In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.
we’ve all seen helena x R E D
In 2019, I tried to get tickets to the My Chemical Romance reunion tour. I failed. And then the pandemic happened, and shows were postponed, rescheduled, rinse, repeat–when dates finally firmed up, I didn’t try again out of fear of getting my hopes up. I didn’t really want to be in an arena of unmasked people, anyway. Each time news of postponed dates came up, though, I listened to their music. I listened to MCR a lot during this period—more than I had back in the height of their popularity.
Some of this listening coincided with reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time; I was in the midst of a What We Do in the Shadows phase and decided I had to read all of the classic vampire novels. What I enjoyed most about Dracula was the fact that it was diaristic, something that felt almost surprising to discover. I loved the sense of mystery and inquiry from the narrator, made even more compelling as a reader from over 100 years later, an unintentional dramatic irony dictating the experience. I kept thinking, this must have been crazy in 18-something, huh.
Of course, pop punk and emo are an obvious soundtrack to accompany a classic gothic novel. While listening to MCR, I reread Lip Manegio’s We’ve All Seen Helena. After finishing Dracula, I reread Chase Berggrun’s R E D.
I feel very lucky to be a reader of poetry; I don’t know if literature can change the world, but I know my relationship to it is life-changing, and life-bringing. There are sacred moments in which I’ve felt a shift in how I view the world—sometimes, the room became just a bit lighter after understanding a poem. Sometimes, a poem has helped me get out of bed, past the threshold of the front door, and outside to linger in the wind. I learned to love the mundane, finding significance in just the act of being more and more.
And so, my inaugural poetry double feature is of two collections that also happen to be some of my evergreen recommendations. Both of these works altered my attention to other pieces of art; they changed the way I listen to music, changed the way I noticed words on a page. The Venn diagram of the queer and trans loved ones in my life and those who make sense of the world through media are a circle, and so of course We’ve All Seen Helena and R E D are always on the personalized rec lists I send to anyone who wants them. I want to show friends how poetry is everything and anything; it is a political tool, it is an aesthetic expression, it is an abundance of emotions articulated and concentrated through a handful of words. I love many who are depressed, down on themselves for their reading habits, and thus hoping to move towards a more rigorous practice to make up for years lost. Poetry is a good antidote—often short, but wondrous enough to get your brain whirring, and hopefully reaching for another book.
This column grew from that desire to grab another book; my favorite nights are those in which I turn in early, and give all of my focus and attention to a stack of unread books. I’ll go through a few books on a good evening. Some collections feel better than others back-to-back, and the best felt like answers to each other, a continuation rather than separate objects. Eventually, I wanted to be intentional about the books I paired together; what would I notice that I couldn’t before?
We’ve All Seen Helena begins with incantation. In the opening poem, “summoning ritual for gerard way,” Manegio writes,
now, reach down your throat and pluck out a vocal chord.
place it in a circle carved
with a switchblade on the floor.
The poems in this collection are about, after, to, and with Gerard Way. “Transformational fandom” is a term coined by obsession_inc in an essay posted to Dreamwidth that attempts to define the different actions and types of participation in fan culture; she defines “transformational fandom” as:
all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans’ own purposes, whether that is to fix a disappointing issue…in the source material, or using the source material to illustrate a point, or just to have a whale of a good time
I understand “twisting it to the fans’ own purposes” more generously: rather, an often reparative act, in which people take what is given, and build something more from it. “Transformation” is a key tenant of fair use, too. To create with someone else’s art, it must be turned into something else entirely. So often, homophobia and transphobia limit a work’s potential; fanworks are space that can consider story without the -isms or ills of the world, thus transforming the narrative. I see We’ve All Seen Helena as a speculative work, as both ode and essay. Manegio uses the metanarrative of celebrity to interrogate the things that cause us harm–phobias, mental illness, etc.
