In gay poetry which often relies on self-pity and domestic narrative, queer authors provide themselves with a formidable challenge: How does a homosexual energize the poem of the gay-child-overbearing-mother in way that is new? No doubt some heterosexuals still believe in the tyrannical mother as a way of explaining male homosexuality, and maybe even some gay men, like myself who has suffered from this curious infliction. It’s a tricky feat to refuse to abandon the story (or the pity) and at the same time invent a new way of telling it. James Allen Hall’s debut book Now You’re the Enemy succeeds a lot of the time, and when it does succeed, it’s an enviable, serious triumph. At the same time, he includes a few poems that reveal the unfortunate outcome when a poet doesn’t strive for something more than a tale of pity and woe.
Happily, there’s many wonderful poems to read. A number of note-worthy “portraits” litter the book, particularly those featuring a mother figure. What is instructive about these poems is that Hall capitalizes on his poetic imagination rather than banal description to make us feel bad for the mother and son. Most gay writers invested in similar content use journalistic prose to describe the aggressively banal story.
Comic hyperbole is Hall’s figurative device of choice. It is a brilliant decision.
Let’s look at “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas.” In the title alone, Hall inflates the image of his mother to such an ungodly extent. Instead of using journalist understatement, he employs comic hyperbole, a truly creative choice:
After my mother won independence in 1836,
she dysfunctioned as her own nation, passed laws,
erected monuments to men who would never again
be slaves to order and pain.
And then Hall undercuts with deadpan: "Remember the Alamo? That was my mother.”
Who cannot admire the way Hall reemploys the word “dysfunctional” to the personification of a nation rather than simply linking the term simply to that of the familial?
The comic hyperbole never resorts to the pitfalls of easy one-liners; the conceit is carried out in confident, surprising ways:
…My mother had too many selves and the desire
to enslave them all. Pregnant, she was forced
to become the twenty-eighth child of the American family.
Lone star no longer.
…My mother renamed herself
The Republic of Texas, unfurled her flag all the way
into the 1980s, when the Republic kidnapped her neighbors,
Joe and Margaret Rowe, to highlight abuses she’d suffered.
My mother was an American terrorist.
Don’t mess with Texas.
Hall’s book sports a number of portraits: “Portrait of My Mother as Rosemary Woodhouse,” “Portrait of My Mother as Self-Inflicting Philomena,” “Portrait of My Mother as Lillian Virginia Mountweazel”, “Portrait of My Lover Singing in Traffic,” (my personal favorite), among others. His unapologetic, useful inflation of the mundane never disappoints.
This is what, though, surprised me about the book. I don’t understand why Hall choose to transform, at points, the son/mother in unattractively maudlin ways. It’s like he lost sight of what made the other portraits remarkable. Here’s the opening from the blandly titled “The End of Myth”:
I ask Dustin to recall his favorite memory
of our mother. He’s distracted from the past,…
The juxtaposition of the title and the opening two lines waste our time. I want to say, "Let’s get to something tangible." In his own way, Hall tries. It just isn’t that much:
playing a Nintendo game where what you are
is descended from a long line of monsters. The mother
is an incongruous order of unforgivable monster.
Hall never make the narrator into anything other than a whiner:
I survived my mother’s suicide attempts. I lived
for years in the damage. I ate well. I quit smoking.
I loved a quiet man badly.
Who doesn’t? I thought surviving the wake of your mother’s tragedy was a rite-of-passage. In the same way as getting crabs or hanging out in a psychiatric emergency room.
Hall’s points are so high, we can’t help be worried about these moves. For his next book of poetry or non-fiction, we don’t want his writing to devolve into this. He’s already published a number of intriguing excerpts of what appears to be a memoir-in-progress so that shouldn't be the case.
Another example of this dishonorable sadness appears in the closure of “My Mother’s Love.” (Weird that the inventiveness of his titles often indicates the inventiveness of the poem.) Here is what could be titled “Portrait of Mother as Lonely Woman with Cats”:
…She digs, she saves thirty-two cats that day,
then take them home, bathes them, speaks to them calmly
even as they claw up and down her arms. I’m her
witness, I’m buried in this story…
where love is
only love if it makes you bleed.
Because gay men often prove the stereotype of being hypersensitive, I fear queer readers of this review will read the second-half as a holistic indictment of the book. No doubt this is a misreading of my words. Which is often what happens if you’re a gay man who only gushes over another homosexual’s poems. Let it be said: Hall’s strongest poems are some of strongest I’ve read recently.
I’m using the weaker poems as way of offering polemic to gay male writers and readers. Through formal and figurative means, we need to redeem the most banal tropes: the coming-out narrative, the first visit to gay bar, the first sighting of a drag queen, the first I-might-have-AIDS-but-thank-God-I-Really-Don’t, among others. Otherwise we’ll be simply providing minimal titillation to straight people who recently met their first gay person and feel compelled to write a poem about it.