Water I Won't Touch

Water I Won't Touch

by Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Water I Won't Touch

Water I Won't Touch

by Kayleb Rae Candrilli


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Both radically tender and desperate for change, Water I Won’t Touch is a life raft and a self-portrait, concerned with the vitality of trans people living in a dangerous and inhospitable landscape. Through the brambles of the Pennsylvania forest to a stretch of the Jersey Shore, in quiet moments and violent memories, Kayleb Rae Candrilli touches the broken earth and examines the whole in its parts. Written during the body’s healing from a double mastectomy—in the wake of addiction and family dysfunction—these ambitious poems put new form to what’s been lost and gained. Candrilli ultimately imagines a joyful, queer future: a garden to harvest, lasting love, the insistent flamboyance of citrus.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556596179
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 212,645
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a 2019 Whiting Award Winner in poetry and the author of Water I Won’t Touch (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), All the Gay Saints (Saturnalia, 2020), and What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017). Candrilli was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry and a 2017 finalist for the American Book Fest’s Best Book Award in LGBTQ Non-Fiction. They have received fellowships from Lambda Literary and are published or forthcoming in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, American Poets, TriQuarterly, Boston Review and many others. They live in Philadelphia with their partner.

Read an Excerpt

Water I Won’t Touch

It’s hard to explain my persistent sadness when I keep so many

blueberries frozen in the freezer.
Nirvana, in the past, has been plenty

of fruit, and all the moments spent outside of myself. But currently, I am trying to pull

the planets from retrograde, and remember all the ways my drinking can kill me.

I still want a lake-sized sip. This is such a citrus habit of mine, such acid rusting

away my tooth enamel. I never learned to drive because I knew one day

I would learn to drink. I have always been almost selfless like this. Sure,

there are some things I regret:
I once left my mother’s Minolta

on the hood of a car, and I regret all the memories lost in turn.

Because I am an alcoholic,
my memories are seven amens

and a few holy spirits from hogtied. I name all my favorite

bars after churches. Pigeons are swans if you squint. You know,

the cherry blossoms bloomed again this year, despite all the damage

to my liver. And autumn is coming,
even though I’ve said things

I do not mean.

Sand & Silt

In the beginning, there was a boy who touched me as he shouldn’t have.

His hands around my ankles—claustrophobic—
a plot of cattails on the water’s black silt.

We all have a story like this,
innocent in its setting, nefarious

how it stays spurred into our bones as we grow.

I think I knew I was a boy when the boy touched me.

I know this boy is now a violent man

with a large collection of semi-
automatic rifles. 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. Of course
I would prefer to be thirsty

for nothing. I’d rather do so much than be touched in this angry dark.
Violent men want me to be a violent man.
Or they want me dead.

What a privilege to have an option.

My Partner Wants Me to Write Them a Poem about Sheryl Crow

but all I want to do is marry them on a beach that refuses to take itself too seriously.
So much of our lives have been serious.
Over time, I’ve learned that love is most astonishing when it persists after learning where we come from.
When I bring my partner to my childhood home it is all bullets and needles and trash bags held at arm’s length. It is my estranged father’s damp bed of cardboard and cigar boxes filled with gauze and tarnished spoons. It is hard to clean a home, but it is harder to clean the memory of it. When I was young, my father would light lavender candles and shoot up. Now, my partner and I light a fire that will burn all traces of the family that lived here.
Black plastic smoke curdles up, and loose bullets discharge in the flames. My partner holds my hand as gunfire rings through the birch trees. Though this is almost beautiful, it is not. And while I’m being honest:
My partner and I spend most of our time on Earth feeding one another citrus fruits and enough strength to go on. Every morning
I pack them half a grapefruit and some sugar.
And they tell me it’s just sweet enough.

On the Benefits of Learning by Example

I’m always writing about heavy things: headstones,
fathers, a feather painted with blood. Below the equator

bats are boiling in the night sky. I know this is the product of global heat, humans, but all I remember is my father

taking bat after bat from the night sky with a BB gun.
The first thing I ever learned is that it’s not hard

to kill. He held them together,
dead in his hands and rolling like tiny red plums.

When I fall in love with my partner it’s as fast as a downed bird, smooth and in a tailspin.

Our bodies are not meant to live together, in such queer blood red

harmony. But some sins are sweeter than others.
Sodom and Grace are all wrapped up

in the backwoods and yes, I will always be loving my partner just like this—soft

and dusted in Pennsylvania dirt. As far as I walk from my roots, they grow to reach—

and that teaches me everything
I need to know about being good.

One Geography of Belonging:
After Ocean Vuong

What becomes of the girl no longer a girl? Dearest Mother,

The stretch marks from my once-breasts have migrated

to their new tectonic flats.
But you can always find hints

of what used to be. Trust me,
it is more beautiful

this way, to look closely at my body and name it things like:

Pangea & history & so, so warm.

Look at me now and see how blood

faithfully takes the shape of its body, never asking.

never asking too many questions.

Dearest Mother, how many rivers did I run across your belly?

Do you love that they will never dry up?

Mother, I’ll make all this water worth it.


When they look inside your chest, the sonogram calls

your heart an orchid, each petal pulpy and abnormally

palpitating. You and I
both imagined it would

behave this way, flowering too big where it shouldn’t.

We have both pressed our ears to conch shells

and clocked your heart as it gallops

into another season,
another faulty

bloom. Perhaps it is an early symptom of aging, to worry

like this, with every sense,
in every room of our bodies.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to be so critical

of your heart—to want it to speak more like mine."

Table of Contents

Sand & silt 3

One geography of belonging 7

On the ways our mouths betray us 9

Water I won't touch 10

On the abuse of sleep aids 12

Some thoughts on luck 13

On the benefits of learning by example 16

Sestina written as though genesis 19

Water I won't touch 29

Summering in Wildwood, NJ 30

On crescents & waning; 31

On traveling together 33

We remain foolishly hopeful (or, obituary for the topsoil) 34

On having forgotten to recycle 35

Echo 36

My partner wants me to write them a poem about Drew Barrymore 37

Valentine, Nebraska: Cherry County 38

You've heard this before: the only way out is through 45

I challenge my father to an arm-wrestling competition and finally win 55

Water we won't touch 58

My partner wants me to write them a poem about Sheryl Crow 61

Here we are, aging together, just like we said we would 63

Transgender heroic: all this ridiculous flesh 67

Acknowledgments 85

Lights & Loves 87

About the Author 89


Excerpts from an interview with The Rumpus:

“Now when I write things that are difficult, I write them much more slowly and over larger spaces of time, because I want to give myself a break and be kind to myself. Taking a lot of time when you’re writing something that’s inherently painful and spreading it out, it changes your perspective on the actual trauma itself because you’re extending time in a really strange way. You’re extending your experience of writing trauma, which gives you distance and then perspective and new light. I think it’s good to be gentle with yourself and spend a shitload of time on difficult material instead of trying to complete it in a manic space where you’re channeling the intensity of the pain you’re writing about.”

“I think readers who aren’t trans have a very specific idea of the trans experience, and as trans people we’re indoctrinated with what cis people think of trans people. That’s almost more visible than other trans people, so just reject that entirely and don’t write what you think is most palatable for cis people. The thing I recommend is to write for other trans people, and you’ll be amazed with what comes out. Guaranteed, if you just write for trans people then the cis people will think it’s fucking awesome anyway.”

“...in being formally trained there’s this hesitation that comes to writing about yourself. It takes a while to get rid of the idea that you can’t have an “I” in your writing. Trying to strike that balance all the time is just exhausting, but I really think that people who aren’t cis-het need to be writing about themselves in excruciating detail. You’re not taking up too much space.”

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