I spent the summer of 2021 impaling myself with various colorful, elongated plastic rods and reading Milton. The months-long convalescence after gender-affirming surgery involved dilating four times a day to ensure a proper recovery, and it left me in a pit of depression. My solution was to enroll in an online Yale Summer Session literature course called “The Problem of Evil.”
Trapped in my stuffy childhood bedroom, I spent the summer full of teenage angst and excruciating existentialism. My semi-autobiographical final paper for the class showed it: “Personhood and place tangle together — Hell is within Satan, and even when Satan is not physically within Hell, it clings ‘round about him,’” I lamented. I certainly hadn’t expected the philosophical work’s pretentious 17th-century poet to speak to my own experience, but Milton somehow had given words to the self-obsessed, self-possessed state I found myself in: “… myself am hell,” Satan cries out in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, “And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide.”
“It made me think of how you talked about recovery,” a friend of mine told me towards the end of an impromptu weekday dinner last month. She slid the pastel pink book across the table to me, THE FIFTH WOUND written in futuristic baby-blue letters across the top.
Opening the book, the first thing I read was a review by author Carla Monir: “I have never read anything like Aurora Mattia’s writing. I would say less that I have read her work and more that I have felt it, deep inside my body. It makes my heart ache. It also makes me long for a hard cock down my throat.” I flipped to a random page. “Knowing a kiss and a bite were both a taste, Mary’s son restaged the Fall of Man. Gethsemane played Eden, Roman centurions played blazing angels, and Judas played Eve. The Christ was fatally ripe.”
I devoured The Fifth Wound in a single sitting, on a thirteen-hour spring break flight from New York to Kuwait (where, ironically, the colorful plastic dilators that had defined my recovery summer would be confiscated by security for being reminiscent of sex toys). Littered with quotes and photographs, and accompanied by an elaborate set of footnotes, endnotes, and references, the book reads like something between a scrapbook and a liturgical text. The author, Aurora Mattia, is constantly modifying her own work; weaving connections across and beyond her writing, she sutures the text together. Interspersed with memories of childhood, histories of queer medieval nuns, and theories of imperialism are screenshots of pornographic text conversations. Original translations of medieval Chinese poetry printed in vertical, letter-by-letter lines, sit next to lurid descriptions of her near-death experiences in the hospital. Within this living, breathing text, Mattia recycles excerpts of her repeatedly-rejected manuscript I Carried a Peach, in which “a religious sect of runaway tgirls, stewards of a rotten Eden… perform rites and rituals revolving around the consumption of estrogen.” In response to a lost copyright battle with the artist Townes Van Zandt, Mattia includes blacked-out lines where his lyrics should be. “I have decided to make the absence visible by suturing, by making scars, what we call redactions,” she writes in a footnote. “To show the way my song was wounded. To show the way a wound is sung.”
Mattia lists Dickinson, Woolf, and Borges as sources of inspiration in the back of her book, but John Milton is not mentioned by name. Still, his linguistic innovations haunt the work. Milton’s Satan remarks that the mind “Can make a heaven of Hell, and Hell of Heaven”; Mattia’s autobiographical narrator suggests pain and pleasure are merely two forms of “extreme embodiment… as if Hell were also the mold of Heaven.” Even in her most graphic, Mattia adapts a Miltonesque attitude toward dichotomies. Describing the misunderstanding cis doctors had of her neovagina, she writes, “as if my cunt were only the mirror inverse of a cock, the mouth of our ouroboros: where I end, you begin.” Describing the physicality of heartbreak, Mattia recalls the lines of Milton that had spoken to me two summers before: “the roar and rot of an acute emptiness. A sort of Hell hidden in the body.”
But the most radical adaptation of Milton’s writing lies in Mattia’s assertion of transness as a choice, an echo of his bold reimagining of the fall of man as an act of agency. Rather than following the more palatable “born-this-way” theory of transness, where one is “born in the wrong body” and requires medical support in order to “right” this “wrong,” Mattia’s view of gender is fluid and dynamic; she uses language like “if I hadn’t decided to become a transsexual,” refusing to victimize herself for the sake of palatability. Melding together the literary and the lewd, Mattia’s The Fifth Wound is a transgenre masterpiece.