness. There’s an admirable audacity, a flourish, to making sure that even the Table of Contents and Acknowledgments pages are perfectly-made Onegin stanzas as well. What a show-off, but we can’t be mad about it!

Of The Call-Out’s many treats, perhaps the most thrilling is its mastery of time. The tale jumps back into the past more than once, with virtuosic mini-gestures of seasons in reverse. “Let the spring rewind: watch all the flowers / close, and their stems curl into the seed.” It’s a neat trick, that Spring which is also another kind of spring, coiling back only to pop up with a different layer of rooms and names, small injuries and pleasures, all happening on top of the first. We can press pause as well, holding off the inevitable tread of fate to watch a moment before “things inevitably go wrong,” linger in the warmth of a dancefloor when damage is still only on the horizon. The trick doesn’t hold for long, though: “It comes on you fast, / drops through your fingers, and spring is past.”

Time is a well-spring of sensation for the reader. It’s what keeps us catching our breath in a story: “And then? and then?” This is the genius of gossip as literature—we get invested both in what just happened and in the layers of actions and conversations that led up to all the drama. And this pleasure we feel gets to the heart of why The Call-Out is a serious work as well as an astonishing confection. Relatively early on, we pause in the midst of a funny and familiar conversation about chasers and their own latent genders while Laura freaks herself out:

And then…I’m sorry, it’s too upsetting.

I have to stop and take a breath.

It’s like I’m recounting someone’s death,

then I read it over, and they’re only getting

laid and laughing and hanging out.

What am I so upset about?

This is effective suspense-building: we have to ask what doom is ahead, why Laura is so worked up. It’s also a hint to the question the book keeps asking itself. Why do we care? Why are we moved by the decisions these strangers make? This, The Call-Out says, is the human problem of interest in each other: how stupid we often are, how likely to hurt one another and retreat into defensiveness—but nevertheless, the pull of our nature (natural as “the frogs that croak, the birds that sing”) is towards each other. “I guess this is just one of the features / of being alive: you have to care / about all these people you meet everywhere.”

The Call-Out is a community novel: it is for a community, dedicated “to the trans girls of New York.” There’s a frequent note of sisterly teasing, as in the descriptions of certain queer living habits: “There are three switchblades in the cutlery drawer / but only one fork. There’s a sort of tower / of mysterious amps, laptops, and cable / taking up half of the only table.” There are searing, hilarious bits on trans literary readings: “one can’t seem to find her story on her phone, one tells us she’s discovered, after completing / an online test, she’s part Cherokee.” There’s also the delightful in-joke of the format, for those who grew up posting their writing on forums with room for tags and content warnings. (My favorite cw’s in The Call-Out, for the record, are “trans men” and “pedagogy.”)

But we don’t get off with just the jokes. Inevitably, the book has to confront the dark, fraught, and nasty aspects of the world it chronicles with such affection. Cat’s characters slip into the whirlpool of “harm” and “accountability,” and it’s stunning to see so many familiar approaches to this problem drawn in sensitive (and often still funny) detail. The characters confront each other about what counts as harm, what counts as repair, and who gets to have a say. There’s a critique of moralism: one character complains, “I feel like recently, claims of virtue / have become the way you win a fight. / Like I’m totally licensed to hate or hurt you / if I first establish, I’m in the right.” There are also explicit conversations about what community means—is it nice? Is it healing? Or is it just based on “Contact. Sensation,” a basic physical need to be close to one another?

The narrator of The Call-Out enters the story fully when she falls in love, gives in to this need. Time trips us up again as we fall with her. We “rewind”: leaves reattaching themselves to the trees, nature undergoing its inevitable change in reverse. A trick of poetry, returning to lost joy. But as the inevitable heartbreak starts to roll on uncontrollably, the poet’s claim, “There’s no more beauty,” is belied by a stunning description of the clouded light on “windows, at last denuded / of air conditioners.” Her sadness lends the initial ending a disillusionment—“Hope is the poison,” she says, turning away from this world of friends, lovers, exes, enemies.

But the book is too rich, too subtle, to leave us there. A guest narrator comes in the form of a forum comment, which reaffirms the possibility that all this love and trouble is not for nothing:

There’s this idea circulating

that care is somehow a scarce resource,

especially for girls like us, and of course

half the world fucking hates us,

feminists, Christians, the government too,

but care’s not a substance. It’s action we do.

It’s tempting to go on, to pick through the nuances of “discourse” and the question of what the book is “saying.” But I’m reminded of another recent trip into the timeless trans party bubble, and Cat herself telling me, “I hate it when people act like it’s a serious book.” So I’ll leave you there, and rewind myself to gratitude. I’m grateful this book is here, a portal into a particular transsexual grace and hilarity, a triumph of nimble language, a text that can’t stop chatting. As Laura says, “Talk is much jollier than thinking”—I feel called out.

#271 – Winter 2023