KAYLEB RAE CANDRILLI'S ALL THE GAY SAINTS:
first published in American Poetry Review Vol. 49 No. 3, May/June 2020
It is clear that if I communicate all the ways I hurt
I will lose my usefulness.
So begins the second poem of Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s much-anticipated second book of poetry, All the Gay Saints. This collection—which won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Natalie Diaz—focuses on the poet’s joy and faith in their future, in spite of the condition of the world today. Candrilli—who uses the pronouns they, them, and theirs—acknowledges the tenuous state of the world and country in this second poem, aptly named “On Wanting Top Surgery in the Fascist Regime.” The poet also acknowledges some readers’ problematic expectations: that queer and transgender people must only write about their pain and suffering. Trans poet Cameron Awkward-Rich also has noted this reality and articulates it far better than I could: “queer/trans sorrow are often consumed in ways that reinforce these systems rather than disrupt them”; in this way, readers may want to consume the poet’s sorrow to alleviate their own guilt about being complicit in producing this suffering. Candrilli, then, subverts these problematic expectations, instead defiantly choosing joy, even in the face of struggle.
Ultimately, the collection chooses joy but, first, Candrilli alludes to their difficult childhood in rural Pennsylvania—a childhood rife with male violence. They write:
When I get caught stealing the storeowner lets me keep my pockets
full but calls me a pretty little girl and brushes his fingertips across the nipples that peak
mountainous beneath my shirt.
They write: “I have grown / accustomed to rape.” They write: “those raised fists, those holes / in the drywall.” Rather than give idyllic descriptions of the natural world in which Candrilli grew up, they describe the reality—one far darker. Even when they miss their childhood home, their memories are tainted with violence:
Sometimes I imagine I never left
the fields in which I was unwelcome.
Sometimes I can still
see my father hiding
plywood riddled with rusty
nails under a bed of fall
It is this violence with which Candrilli begins and, in the end, is able to transcend.
The poet defies expectations—and defies a country that often rejects trans and queer people—when they instead choose self-love. Candrilli insists: “Loving myself is gourmet. / Loving my trans body is running the gauntlet.” Later, in a poetic self-address, they write:
this world has taught you
the lesson of laceration
and your body deserves
to be unbarbed.
tell it so.
After what the poet implies as years of struggling with their identity and self-image, these lines are somewhat of a revelation—the notion that the body “deserves.” The body deserves safety, and love, and painlessness, and this idea may be something Candrilli is still learning. “Your body deserves to be unbarbed.” Tell it so, they remind themselves at the end of this poem.
The collection at large feels like a love letter to Candrilli’s body, their partner, and their relationship—one so healthy, so accepting, so loving, that it seems sacred. Speaking of their partner, Candrilli writes:
When we talk of the future, my future chest is as flat
as our future backyard. We plant
a lemon tree and it grows
even in winter.
Throughout the poet’s transition and journey toward finding an identity that feels right for them, their partner is wholly supportive, and this support goes both ways. In another poem, Candrilli writes:
metaphor only when fact
is more beautiful.
I will hold your hand
& I will hold your hand steady.
Fag limbo is my body inside another
body, between the thighs of my partner’s holiest
“Limbo” is something with which Candrilli is comfortable on several different planes; the poet finds solace, too, existing outside of the gender binary. They write, “My guilty pleasure is Tudor style homes and I think it’s because I’m afraid to be made of just one thing.” Really, though, Candrilli no longer seems to feel “guilty” about being themselves—and this may be due in part to their partner’s company:
Inside one another
neither of us remembers gender—the meaning
of her or hers. She is lost
to space. He was never
that great to begin with.
Indeed, the poet’s relationship with their partner seems sacred, and so is the poet themselves. In “Fourth of July and Trans on the Brooklyn Side,” Candrilli becomes God in a young boy’s eyes; and, throughout the entire collection, the poet combats notions of gender—and the intersection of sexuality and “sin”—insisting instead on their holiness. Candrilli writes that “This world is hell / bent beyond repair”—the heavy enjambment suggesting that the world is Hell itself—and yet the poet and their partner vow to get through it together: “the reeds are dried blood and cackle when fire comes. you say, i’ll touch you while the world burns.” Candrilli recognizes the dystopian aspects of the world today yet decides to “open [their] mouth and, despite the world, / use it almost daily to fall in love.”
Candrilli’s childhood and adolescence were full of violence, and this collection shows them overcoming the trauma and also determining, once and for all, to leave it well in the past. Still, the poet struggles, in particular, with emancipating themselves from the effects of their father. In one poem, Candrilli writes, “My kink is butter milk and my partner begging / me to please forget your father” and entitles another poem “My Future Husband-Wife and I Make a Blood Pact to Become the Fathers We Always Needed.” In a love poem, the poet writes:
I’d love to huff cedar stain
and tell you how I love you,
but woodworking is how my father
loved my mother and I’d like to forget
this fact and build something wholly new.
There is an emphasis throughout this collection on unlearning guilt, shame, and patterns of abuse. The poet and their partner have escaped their broken pasts and, now, Candrilli writes: “what breaks us / is only the sun / through the blinds.” Unlike in their first book, the memoir-in-verse What Runs Over, this collection brings an end to the violence and hardship, making way for love and acceptance and for the seemingly quotidian—something that, in itself, feels like a victory amid the world’s chaos and suffering. Candrilli writes:
My chest: leftovers
and milk spoiled in the fridge. My mother
doesn’t like calling me by a boy’s name.
But she does it.
and later adds:
In our raunchy love
we ache for household—
welcome mat, shoes strewn
or orderly, a kitchen
made of granite and cutting
Candrilli is well-aware of the danger of being trans and queer, and yet they find safety in their accepting mother, their loving partner, and in looking toward the future. In this way, this collection is the lighthouse’s glow blinking through a storm. It brings solace to readers, who—regardless of their own identities—have also experienced hardship and struggle. Candrilli has seen the world’s beauty and suffered through its terror, and, at least in this collection, they have decided that the beauty wins out. In our world today, this collection is an artifact of hope that feels vital to our survival—it serves as a reminder that things indeed can get better. “It is nearly impossible to be trans and alive,” Candrilli writes, “but here I am.” ⋆
Poet Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award and is author of Water I Won't Touch (Copper Canyon, 2021), All the Gay Saints (Saturnalia 2020), and What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017), which was a 2017 Lambda Literary finalist for Transgender Poetry and a finalist for the 2018 American Book Fest's best book award in LGBTQ nonfiction.
Reviewer Despy Boutris's writing has been published or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, American Literary Review, The Journal, Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at the University of Houston, works as Assistant Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast, and serves as Editor-in-Chief of The West Review.