Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Political Viability of Bareback Sex and Benjamin S. Grossberg's Poem "Beetle Orgy"

Obviously impacted by the best of Mark Doty’s beautifully rendered sex-positive arguments-as-poems, Benjamin S. Grossberg “Beetle Orgy” could have rivaled his predecessor’s work. A botched politically conservative ending hinders that possibility.

Recalling Doty at his finest, Grossberg displays an amazing lightness of touch, a well-paced disclosure of nature’s beauty. Doty’s influence pervades the poem, but for the most part we can see Grossberg marking out his own subject matter and formal strategies.

Grossberg sets himself a tough challenge. He wants to prove that gay male group bareback sex is as natural, and even as necessary, as the mating, or simple physical attraction beetles show for one another.

This political argument normalizes sexual activities many, including gay men themselves, find objectionable.

At its most profound, Grossberg raises the question whether the much derided Treasure Island and other bareback films produce one of the more important tenents of radical queer activism: we, as gay men, can put our bodies in whatever sexualized space or position we choose.

Grossberg’s lingering descriptions of nature posses an unforced sensuality and music:

Bloom up from the earth, blooming and curling
like ribbon, and at semi-regular intervals
sprouting leaves: almost the border art
of a Celtic manuscript, the vines up along the fence
of this old tennis court. Amid the wreck...

He even succeeds with a pretentious allusion to a Celtic manuscript, wisely offering it after the phrase: “border art." Throughout the poem, Grossberg inflates a particular moment only to later deflate it. This allows him to avoid a condescending romanticism (look at the beautiful nature! look at the beautiful men!) It also gives him the power to swerve away from crudeness that could simply function as bad pornography. Crude, good pornography would be a different story.

Here’s the chief turn in the poem, deftly moving from the beetles to the HIV-identified men:

...And here I come to it, amid the advancing
vines and decrepit court: they’re on the leaves, too,
all around-coupling in company, hundreds of them,
the rows melding to make a single metallic band.

Back in Houston, a friend had parties-
lawn bags in the living room numbered with tape
to store guest clothing; plastic drop cloths
spread out in the spare bedroom (cleared of furniture
For the occasion) a tray of lubricants....

The narrator of “Beetle Orgy” knows well enough to allow the beetles and the orgiastic sex continue as the spectacle—when he refers to himself it’s in a furtive parenthetical expression:

..when I would drop by to find his talk
transformed, suddenly transcendental-
the community, he told me, the freedom: not
just from the condom code (HIV negative I
was never invited) but freed of individuation-...

This poem begins to delve into neglected areas: the tense, tentative division between HIV-impacted and those not. Nothing’s inherently wrong with a poem choosing to concentrate on an HIV-negative narrator trying to make sense of unfamiliar sexual practices.

As long as the poem is aware of its manipulation and the subsequent consequences.

In this area, the poem begins to fall apart in serious ways.

After the friend acknowledges the fun in the wild sexual activities, the narrator declares:

...As he talked I looked around
the spare bedroom, attempting to see it
in terms other than lust-a couple of dozen men,

how they would have lined up...

Why does Grossberg need to force the narrator to frame the gay men’s sexual choices as something completely other than lust. It seems that lust needs to be invoked to complicate the analogy of group bareback sex to the insect world. Grossberg needs to recognize gay male as something independent of nature; our relationships may be a bit more nuanced to that of beetles. Maybe not much, but still.

But then the poem shamefully combusts, ruining itself through an invocation of God.

I would like to emphasize that I have no problem with a poem using the spiritual as a way of defending homosexual behavior. No doubt Grossberg’s most crucial influence, Mark Doty, has been one of the best practitioners of synthesizing the spiritual with gay male sex and desire.

Much to my disappointment, Grossberg doesn’t, at least not yet, possess the confidence of his master. The crucial radical politics of his poem vanishes. Through the shameful manipulation of his narrator, Grossberg reveals his own anxiety as a gay man:

Maybe that’s how it was at my friend’s parties-
God leaning over the house on a casual tour

of the wreck of the world, noticing , noticing ornamentation
where it wasn’t expected...

Grossberg’s own sexphobia yields this unnecessary spiritual explanation for the sexual sublime. Why does he need to feel the need to toss God into the mix when he’s already introduced the primary analogy?

In his earlier poems, Doty expertly wove the spiritual elements into the narrative; his decisions were always remarkable ingratiating and self-possessed. Grossberg seriously fails in this regard.

The prolonged mention of God seems like a desperate last-ditch effort to make his HIV positive characters’ sexual behavior acceptable. It feels like Grossberg sees holes in his metaphor, and now is trying to clean up the mess. This conservative move destroys the impact of the poem, offering nothing more than images verging on pure camp:

..each man brightens at the touch, comes to know
something expected, unexpected, and tenuous-
and God, also, comes to some knowledge
as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
by the collective brightness of human skin...

Grossberg is one of the most underrated queer poets. His work often stimulates, going places where a lot of poets avoid. Morphing God into a dandy or supplementing Richard Howard’s vast, and already dated, persona poems seem to yield the most trouble for Grossberg.

Here in this poem, you want Grossberg to push further. Rather than resorting to conservative Christian tactics in explaining what some say are questionable sexual practices, he needs to provide nuance to the questions he only has begun to explore.

Are there any problems in HIV-positive men having sex with others who share their identity? Are HIV-negative men this accepting of what they “don’t understand? Does the voyeurism established in the poem yield any consequences for the person doing the looking? Do bareback porn movies like those created by Treasure Island encourage young gay men to engage in unsafe practices? What if an HIV-negative man chooses to join such orgiastic activities? Should the HIV-positive men allow his engagement?

It’s a credit to the poem you even think of these too-often neglected issues. So much so, you wish the poem was riskier, less protected, making us, as gay male readers, uncomfortable about what territories are opening up, and perhaps about the possibility of choosing to never come back.

1 comment:

  1. I still remember opening Ben's poems for the first time and appreciating fully what it was that I was going to be publishing. I was fascinated enough with "Beetle Orgy," I made it one of WHR's Pushcart noms. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one who ultimately did.) I'm going to have to mull some of criticisms here that I feel less able to reply to and whether I feel these points unsettle the work to the degree you do. Regardless, I agree he's extremely talented and I've been glad to see him getting more attention of late.

    As always, love the analysis, Steve.

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