Monday, April 27, 2009

On Queer Poet Tom Savage's Brainlifts

Mischievous parody of the love elegy and simultaneously a wholly sincere lyric, queer Tom Savage’s poem “Oh Won, Oh No!” achieves a literary feat. Shucking conventional narrative strategies, a consistent lyric tone, his poem allows us to “enter” his grief through inviting us to “make sense” of the mourning.

Savage fills the pages of his book “Brainlifts” with such poems. It is unsurprising his book was ignored. People preferred to have their grief packaged for them in neat tidy narrative.

Unlike Monette, Savage’s treatment of Time shifts from the humorously reckless to contained disappointment.

From the get-go Savage treats Time like a dumb TV set:

When time slows down
Do we kick it in order
For it to conform to our desires?

Frustrated with his own question, he abruptly moves on:

Such a precious hand
Paints the thought behind the shape.
Now watch the silent birds fly.

You wandered through a swamp
In search of me
Even though you knew
I’d already died.

Savage strategically creates an ambiguous “you.” Potentially raising the stakes of the poem, he pushes the question of when death occurs, who does the work of grief—the dead or living..

If we’re meant to read the “died” literally, then the “you” stands for the lover, still alive and mourning in our actual world. If we’re meant to translate the “died” literally, then the “you” transforms perhaps into that of a spirit, a ghost of the beloved. This adds a layer of complexity to the proceeding stanzas:

Did the cranes you meet
sing you a sad song?
Did the sun, for my sake,
Refuse to shine?

In the fragrance of words,
The harmony of color,
Do you choose the air
Or does the breeze select you?

There’s no harm in borrowing everything you see.
Straddle the rooftop with an echo and hear.
The air demands you pay no interest on your eyes.

Either way we interpret the “you,” the speaker commits some intriguing moves. Knowingly self-aggrandizing, the narrator baits his addressee with sarcasm and odd sincerity. Who else but the bereft could make the inflated claim that Nature may have had sympathy pains, demanding that the sun and cranes react in tandem? Through the casual insertion of “for my sake, ”the narrator admits to his own flagrant self-centeredness.

As if this wasn’t enough, he adds, “There’s no harm in borrowing everything you see.” Does he mean “everything” as natural world? Or does the preceding stanzas break indicate a switch in subjects? Are we supposed to decode “everything” to refer to other love poems, or even as broadly as any other text?

It’s up for grabs. This is an act of openness. Not any sort of flaw of the writing.

Notice the strategic juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete. Savage asks us to participate in “recreating” this loss with him. Never coy, he saves us self-pitying details of the narrative. He forces us to partly recreate the loss with him.

Monette doesn’t find a way for us to “enter” his grief. He makes the meaning, and we “read” it from a distance. At the same time, we need to accept that Monette needed to use straightforward self-pity as a political tool, luring straight people to interrogate their own homophobia, fear of AIDS. Monette could not risk allowing them to make sense of the loss. At that time, they needed to be told what to think through straightforward narrative. Their readings would have been confused due to their own misgivings toward homosexuality and AIDS.

I would like to emphasize here I have no serious problem with Monette. In some ways, during his time and even now, he is an important poet to cite. However, a lot of queer poets now simply repeat his aesthetic choices and content.

That’s why I may be particularly find myself to be harsh; it’s misdirected anger. What disturbs me the most is to see living queer writers recycle the same material (and formal strategies). For their lazy theft, they continue to win the most major awards.

How can Savage and his tiny press Straw Gate Books compete?

Here are the next few stanzas:

In a painting of arteries
You took the heart.
How should the lungs react?

Savage, I would argue, forces his narrator to write inside his grief. Can any crime be more potentially fatal than saying something like “You took the heart”? That's an "inside job" to risk such what it usually seen as a failing of even the most amateur of poets. But he escapes! Here the immediate goofiness of “How should the lungs react?” refuses any complete embrace of the sentimental. Not to say it isn’t somewhat there. Sometimes grief warrants the most flagrantly banal statements.

As I provide my analysis of this poem, I find myself wanting to use the word “redeem” to explain how the comic “allows for” what is predicted in a love elegy. To use such verbs though is unfair to Savage. Doesn’t the poetic articulation grief sometimes deserve to be uninspired? Doesn't that captivate the feeling of loss sometimes even more.

Savage knows exactly what he is doing; the shift of tone does not occur in an isolated incident. You can see the pattern begin from the outset. And close in somewhat of a similar way:

If you stay for the winter
And leave in the spring,
The summer will be angry with you.

