Amidst a poetry collection full of imagery relating to the earth and the body, the title poems in Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s book Water I Won’t Touch strike an interesting chord. We enter the book wondering what water they will touch, and why there are two categories. These questions are left open, but what grounds the reader throughout the collection is the bodily and earthly imagery of deserts, blood, and other elements. Candrilli uses grounded, rooted imagery of the earth and the body to tell their trans story, along with references to the universe, evoking worlds of visceral feeling, while also situating the reader in the elemental nature of the trans experience.
In the first poem of the collection, “Sand & Silt,” Candrilli writes “Some things / are so absolute. The point at which rain becomes snow. The way / fruit eventually spoils / even under unblemished skin. / If I make a metaphor of my body, / it’s a desert. One part longing, / one part need, the rest withstanding” (14-21). Right from the start, Candrilli’s speaker sets themself apart from what is absolute. Some things are absolute, but Candrilli is more complex: they are made of parts, some identifiable and some not. We already see a connection between the trans body and the earth: the desert. This is a dry place with difficult terrain, but it is not without life. Many species thrive there, even if humans are unfamiliar with them, but many humans thrive there too. Candrilli sets up the metaphor of their body as something complex, not easily understood but not unquantifiable or unnatural either, for we can hold sand in our hands.
In their next poem, “One Geography of Belonging,” they compare their body explicitly to the earth in general. “You can always find hints of what used to be” (6-7) because up close you can name their body “Pangaea & history & so, so warm” (11). Throughout the book, Candrilli calls on this feeling of warmth. In doing so, the reader can form their own version of warmth in their body, establishing Candrilli’s poetry as a place of connection. Invoking Pangaea, Candrilli creates a feeling of displacement, in addition to the sentiment that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. This is one of the struggles of the trans experience that Candrilli explores through tactile imagery and historical references; receiving a double mastectomy was not easy for them, but it made them feel more at home in their body, as is the case for many transmasc individuals. This connects the trans experience to a painful one, a natural one, an inevitable one, and a beautiful one. As a review states, “Enmeshed within the memory of the author’s body, these poems insist without imposing; suggest without demanding; stand up, fall over, and right themselves again for no other reason than the incredible force of Candrilli’s will to prove to us that forest fires will always lead to rebirth, reflection, and more fertile soil” (Schorr). The earthly imagery of their poetry is what creates this very real effect and impact on the reader; the elemental energy in the words moves the poetry along just like there is energy that makes our planet spin.
Later in the poem, Candrilli writes, “Dearest Mother, how many rivers / did I run across your belly? / Do you love / that they will never dry up?” (18-21). This inquiry solidifies that Candrilli has been connected to the earth since birth, trans before their transition. In a cishet culture that hyper-focuses on the transition period of trans people’s lives, the image of Candrilli running infinite rivers since birth provides a cooling sensation for the reader, a respite from the normative framework of trans stories.
Not only does Candrilli relate the earth to their body, but they speak to the elements through their poetry, showing another aspect of the personal relationship they have with nature that portrays trans people as connected, natural, and meant to be here. In their poem “Summering in Wildwood, NJ,” Candrilli writes, “the tide tells me / my body can morph / as many times as it needs” (10-12). The tide gives Candrilli’s speaker advice, and at the same time, Candrilli equates themselves to the tide through this relationship, showing how just like the tide is ever-changing as a fact of nature, Candrilli’s body can change and shift as many times as it needs. Similarly, in their poem “On the Abuse of Sleep Aids,” Candrilli writes, “i took / to speaking exclusively with dirt / beneath our home. i asked it so / politely to invite the whole house / into the earth and keep it there” (7-11). Not only does Candrilli have a relationship with the elements in general, but in times of dire need, they have also used this connection to leverage a request for sanctuary from abuse and struggle. Here, Candrilli is faced with the limits of the elements; not unless there is an earthquake or another drastic event can their request be granted. But even within these limits, the fact that they can have these conversations with the earth is beautiful in itself and a part of their healing process that shows the unique position of trans people.
