Friday, June 12, 2009

On the Political Power of Instability and Charles Jensen's "I Am the Boy Tied Down"

Charles Jensen’s brilliant poem “I Am the Boy Tied Down” raises significant issues with the title alone. Not only does the title obviously refer to Matthew Shepard’s murder but also the predicament, that we, as gay poets, find ourselves. No less of a “boy” than Shepard, we’re “tied down” by our urges to create poems responding to our current oppression, history of subjugation, and the desire to create the beautiful. With recent setbacks, like Proposition 8, it is easy to privilege the political over aesthetics. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But Jensen juxtaposes both with admirable deftness.

[This poem appeared in the David Trinidad-edited edition of MiPOesias Magazine 2007. I can't figure out how to post the entire poem without sacrificing "the look" of the poem. Instead of sacrificing the visual style, here's the link:

Please, please use it to see the poem the way it was meant to be seen.]

This is ultimately the key to Jensen’s approach: undeniable instability. Jensen’s shamelessly inflates almost every aspect of the poem with huge poetic gestures. In a world where federal law demands gays to behave, this poet reject self-control. This histrionic approach reaches for melodrama, restlessness, shifting perspectives, whatever lies behind that personal, limited “I.”

Predictably, justifiably influenced by one of our masters, Richard Siken, you admire Jensen’s refusal to domesticate “the look” of the poem; he rebels against the commonplace move to keep everything aligned to the right. Jensen allows his line to reach to the other side, sometimes even allowing the line to begin in the middle of the page. Strategically obnoxious, Jensen flings the lines all over, refusing to make his poem behave.

Rejection from certain public spaces occurs all too-often to gay men.. In a world where gay bashings regularly occur, it is important that we don’t allow fear to immobilize us. The unpredictability of the lines’ appearance functions as a necessary call-to-arms: we need to seize what might be otherwise inaccessible spaces: the streets after dark, the institution of marriage, the army, certain religious institutions, etc. etc.

The first person “I” of the poem startles. The ubiquitous pronoun refuses to remain contentedly stable, as it often does in lesser poems. That often inadequate choice creates a self-pitying, inert first person. It represents us as singular bereft gay male, rotely pitying Shepard. Which still allows the poet to congratulate himself for his sensitivity and political awareness.

Remarkably ambitious, Jensen offers a rare comprehensiveness of the tragedy. He offers a democratic perspective of the incident, offering the stage to everyone involved. Even more courageously, he includes all the props, including the gun and the road leading to Shepard’s death. In Jensen's world, metaphor can morph in a split second, destabilizing us. We can’t be "tied down" as poets if we keep altering, confusing our readers through constant transformation.

Simile is appropriately avoided. It is a smart move. In God’s world (and I think it is undeniable there is a spiritual force greater than our own souls), nothing can be “like” something else. Everything is distinct and special. Similes, by their very nature, are useless lies. (Similes and the creepy exclamation mark should be banned from use!)

Let’s look at the multiplicity of perspectives courageously gathered in this poem. There’s Shepard himself:

I am the boy tied to a fence and I have a deep wound for the world.
There is autumn, there is sky, there is blood. The world is simple
in the dark.

And the murderers:

I am a killer. My hands are two big guns fully loaded.
I am a killer and I go into the night with a pair of hands that fire off shots.
I smack him with the gun.
I smack him with the gun.
I smack him with the gun.

And the scenery:

I am the moon. A boy is tied down to a fence by his wrists
while two boys look on.

Sky bears down on the landscape like an open mouth.
The mountains sink into the earth. Shards of broken teeth.

And the props:

I am the smooth mahogany bar on which the boy’s small hands rest.

And Time itself:

I am the alpha and omega, the dawn and its darkness, the beginning and the end.

Along with the sheer comprehensiveness of the perspectives, Jensen uses a number of discourses. Once again Jensen’s deployment of various rhetoric excites his politics. Streamlined religious language oppresses. The solid, impenetrable language of state and federal law immobilizes as well. Through unpredictable rhetorical moves, Jensen offers other ways of fighting the nation’s attempt to cage queers .

Look at the way the language changes throughout the poem.. At one point Jensen uses the sensual:

I am the night. I have more stars than there are names;
if I listed them here you would forget them or move on.
The night is not conventional time. In the darkness I know
you are capable of so much, so much.

Then, at some points, the philosophically abstract:

I am the failure of the body to remain a boy.
In the remains of failure, the body of a boy.
I am the remains of a boy, the body of his failure.

And even the unabashed sentimental:

I am a bone of the body. Every seven years
I am completely new and have no memory
of what came before. If I am broken, I grow back.

Against creative writing dogma, sentimentality does have use. It should not be invariably rejected. To do so is to dismiss a shared language. Straight people who may reject a more defiant language can find a way into understanding gay oppression through the sentimental, pathos. This potential embrace of the sentimental allows our collective to grow even larger.

(I never hesitate in giving my partner a Hallmark card. I’ll even go through and underline the most sentimental lines, emphatically, as a sign that these words are most true to my feelings. And yes—I do mean feelings—a word that frightens most draconian academics and their minions.)

Unlike Shepard, the gay male poet can escape from the tyranny of homophobic language through breaking what keeps us “tied” down: the ugly limited power of the victimized, stable “I.” As Jensen declares, “I am the boy who is tied down and he is me.” This unapologetic conflation of identity allows for necessary memorialization and poetic possibility.

1 comment:

  1. (I was in Alaska when you posted this.)

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my work! I remember reading on No Tell Motel that you liked this poem a lot, and it meant a lot to me because I spent about 90% of my creative time wondering if anything thinks what I do is worthwhile (not that anyone's opinion will really stop me from doing it, because maybe I'm one of those people who will be appreciated after I'm dead).

    This poem will be in my book, and I look forward to depressing/shaming/antagonizing many audiences by reading it in the coming year.