Book Review: Gender
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Two searching, intriguing tales that explore gender as myth
In her collection Gender, Anne Harding Woodworth gives us two novellas in verse, “Martin/Martina” and “Aftermath.” The former is like a hagiography (a biography of a saint), and the latter is like a parable. Though the voices are different, we can imagine these two stories calling to each other across the centuries.
In Woodworth’s telling, Martin—who we might guess is an entirely fictional character—lives 1000–1063. He and his father are gardeners for a monastery, and his father is buried there. Martin is physically female, a secret that his father keeps for him. He doesn’t menstruate, never marries, and presents as a man. When a local girl has an affair with a soldier and bears a child, her parents blame Martin, and Martin adopts the boy, whom he calls Dino. In living as a man, Martin wasn’t “living a lie,” but only seeking his own happiness. Upon his death, it is his son, Dino, who dresses him for burial and discovers that his father was “primarily a woman.”
The poem opens in the near future, August 2022, with Mother Martina lying in her glass coffin in “gold and green brocade… / my soft-leather shoes unscuffed,” and visitors to the chapel looking at her body. Martina, though dead, is conscious of the spectacle and reflects that “I seem to promise equally fertility and infertility. Femininity and masculinity.” Martin doesn’t mind being referred to as Mother Martina after death, and their gender doesn’t seem rigid, especially over the long passage of time.
What is he to become after death? “Becoming a saint / is close to impossible. / It takes money,” Mother Martina reflects in her coffin. But didn’t Martin work miracles as “father/mother”? As a “woman/man”? Does that count for something?
Certainly, throughout history, many people who were born female did live their lives as men. Sometimes they were perceived as eunuchs, especially in cultures where eunuchs were understood as a separate gender with their own social roles. I would have liked to know if Martin/Martina of the Anghinar (Artichokes) was based on an actual person or if they are entirely the author’s invention. In any case, Woodworth gives us intimate details of this character, regarding both their major life events and their private thoughts. Martin is an ordinary person in men’s clothes who happens to be incapable of fathering a child yet becomes a father anyway. It’s easy to empathize with Martin and to see how, for him, gender is mainly a social constraint that he has managed to transcend.
The second novella, “Aftermath,” is a tale about the human survivors of an apocalypse. They are in a post-technological landscape. The buildings and cars have been looted. Finally: “There was no fire other than the sun, / for lighting up the story to be told.”
In this society are the Weavers (females), Fennel Men (males), and Builders (asexual, aromantic, and nonreproductive). These three genders—“she,” “he,” and “they”—live in separate groups and dress and socialize distinctly. The tension in this story is that a Builder named Tris suddenly gives birth, and Tris and the infant are shunned, as Tris has been revealed as something other than Builder or Weaver. The group does not know “where Tris went with the thing she’d expelled.”
The observation here seems to be that, even if you create three gender categories for human beings, there will always be someone whose body and life requires a fourth category. Some people fit within the boundaries they’re given, and other people, intentionally or not, cross them.
“Aftermath” shines especially in its detail of this rigidly organized society that lives in a preindustrial way. People sit down to “stewed leaves of kudzu and vines of the same, / some hard-boiled, while others were fried.” The rhythm of the verse reflects the order of social life.
At first, the reason for the juxtaposition of “Martin/Martina,” a tale of an individual, and “Aftermath,” a tale of a society, isn’t obvious. They both sound like legends or ballads, sometimes rhyming, but they’re set centuries apart and have different moods. I think the intended connection is to show us how some people slip out of the category they’re given, thereby creating new possibilities for human relations. The meanings of these story-poems are layered, and readers will be pleased by what they find when they read them more than once.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Print Length: 116 pages
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