I like to treat first poems as a guide for how to read the rest of the collection. Manegio has brought Gerard Way into the narrative not as figure or symbol, but character. But, before the transformative work of this collection can occur, the artist must sacrifice part of themself for the art. This sentiment is interestingly articulated in the poem “at a show in oakland in 2003, gerard way yells, ‘this song is about suicide’ & then tells the audience they ‘gotta dance it up right now’:”
& yeah I’ve done it too,
thrashed my pain into a song until i could show someone else
& have them call it art
I like the role space plays in this book, for the way it names creative lineage:we get pop punk shows alongside digital spaces (“ekphrasis of a youtube video i saw when i was in eighth grade showing gerard way & frank iero kissing on stage”) alongside slam and spoken word scenes, (“total known facts about gerard way” after Safia Elhillo’s “total known facts about abdelhalim hafez”). Each space informs the other; writing a slam piece about pop punk that gets posted on YouTube, what a synergy. Considering these realms intersecting and blending together, it feels like an infinite potential for creation, a source for the sense of abundance in these poems.
In “total known facts about gerard way,” Manegio writes:
gerard way has said he uses either he/him or they/them pronouns. everyone uses he/him pronouns for gerard way. gerard way and their careful androgyny acted as guidebook for all the mid-2000s genderqueer sad kids in black nail polish who were too passionate about warped tour…gerard way has never publicly called themself queer; still, we dug ourselves out of them.
I find the act of repair in this poem fitting that it occurs so early on; Manegio brings metanarrative to the forefront; the shift of pronouns for Way after the acknowledgment of this continued erasure, the explicit statement of how they’ve publicly identified, and still the assertion—this art has been meaningful, for what is implied—the poem brings it to the forefront. There is clarity in the act of witnessing My Chemical Romance through this collection—transness, queerness, now fully textual, fully experienced.
Chase Berggrun’s R E D is a project of erasure, described as “excavation;” where Manegio describes the excavating of the self to become legible in their poems, I find the inverse here—the excavation of the work to create a speaker of such interesting contrast. Berggrun carves out a new epic from Dracula: a lyrical meditation on gendered violence, motherhood, and transition. Every time I read R E D, I am amazed at how the craft is so visible, yet clean;
“Chapter I” opens the collection:
I was thirsty
I was a country of queer force
rushing east to see the strangest side of twilight
I was a woman in the usual way
I had no language but distress and duty
I have been taught to doubt my mother and fear tradition
but my queer tongue would not could not shut up
I was, I was, I was, to enter the book–the past-tense, the retrospective so captivating on every read–what will we learn from this narrative? What presence is looming–Stoker, Dracula, a figuration of misogyny? What will happen to the “queer tongue” who would not, could not shut up? I am so aware of the page when I read these poems. Berggrun beautifully plays with space, caesura delicate, the distance between the lines making each word seem as careful as they must have been crafted. If “queer” appears twice in this poem, “queer” must appear at least twice in the chapter. For such a studied text, there are a myriad of interpretations; what does the vampire represent? Does the homoeroticism of contemporary vampire media originate here? What conclusions are we meant to come to? R E D makes an argument. Erasure can turn subtext into text, transforming the takeaway of any work. Here, queerness is brought to the forefront of the reader’s attention, attached to the “tongue” that will guide us moving forward.
Berggrun crafts narrative expertly; my favorite moments, though, are when the lines become more sparse, less coherent. Like in “Chapter XXIV,”
Where there is where shall be
blood blood blood
soon and final
where there might be
blood a dense blood
again blood again
My language was of blood
and full of movement
of fog and morning far from fog
mouth made for speaking firm
the first forceful master of this monster form
Again, the attention to blood: yes, the vampire book probably has a billion mentions of the word, but it is the break in form–the shape of the line, fanged, into the explicit—that is so impactful, then, “My language was of blood.” It makes me yell! How did we get to this line! Berggrun’s ability to excavate and rebuild, develop and redefine in this collection, awe-inspiring, always, always.
I like reading these collections alongside each other because of the push-and-pull—Manegio’s work feels exponential towards clarity, while Berggrun reveals and creates through erasure. Each work takes me to a key site of creativity; Helena returns me to the fervor of fandom, to the community it had always brought me; R E D presents to me what we can do within restraints, of both language and canon–what can we take? Where can we exercise our agency in the act of artmaking? These tenants of art-making, community and agency, essential to my own practice; I hope you’ll grant yourself this careful indulgence, too.
Buy the collections: