What gay male hasn’t been the victim of sexual abuse or assault, domestic violence, or a gay-bashing?
Our private stories are clichés that need to be articulated, but not necessarily translated into art. However, a good number of queer writers feel the need to bypass their imaginative capacities and rely on uninspired sensationalism.
I hate to mention that I've suffered from at least one of these unfortunate fates, but if I don't, the inevitable criticism will rise. A predictable psychiatric evaluation. You don't know what it's like to deal with this suffering.
My belief: if you’ve told the story in a support group, it’s better to leave it there. Poetry has better things to do than allow you to relive your trauma. As a friend of mine always says, there is a difference between the personal and the private, and lesser artists confuse the two.
Here I want to look at three poets: Richard Tayson, Jericho Brown, and Benjamin S. Grossberg. They’ve all published recent books. I do not know if any of these writings are autobiographical.
And I don’t care.
But I am interested in how their constructed their narrators to deal with such touchy issues. How they attempt to create significant art out of trauma. Imagined or real. Or how they don’t. These close readings will hopefully shed some light on this aspect of their poetic projects.
Are these poets in any way advancing the dialogue about abuse and trauma? Or are they simply trying to ingratiate themselves with stock images to win our pity?
Let’s first take a look at Richard Tayson’s poem “Denkar Avenue, Gardena, California, 1951.” Talk about stock images of sexual abuse. Here’s the opening:
Suddenly, my grandfather stopped pulling
his daughter’s panties down, he held her
by the waist, placed
a callused and huge
hand over her mouth, his own breath
arrested. Then he heard it
again, the metallic jostle
of keys, easy fit of one
in the lock, and before
he could get her panties up and fix
the pink bow in the center
of my mother’s hair...
I am not objecting to a graphic image in and of itself. But one needs to interrogate Tayson’s ostensible desire to give us such a stock image so quickly. Tayson (and by extension his unnamed narrator) doesn't waste a single line to give us the goods: a lurid depiction of abuse meant to win our attention. No doubt it does.
Countless contemporary poems deal with sexual abuse, perhaps the most popular of the lot Sharon Olds' Satan Says. Though that book quickly reruns its material after a stunning first poem. You can't help but feel Olds is as obsessed with her poems' graphic nature as the fictional abuser seems to be about his victim. Which means way too much and to detrimental ends.
Tayson should know better. Already questioning Tayson’s ethics, I continued.
The narrator tells us that they don’t know “what happened next..” That doesn’t stop them from offering us guesses. Which feels weird. Is there anything truly left to predict? Can't we fill in the unsurprising blanks ourselves? Tayson can't resist the pathos:
Did self-made flesh feel better
than skin of women he could buy
at every truck stop, L.A. to Frisco?
Did his sorry fingers itch when he lay
down drunk most nights, the bourbon
air cleansing him like a prayer...
With any dramatic monologue you expect to find out the occasion for the speech. I couldn’t find one here. Unless you assume a spontaneous desire to titillate. No surprise Tayson decides to transform the poem's "I" into a "we," dragging us along with them. Our treat? Exploring the falsely lyrical details of this textbook scenario:
But for now we are trapped in the moment
Martha finds Jay, the stiff sway
of birds of paradise, the rice paper skins
of bougainvillea rubbing the lattice
above the porch...
One can't help and ask if Tayson realizes his narrator's severe unlikability. Making a deliberately unsympathetic narrator could be an intriguing move. That is, if they have more provocative things to do than unkindly disclosing the intimate details of a mother’s psychic pain. I tried to redeem this passage by reading it as a parody of the Tortured Incest Poem:
...my mother won’t breast feed or know how
to hold children in her arms and kiss
their hurt away, she’ll later say
she never felt what it’s like to come.
O, she’ll be a big eater...
Shockingly, this poem never interrogates the narrator’s ethics. Is the disclosure of the mother's private pain appropriate? Kind? An act in its own way as cruel as his grandfather's abuse? The poem refuses to travel to such bold places, settling instead on a descriptive continuation of the initial event. According to the narrator:
...a mother drops her keys,
bends to retrieve them,
yanks her only daughter
by the arm...
up to the mirror so the girl sees
the fear in her face...
Why does Tayson not move on? Delve deeper? Why does his narrator extend the sordid details of the discovery? Is the narrator upset that he's been made aware of their mother's past and speaks of it as a revenge of sorts? Making his mother's private pain public in order to reveal his anger that he wasn't breast fed?
The poem fails to provide us with any deeper psychological insights. It doesn’t care for its characters. Its nasty indifference eclipses its lurid details of sexual abuse.