At primary school, confession, or, in Catholic parlance, the sacrament of reconciliation, was little more than our means to obtain an interesting drink and a biscuit. Coralled in the assembly hall, battered gym horse and climbing bars pushed to the side, we waited in line for our turn behind the curtain to tell our ‘sins’. These amounted to little more than filling in the blanks in the ‘I hit my brother / sister / dog’ formula, regardless of the truth. Later, as a seminarian, I’d book a slot with the parish priest, perch on the sofa in his front room, and wrest shaming misdeeds from my breast as they clawed and tugged at my soul, desperate for the darkness.
Kevin Reid’s latest pamphlet, Androgyny, explores the rich spectrum of sexuality and treats the reader as a confidant, as a friend, while biting its thumb at confession and notions of sin. It’s an affecting, disarming work that encompasses culture, family and desire with authenticity, maturity and sensitivity.
In popular culture, androgyny is appealingly easy on the eye, a unisex advertising opportunity. However, it can be something more challenging. It’s not only a feminine guy, a more angular girl. Androgyne is Greek: ‘andro’ (man) and ‘gynous’ (woman) – both male and female. Reid’s opening poem, ‘Androgyny’, explores the pitifully binary nature of English as it stumbles and falls: ‘Thanks for these his and her hands’. The speaker’s thanks are , perhaps, sincere. However, they also contain the possibility of a sarcastic tone, presenting androgyny as an affliction – and we’re reminded of Eliot’s Tiresias who has ‘foresuffered all‘.
The next poem, ‘As a young boy I learned’, locates androgyny in a wider social space. For the child, games are ungendered and the voice, like the young boy, focuses with innocence on detailing the mastery of the game: ‘As a young boy I learned / to play skipping ropes with girls, / to sing, count, keep in time’. However, the next stanza offers the patriarchal response of ‘Dad’s disappointment’ and ultimately acknowledges that, in sectarian communities, all threats to orthodoxy are solemnly political, ‘That lassie-boy and fenian / were names and reasons’.
Reid covers a lot of ground in twenty-four poems and a strength of the pamphlet is its crisp storytelling. We move from a childhood exploration of identity to a marriage, a child and a divorce. ‘Pregnant Love’ is hot and sweaty with sex and life, ‘our bodies / golden; licked with firelight’ but, over the page, in ‘After the Fire’, the ashes are cold and the tone is clinical: ‘You asked me about divorce, I agreed’.
Reid signs off with ‘Bless Me Father’, perhaps an appeal to a biological father, perhaps a confession, spoken in a secret darkness to a priest. That formulaic opening speaks of a desire for rehabilitation, to return to the patriarchal fold of conformity and repression but, at the last moment, the speaker stages an escape from the stifling closet and bolts for the door: ‘Yes, I slept with her, / slept with him. / I’m not sorry’.
Androgyny glows with a tender eroticism but is also lit by a harsh light of humbling frankness as it casts the reader in the uncomfortable role of confessor. I was relieved to see the speaker ending with such an unequivocal note of defiance.
Buy Androgyny from www.4word.org
Kevin Reid’s website: eyeosphere.com
Twitter / Instagram: @eyeosphere