Boi, Nicola Bray
Bad Betty Press, 2021 £6.00
Hold a mirror up to the lake
Nicola Bray’s exhilarating debut pamphlet, Boi, traces the emergence of a queer self from societal structures, and I was struck by her images of constriction and freedom.
The opening ‘Landscape’ introduces Lili Elbe, Danish painter and transgender woman, whose reassignment surgery was ground-breaking. Elbe’s creative powers allow her to escape from ‘a simple white frame’ and recreate herself with the liquid medium of ‘my blood.’ This trajectory from solid to liquid forms unfolds throughout the pamphlet.
The long poem ‘Paper Trail’ contains the speaker’s development from a baby ‘shaped like a crib’ and ‘carrying a standard, the weight / causing a stoop of the shoulders.’ As time passes like ‘a clockwork dog,’ they feel as if they are ‘breathing behind plastic.’ A hospital stay finds them ‘shrieking like a hinge or lung,’ where the comparisons suggest a metallic invasion of tender flesh. The absoluteness of gender expectations is ‘an oil-and-water girlish idea / to take a boy home,’ but the speaker is confused, ‘flat-chested and singular, a dragonfly girl’ searching for
[ ... ] Bakelite,
the certainty of lettering
because this quiz is familiar
like an engine turning over
In Earl’s Court a ‘watery-self’ develops, ‘forcing the river / to mirror my lips.’ And on the Southbank, a wide choice of identities is presented as ‘stones I might slip on.’ There’s a reluctance to accept a fixed form — to choose, say, between ‘pansexual’ and ‘lesbian androgynous tomboy’ — but these terms are strung out loosely across two pages, like stepping stones. Finding a ‘centre of gravity’ is ‘as if I’m a balancing ball in water,’ while ‘My name unravels. I hook it / from the water with a pitchfork.’ Later:
immersed in water
my body resembles a land mass [ … ]
somewhere I’ve never been perhaps —
By the final poem, ‘Version,’ the speaker is ‘fishlike,’ the freedom of the sea reflected in the gulls above, ‘a looping umbilicus / in a silver void. Timeless where all name is folly.’
Like Lili Elbe, our speaker has recreated a fluid self and broken free from the psychological and built environments of upbringing and expectation.