Courageous. Whenever someone praises a book for its courage, I expect to hate it.
With the rise of the annoyingly territorial label "Creative Non-Fiction" (we need to make sure we're not confused with those "uncreative" academic types), we rotely celebrate trauma. Writing trauma is seen as courageous. You're baring your soul for all to see. Critics often forget that one benefits in disclosing the private. That's what people want and what people give their money to read. Buying a book is confirmation of love. We overlook true courage: formal invention. Once again. For a sob story.
Who wants to hang out with someone who’s courageous? Except another noble dullard?
No one would describe Grossberg’s Blue-Black as a courageous poem. In fact, I think a lot of people would skip over it. Or their criticisms would be obvious. Too glib. Too understated. Well-crafted, but not all that substantial.
Despite all of its strength I cited in the previous post, “Prayer of the Back Handed” knows it’s a Serious Poem dealing with an Important Issue, and, while that doesn’t necessarily diminish its aesthetic virtues, I believe that it limits its ability of to see abuse in a new light. No surprise that Jericho Brown almost, but not quite, resorts to a pat even if effective transcendent move:
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward into fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.
Brown redeems those closing lines with the final two words: excuse me.
Which I read as deliberately ambiguous. We may see is as a meek pitiful plea. Or as a justifiably snide refusal to accept the abuse. With a similar inflection you might use when a careless waiter bumps into you. I prefer the latter.
Whenever you fear Brown may go in a predictable direction, he subverts it to an extent. However, Grossberg envisions a wholly new take on the abuse poem. Here it is in its entirety:
standard poodle. His dog
had a seizure before
I was in the apartment two minutes:
pointed its snout to the ceiling
and froze up, stiffened, emitted
no high, penetrating whine. Just
silence. Later, in bed,
he explained it had been
beaten severely as a pup. But
that it was still a good dog. Nice
to be able to share the intimate details
of his dog’s childhood
afterward, our pillow talk. He was
the first man I’ve ever been with who
faked an orgasm. Or maybe others
faked it better. Not to be
a cad, I asked. He kept his body
to the side and quietly explained that
“there wasn’t a lot.” “What’s with
your dog,” I said,
swinging my feet off the bed
to the pile of clothes on the floor, his
and mine. Poodle rescue. He’d hoped
to show the dog, even had
its hair cut right, undignified
for such a serious-looking animal.
You know, once you’ve had sex
with enough men, you learn to draw
reasonably accurate conclusions; this guy
was molested young. How
do I know that? I laced my boots
while he told me about the time he tried
to show the dog. It was too timid.
Wouldn’t even enter the room; all
its training went out the window. Partially
I know by the behavior
he coaxed me into: the scripted
entrances and exits, the cues, props
to appear in one act, to be fitfully
discharged in another. His script:
neither violent, nor elegant, but
his pleasure had no part in it. The dog
after I dressed, laid its black head
on my knee and looked up
with vulnerable eyes.
I cupped its head briefly in my lap
stroked its ears.
He was out of the room by then
so I spoke to the animal. “You’re
a good boy,” I said. “A good boy.”
Poets interested in abuse often create a tortured first-person protagonist offering a litany of violations. This well-meaning dull narrative intensifies the obvious: people are abused, and that’s a bad thing. No matter how well-crafted the poem, it doesn’t offer new ways of thinking about the relationship between the abused and his audience, author and reader.
Grossberg does something quite special.
His poem is a meditation about the limits of empathy.
Unlike Tayson and Brown, Grossberg rejects the desire to pathologize the victim. The first two authors illustrate the familiar: the immediate suffering of all involved, perhaps with some blurring of the dichotomy of victim and victimizer. Content-wise, they don’t do much else.
On the surface, Grossberg establishes what should be a simple story. Gay Man and his trick arrive at trick’s apartment. The trick’s dog suffers a seizure. That doesn’t keep them from going to bed together. An intimate moment is shared. When trick leaves room, Gay Man pets dog’s head. The end.
Here’s the rub: The intimate moment belongs to the narrator himself, no sweet engagement with the trick.
The protagonist presumes that his trick was abused, molested when a kid.
No actual confession of abuse in the poem surfaces. The presumed victim never says anything about his childhood. No doubt the poem suggest the possibility none occurred. The trick’s failure to orgasm precludes the narrator’s assumption of abuse.
The narrator needs to feel better about himself and his own insignificant comic tragedy: the trick didn’t come. As a result, the narrator all too conveniently improvises an abuse narrative.
Can we not see the narrator as a stand-in for narrative and lyric poets? We devise abuse stories to secure our own worthiness. In a self-delusional way, we write the abuse of others to secure our own artistic (or in the case of the narrator, physical) idea of success: a poem, or a satisfying fuck. Or maybe both.
When we write others’ suffering, we realize someone is worse off than ourselves. Which is solace. Which is proof of our own artistic and emotional maturity. And we want to show the world we are, indeed, compassionate.
Perhaps this is why so many critics routinely praise poems like Tayson’s and Brown’s. This is not in any way a particular criticism of their work. But instead a necessary identification, and maybe, an explanation as to why some equal, if not better, work finds itself ignored. Tayson and Brown’s abused characters, imagined or not, allow us to congratulate ourselves as concerned, moral readers.
Grossberg’s poem crashes this grossly symbiotic relationship. We refuse to identify with the obnoxious, insensitive narrator. Out of fear our voyeuristic motives may not be altruistic as well, we need to distance ourselves. Remember how the narrator eliminates any nuance in the trick’s behavior: “I know by the behavior/he coaxed me into: the scripted/entrances and exits, the cues/props to appear in one act, to be fitfully discharge/in another.”
Which is more scripted: the easy explanation of abuse, or the trick’s alleged pathological behavior?
Look at the mentions of the theatre, the script, performance. Grossberg makes his narrator use a form of the word “script” twice: "the scripted entrances. Not to mention that the narrator says, “His script:/neither violent not elegant, but/his pleasure had no part in it.” The narrator’s cynicism is as staged for himself as our need to write an abuse narrative, even if possibly and most likely unwarranted, benefiting only ourselves.
The ill dog inspires no sympathy from the narrator except for a perfunctory petting. Which makes him feel good about himself. Unconsciously, he uses it as a way of distancing himself from his trick, and yet purging an innate need to offer something to someone.
And more importantly who is a dog in the exchange of the Victim Narrative Poem? The audience too willing to eat up the stories? Or the ingratiating victim, forced to run around, hoping to be petted once they share their misery? Or that literal pooch who doesn’t have a care in the world?