Friday, July 31, 2009

On Myth and J.D. McClatchy

To receive attention from the dominant straight culture, gay artists often need to infuse a Seriousness into their art. No matter how contrived or unnecessarily amplified. To draw an analogy to what some call PoBiz,, think of the state of American cinema. In the past couple years, the most popular and critically acclaimed queer films were “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk.” Both nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture.

While both could be considered great movies (neither of them anywhere close to a masterpiece), it makes me uncomfortable that both feature protagonists who are essentially martyred gay men killed either by themselves or some angry, crazed heterosexual. There’s no doubt where our sympathy should lie. In both films, the two-dimensionality of the almost too respectable gay characters (save for the more charged moments in Heath Ledger’s performance) inspire straight audience to take note that, yes, this is serious art.

As I approach middle-age, I bet I will have a fondness for these films as much as I do for the poems of J.D. McClatchy and Alfred Corn.

Fondness is a weird word. For me, it connotes nostalgia with an underlying fey condescension. Some of McClatchy and Corn’s poems somewhat annoyingly feel a fondness for us as readers.

And even a larger issue: Sometimes Corn and McClatchy may use mythology and allusions to classical literature that they feel may make heir poems more “legitimate” for heterosexual and even gay audiences.

Both Corn and J.D. McClatchy were both born in the 1940s. Both of them were surely old enough to be fully cognizant of Stonewall and its implications for gay men. This produced undoubtedly certain historical pressures that one could say lives on today.

To an extent.

As in the case of the movies, gay poets feel the impetus to create art to prove their worthiness , especially in mainstream circles. Who can’t deny a poem its significance if it provides an immediate intertextuality, highlighting the poets’ comprehensive knowledge of ancient and classical texts?

Think of Romeo and Juliet winning the Best Picture Oscar. The movie possessed no real romantic spirit. It won because people could feel a middle-class literariness in being familiar enough with Shakespeare.

With popular gay (however stark it is) narrative film, everyone can feel pity for its unnuanced protagonists, the story’s imminent tragic end. We know we should cry; we know we should embrace these murdered innocents.

I would make the claim that Corn and McClatchy regularly share the anxiety that they need to prove the importance of gay subject material. This is a generational issue; it also asks us to analyze their poems to see what are relevant to us as gay men today.

They use myth and allusion to high art to legitimize their well-needed interrogations into the domestic realm.

(Of course, this anxiety doesn’t necessarily relegate itself to gay poets; Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, her weakest book, essentially an ostensibly unconscious parody of her others, creates an intertwining narrative with the story of Odysseus.’ Marriage. Ararat is by far her best. The Wild Iris too confident in its own cloying metaphor.)

Let’s look at J.D. McClatchys “Er.” In talking to one of my best friends, I unpacked the meaning of the poem. I ripped off some of her ideas.

(BTW She has an enviable, amazing debut collection of poems coming out. I won’t mention her name out of fear that her association with me may hurt her chances of receiving all the accolades she deserves. She’s also married to a man and has a kid. Because of that, I will never mention her crucial importance in my life on this blog again.)

“Er” consists of three numbered sections. Here’s the numbered first section’s opening, a typical description of a break-up:

I hesitate to mention now the time
I hesitated—was it weeks or months?—
Before telling him I was leaving, leaving for good,
So that, in the end, it was he who left me,
And my fear of his decision, or no ... well,
His tonelessly announcing it one night,
Only that, always that, has clouded the scene,
Not unlike the way the years of happiness
Until that day, all of them a delusion,
Had prevented my recalling just how long
I'd waited to discover my feelings at the start.

In retrospect, after time has passed, he explains:

Years later, forcing me
To divide the shoebox full of snapshots
Or the letters from our long-dead companions,
He waited while I chose, through tears, the things
I didn't want to see, and did not look back
Through the closing door, though it only seemed
As if he were standing there and I was falling
Back, back to a time when I couldn't delay
Any longer, the time I leaned down to select
My lot, lying there on the ground, in the field,
Where I recognized so many others waiting their turn.

The poem does consist of three number sections: the first numbered section describes the break-up. The second section of the poem details the myth of Er to “explain this.”—this being the break-up in the first section. The myth functions as a metaphor for the relationship: McClatchy draws a parallel between the narrator-as-bodiless witness (to his own break-up) to Er, another sort of bodiless witness contained in the first section, and Er in the second numbered section.

Both protagonists are bodiless, narrators-as-witnesses rather than active participants in their stories, retelling the events .

In the second section is long. McClatchy explains the myth, but it would be unfair to the poem to not offer his description. After all, McClatchy seems to be inordinately invested in the myth to make his point. Here’s the start of McClatchy’s teaching of the myth of Er:

Twelve days after his death in battle, the body of Er—
Son of Armenius, a hero of legend in far Pamphylia—
As torches were readied, came to life again on his funeral pyre,
And told what he had seen of the other world,
That his soul in a crush of companions had journeyed
To a mysterious place, two openings, it seemed, in the earth
And two others above, between them the seats of judges
Who bound men to their sentences, that they should climb
Or descend, the symbols of their deeds fastened to their backs.

The next excerpt is essential to the parallels McClatchy wants to draw. Er acts as a witness, an invisible storyteller to the spectacle of events surrounding him. This is similar to the bodiless narrator of the first section in which he retells the complexity of the break-up through words, words that mention anything about the body.

