Book Review: This Is A Clothespin, Lucas Scheelk (Damaged Goods Press, 2016)


This Is A Clothespin, Lucas Scheelk

“I am exactly three weeks shy of turning 26. The past eight years I have been alive I have  counted as extra years – the aftermath of believing I’d never live past age 18.  [And even some years since then were a struggle] I have been blasting Sia’s  “Chandelier”  into  my  earbuds  on  repeat  for  the past  hour,  and I wish for nothing more at this point in time to connect with my younger self.  A younger version of myself does not think she deserves to live.

Here, on paper, time travel is possible.”

The blood of a poet transmutes into ink. And because it is our very selves, our very voices, carried in those bloated round crimson crowds riding our veins on their way out to the page, the blood becomes ink and then becomes testament. Just as Oliver Bendorf did in The Spectral Wilderness and Meg Day did in Last Psalm at Sea Level, Lucas Scheelk gives voice to his particular transgender experience, informed by being autistic, in his first collection of poems, This Is A Clothespin.

Scheelk’s testimony comes out on the page in blood jets. The poems in his collection document his struggles with self-harming, his journey in understanding his gender, and fighting against conformity to allistic standards and social norms. It is absolutely painful to watch the speaker receiving wounds in both his flesh and psyche through the process; but as the reader follows him, they are rewarded by his stark honesty, his self-awareness, and the power of his work.

The title of the chapbook is also shared by a series of poems within; when the poet first shows us the clothespin, it is an object that he uses to distract himself from his anxiety, which itself opens up into larger issues with which he struggles. In the first poem, he uses the clothespin, amongst many things:

“To keep my hands in my pockets in public…
To avoid stimming outside of my pocket in public
To avoid the looks of my hands in public
To avoid the question, ‘Are you autistic?’ in public”

Throughout the collection, he uses the clothespin as a symbolic reference to the many ways in which autistics are pressured to comply with allistic social norms. In the other “Clothespin” poems, he gives us examples such as:

“This is a clothespin
Of years being told how much progress I’m making in normalized classrooms” (III)

“This is a clothespin
Of stereotypes like robotic and alien and machine and lifeless and loveless
and hopeless” (IV)

Scheelk’s greatest strengths in this collection are his use of repetition and variation, his manner of turning language unexpectedly on its head via small subtle shifts, and the variety of structures he employs in his work. The repetition and variation is evident throughout the entire collection; it is most visible in the “Clothespin” poems, but we see other examples, such as these lines in “Life Without Tits”:

“He adapted with the bandages in order to breath
He adapted with the pain in order to walk
He adapted with the discomfort in order to sit
He adapted with the numbness in order to sleep.”

The total effect of Scheelk’s repetition and variation is that the experiences in these words are patently unforgettable; the reader cannot walk away from this collection without understanding both the speaker’s pain and his drive to survive.

Secondly, the subtle linguistic shifts happen most notably in the “Born” poems (“First Born”, “Second Born”, “Third Born”, and “Fourth Born”) in which he documents his struggle with self-harm. Indeed, there are shifts in the titles themselves and how he references the wounds in some sections of these poems – the average reader would expect the word “burn” instead of “born”.

Thirdly, Scheelk makes liberal use of both structured and unstructured free verse as well as prose forms, which appear to be one of his strengths in the book. For example, in “The Creature” the poet reaches out to Frankenstein’s creation, in a voice reminiscent of a letter writer living in the nineteenth century. The poet’s voice is tender and incredibly empathetic as he addresses the creature, in stanzas such as this one:

“I address you as Creature because I do not know your name. Did you give yourself a name?  I remember reading about your fascination with Paradise Lost. I hope it is not presumptuous of me to say that I would call you Adam in a heartbeat.  That is, if that is the name you want. The name I have was not given to me at birth, but I chose it later in life, and it is my name. I feel a sense of pride in that freedom. A name given at birth is seen as a gift, and so should a name given to oneself.”

With his debut chapbook, Scheelk has generously opened up his transgender autistic experience to the page, leaving a collection of poems that evidence a pair of hearts both brittle and strong by turns. It was an absolute joy to read This Is A Clothespin, and we look forward to much more work from this poet.

(N.I. Nicholson)


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