(REVIEW) Virility at Home, by River Ellen MacAskill
Marina Scott traverses River Ellen MacAskill’s long form poem Virility at Home (Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers, 2021), revealing how the work challenges the the reader to resist the normalised horrors of our societal hellscape, weaving abolitionist thoughts with the everyday reality of the gendered body and gender dysphoria.
have you ever tried thinking about revolution every one of your waking hours the crumbs at the bottom of the oven invisible in the dark and flammable as hell
River Ellen MacAskill’s chapbook, Virility at Home (2021), is a beautiful object. Printed on recycled paper and hand-sewn by death of workers whilst building skyscrapers press, the twenty-four pages encompass a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness poem set within the parameters of a single day. In Macaskill’s words, the long-form piece captures:
the texture of a day in a hot locked-down spring, feeling out the dysphoric, tragic and miraculous limitations of a body, getting grounded in a world beyond humans, and struggling for personal and collective alternatives to a societal hellscape.
This ‘societal hellscape’, alongside challenges to the reader to somehow resist its normalised horrors, are evoked from the offset. MacAskill asks us ‘have you ever tried thinking about revolution/ every one of your waking hours/ the crumbs at the bottom of the oven/ invisible in the dark and flammable as hell’ (the ethos of the collective ‘flammable as hell’ crumbs here chiming with Lola Olufemi’s words in Experiments in Imagining Otherwise: ‘there are no singular sparks to mass events’). Throughout the piece, they weave in abolitionist thought (‘why build more prisons’, ‘google/ the UK megaprison expansion/ demolishing HMP Inverness to make space for/ prime-cuts real-estate air fresh b’n’b’) with an increasingly sardonic tone regarding the sheer evil of carceral capitalism:
doubling cell capacity for the whole region there are hungry quotas full of gaping holes and we have a gender-variant facility blueprint so Nicky can rest easy everyone’s included in this brave incarce-nation shoot for satire land in the stars
Despite their relatable aversion to electoral politics (‘I get into conversations about the labour party/ with people who actually care about the labour party’), mutual aid and organising thread their way through the hazy landscape of MacAskill’s poem, in which revolution feels not just possible, but necessary. They touch on the cumulative nature of socio-political change, and the reality that we will likely not live to experience the world we are striving towards. Near the poem’s conclusion, MacAskill writes:
The End is zeitgeist because we can’t imagine the gap between here and there desperate to go out in a cloud of cosmic dust and shirk responsibility for the fallout instead of facing the fact that everything might get worse and we’ll have to die fighting
Again, this takes me to Lola Olufemi’s writing on revolution, in which ‘we are going to lose / of course. our political project is not a finishing line to be crossed every other decade’.
The everyday realities of the gendered body and gender dysphoria feel central to the affective power of Virility at Home, with the title of the piece mirroring the lines:
I want a hormone for electricity hormone for virility hormone for telekinetic wealth distribution
I want hormones for all of these things, especially telekinetic wealth distribution. The verse’s stacked anaphora only emphasises this want, and puts into relief the distance between what it is the speaker desires and what they have (or, in this case, don’t have). The poem keeps circling back to, or perhaps never fully departs from, the gendered body: the dual trappings of (mis)gendering, and the euphoria of moving beyond or against gendered expectations and perceptions. The oscillation between emotional responses to these states of being is perfectly rendered by MacAskill:
what happened to your tits the euphoria comes in a big wave and then the undertow of dread catches my knees and drags me under by lungfulls of saltwater pretty normal for certain demographics
On initial reading, these lines feel akin to a couplet from Mary Jean Chan’s poem ‘Safe Space (III)’ from her collection Fleche: ‘where the logic of hips isn’t a/strangle hold to the heart.’ Both poets figure the dysphoric logic of the body as violent, kinetic, and powerful. For MacAskill, the ‘big wave’ of euphoria is both metaphorical and literal – an oceanic surge and an emotional or hormonal peak – which crashes through an ‘undertow of dread’ dragging the speaker under – panicked, ‘lungfulls of saltwater’, unable to breathe. We are reminded, almost as a casual aside, that this is ‘pretty normal for certain demographics.’
Along the same vein, everyday interactions pertaining to gender become charged:
bumping into a woman in the hardware shop sun hen son oh I can see by your face you’re a lassie now you see it now you don’t I ate her to make it go away and I am not sorry
MacAskill’s frustrations with gender, whilst visceral and urgent (‘i’ve got a lust for living/ me i want a rippling back and a name that’s different’), also see them incorporate a dry, sarcastic humour: the speaker ‘ate’ a woman who misgenders them in the hardware store ‘to make it go away and/ I am not sorry’. Elsewhere, Macaskill builds on this sarcastic, exasperated, but ultimately darkly humorous tone, writing that ‘wearing caps I always hope/ will knock the feminine aura right outta me’, ‘who needs testosterone? am I right ladies!’. Virility at Home explores the exhausting realities of dysphoria, with a refreshing non-prescriptivism regarding the right way to pass or exist within a queer body: ‘if 50% of people look at me and don’t know what the fuck’s going on/ then I’m doing it right.’
Memories of sex wash over the speaker towards the poem’s conclusion, in a movement that feels almost involuntary. This sex is queer, de-sanitised, fleshy. Macaskill writes:
when I’m too tired to be careful I think of the weight of your skin on top of me the cartography of touch over different peaks and crevices
The body is figured in the language of geography; touch is something to be mapped. But the gentle line ‘when I’m too tired to be careful’ lets us know that the speaker is usually resistant to these thoughts, and the pain that dwelling on intimacy with an ex can spark. The voice moves abruptly from this romantic lexis to a describe a more visceral, sticky scene:
nights when I thought your tongue would split me from one shell into halves and I’d leak slime all over the room and the broken bed
Here the ‘shell’ is a yonic motif, leaking ‘slime all over the room’. But there is also an undertone of violence, and certainly power – the speaker is ‘split […] into halves’ by their lover’s tongue, and the bed is broken. Macaskill’s writing is frank, unflinching and oozing queerness.
I would recommend Virility at Home to anyone struggling with or wanting to understand gender dysphoria, to anyone frustrated with our societal hellscape, and to anyone interested in queer poetics. I’ll definitely be getting a copy of MacAskill’s Coasting, ‘a lesbian road trip novel with a speculative twist’.
Chan, Mary Jean, Flèche (London: Faber & Faber, 2019)
‘COASTING by River Ellen Macaskill’, Good Press — Good Books & More <https://goodpress.co.uk/products/coasting-by-river-ellen-macaskill> [accessed 1 July 2022]
Dunlop, Kirsty, ‘Review: Virility at Home’, Gutter <https://www.guttermag.co.uk/reviews/virility-at-home> [accessed 17 June 2022]
Olufemi, Lola, Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (Maidstone: Hajar Press, 2021)
Text: Marina Scott
Photo: Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers