Protocols for Listening

Spence Messih

The winds, the weight

I wonder what messages the dead would have for us now. If we had not lost Louis Graydon Sullivan to AIDS complications in 1991, he would be 69 years old today. Lou came of age in San Francisco in the mid-70s and 80s where he volunteered as a phone counsellor, founded the newsletter ‘FTM International’, and facilitated peer support groups, amongst other undertakings. As noted in his prolific personal diaries, which he kept from age 11, he was often up all night responding to letters from trans people around the world who were largely coming out for the first time. For Lou, language began and ended in the body as he sought to find descriptors to fit his own experience in the world. Lou’s community, activist, archival, and personal work were inseparable. Throughout his life he was consistently deferred from accessing vital gender affirming care because of his sexuality—the medical establishment didn’t believe it was possible for a trans man to be attracted to other men. Lou knew too well the preciousness of time, but he also believed in the possibility of himself.[1] Near the end of his life he made the terrifying statement: ‘They told me at the gender clinic that I could not live as a gay man, but it looks like I will die as one.’[2]

What does it mean when the glimpses of a life as possible are full of corpses?

What does it mean to inherit mourning, to disavow it or to accept it as a responsibility?

What does it mean to listen, what does it mean to hear?

bieng tran is a unique kinde off organe / i am speeching materialie / i am speeching abot hereditie / a tran entres thru the hole / the hole glomes inn the linden / a tran entres eather lik a mothe / wile tran preseeds / esense / her forme is contingent on the feeld / the manner sits cis with inn a feeld / wee speeche inn 2 the eather / wile the mothe bloomes / the mothe bloomes inn the yuca [3]

Jos Charles is speaking about the body—specifically the trans body, its materialie and its histories. In poem XXIV, I hear movements of passing through spaces—wilfully yet unconsciously, like the knowingness of an organe or of entering through a hole that you can't see the end of because the eather within is burning so bright. Guided by intuition, hereditie, something inherited and genetic, we follow, intuitively, what we want to be in relation to, or at least we try to get close. Jos speaks of architectures of space, our forme being contingent on the size and shape of the field, or the feeld, around oneself. Jos’ work is in large part a clearing of the field ready for something new to emerge.

We can read both into and out-of Jos’ words and their interruption by or expulsion out of the forward slash—a punctuation device that permeates throughout feeld. This punctuation mark can be thought of as a vertical line that has been pushed from behind to fall forward or kicked from in front to jolt backwards, leaving it vulnerable and destabilised, yet holding presence and demanding a pause. feeld is a place of mourning and a site of clearing—two undertakings not in opposition. Words carry pressures in the sonics of her voice, our voice, as we attempt to read. Oral or aural—both are feeble, shaky. The words of feeld have weight and history. They offer us the images, labours, and lives that carry them—maybe as a way to help us to carry them too. Jos speaks of the collection as enabling ‘mourning: for the personal losses (housing, a job, cis friends from when I “transitioned,” trans friends who were killed) and the broader losses that orchestrated the personal ones.’[4] She says, ‘To mourn for them would mean to acknowledge the loss and accept a kind of responsibility to it...’.[5]

I ask not how do we survive a crisis, but how do we mourn those that did not?

How do we share the work of mourning, how much room do we need to do so and who do we need there? How do we carry the legacy, pain, touch, voice and warmth of those gone?

  1. ^ Spence Messih and Vincent Silk, Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Sydney Review of Books, forthcoming.
  2. ^ Lou Sullivan, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, eds. Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma (New York: Nightboat, 2019).
  3. ^ Jos Charles, ‘XXIV’, in feeld (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2018).
  4. ^ Jos Charles, interview with Cass Eddington, ‘Jos Charles’s feeld: “where what doesn’t fit a composition becomes a composition”, Denver Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3.
  5. ^ ibid.

Spence Messih is an artist living and working on Gadigal land. Their practice speaks broadly to sites of pressure, power structures, materiality, and language, and more specifically about these things in relation to their own trans experience.