Kay Ulanday Barrett got their start as a poet here in Chicago, and was deeply involved with the Asian spoken-word community in the nineties. Barrett lives in New York City now, and “More Than Organs” is Barrett’s second full-length collection after “When the Chant Comes.” Some experiences detailed in “More Than Organs” recall Barrett growing up, coming out, their experiences with a Filipina mother who tolerates Barrett’s transition as a person in the LGBT community. As a transgender person who also perceives the world through the lenses of race, immigration and disability, Barrett complicates what people might pigeonhole as identity politics and deftly maneuvers crafted turns of imagery while shaping each poem.
Their play with poetic forms and boldness with addressing these themes and ideas gives Barrett a structure to consider what marks a sort of coming-of story for the poet. Yes, there is a pantoum and an abecedarian poem. Yes, Barrett uses white space in ways that suspend pauses with compelling effects when read aloud, but there is an eye toward sensual detail that makes these poems sing—whether there is a dirge, or a party, love or grief. This intermingling reverberates in my thoughts when I think of the poem “Albany Park/Logan Square 1993-2000, Chicago, IL” or these following lines from the volume’s title poem:
“If I told you that my life is basically cloud cover,
between shade and safe haven,
between starling and storm, you’d get why each cough
is the split open back
of a palm tree…”
There are ties to the body and nature that tie Barrett back to the Philippines and Chicago, but also their mother, the Tagalog language that weaves into some of these poems, and the elemental bodies that provide profound comparisons for how we inhabit the skin-covered storms that we call our own bodies.
Some of these poems are celebratory, with artful long lines that shape love poems and the relishing of dishes that allowed Barrett to bond with family and friends in Chicago and elsewhere. The poems also offer critiques of people who are myopic, at best, in their perceptions of how they consider this intersection of issues, especially in poems like “You + Me = Anomaly sponsored by T.S.A.” and “Why I don’t go to bars with white poets anymore.” These poems also celebrate women and friendship with such tenderness. Poems like “Princess Urduja: an Exclusive Interview,” “Aunties love it when seafood is on sale” and the elegiac “For Brandon” mark what makes surviving the difficult moments so precious. “More Than Organs” marks a maturing voice of a young poet who has much more to say.
“More Than Organs”
By Kay Ulanday Barrett
Sibling Rivalry Press, 93 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.