Phoenix Song, by LD Green
Published by Nomadic Press
Reviewed by Ruth Crossman
LD Green’s chapbook may be called Phoenix Song, but the reason the cover is adorned with unicorns is discovered in the book’s foreword. Green spent their childhood watching and re-watching the animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn. With its lush, haunting animation and its decidedly adult, existentialist flavor, it’s easy to understand why Green jokes that they saw this movie so often its themes imprinted into their psyche.
Beagle’s unicorn is a perfect symbol for genderfluid identity. She’s not allowed to remain a unicorn; she spends the middle of the movie unhappily trapped in a female body before breaking a spell and returning to her preferred form. It also turns out that she’s not really the last of her kind. At the end of the movie, it’s revealed that her community has been literally forced underground, driven into the ocean by a violent, menacing creature known as the Red Bull.
Green concludes the foreword by reflecting on how, as an adult, they came to identify this bull as the symbol of cis-hetero-patriarchy. “He wants the unicorns (marginalized genders) trapped forever for his amusement and under his control in the ocean near his tower,” they explain. But in the end the Bull’s plan is thwarted by an act of solidarity. Green describes how, in the movie’s climax, the titular unicorn does battle with the bull and frees her kin from his control, allowing them to rise from the ocean and return to the land. This vision of the unicorns surging together is one that Green has carried into adulthood as the defining image of the movie.
Reflecting on the lived experiences Green shares in the collection, I understood why they connect so strongly with this image. Their poems describe what it’s like to live in a body that battles to take up space in the world in its true form because of the forces of patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia. And yet, like the unicorn surging through the waves in triumph, Green also writes of the times their body has known joy and been in communion with the bodies of others. Their work does not pull punches when it comes to describing trauma, but it also finds space to celebrate love and joy.
The collection begins with a series of meditations on queer and bi+ sexuality. In “Apples and Oranges” they describe the confusion of having teenage desire for both boys and girls and the journey towards accepting that they have a taste for both. “Event Horizons” is a set of prose poems about their changing gender identity. They are heckled for using the women’s bathroom because of their male presentation. They are asked to help with Women’s History Month and squirm at reading the Vagina Monologues:
Remember when I suspended my misgivings with suspenders?
Remember when I uttered ‘cunt’ but it exploded like a bizarre supernova?
When told about an event open to anyone who identifies and presents as a woman, they contemplate their options:
Yes, both, if it means I get to speak
Then, in “Lady Macbeth to Octomom” they give Shakespeare’s most maligned villainess a one-sided conversation with a tabloid fixture of the early aughts in a riff on murder and fertility that weaves high culture, pop culture, and gender critique together skillfully. “Neither of us can escape,” they conclude.“Our body counts will not make up / for the power we lack.”
With “Body to Machine” the theme of embodiment goes even deeper, as Green compares traveling around in a body that has been molested to driving a car that doesn’t always start and describes the loss of control and unpredictability of response which both states provoke. This loss of control escalates in “Sometimes I Slip,” where Green describes the loss of bodily autonomy they experienced when they were institutionalized after being molested.
In the center of the book, Green points us towards the origin of their phoenix’s fire with memories of abuse and their struggle to make meaning from it. “I Forgot I Remembered” captures the chaotic, dissociative nature of trauma memory, while “Phoenix Song” documents their process of taking the shards of this trauma and using them to heal through writing. Positioned after this sequence of poems is a pair of essays, “The Mental Health System Fails, Mutual Aid Transforms” and “Not Confused, Not Crazy: On Being a Nonbinary Radical Mental Health Advocate,” in which Green mixes the personal and the political to describe how the medical system dehumanizes people with mental health diagnoses as well as people with marginalized gender identities. The pairing of essays with poems has the effect of giving multiple perspectives on the same series of events. We see Green-the-poet, a wounded unicorn trapped in the hospital, and also Green-the-intellectual, weaving their own lived experience into a damning argument about the roots of social injustice.
But there is a happy ending of sorts. The phoenix that rises from Green’s ashes is a dapper, enthusiastic, and decidedly sexy beast who has built a way of seeing and loving out of the pain of its past. The last pieces of the collection celebrate sexuality as a multiplicity of desires which can encompass genders of many kinds, and springs forth from multiple bodies overlapping in space. “A Letter to My Dildo,” describes this as “a body that goes in with you / and will take you in too.”
This is a book of multitudes: from shades of pain to shades of love to expressions of gender, and Green mixes genres skillfully to make meaning of their lived experience. Taken together it’s a collection of work that invites the reader to go beyond the binary of either/or and embrace a both/and which can hold dual, and even contradictory impulses and labels within the same space. It is collectivity and inclusivity which offers mutual healing to all who have been marginalized and victimized. As Green states in “Benediction,” the final piece in the book,
I am not alone
You are not alone
LD Green (they/them) is a non-binary writer, performer, college educator, and mental health advocate living in Richmond, California. They co-edited and contributed to the anthology We’ve Been Too Patient: Voices from Radical Mental Health, with Kelechi Ubozoh, published by North Atlantic Books in 2019. Their first solo book, Phoenix Song, was published by Nomadic Press in February 2022. Their work has been published on Salon, The Body is Not an Apology, Sinister Wisdom, PULP, Foglifter, sPARKLE + bLINK, on truth-out.org and elsewhere. They have been featured at dozens of reading series, slams, showcases, and workshops in schools, colleges, and open mics locally and across the country. They were heavily involved in the national poetry slam scene for several years. As a playwright and writer/performer, they have had their work performed at multiple local and national theater festivals. They were runner-up for the Princess Grace Fellowship in Playwriting. LD received their BA from Vassar College and their MFA from Mills College in Creative Writing. They have received fellowships for their writing from Lambda Literary, Tin House, and Catwalk Artists’ Colony. LD is a tenured professor of English at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, California where they teach composition, creative writing, literature, and LGBTQ+ Studies. They are developing a portfolio of screenplays with their writing partner Salaams, and also adapting a script into a graphic novel.
Ruth Crossman is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in publications including Litro, Flash Fiction, sPARKLE + bLINK, The Fabulist, and Maximum Rock n Roll. Her auto-fiction collection All the Wrong Places was published by Naked Bulb Press in 2022.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.