Diving further into the struggle of the trans experience, Candrilli also evokes earthly images that are not romantic, in contrast to the imagery already discussed in this essay. As a part of their reflection on their double mastectomy throughout the collection, Candrilli writes in their poem “On Having Forgotten to Recycle,” “I have cleaved whole mountains from / my chest and sent them to soak in an offshore landfill. My breasts, I imagine, / are long dead, floating alongside jellyfish and plastic straws” (6-8). Candrilli presents the reader with the uncomfortable likeness of body parts and litter. The title of this poem is misleading, as the topic is much more profound than an everyday mistake of forgetting to recycle, which adds another layer of impact to the imagery. Candrilli confronts the truth that these body parts were discarded and rightfully so, but probes the question of what comes after for the parts, not the body still intact. But ultimately, they like their body better this way, the smallness giving them another reason to feel warmth. Furthermore, in their poem, “My Partner Wants Me to Write Them a Poem about Drew Barrymore,” Candrilli presents another disturbing image: “I once split / open a live lizard and found maggots. It’s true that we can hold / just about everything inside us, whether we want to or not” (15-17). Candrilli evokes this image in the context of their partner’s ovarian cysts, but the ripples go beyond even that heavy topic. Maggots are a disgusting part of nature, but a part of nature nonetheless, and Candrilli is trying to grapple with this. Enjambing the line after “I once split” is representative not only of Candrilli’s explorative tendencies in nature but also of the fact that they themself have been split during their double mastectomy and perhaps other moments of their life. Like the lizard, Candrilli has felt like they have maggots inside them, which could function as a symbol for their breasts. Although it feels like maggots should not be able to infect the living, it happens. This could be an interesting interpretation of part of the trans experience, particularly body dysmorphia. The maggots were removed, but they still grapple with the fact that so many things can be inside of us, unwanted or not. A review discusses the “dichotomy of delicacy and danger” in Candrilli’s “elegant” poems, playing “with the paradoxes of beauty and hideousness, suggesting that they are not opposites, but proximal” (Foster). Through these images, some beautiful and some ugly, Candrilli demonstrates how it is all a part of the trans experience; therefore, it is all a part of the human experience.
In Candrilli’s poem “You’ve Heard This Before: The Only Way Out is Through,” they write that “all [they’ve] ever known is blood- / red and a wilderness” (75-76), yet throughout their poems they connect their body to something celestial as well. In “Transgender Heroic: All This Ridiculous Flesh,” they refer to their scars as “the moon-scars strapped to [their] chest” (34-35), and in “Valentine, Nebraska: Cherry Country,” the first section ends with the statement that “Impermanently and already decomposing, / our bodies are just / stardust this, / stardust that” (17-20). While these are celestial images, among all the earth imagery it suggests an inevitable connection between earthly bodies and heavenly elements. This allows Candrilli to zoom out for themself and the reader, illustrating the trans experience as part of not only something bigger, but also the biggest something. As a review suggests, “In Candrilli’s poems, transness is resolutely future-oriented, generating more possibilities for feeling and being than American masculinity currently allows” (Phillips). Although I disagree with the phrase “future-oriented” since I feel like Candrilli’s poetry is rooted in the present, I agree that their work is drenched in possibility, discovered through the trans experience.
As a poet who often draws on nature imagery, I know intimately the power it can give both the writer and reader. While I do not believe that “Candrilli universalizes the trans experience” (Phillips), I do think that, through their emotional poetry, they open a space for everyone to find connections to their own human lives. Candrilli is a master of imagery that evokes visceral feelings in the reader. Drawing a line between the earth and the body, eventually this line connects, and we realize Candrilli was drawing a circle all along, interweaving the celestial with the terrestrial. Reading Water I Won’t Touch is a journey of learning about the trans experience as something raw, elemental, beautiful, and worth learning about, especially through poetry like theirs.
Candrilli, Kayleb R. Water I Won’t Touch. Copper Canyon Press, 2021.
Foster, Claire. “Water I Won’t Touch.” Foreword Reviews, May/June 2021, https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/water-i-wont-touch/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.
Phillips, Matthew J. “Liberation in the Trans Experience: Water I Won’t Touch by Kayleb Rae Candrilli.” Broad Street Review, 19 April 2021, https://www.broadstreetreview.com/reviews/water-i-wont-touch-by-kayleb-rae-candrilli. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.
Schorr, Veronica. “Water I Won’t Touch.” New York Journal of Books, https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/water-i-won%E2%80%99t-touch. Accessed 16 Nov. 2022.
This essay exists thanks to a queer studies class at Montclair State University: Trans Arts and Cultures. Thank you to poet and professor Zefyr Lisowski for inspiring me to write about whatever I felt passionate about. Also, thank you to the English Department at MSU for thinking this essay worthy and honoring me with the Elizabeth Dean Eler Memorial Award.