Tyler Friend’s Him or Her or Whatever
Gay Sex, Nature, and the Deconstruction of Gender in Tyler Friend’s Him or Her or Whatever: A Review by Tessa Pickle
In Him or Her or Whatever, a new collection of poetry published by Alternating Current Press, Tyler Friend explores what it means to navigate the world as a gender nonconforming person. Through candid moments of intimacy, scenes of vulnerability, and humorous colloquialisms, Friend proves that to be queer is to live multifariously. They dwell in moments that highlight the points of intersection between gender, sexuality, nature, politics, mythology, and human behavior, and in fact, these lines become blurred until the concepts are nearly indistinguishable. Most notably, nature is equated with the erotic, an assertation on the naturality of queerness.
In addition to Him or Her or Whatever, Friend is the author of the chapbooks Ampersonate (Choose the Sword Press, 2014), and BUNKER, which can be found in the book vending machine known as the Literarium at Jack White’s Third Man Records store in London. They also edit the online poetry magazine Francis Houseand design for Eulalia Books. Their work appeared recently in Queer, Rural, American, a microanthology released by Miracle Monocle.
I was immediately drawn to Friend’s willingness to dissect the complexities of gender in the opening poem, “They.” They open the collection with a striking self-portrait as the “multitudinous & mountainous” self, setting the stage for the extended references to nature that come in later poems. This introductory poem reads almost as a reimagining of Walt Whitman’s famous line from “Song of Myself,” “I am large, I contain multitudes.” With the refrain of “I contain,” the speaker is immortalized in this all-encompassing identity large enough to contain even “continents.”
Friend toes the line between heartfelt earnestness and a chatty, even somewhat comic, tone with their casual eroticisms and vulgarities. They seamlessly move from marveling over the idea that should the speaker kiss the subject, they would “be in a state of wonderment,” to making forthright statements about enjoying anal sex. With poems like “Moon Fuck” and “Tree Fuck,” there is an undeniably striking amalgamation of sexuality and the natural world. From the “sap-stained” open mouth resembling a “puckered moon,” to the collocation of “the copulation & the cattle,” to the self-mythologizing story of tree sex, Friend uniquely likens nature and sex, the two concepts coming to be synonymous with one another.
Allusions to Greek mythology appear throughout Him or Her or Whatever as well, furthering this convergence of nature, spirituality, and sexuality. In the usage of erotic language to detail the hunting of wild deer as the goddess Artemis, and in the image of “[doing] it in the Parthenon,” queer sex becomes a spiritual experience. There is a profound fusion between nature, gender expression, sexuality, human experience, and that which is beyond human, that grows increasingly with each poem until the concepts become homogenous. Sex is two trees stood against each other; the human body’s two calves are “eager” mountains.
Just under half of the poems are response poems, written “after” works from the poet Hilda Doolittle, who published under the pen name H.D. and is widely regarded as a forerunner of sapphic poetry. Friend engages in a conversation with Doolittle’s work, expounding and reframing many of her revolutionary pieces on sexuality and gender. Doolittle famously challenged gender roles and was unapologetic about her bisexuality, her poems serving as a fantastic base for Friend’s modern take on the same issues. The high volume of H.D. “after” poems in this collection serves to depict Doolittle as a character of sorts. Her works clearly had a major impact on Friend, and since her influence is so present and consistent throughout Him or Her or Whatever, she becomes memorialized as this sort of half-teacher, half-supreme being to Friend.
For Friend, being queer is not merely an aspect of their identity; it is a presence in all that they do, all they experience throughout their day. Some of these experiences are less positive than others, with issues of misgendering and use of slurs making appearances, but to Friend these are simply additional facets within the queer reality. To be queer is to be spiritual, to be natural, to enjoy the natural, to engage in the political, to mimic the gods, and to mirror the mountains. Ending on one of the greatest highlights of the collection, “Weird Trans Kid,” solidifies that Friend has taken the feeling of not fitting in any one sphere as an invitation to encompass all spheres. There is existing between spaces, and there is existing among spaces; Friend has mastered the art of the latter.