Trans Volta

I didn't choose the word 'trans' to describe my unique life path, nor would I have chosen it, but these days, this word happens to be the umbrella that works in the rain. A word you can use alongside 'trans' is 'volta'.

Tucker Lieberman
Tucker Lieberman
Closeup of yellow leaf with green stem. The leaf seems to bend and glow.
Anthurium leaf in the Tropicario (greenhouse) at the Botanic Garden in Bogotá, Colombia, April 27, 2024. Photo by Tucker Lieberman.

A sonnet is a 14-line poem, traditionally with a rhyme scheme, that conveys a complex thought. It can pose a question and provide an answer, or it can have a twist. When I learned to write sonnets as a young teen, I learned about this inflexion point called the volta.

A volta is subjective; it's the place where you feel the poem turn. That's the literal meaning from Latin. Your volta might not be a mere reversal since you don't want to end up exactly where you started. It's more likely to be a point of openness and curiosity so the poem can grow and the reader with it. You can use such a turning point, and maybe more than one, in any type of poem, not just a sonnet.

Tess Taylor tells us today (CNN, May 4, 2024):

"The volta is where the logic of the poem turns, and the poetic voice turns its attention. The poem might change its frame of reference, widen its gaze, alter the terms of its argument. The poem thinks aloud, thinks in motion.

As it happens, we can trace the term volta to the 13th century. The word 'volta' also makes an audible pun on the word 'volto' — the act of making a face. It was the job of the poem to turn, to change its face in a way that demonstrated its humanity. It was the poem’s role to change its mind out loud, by setting out one way and then changing course. The poem did this by disagreeing with itself.

The volta is still one of the vital units of poetry. It holds an argument for surprise, an argument for the unexpected, an argument against certainty. It’s a reminder that to be human is to turn, to reconsider, to be undecided, to see anew. To be human is to be willing to change."

So the volta isn't just about poetry. It's about our humanity. It's about dwelling in unknowing and humility and darkness, in a place where we sleep and dream and wake again, so that we can create hope that something else, something more, is possible.

"Poems help us name what’s ultimately vulnerable in our lives," Taylor writes. We can "enter more delighted and compassionate relationships with our own stories" as well as create "a place to hold our rage." We can "transform" so that "deeper answers can begin."

Gender Volta

Having opened, I'm thinking about conversations I hear today, and have heard in the past, about gender.

I'm thinking about the way some people challenge the language that others use, not because they want to encourage their language to thrive, but because they want it to shrivel.

They ask you to define the gender term you're using. This is a trap. If you explain that its meaning can depend on context and that you're sharing in the rich nuances of a word that means different things to different people, they'll say you're ignorant of your own identity and that you lack any meaningful beliefs. But if you make an effort to distill these myriad ideas to one simple, crystal clear definition, they'll say you're rigid and dogmatic.

They won't let you say "I don't know." They won't let you say "I know."

They don't want a definition of the word. They want you not to use that word.

Your words give you openness as well as clarity, and the result is an unparalleled power to bend and not break. They want to take that power from you.

The word transgender is a half-century old, which means it existed before I was born, and transsexual is older than that. That was language I inherited.

I've witnessed my friends and fellow queer/trans people embrace the shorter word trans. For a long time, trans felt new, and I did not know what it was supposed to communicate. I heard it as a prefix detached from a necessary word-part. Maybe it was just a lazy shortcut for a multisyllabic word. It seemed ambiguous to me.

But yes. Yes. Yes, that is the point of it.

Trans is an opening. It's a volta. A gender volta.

It means the crossing. It means not-this and not-that because we are crossing from something to something else. But inevitably it defines itself in terms of this-and-that—or what's the sense of crossing from anywhere to anywhere else? We contain, somehow, at least a small part of both sides: our crossing-from and crossing-to. More, as long as we remain trans, we contain the third space inbetween. That extra space—discovered, carved out, or bridged—is the trans so named. We are multiply isn't and multiply is, and we are something else entirely.

We could be trans-sexual or trans-gender or just trans. We can define it if we like, but a definition isn't going to solve it.

I didn't choose the word trans to describe my unique life path, nor would I have chosen it, but these days, this word happens to be the umbrella that works in the rain.

If I'd been given authority to invent a term for lots of people to use, I don't know what I would have chosen instead. I just know I wouldn't have chosen a prefix to serve as an adjective. Thankfully, some people are better poets than I. Collective wisdom has chosen the best possible word (which is a non-word) to describe gender (which is a non-thing). My personal task in the 2020s has been to lean into trans and let myself turn.

Because trans signals change, it wouldn't be fair for it to appoint itself sole executive administrator of who and what we are. Other words can be spoken too. Trans is part of a longer poem.

On that note: A word you can use alongside trans is volta.

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