A Review of Water I Won’t Touch

Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s third poetry collection, Water I Won’t Touch, introduces us to a trans ecopoetics in which the body is as porous and communal as the earth. Candrilli dissolves the boundaries between the human and non-human, between genders, when they meditate on what happened to their body after their double mastectomy—perhaps their breasts are “long dead, floating alongside jellyfish and plastic straws” (35)—while bringing attention to environmental concerns and the ways in which people destroy nature by deciding what is and isn’t “natural.” Thematic tributaries address transition, family, violence, addiction, and masculinity as they converge into robust narrative arcs.

Candrilli investigates inherited masculinity and the ways our binary culture coerces transmasculine people into replicating the misogyny used against them. They question what it means to be perceived as a man versus what it means to distance oneself from womanhood (and if there is a difference between the two in the eyes of society) as they write: 

. . . white men ask me

what I have against white men

if I want to look like one, and then

they follow me all the way home.

It seems that every man in America

has been taught to stalk real quiet

in a forest of dry leaves. Myself included.

I am not a man, nor do I desire to be,

but I suppose I have always been

a hunter, armed and unwilling . . . (49)

The speaker moves through genders in the collection: not-man-enough to not be harassed, but distanced enough from womanhood to move like “every man in America,” as they reflect on their upbringing in rural Pennsylvania. Amid this exaggerated masculinity, they are thankful “to have been born / his daughter // because if i had been born my father’s son, / forget about it” (15). The speaker does not desire a clean separation from their assigned gender at birth, the way cisgender people might buy into the limiting metaphor of “being born in the wrong body.” Instead, the poems lean into the nuance of trans identity, accepting that it is impossible for the speaker’s gender to exist outside of their past and ever-fluctuating present, giving them the freedom to change: “my body can morph / as many times as it needs” (38). 

Family histories of addiction and abuse weave through the collection as a whole, deftly incorporated into the narrative structure of Candrilli’s multi-page poems that allow readers to grow with the speaker, to witness their childhood from all of its bittersweet angles. From a child’s perspective, addiction takes on dream-like qualities in the poem “On the Abuse of Sleep Aids”:

lulled by that incessant

rhythm of violence. i took

to speaking exclusively with the dirt

beneath our home. i asked it so

politely to invite the whole house

into the earth and keep it there. (12)

The speaker retains this ability to communicate with the earth throughout the collection, giving them—especially in childhood—a semblance of control. Candrilli’s poems sound like invocations to the natural world, for when they look into the water, they do not only see their own reflection; they see the water’s own face. Their familial relationships are only a part of their larger identity and community, creating an ecosystem of kin. 

Queer- and blood-inheritances are inextricable in Water I Won’t Touch; their relationships create a mycelial geography that etches itself into skin and earth. Candrilli explores queer kinship and inheritance, mourning that there may not be a world to inherit in the face of environmental crises. The speaker is “forever concerned / for the quality of the breast milk / [they’ll] never make” (34) after surgery, grappling with cisheteronormative expectations of parenthood and nurturing as they care for their vegetable garden with their partner:

. . . we hope for a healthy

harvest. We are always hoping for the best. But humans

have sent all their worst inventions straight into 

the soil. You can taste the plastic before

it’s even grown, before it’s even

melting in your mouth. (34)

Industrial waste seeps not only into the earth, but into the speaker’s body, consuming both in environmental apprehension. The poem also suggests the insidious fear cis society has about who can nurture, reflecting back on the speaker’s worries about their ability to provide the breast milk they cannot make, because it is easier to focus on an individual than to imagine the grand scale of industrial pollution and microplastics permeating our groundwater.

Candrilli finds affinity across generations by reconnecting with childhood queerness and recognizing the spaces the speaker had to carve out for themself. They show the internal struggle of coming out versus safety, of self-knowledge versus speaking oneself into public perception as the speaker narrates: “Years ago my mother asked / if I was trans. I said no. . . . and I said no when I meant / Yes, yes of course” (9). Mother-child relationships are central to Water I Won’t Touch and the speaker’s transness is reiterated to their mother again and again in new ways. But this mouth’s betrayal feels the most intimate, because it is a moment of being seen and unseen by their mother. She recognizes the speaker as trans before they can articulate themself into being—emphasizing the conflict and vulnerability when the mouth instinctively says “no” while struggling to admit (to one’s mother and to oneself) that the answer may be “Yes, yes of course.”

Water I Won’t Touch is an intimate collection that seeks to meet hostility with growth, feeding cruel people “the fruit of their own violence” (78), while never diminishing the lasting effects of transphobia. Candrilli’s poetry is an ode to coexisting resilience and tenderness, asking us to witness everyday moments of queer creation: “When I sleep with my mouth open, / my partner plants mint, and it grows” (75).

C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Poetry, Gulf Coast, Lammergeier, Peach Mag, Permafrost, and others. On Instagram @c.e.writespoems.