We have been trained to see the world in binaries. In our creation narrative, opposites abound: sky and ground, creatures that swim and creatures that crawl, and, ultimately, human beings designated male and female. Child development experts say that binaries help us make sense of the world: the stove is “hot” not “cold,” we wake when the day is “light” not “dark.”
And make sense we do, until we realize that all of our sense-making turns out to lack quite a bit of heart, grace, and the vibrant in-between.
Yet the Bible is rife will multiplicity too—God in three persons, the use of the royal “we” in creation, and metaphors for the divine that range from mother hen to raging fire. Artists and creatives have long known that beauty exists in the liminal: sunset, amphibian, a warm bath in a cold room, the sheer existence of the color violet.
Still, Western cis-gendered heteronormative thought makes it difficult for Christians to see beyond the binary, to listen to and uphold the stories in the margin.
Dani Putney’s debut poetry collection, Salamat Sa Intersectionality, resides in this sacred interstitial space. As with many marginal perspectives, it is a painful one. (Readers looking for an optimistic hymn of self-love might be disappointed.) But Putney’s vantage point is potentially transformative to the binary-lovers among us.
Beginning with the title itself, Putney evokes the intersectional. Salamat Sa is the Filipinx expression, “Thank you for,” while Intersectionality is rendered in English. The title situates the speaker in the both-and experience of the child of a Filipinx mother who comes to the U.S. as a picture bride and a white American father whose heteronormative bullying is palpable.
In one poem, “Gates of Paradise,” Putney recounts a painful encounter with the father: “Every time I say God, / you spit Leviticus.” Here, the speaker’s desire for the divine is met with a binary erasure: any identity differing from the prescribed Levitical categories is deemed sinful. The speaker responds,
for tainting your Bible
with marred skin, unholy saliva.
Forgive me, Mother,
for I have sinned.
In this radical response, the speaker reverses the binary of God-as-male in a tongue-in-cheek confession, one that is also rife with skin and saliva of the rejected body.
Kimberlé Crenshaw first defined intersectionality as the place where our multiple identities come together. Putney’s collection pays homage to this concept. There is no room for one of two opposites; there is only space for multiplicity. As such, the book is framed as a sort of trinitarian triptych. The first section grounds us in place (the American West) and in the speaker’s intersectional identities: queer, mixed race Filipinx-American, and neurodivergent.
The second section explores desire, power and sexuality experienced from within that complex framework. The third and perhaps most accomplished section is where the speaker takes root in their identity, exploring the ways that absence of self might also be presence.
Putney begins by navigating the negative space of an identity erased by binary suppositions. As the father figure berates his queer child, the narrator reflects,
Notably, there is no noun to precede the suffix of “less.” The reader is left to imagine what might fill in the blank: nameless? genderless? loveless? Yet the blank remains until we come to the understanding that the speaker exists without.
The theme of becoming less resonates in poems like “Lactose Intolerance,” in which the narrator desires to drink milk like their quintessentially Anglo-American and masculine father, even to the point of physical illness due to their Asian body’s rejection of it. Here, the whiteness of the milk—and the father—is both consumed and expunged. The pain is palpable, as is the in-between state of desire and identity.
Like many first books, the poems’ quality, themes, and execution of craft vary, but the collection is at its best when it reminds of the power in both naming and unnaming. Sometimes Putney draws playfully on the binaries of our limited linguistics, like in “My Mom Was a Picture Bride,” in which the narrator tries on their mother’s wedding dress:
Or in “Jouissance,” in which the author adds sexual expression to the intersectional experience of gender:
Here, the narrator is both experiencing relationship with the man and wanting to become the man. At the same time, they remain god (dess), a provocative use of parenthesis to remind the reader that we are always more than the two poles that attempt to define us.
We see this in the delightful poem “Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf Talk on My Thighs” where the speaker imagines a dialogue between themself and these two authors:
This is one of the few poems in Salamat Sa Intersectionality that offers an unapologetic celebration of multiplicity. The speaker, the language, the body? All more than one, all fluid and full of the possible.
I wanted more of this self-love, but Putney resists the quick fix. In fact, so much of the book requires us to sit with the pain of the in-between, especially when individuals who ought to protect the speaker—cops, queer studies professors, Democratic politicians—instead silence them. Much of Salamat Sa Intersectionality comprises graphic sexual encounters with would-be father figures, many of which seem unwanted or unfulfilled.
The speaker responds:
the truest I’ve felt was in nothing,
by which I mean
my body is a vessel for everything
I’m melting from unmade gods.
Here, God is multiple, existing as nothingness and everything. The body, too, becomes both more and less. When might it be enough?
In their poem “Post-apocalyptic,” Putney imagines a world after the obliteration of binaries: “O barely anything lives, / we own ourselves.”
A truly intersectional world has not yet been realized, but Putney imagines it, hopes for it, asks, What might it mean to unmake our binary-loving gods?
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