When I was young, I loved horses for their impressive grace. So, because we lived close, my mom took me to Chincoteague Island to see the ponies. On the way there, I was irritated. “Ponies?” I thought, “I want to see horses!”
When I finally saw them, though, rounded up in the pen, I realized that “ponies” was not quite the correct description, because, though ponies, they looked so much like horses. It made me chuckle, then, when in the story “This Little Size of Dying,” Clay makes a very similar comment on the “variation” between the adjective “pony,” and the “stolid grace” and “indisputable wildness” of horses that should, by definition, be small.
Younger me watched the ponies trapped in that enclosed, claustrophobic space start mating, as my mom nervously told me they were “playing.” I knew that really was not the case. Young and innocent as I was, I knew I was witnessing something momentous—something visceral and real.
And that is exactly how I felt as I read Rafe Posey’s collection of short stories The Book of Broken Hymns, which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2012. His stories, though fictional, are still visceral, still real. This collection is, other than a few of his articles and many of his Tweets, my first real read of Rafe’s work, and the first time I’ve read any significant collection of work by a transgender writer.
What first struck me about these stories was the sense of loss that laces them together—loss of people, comfort, memory, health, place, and even identity. Yet the characters also find many things: identity, resolve, self-acceptance, and in some cases, peace. Losing and finding is a cycle of human experience, but I learned through reading these stories that it is a much more integral part of the trans and LGBTQ experience. I never had to accept my identity as a straight woman; I never had to worry about being accepted by others. But almost every main character in these stories has that worry, experiences that struggle. Specifically, Audrey in “Dashaway” haunts her old life, while Luke in “Horse Sale at the Jesus Saves Café” is haunted by someone he’s lost, signifying the feeling of always having one foot in one life, one in another.
Not a story passes without the mention of some animal or bird, and characters “prowl, purr, spit like cats,” have eyes like falcons, or possess “lupine focus.” In “Dashaway,” specifically—my favorite of the stories, and I did request a novelization of it—Malcolm Temko is described using lupine imagery, and likened to Caliban from The Tempest. He, more than any other character, is a beast of prey, constantly on the prowl for a victim.
I became so wrapped up in thematic connections, symbolism, and imagery, even as I write this review I realize it is not so much review as it is a semi-analysis in which I attempt to convey the depth of stories that, at times, caused me to ache because they were too short. After all, my book ended up looking like this:
I wanted more from “Dashaway,” but I wanted more from all of the stories—I wanted backstories, futures, resolutions. I wanted more from “Nest”—to see the relationship between father and children, to see the change, over time, in the father. I wished I’d known more about the relationship between Clay and Shawn in “This Little Size of Dying.” I craved directness and specifics from Faun’s rhetorical play in “Faun Tells All.” However, I came to understand that those things are not always possible, because so often the characters were living through and in the midst of things. It is a testament to Rafe’s ability to write characters, though, that I always wanted to know more about and see more from his characters.
The most complete story, for me, was “The Only Living Boy in New York,” because I felt like I knew the main character better than I knew any other—and I felt like he had traveled farthest on the road to finding everything that made him complete.
Through so many poignant moments—characters wishing, remembering, loving, yearning, becoming—I came to understand Rafe wrote from the very core of his being, where he finally rose “from ashes and leftover scraps abandoned. The first song sung in a book of broken hymns after all the candles have melted and hardened. ”
He could not have chosen a better epigraph to preface his work.