In their debut collection, Xavier Gould firmly establishes their right – and capacity – to move through language and gender. This moving through gets them to where they are. Acadian, queer, trans, they give a new form to Chiac and French – and to Acadie.
There are a few elements around French language poetics that I want to share in order to make sense of the accomplishment that is Des fleurs comme moi (Flowers like Me), before talking more directly about the poems. It’s no surprise that Gould thanks France Daigle, Gérald Leblanc, and Paul Bossé in their acknowledgements. All three Acadian poets have worked to give Chiac legitimacy as a language and as a literary language, and to develop its linguistic possibilities.
Chiac is mostly spoken in southeast New Brunswick. Linguists tend to typify it as a way of speaking French that includes many elements from English, as well as specific lexical, grammatical, and syntaxic forms from Acadian French (“ej” for “je,” “quance que” for “quand est-ce que,” the first person singular borrowing from the plural (“ej voulons” rather than “je veux”), the third person switching its endings (“y parlont” and not “ils parlent”). As Gould points out in some poems, code switching is a part of the linguistic habits of Chiac speakers, since they also speak both French and English. Poetry in Chiac is not bilingual, then, but written in a language that is both and neither. My translations here are not the right translations – Chiac speakers would be better placed to give the equivalent in their own spoken English. Instead, I’ll focus on translating Chiac into English, which means losing most of the work Gould does on language.
There’s great attention to detail here. In their poems, Gould updates the written code, using for instance “yink” instead of “yinque” (“rien que,” “only”); “wois” for “vois” (“see”), since the “v” is pronounced like a “w”; or “er,” given that “est” is generally pronounced “é.”
Their most important updating of Chiac however is in the breaking of the French gender binary. Using the pronoun “iel” (which is becoming the most popular alternative for the singular “they”) brings all kinds of grammatical and syntaxic issues. Do we choose the masculine or feminine forms, or do we make up new forms, or use one of the forms nonbinary people have suggested? The main opposition to inclusive writing in French focuses on readability; here, there are poetic choices that would make the language more radical, but also place all the attention on the signifiers instead than on what is signified.
Gould adopts a solution that is emerging for many: they use the median point (·) that is part of one form of inclusive writing and employ it in the singular. With this form, we might write “les poète·esses sont venu·es” instead of “les poètes et poétesses sont venus/venues,” or “un·e poète·esse est venu·e” instead of the clunky “un poète ou une poétesse est venu ou venue.” This form has the advantage of being not only inclusive of women, but also of nonbinary people by preventing any stillness on either side of the gender binary.
Pushing this practice to its limits, Gould brings the nonbinary character of that act of writing and transgressive transformation of language to the foreground. They use the median point to speak of one or many people, but they also highlight the presence of the median point as allowing not only for the expression, but also for the existence of a reality that is otherwise too intangible.
The title of the poem “être un·e” points to a being outside of what a definite “un” or “une” would let us see – the newness of this form of writing pointing at once to the indeterminacy of a person whose gender is unknown and to the certainty of the person who is something that cannot be reduced to either nor to both.
By bringing the focus to the median point, Gould gives us a means to understand their poetics and its political implications through a metapoetics of sorts. In the poems “bye past self” and “bye past selves,” “·e” appears by itself, gaining independence for the words it would modify. The line is quite simple: “chu maybe / ·e iel” (69, 93).
in the day of the
dans le jour de la
This poetic use of the punctuation contains a refusal to settle on a single signifier; a hesitation through the “maybe”; a hesitation through the “·e” which sounds like the “euh” (uh) of uncertainty; a doubling of the pronoun and the ending; and an indeterminacy of the words to which “·e” might be the ending.
This same impossible coexistence of ambiguity and decisiveness is present in the interplay between the two poems. The first poem (with the title in the singular) works as an erasure poem of the second – just as the latter comes to complete the former, which then forms its core. The effect is especially strong as the words are displayed across the page, forming stanzas and isolated words in the first poem, with the addition of small or larger circles of words in the second. Finding oneself (“I found myself” / “ej me suis trouvé·e”) is simply “good pis positive” in the simpler version, but becomes “good pis positive / beauté / trans,” with the mention of “love finally,” in the second version. In a poem that seems to seek its own wholeness, it seems that several selves and togetherness are needed for there to be any kind of an ending to this search – or a being who has their own (provisional) ending.
This ending, moving toward wholeness, takes place against the possibility of endings as loss and death. In “fleur 3 (j’existe)” (“flower 3 (I exist)”), Gould brings together the existential threat of transphobic violence and the existential certainty of trans queer corporeity as (currently) indivisible. This longer poem recounts the discovery of the evidence of selfhood and existence (“and I had the most powerful revelation ever” / “pis j’ai eu la most powerful révélation ever,” 106), its fragility in the face of the possibility of a violent death, and the need to make a place that hasn’t been set at the table. Its conclusion annihilates the borders between reality, time, and imagination:
but even if I were
to be lost to this here world
I existed before I was born
like I’ll exist after my death
like tomorrow I’ll exist in your mouth
like I’ve always existed in your children’s imaginary
but même si qu’on
me perd à cte monde icitte
j’ai existé avant d’être né·e
comme qu’ej va exister après ma mort
comme que demain ej va exister dans ta bouche
comme que j’ai tout le temps existé dans l’imaginaire de vos enfants (109)
In gendering Acadie as nonbinary – they use “iel” to speak of it –, Gould pushes themself in, ensuring their own inclusion and participation in the nation. They take up the Acadian tradition of resistance against displacement from oneself (from its (claimed, stolen) land, from its past, from its language) to include resistance against Acadie’s own limitations. They point to its imperfections, its own internal oppression, its own settler colonial character. Their vision of Acadie is not a Queer Acadie as a subset or at the margins of the whole, but an Acadie that has queerness as a functional part of its collectivity and is fluid (“la queer Acadie”).
Through this poetics and politics, Xavier Gould gives us good poems. The collection functions as a whole: while some single-line poems working as affirmations or replies, other shorter poems introduce each section. We find the presence throughout of elooooooooongated vowels, and the return of a series of themes (notably dissociation). Gould’s work on language opens up many repetitions to open as many reversals in meaning. And the poems elude the respectability that acts to prevent any deviation from the norm in social life. There’s a poem about farts. Dudebros discover that their homophobia is born out of fear of touching their own asshole (“trou de tchu,” which is perhaps the first time that its Chiac form is put into writing). Gay elders demanding that young queers lead a normal(ized) life get reminded of their own trauma. But there are also poems addressed to a comedic alter ego, Jass-Sainte Bourque (Jacynthe, Saint, get it?). There are poems titled “dissociating” that also work as more complete or more essential versions of one another, unveiling more, or hiding more behind clothes and makeup (which are, as Gould calls them, armour). There are connections with a grandmother that grow, friendships that endure. The arc of the collection is clearly optimistic, and it ends on the image of flowering, yet there remains hesitation and ambiguity down to the very last poem. These poems are a lesson in love and self-love, as they can grow around the hatred of others and the self-hatred it engenders.
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook, Bridges Under the Water, is forthcoming with above/ground press. It follows Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020), as well as his most recent poetry collection, En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram, both at @lethejerome.