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Learning to Love Matt Mitchell
by Rachel Johnson

Matt Mitchell analyzes his own identity in the 2021 debut poetry collection The Neon Hollywood Cowboy published by Big Lucks Books. The book resembles an album of music in its shape and cover art, setting up the collection’s connection to musical artists and moments in popular culture. With a missing Y chromosome but male physical characteristics, Mitchell’s intersex identity is at the forefront of the collection’s exploration of the self as he must figure out what it means to be himself and to love himself. The Neon Hollywood Cowboy reflects on identity, relationships, and struggles with hormone treatment through the lens of pop culture. This is a collection that seeks understanding, not only from the reader but from the poet himself. 

Mitchell confronts what an intersex identity means for him in the first few poems of the collection. The opening poem, “The Birth of the Neon Hollywood Cowboy,” introduces the reader to Mitchell as this character of the neon Hollywood cowboy: “Intersex people / are the best cowboys. / Me: chromosome chain/ of a rodeo sweetheart, body of a rugged and / forgotten outlaw.” He positions himself as both a sweetheart and an outlaw. Through this poem’s short lines and direct language, the reader knows right away that this collection is not going to shy away from hard subjects. He ends the poem with the statement “The best cowboys carry / both the gun & the holster.” The items this cowboy carries are representative of male and female genitalia. As a cowboy, he carries both “the gun,” male genitalia, and “the holster,” female sex chromosomes in Mitchell’s case. By directly discussing this, he proves that he is going to be upfront about this aspect of his identity. Not only is he not ashamed of it, but it makes him the best cowboy.

In the following poem, “Pat Benatar Soundtracks My Gender Dysphoria,” Mitchell boldly presents his nature and introduces the relational conflicts that he faces because of it. He addresses how doctors don’t consider “how someone can be both Adam and Eve.” He also discusses how his mother got her wish for a daughter but “she got one / with a face painted like every single boy / who ever hurt her.” This one poem addresses multiple struggles that Mitchell has with doctors, religion, and family, and what it means to be both man and woman. Like the whole of his collection, this poem ponders creation, both biblically and physically, and the fact that Mitchell is a creation that no one considered possible. 

Mitchell’s collection refers to different figures and moments of pop culture, ranging from Harry Styles and Stranger Things to the Rolling Stones and Freaks and Geeks. One poem in particular, “The Last Great American Blockbuster,” discusses images from 80s pop culture as a sort of longing for the past: “I promise you, I am dreaming of living / in a neon decade— / one where everything that is wrong with me / did not yet have a name.”  Mitchell considers that without the title of intersex, there would be no struggle for acceptance, by himself or by others. He could simply just be. 

One of the final poems of the collection, “Someday I’ll Love Matt Mitchell,” uses strikingly short lines and direct language to thank his dog “for never understanding gender, / for noticing the change in my voice, the deepened / phonation, post-HRT, and only caring / about the familiarity of my hands.” This suggests that other people care about more than just that familiarity. Many people are bothered by the changes, the diagnosis, the reality of his situation. He himself has yet to completely love Matt Mitchell, but in this collection he is trying. 

This is an incredibly powerful debut. The Neon Hollywood Cowboy doesn’t shy away from the truth of his life as a son, patient, and person trying to understand and love himself while also having to convince others to understand and love him as well. Ultimately, Mitchell excels at interacting with the world of pop culture to provide the reader with a painfully real depiction of the self.

Matt Mitchell is a poet, music critic, and essayist from northeast Ohio. He is the author of The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks, 2021) and the forthcoming Vampire Burrito (Grieveland). 

Rachel Johnson is a recent graduate from the University of Central Arkansas with a BA in English and creative writing and a Spanish minor. She is from Bentonville, Arkansas, and currently lives in Conway, Arkansas, where she went to college. She is an aspiring writer and avid reader. When not reading or writing, Rachel enjoys visiting with family and friends and going to the movies. Her first creative publication is in the spring 22 Vortex, UCA's literary magazine.