According to Mark Doty's poem "At the Gym," we, as gay men, may need to look "beneath" our vanity to find "something more tender" in our desire to work out. To simply want to be beautiful can't satisfy Doty; he needs to offer an argument. In his best poems such as Tiara, Mercy on Broadway, and Homo Will Not Inherit (essential reading for any Gay and Lesbian Literature class), he excelled in making didacticism beautiful. Too often that stupid creative writing mantra "Show don't tell" renders itself useless. As a result of the awful political predicament gay men find themselves, it's imperative to tell and tell. And then tell some more. Doty knew that. That's one of the many wonderful aspects of those historically important poems.
In "At the Gym" it's confusing who he wants to tell what. Is he trying to make gay men "feel less bad" for their obsession with working out? If he is, he needs to back off, and stop trying to depathologize gay men's intense connection with gym equipment. Everyone has their fetishes; why does ours need to be justified? To anyone, especially ourselves? If he perceives his audience as straight, why does he once again need to invoke the spiritual to justify what he fears others may see as the less attractive aspects of the gay community. It feels like pandering to the hypocritical Log Cabin Republicans. We may have been born gay, but there's nothing wrong with us. We're just like everyone else. Even the right wing religious fundamentalists. Here's one of many justifications why:
..beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.
Here is some halo
the living made together.
Verging on the self-parodic, Doty ends his poem on a contrived transcendental moment. It's eerie that he needs to invoke "the cloth," "a halo." What if the vanity is simply crude? What's wrong with being a shameless homosexual, bringing some crude exhibitionism into your life for no reason other than you want. And want.
And what about that phrase "the living made together"? Is going to the gym a communal activity, where we can find solidarity, or is it perhaps about creating a hierarchy that can provide competition for queer alpha males? Ruthless competition, but a game all the same.
Randall Mann, one of, if not the, best practitioners of Light Verse, offers a welcome antidote. It is a necessary rebuke of Doty's poem. Without much apology, Mann's sonnet "Modern Art" illustrates how vanity can induce self-aware comic anxiety. It's not like Mann's narrator can't be somewhat cognizant of the ridiculous psychic connection of "seeing the satyrs in the Cadillac" and then his need to hail "a cab: Gold's gym, pretty please, and step/lovely. So, can one still be a man and take step/classes? I grunt at the pec-deck..."
The throwaway jokes ("It's a myth,/btw, the size of my Nikes.") thankfully invests in a gay audience.
But then, weirdly, Mann almost ruins his own comedy through forcing the narrator to ask us for pity:
...If I shave
my chest and my yes and my happiness,
will I find someone, some happiness...
Mann sometimes wrings pathos from his Light Verse, which seems to me, indicative of a young writer's needless anxiety. Doty justifies our preoccupation with the gym as a way of elevating himself; he says, I know why we do this, and let me tell you and the world, and even remind God Himself as He continues to touch our lives.
Somehow more confident and less, Mann allows his narrators to invest in the physical without the worldly pontification. Mann's weakness may stem from a refusal to accept that he's channeling W.H. Auden's and light verse. Unlike Mann, Doty believes too much in the power of his own poems, tainting his most recent work with an annoying gravitas. Perhaps because he is young, Mann panics about his own poetic project. At points, he seems to seems to want to deny he's writing Light Verse, and then capitulates to his own anxiety, making his characters blurt out their unattractive desire to be loved just like everybody else. For brief yet significant moments, these calls for self-pity can make a narrator, and worse, the poem unattractive. Let the characters be, Randall. They don't feel bad for you; don't feel bad for them.
Fortunately, by the end of this poem, Mann's narrator recovers, thankfully rediscovering his tunnel vision and vanity:
Just as I start to peak, I'll shave
my head, instead (think Full Metal Jacket).
And throw on a cultish animal jacket.
The penultimate line is the best in the poem. Mann strategically inspires self-pity for the narrator in a genuine way, one worthy of us. How sad is it that a gay man in 2009 is emulating his look after a 1987 Kubrick movie. Any respectable queer these days would screw the jacket and just ask for Jake Gyllenhaal's Jarhead buzzcut.
New poem in The Cortland Review
1 week ago