With the yearly announcement of the Publishing Triangle and Lambda Literary Awards, small press books emerge you may not have discovered on your own. It happened to me this year. I am thankful to the Lambda judges for choosing Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows as a finalist for men’s memoir/biography.
As a creative non-fiction teacher, I know that I will undoubtedly teach his memoir.
Consisting of twenty-two short essays, King of Shadows deals with nature, the writing life, San Francisco past and present, the intersection of growing older and queerness.
So many memoirs impose strict organization on their material. It is an understandable attempt to make the memoir read like fiction: a potentially contrived immediacy, tension, quickly paced. You’re secured that the author will not only reveal the protagonist’s pivotal life moment, but that it will also be boldfaced. With the plethora of memoirs, you have to convince your audience (and yourself) you should offer the story of your life to the world.
Writing epiphanies are a predictable and dangerous thing, sometimes an outright lie. Shurin does something different.
Unlike most memoirists, Shurin refuses to impose phony conflict, drama.
He chases the aggressively banal moments of life. This sort of aggression causes Shurin to stand out from other memoirists.
One of the more dramatic moments surfaces in one of his more nature-focused chapters, “Reciprocity.” It deals with his symbiotic relationship with flowers.
Notice how the poet takes control of the word perform, so rotely used by theory-buffs who often make the word mean nothing. As a poet, he seizes the word, giving it a concreteness. Like a true poet, his “drama” reveals itself in an ars poetics:
“...while on the right a massive bush of climbing roses, which had been cut back before I arrived, began to open by the dozen, dense, ruffled circlets of deep tangerine that matured into glowing apricot love-nests, seductively subtle and flamboyant at the same time, before finally releasing themselves into exhausted overblown white. By then it was clear that my garden was performing for me. It responded to my dutiful and generous care with creative intent-it grew!-and if I refrain from adding “joyously” so not to (over) anthropomorphize, I can still insist the mutual give and take was relational. Having saved it from meltdown, brought back to life, cultivated it, savored it, stroked it, fed it, worried over it, been endlessly started by it and euphorically entertained, I’d clearly forged a deep reciprocal bond.”
Throughout King of Shadows, Shurin obsesses about the ostensibly insignificant: moving into a new apartment, hanging out in a sauna, observing fish, discussing his mentor Denise Levertov’s troubling politics.
He dedicates a chapter to tracing the relationship between him, Robert Duncan, and Levertov. What is instructive about this passage is he does his best to understand Levertov’s dismissal of his more political, explicitly gay poetry. He’s not using his memoir as a tool for vengeance. His thoughts’ circuitousness reveal his admiration and disappoint in her.
This professed ambivalence is an act of kindness. He strives for a Zen-like balance (a practice he admittedly doesn’t use as a compositional model):
The school quarter had been peppered with demonstrations and student strikes, and we’d often, if I remember correctly, met off-campus; that we should go together to work at the park was testimony to our support of Denise’s political conviction as well as our belief that the common purposes of poetry made a place for voice in the space of action; ‘the personal is political’ extended its alliterative syllogism to include ‘poetry.’”
Later Shurin sent her his poems that did contain homosexual content. This offering excited him “with expectant pride”. But her response was at best tepid. He offers a quotation from her letter:
“When I seem to detect a note of propaganda it turns me off completely. But when you are simply writing poetry and transcending opinion then I can respond. This may sound inconsistent from one who has written ‘political’ poetry, but I believe my political concerns to be less parochial in theme.”
He clearly identifies his disappointment:
“She was telling me, in fact, that it wasn’t a poetic argument that most mattered to her: The argument was political and revolved around the supremacy of her own ideology. Parochial! If I (thought I) was busy tying up racism, misogyny, homophobia, and warmongering into a unified theory of oppression, her authoritarianism split the weave, and unraveled me where I was most in need of support.”
Going a step further, he says:
“This double face of her response had the power of revelation: of a true homophobia in her nature (‘too emphatically homosexual’) that called forth the same stern disapproving persona who so vehemently opposed The People’s Prick.”
Continuing to analyze the friendship, allowing her the benefit of the doubt, he adds nuance to her motivation. This is a kindness that allows for a redemptive possiblity:
“It occurs to me now that Denise’s ruffled recalcitrance may have hidden the fact that I had recently met and formed a friendship with Robert Duncan. I must have told her, and she must have felt in a paranoid way- as she certainly did later-that this new association implied a censure and maybe even a kind of gay alliance.”
This self-reflection embodies the spirit of the book. Refusing to harshly accuse, Shurin avoids the pitfall that deflates the power of most memoirs. As he knows, most readers would love to read about the melodramatic conflicts between writers. He shuns such temptations. Acknowledging Levertov’s homophobia, he does restrain himself through pointing to a banality of friendship. In a friendship triangle one person always feels left out. This gracious statement is an ultimate act of kindness.