October 9, 2018 >

October 9, 2018 >

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Speaking in Tongues: How we cannot see the fire by which we’ve been touched

by TC Tolbert

We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.” – Simone Weil

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

Rilke said, “We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us.”




The last time I spoke with the Holy Spirit (aka Holy Ghost) I was a 20-year-old southern girl - long brown hair, nose ring, and a penchant for all things hemp. I was engaged to be married to a nice Catholic guy. I was both terrified and tempted by poetry. I wasn’t a lesbian and I certainly wasn’t an out genderqueer or trans guy yet. The nondenominational charismatic church I’d recently joined in Rossville, Georgia had a full on rock band – electric guitar, keyboard, drums, even a tambourine. Running up and down the aisles was common and the metal folding chairs were spaced accordingly. There was clapping and dancing, sometimes for hours. If you were just to watch us from the outside, worship would seem to alternate between winning a big game and being possessed. I grew up Pentecostal so I’m not entirely shaken by charisma. In fact, I’m bored by most poetry readings. I often feel like I should take notes so that I can pass (I never pass) the discussion portion of the test.

A woman was visiting church that Sunday night. She was a traveling preacher, beehive and long skirt. The men of the church would stand behind anyone she talked to so as to catch them when they fell out. All she had to do was blow on you – she had the power of the Holy Ghost in her breath. I fell out when she blew on me. I came to quickly next to my friend Steve and he and I were giggling ridiculously, writhing on the floor, chattering, speaking a language neither of us could comprehend. I didn’t believe it fully until I was lying there. I was lost as in Rebecca Solnit’s sense of lost: the world had become larger than my knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. It was pleasurable – an almost giddy mixture of joy and surprise.

In Queer Space, Aaron Betsky says, we make and are made by our spaces. In the South I was made by, we had secrets and we had stories. We put our hands on each other. We talked with our mouths full.  We wandered. We were disowned and, then, we were smothered. We were women. We spoke in tongues. We paid for things with our good looks. We hit one another. We hit hard. We healed the people we loved. When we needed to, we would dance and we would sing.

Glossolalia is another word for speaking in tongues. For Pentecostals, it is considered one of several gifts of the Holy Spirit. The grace of no longer being burdened by linearity. A momentary relief from the expectations (persuasion, explication, or sense making) of everyday speech. Before my enjoyable, albeit startling, experience with glossolalia, all of my previous encounters had been a bit terrifying, even if I couldn’t look away. In the church I grew up in, Sister Hazel’s body regularly rose from the pew like a snake – her right hand trembling in the air above her head, her voice a song of strange, while the rest of her body buckled and jumped as though she’d been hit. There was a lot of crying back then. I thought my queerness was a devil. I wanted it out of me but then again, I didn’t. Krista Tippett says most churches think of the body as an entry point for danger. I didn’t disagree with them. Let me say it plain.

For most of my life I’ve felt broken, not just tarnished. There has long been a kind of geographic darkness, a landscape of violence in me that I have feared (and that feels, to me, particularly Southern and religious) and of which I am deeply ashamed. This is less about being angry that someone did something awful to me as a kid (although they did and god did not protect me from it) and more about being afraid that I deserved the awful and that awful is what I create. As Adam Phillips points out in an essay on agoraphobia, “James’ open space is full of potential predators, but in Freud’s open space a person may turn into a predator.” The open space is always writing. Always the body. Always other bodies. Always the voice. Always the page.

As a protection from this fear and this pain, I’ve spent plenty of time contemplating suicide – sometimes more actively than others but the gist is this, I’ve always held onto it as an option. There was something about knowing I could leave this body if I needed to that made me feel safe. Thus, much of my writing (and my living) employs, enacts, or encourages erasure. Or at least hide and seek. It is slippery. It enjoys white space. On some level, no doubt, transitioning was a way of killing my most vulnerable, marked self and an attempt to make peace with men – a group of people I’ve long considered the enemy. I’m trying. Indeed, as my embodiment changed so rapidly (I suddenly really was “the man”), I was frozen by a multifaceted terror that, at its heart, was simple. I was afraid of becoming the thing I longed to be, needed to be, hated to be, and asked to be so named.

The cadence of a good Pentecostal preacher denies contradiction. There is a surety there, a solidity that exists in absolute tension with the logical ambivalence of so much in the Bible. My writing often depends on this sort of false confidence – or rather, a confidence that is real but that is based not on knowledge, per say, but on trust – a faith not so much in consistency but change. The uncertainty of a miraculously confounding world is resisted (or complemented) primarily through the rhythm – a driving – where the full bore of language becomes a comfort. I saw my Papaw have hands laid down on him and be healed of cancer. Tongues, healing, prophecy. If there is poetry in that, let it rain.


My friend Sydney is 1½ years old. She doesn’t really know how to whisper yet. We’ve had to stop swearing around her because she just repeats every little thing that she hears. And that’s different from every little thing that we know. And that’s different from every little thing that’s been said. I recently went to church on Sunday morning – a first for me in the 11 years since I’ve been living in Tucson - and I can’t stop thinking about how language takes shape inside the body. Sometimes words embarrass me more than my feelings. Even though I always thought my Pentecostal upbringing was deeply anti-intellectual, and even though I was at a Presbyterian church and not a Pentecostal one, hearing the female pastor do a close (and very queer) reading of the Bible shifted the way that I understand my love of literature. Perhaps church (of any denomination) is really just book club. Perhaps my Papaw, with his 8th grade education, 15 different Bibles, and 50+ years of actively studying the same text, is the most literate man I know.


The more I think about what interests me in poetry, the more I realize I’m just trying to get back to church. CA Conrad says: “My religion is poetry.” I like that, it’s close. According to Cicero, the word religion is derived from relegere "go through again" (in reading or in thought), from re- "again" + legere "read."[i] My twist on CA’s statement is: My poetry (all poetry?) is religious in that it requires re-reading (which is to say it requires attention) (Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I always want to be surrounded by people who pay attention). Also, reading and re-reading should be embodied (Judith Butler: “Speech itself is a bodily act”), and in this way it is a danger (as Gilles Deluze riffs on Spinoza, “we do not even know what a body can do”). Reading, re-reading, religion is a danger to what we think we already know.


I’m in over my head here. What I’m trying to explain is my experience. That’s absurd. And antithetical to the poem (which is my life). How about this map of my brain:

speaking in tongues » nonlinearity » vulnerability » terrifying/blessed body » queerness » violence/love » delight/fear » wonder/constraint » poetry » surrender » god » body + bodies + space

I always want to be surrounded by readers. Which is to say, I always want to be surrounded by queers.


I’m still a mess of influences, accents, inflections. If I believe in god it’s because there are moments when I’m actually able to sit still inside my body and feel both solid and permeable. I want language both untamable and untranslatable - benevolent and terrifying – a poetry that is. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to speak in a tongue that both is and is not my tongue again.


[i] Online Etymology Dictionary.


TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet. Also, s/he’s a human in love with humans doing human things. S/he is Tucson’s Poet Laureate and author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014), four chapbooks, and co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat, 2013). tctolbert.com

This piece was originally published in The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South edited by Douglas Ray.