On Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “Essay on the Theory of Motion” 

The title of Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poem “Essay on the Theory of Motion” itself has a kind of motion, with a rolling emphasis of the first syllable of its major terms—it comes to a stop with that particularly final resonance of words that end with “n.” Organized into sections demarcated with the double slash, which could also be the typographical sign for stanza break, and further divided into paragraphs, one thing to love about this poem is how clearly its form matches its questions. An essay has paragraphs, so this poem has paragraphs; a poem is not an essay, so this poem has an additional layer of organization and attention to its space on the page; and the result is a forward force in tension with more local, circuitous movements.

This tension characterizes both of Awkward-Rich’s collections to date. In his first collection, Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016, and the chapbook which precedes it by a year, Transit, Button Poetry), “Essay on the Theory of Motion” appears early, as a kind of branching point for both a sequence of “Essay” poems and a series of “Theory of Motion” poems. [1] The other “Essay” poems (“on Waiting in Line,” “on Crying in Public,” “on the Awkward / Black / Object,” “Amending the Nature of My Mother’s Tears,” and “on the Appearance of Ghosts”) package the digressive form of the essay in poetic paragraphs, as travel becomes about moving through time as much as through space. The “Theory of Motion” poems are sometimes in prose and sometimes lineated, giving a sense of intentional form to a kind of writing (theorizing) that might otherwise be abstract, unrealized, as yet unproven. His second collection, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) remains interested in this space between things, but is more interested in their gap and its crossing, in alienation and intimacy—in friendship and elegy, in tinnitus as an experience of disruption which matches the disruption a world of racism and violence produces. [2] Though travel appears here too, as both connection and interruption: “He just looked at you & saw a door,” one of the “[Black Feeling]” poems ends, “He can’t walk back through but there you were. An image racing on the other side” (68).

The essay and the theory and the poem—genre is important across all of these works, those with a more flexible genre inflecting those poems around them that seem to have a “stable” genre. It’s analogous to the way gender and race are important—three kinds of categories which are not the same, but that we can learn something about by thinking them together. We can push against a genre’s boundaries, but a decision has to be made about what kind of boundaries we want to summon first. “Essay on the Theory of Motion,” that ancestor for these strands, seems to want to make a point: “Get it?” it asks near its end, borrowing a summative, expository gesture just before it will leap furthest into lyric, into metaphor. [3] But along the way, we learn that going anywhere means coming back, means being subjected to forces larger than yourself. “You remember reading a poem about a boy driving his grandmother to the library across town,” the poem begins, “though you think the two must end up back at the grandmother’s house eventually” (6). In the second paragraph, Newton’s first law is invoked only to confirm that it does not, usually, describe our reality, where very real friction has a tendency to bring things to a halt: “it’s not surprise that when the train stops, so do you.” In the fourth paragraph, the poem itself backtracks—I’m only kidding—but there is no joke, only a loneliness on either side of the retraction, “You beg each thing to answer” in front, “You can’t get your body to tell the secret. Can’t get it to tell you anything at all” in back (7).

Other poems in the series, all titled a variation of “Essay on…” use different hooks to triangulate this shifting more formally between the prose blocks which build the poem (anaphora, a page break which becomes the threshold by which we must literally take an embodied action in order to move forward). “Essay on the Theory of Motion” uses a double slash which, combined with the paragraphs’ elliptical mood, suggest less a train’s forward momentum or the shape of the connected train cars than a weaving back and forth “across the tracks,” in the poem’s words. Instead of:


we get something more like:


It’s this tension that charges the poem, between the linear succession of paragraphs and the swerve of the slanted line, which happens also interior to the paragraphs, in language.

In Mobile Subjects, Aren Aizura’s study of the importance of transcontinental travel to 20th century accounts of gender transition [4], Aizura observes how the international travel US trans women undertook to obtain surgery was not only facilitated by the quality, accessibility, and cheaper cost of such surgery outside the US, but by such travel’s narrative/rhetorical function in “containing gender indeterminacy” (37). Aizura writes that travel metaphors for transition can be “read as logics through which gender reassignment becomes an intelligible narrative,” (34) because “transsexuality is more tolerable if there is some temporal gap between the subject’s visible embodiment of one gender and another” (39). This erasure of the actually transitional part of gender transition not only contains but re-narrates that transition as something that happens in a singular moment—a void fully distinct, rather than an experience ongoing.

In Awkward-Rich’s essay-poems, however, we see the marking of transition as both a progressive event and as an event which, if it comes to a stop (through friction, perhaps), might also start again. Awkward-Rich writes “Let’s get the obvious out of the way” the second to last section (paragraph #7 of 9); hardly “out of the way.” [5] What follows is “obvious,” maybe, in that it has a straightforward logic: “you were a girl and then you weren’t.” But the terms of this are different from the terms of either transphobia’s refusal of the possibility of transition, or of the response to that transphobia which argues that transition is only an affirmation of an already-extant gender. Change, in Awkward-Rich’s poem, is possible. But then, the line swerves. When “you moved into a boy,” the girl doesn’t disappear; it isn’t a transmutation. She moves “into misplaced language, into photographs.” Such a coexistence acknowledges, but does not succumb to, the pressure (and appeal) of easy narrative transformation. So the poem is not so much a liminal space of indeterminacy as one which borrows from different, delineated models of gender. We see this too in the poem’s play with genre—located in a book of poems, amongst other poems, but calling itself an essay, and opening with the memory of reading a poem, we can also read the double slash as the typographical mark for a stanza break when quoting a lineated poem. In moving across the genres, but using both, we begin to have a sense of what it might actually mean to be “in transition,” an idea the poem eyes with no small amount of suspicion in paragraphs five and six: not simply traveling from one place to another, or even in making decisions about where to go, but to understand those decisions as processes which say something not necessarily about who we are but who we could be, and about how we interact with what is unfolding in the places we arrive.

In the eighth and ninth paragraphs of the poem—as it ends, with no double slash between them—Awkward-Rich confronts this question about ongoingness the most explicitly by tuning the poem’s language to its most metaphorical:

Get it? Gender is a country, a field of signifying roses
you can walk through, or wear tucked
behind your ear.

Eventually the flower wilts & you can pick
another, or burn the field, or turn & run back
across the tracks.

These metaphors conjure the variety of affects gender might itself conjure, pointing to both the picked flower and its wilting as markers of distinct times at which one could make anew a decision about transition. But they are moments pulled out of time, rather than created against it; each metaphor has a temporal quality that an action can pivot, rather than a singular moment of focus which will cease as soon as the action is complete: a flower wilts; a field burns; a person runs across the tracks.


[1] Cameron Awkward-Rich, Dispatch. (New York: Persea Press, 2019) & Transit, (Minneapolis, MN: Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press, 2015).

[2] Cameron Awkward-Rich, Sympathetic Little Monster. (Los Angeles: Ricochet Editions, 2016).

[3] Sympathetic Little Monster, 8.

[4] Aren Aizura, Mobile Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

[5] Awkward-Rich, Sympathetic Little Monster, 7.

S. Brook Corfman is the author of My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites, one of The New York Times Best Poetry Books of 2020, finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award, and winner of the Fordham University Press POL Prize, chosen by Cathy Park Hong. They are also the author of the poetry collection Luxury, Blue Lace, chosen by Richard Siken for the Autumn House Rising Writer Prize, and several chapbooks including Frames (Belladonna* Books). @sbrookcorfman & sbrookcorfman.com