If you lock me in with a spoon
I’ll free you with the knife of my tongue.
Fire dictates all the world.

For a poet who relies on such abrupt changes of tone, I fear that by providing a close analysis may have caused a failure to see the effectiveness of these strategies. That is, uninterrupted. As of late, I haven’t read too poems that offer us hope through the most obvious, yet creatively rendered, truths. Some poems need to be rendered to give affirmation to what we already know, the obvious. In this age of easy irony, witty paradoxes, dull self-deprecation, Savage’s poem relies on more creative humor and a lack of fear toward the sentimental.

Not that he isn’t capable of employing more familiar, usually more unattractive, sorts of humor, using them to inspired effect. Here’s the poem entitled “Ode to a Once-Beautiful Adam”:

You were only a statue, after all.
When your plywood pedestal collapsed
You fell apart. The Metropolitan Museum
Now apologies to Tulio Lombardo,
The sculptor who is, of course,
Conveniently dead. When I, a mere
Volunteer there, walked through
The sculpture court,
I enjoyed your naked, perfect body,
An unattainable ideal,
Even your perfectly formed cock and balls.
Are these latter why you fell off your pedestal
Or more correctly, it failed you?
When I was still “wigged out” from brain surgery
I loved to contemplate your perfect body
I could never touch,
But need neither mourn not feel rejected by.
Artistic perfection misleads us
If we look at it in leading men
So I both miss you and don’t.
The museum is going to try
To put you back together again.
It may take four months.
My recovery took four years.
I emerged from it fat and middle-aged
But I wouldn’t trade breathing living
For being a perfect statue.
Look at what happened to your
Immortality, after all-
Demolished (only temporarily
I hope) by the failure of
An anonymous piece of wood.
From now on I’ll look at
Sculptures of real men and women,
Like Rodin’s fat, naked, middle-aged Balzac.
I hope real people can be satisfied
With real, imperfect lovers
And not be permanently deceived
By Gods, angels, or ideals
In stone like you.


  1. These poems seem like a good opportunity to re-address the time issue in your other post. There's something so interesting about energy--how does Savage put the time in. When he's recovering, it seems then he can take the time to fully apprehend beauty, futility and failure. The crunch of time having past (don't we always fear what we could die from? Once you know, it seems like time changes form, even slows down), Savage, in this last poem, lets time elongate.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks so much, Nicole, for being so brilliant. I really struggled with this post, and your comment makes me realize why I failed: I was trying to force connections. Like between Monette and Savage. Which makes no sense ultimately. I've wanted to write about Savage for so long, because, as you put it, there is something "so interesting about his energy." I didn't know how to articulate that with the paradigm I have been setting up with Time, so I ditched it. And you, with this comment, have brought me back to it. I think this is one of my weakest, if not the, weakest post. And what's so frustrating is I care so much about Savage!

  3. Steve, Do you write reviews for any publications?

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  5. Hi Dustin,

    You making fun of me for my weak post? If so, I deserve it.

    Through the years, I've written for coldfront, Rain Taxi, Rattle. I've composed an extended essay about Josh Bell's No Planets Strike--he's straight-- I forgive him for. I think it's one of the best debuts I've ever read. Many years ago, I wrote an essay about my conflicting feelings about Thom Gunn for the Western Humanities Review. Gunn wrote me a letter telling me he was bothered by it. That may be one of my proudest accomplishments. Other than learning how to drive--of which I have a severe, debilitating phobia.

  6. Sean Thomas DoughertyApril 29, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    Honestly these poems by Savage are at times singed by the sentimental that for me made me pause, not to wince but to say he knows this line he is crossing, but only for the moment and not witout know ing the poets awareness of even that, for what he is trying to say must be said so simply in language near that to daily speech but heightened just slightly into song, but this is because as you say the speaker does have fear and admits it so, instead there is the deeper fear of losing for good, fear of the other not accepting imperfection. You do such a marvelous job of tracing the tone shift and in particular the use of humour to deflect grief and fear. There is something going on in Savage's poems that feels both so far and near to what I do, he makes me rethink some things about a line that nears a fragment of speech, something in the voice here I think I may have been missing. He makes me want to go and eavesdrop on an intimate conversation to hear the battered banter of a broken heart. Bravo Steve, beautiful and poignant essay.

    Sean Thomas Dougherty

  7. Steve, I asked a question because I wanted to know the answer. I wasn't trying to poke fun on any level. If I was out to do that, I'd save it for my blog and write something snarky and hope everyone found it hilarious. BTW-- It's sad. I'm not on your link list.

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