How Twist expresses her anxieties about Indigenous and Trans issues
In her poetry collection Disintegrate/Dissociate, Cree writer Arielle Twist boldly tackles the themes of life, death, change, and relationships. She expresses a lot of duality in some of her poems, with pairings like old/new, (re)birth/death, and chaos/stillness. This duality is reflected in the title of the poetry collection. Although the words ’disintegrate’ and ‘dissociate’ are not opposites, they are presented in a layout that expresses duality by being paired together and linked with a slash. There is also a duality in Arielle Twist’s identity as a trans woman, which she continues to wrestle with throughout the collection. She was born male, but perhaps she never felt like a male, and several of her poems highlight the struggle of holding two identities within herself. One identity may be more desirable to have and explore than the other. I wonder how in touch with or at peace Twist is with her masculine side — does she want to completely disengage from being identified by herself and others as a male, or does she keep that part of herself intact? There are several references to rebirth and burning of her past identity, which indicate a clean break from her identity as male, but how much does she hold on to her masculine side? Everyone has a masculine and feminine side, and in the transitioning process, I wonder if there is a temporary time where a trans female would want to completely close off her masculine side, and vice versa for a trans male.
Twist takes an unflinching look at the deep personal issues she wrestles with, as well as the difficulty or beauty in interacting with other important people in her life — namely, family members and romantic partners. In her poem “Dear White, Cis Men,” she refers to herself being seen as a novelty, and exotic, which brings to mind the postmodern Other woman. Her relations with other men are symbols of colonization; at one point she says that her body is being colonized. These personal encounters can be applied on a larger scale to symbolize the colonial history of Indigenous communities. The men she interacts with “love to hate her,” and that could be because she represents two sides of gender, male and female, in a way that is too real for them to handle. Even when Twist’s voice “booms back” to their powerful and authoritative voices, they do not afford the same power and respect to her, presumably because of her transness and her indigeneity. The men might also be experiencing fear in a sort of personal, unsettling way, as Twist’s sexuality may appear as uncanny to them, and they do not have enough experience with trans people to sort out their responses and feelings about it. They are more likely to hurt her and be rough with her because of their fear. Twist also makes what sounds like a suicide reference when she says “I could have died from my own smooth brown hands,” and it is implied that the reason for her suicidal thoughts is her trans identity, because that is in the line before. Her association of smooth hands with brownness and calloused hands with whiteness succinctly calls to attention the perpetual injustices that white people have inflicted on indigenous people, in both large scale and small scale ways, and how indigenous, brown-skinned people do not have this tainted history behind them that might, metaphorically speaking, make their skin calloused and rough. They do not have a ‘rough’ history of transgressions, and have treated the earth and other people well and justly.
Twist uses a lot of imagery and personal stories to bring up the larger issue of indigenous history and things being taken away from indigenous people. “Berries” is a vivid poem that illustrates the stark contrast of dark berries/blood and white hands/clothes. She takes one moment and enlarges the perspective to think about the broader history of violence in the land. The line “the mother in those seeds” refers to the origin of the berries, showing a deep connection to the earth. It takes us back to a time before any violence in this context happened, to a time where there is just the bountiful earth with no divisions of land. The “mother” reference also pertains to indigenous womanism, and more specifically gynocentrism, with women understood as life-givers. Twist’s use of “I wish” stands out, and along with her use of the word “remember” in the first line, gives the impression of uncertainty as to whether a moment happened in real life, or how to pinpoint when exactly the moment occurred. Another poem with a heavy focus on the land is “I Am the Boundless Space between Oceans of Water and Wheat.” In it, Twist describes herself like a plant, but just before this line, she mentions that the land feels untouched by her skin. This gives the impression of a dream, as well as a disconnect between what she knows “is” and what she feels. She says she dreams of wearing a yellow gown, “dancing through her canola,” which can be read as her trying to connect with the land. She wants to be one with/be closer to/identify with the land.
After reading all of Twist’s poems in this collection, it becomes clear how often fire imagery is used, as it pervades many of the poems. It starts even before the poems, where she says in the dedication to her siblings, “We are salvaged from fury and fire.” In “Residential,” she uses the words “incendiary” and “extinguished.” In “Constellations,” the line “creating new worlds in the fire of old ones” is important. In “Claws,” a lot of fire-related words are used: golden, melt, molten, burns, fires, blistered. Fire is used increasingly as the poems go on, and there are a few reasons why fire is so important as a poetic device. Fire is like an immediate stimulus or threat that demands an immediate response — it is instinctual and primitive. There is a connection to the earth because fire can birth or destroy planets and things on the earth. Anytime fire or burning is used on Twist or when she describes it in her poems, she is getting rid of some aspect of herself, often in a ceremonial way, because fire is often used in ceremonial occasions. Or she is being rebirthed — leaving something behind completely to step into her new identity, and not just leaving it behind, but erasing the physical trace of it, because if it was burned you would not be able to go back to it. She had no choice but to experience the fire, if we attribute the “fire” language to her wrestling with her trans identity and to indigenous injustices done to the land and to separating families. But now, she is choosing positivity to come from her experience, by being rebirthed. Another theme that comes up quite prominently in a few poems is the bodily issue of not being able to speak or breathe, having a sore throat, choking, etc., which is often a manifestation of Twist’s inability to speak her native language. Overall, Twist uses language and imagery that cuts to the core when expressing her life experience regarding indigenous and trans issues, and uses several effective metaphors and images of duality to make the reader think about connections between fundamental aspects of life.