Gretchen Rockwell’s Lexicon of Future Selves is my favorite release from Milwaukee’s Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. Whatever amount of recognition this phenomenal 30-page collection is getting in the Poetry-Sphere, it’s not enough. Excuse my gushing, but I’d be remiss if I artificially toned down the praise. This chapbook is a stellar accomplishment.
Rockwell’s book recounts 26 self portraits as various science fiction movies or characters or entities – “Self Portrait as Alien,” for example, leads off the collection. Moving through, we encounter self portraits “… as Soylent Green,” “…as Blob,” “…as Replicant,” “…as Terminator,” “… as Boba Fett,” and so on. It is a testament to the quality of the poems that each is its own fraught, intricate, revealing journey into the speaker’s psyche, for which detailed knowledge of the movie referenced is optional. Remarkably, one doesn’t have to know the movies to be able to approach the poems. Personally, I wasn’t sure of a good half-or-so of the titular references. What draws me in is the way the self is rendered in various guises that have both a core and many sides, like an elaborate D&D die.
For my first several read-throughs I didn’t even notice that the poems are all abecedarians. Most of the poems focus on the experience of being alive as a self that does not fit neatly into regular delimiting categories or types. Again and again, we see the speaker face the tension of negotiating and accepting who they are up against the self-limiting modes of the world they live in.
In the bio at the end, Rockwell uses the pronouns Xe and Xer, and presumably identifies as nonbinary. That’s one rewarding way to read this book – as the collected self-images of a person of depth and substance who is neither he nor she, and finds Xerself confronted with a world that misunderstands them as Xe triers to understand Xerself. There are less overt but also rewarding ways to read the identity of the speaker, too – as the artist, the individual, the alien, the rebel, the loner. To emphasize one to the exclusion of the others probably misses the point a bit. The speaker of the poems is all these types, and more than these types. Xe is as complicated and richly-nuanced as any human can be.
Each poem has a breaking agent employed within lines. You’re familiar with the use of “ / ” within lines as a way a contemporary poet might create more tension and a kind of caesura without relying only on end-of-line breaks. Rockwell uses a unique symbol for each poem – as it’s difficult to find a way to represent all of these, I’ll use “ / ” in their place next, identifying end-of-line breaks with “ // ,”quoting snippets of poems.
The poet muses “if you could // just decipher / their worldview / you’d // know / how to communicate.” Xe says “You have to be careful / have to know your // shit / be able to dig around / make the right call.” Xe notes the “agenda” others operate by; Xe says “this body // my mother gave it to me / It’s everyone else // not seeing it / or seeing it / wrongly.” “It’s not so // difficult / to recognize when you lack / a thing // everyone else seems / to possess.”
It’s a profoundly moving and profoundly effective way to explore life as a nonbinary person in a binary world – as alien, as someone made to feel “other,” who tries to get by without attracting extra negative attention. You have to read the poems in their entirety, all the way through, to gain a real appreciation of the artistry of this collection. It’s $11.89 according to the cover price on the UPC symbol, and worth more than every cent.
Steve Henn teaches high school English in northern Indiana. His previous books include Guilty Prayer (Main Street Rag, 2021) and Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson, 2017). He’s proud of the children of himself and late American artist Lydia Henn. He roots for the Fighting Irish, played high school soccer, and gives poetry readings in all kinds of places, from Pittsburgh to Long Beach, travel conditions and money conditions and time permitting. His next collection, due out February 2022, is American Male from Main Street Rag. His favorite food is crab cakes, which are also a unit of value measurement for anything in the world (this review = 3 crab cakes).