Here is the excerpt to illustrate that point:

But Er was told only to watch and bear the message back to men.
He saw the dead arrive, dusty with travel, and the souls
Of those already saved step down into a meadow to meet them.
Those who knew one another embraced and wept at tales
Of what they had endured and seen, while those above
Told of delights to come, of injustices reversed, of tyrants
Cast into terrors worse than they had themselves inflicted.
Er then looked up at a column of light to which the chains
Of heaven were attached that held the spindle of Necessity,

And finally:

Er stood in astonishment as, one after another, men and women,
Because the memory of their previous lives was still so strong,
Asked to be animals in the next, no matter bird or beast,
A blameless, unknowing being not in love with death.
The soul that had once been Orpheus chose the life of a swan,
Not wanting to be born of a woman, hating
The race of women who had murdered him.
Others chose sparrow or horse or, remembering their pain,
An eagle that could circle the slain in their bloody armor,
Slowly circle, high over what men do to themselves.
Then each was given a cup of Unmindfulness
From which some carelessly drank too much
And some too little, so that the past would haunt them.
Er himself was kept from drinking, and how
His body was returned he could never say,
But as the others were driven, like stars shooting,
Up to their births in the world, torches were lit
And Er suddenly woke and found himself
Lying on a pyre, his old parents in tears.

In the final numbered section, McClatchy conflates the narrator and Er:

In the end, because I took too long to decide,
The bird-lives on the ground there to choose from
Meant I would have to live far from home.
I chose the farthest, the common tufted warbler,
Native to the Maghreb, a small bird,
The size of a fist, the color of wet sand,
My tail brushed with berrystain,

And the most fun part of the poem involves the play of the words Er and errand. As McClatchy has his narrator confess:

My call a calling, er-rand, er-rand, er-rand.
I can fly to find direction out and sing
Only to attract the echoing air,
But my task, an hour before dawn, is to help
Summon the halfhearted day from its sleep
As the dark begins to tip reluctantly.

His “limping cheer” reminds who hears it that there is “work to be done”:

Word to be sent ahead of happiness,
Of noon on an iridescent scarab wing,
Of the dank leaf mold and warted rind,
Of the peace in our hours now, for all but them,
Those humans who shout and slash and smell of flesh.
One of them stands alone, every morning, looking
Into water, silently moving his lips.

Finally, the narrator declares:

I stay
To keep watch, and something comes back, a sense
From some other life, that because he has never been hurt,
He is impossible to love. For now, he is my errand.

You can’t help but feel the narrator’s fake immodesty in his choice of transforming himself into the sparrow; the self-congratulatory gesture of his willingness to witness the events and then share them.

The narrator remain almost bodiless, surely not taking up much room as a sparrow.

On the other hand, the narrator’s lover remains s a cipher. The narrator “fleshes out” his lover through memory and lost desire. That journey of the memory and mind, not the body, allows the sparrow/narrator to fulfill his duty: the errand of giving a corporeal reincarnation to his ex-lover.

Complex, self-contained, and clever, McClatchy uses the classical myth of Er as a metaphor for the relationship between the narrator and his beloved.

The poem could also be seen as one about pedagogy.

The second numbered section does begin “In Plato’s Republic, there is mention of is.” This tone is firm, full of authority, determined to explain how a self-appointed witness can empower History with a personal history, and vice versa. The three numbered sections contribute to this pedagogical effect: the logical argument explained with utmost clarity.

When researching the myth, I found no evidence that McClatchy warped any part of the allusion. He does not make the narrator “unreliable” (a horrible phrase) . He renders the myth accurately. If it was an inaccurate telling of the myth, we could ask ourselves, “Why does tell us this way?” And: “what does this discrepancy say about the narrator’s psyche?”

In other words, the narrator’s lessons are uncorrupted; we can, as far as we can tell, depend on it. If the myth of Er functions as a strict metaphor for the initial narrative, does the poem itself become a pedagogical tool? Does McClatchy’s employment of the metaphor become simply a way of teaching us classical myth?

For me, the question becomes even larger one, why would McClatchy want to write a poem simply applying the myth to broken domestic life?

It seems to me there is something potentially useless in the teaching of myth, something that, perhaps, needs to be questioned in queer poetry. Do allusions literary/classical/biblical more than often serve any function other than to show the comprehensiveness of the writer’s knowledge? Does McClatchy have a new take on the myth? Or for that matter, gay domestic relationships?

I like poems that tell me how to live. I like lectures. Class discussions always bothered me. Why not enlighten the class with the genius of a teacher? Why make students fumble toward the conclusions the teacher will force them to reach

One reading of the inclusion of classical myth in this poem could be explained as a gay poet’s anxiety. I don’t want to offend anyone here; at the same time, it’s important to note that McClatchy as an older, senior poet? He was born in a time when gay material was much more marginalized.

Does he feel compelled to rely on classical myth as a way of legitimizing queer material? Belonging to a different generation of gay men and less accepting heterosexuals, did he once (and still) think that only through allusions could he justify his writing of homosexual domestic life

As a result, he feels compelled to give us a lecture we’ve already heard.

Should we, as gay men, possible, discover our own myths, say, Stonewall or Matthew Shepard, and extrapolate on those? McClatchy’s meticulously crafted poem not only says something we already know, but its lesson could have been written decades ago. Someone as smart and well-read as McClatchy has a responsibility to move beyond the facts of a myth or show us why we need to remain inert.

If he doesn’t, then he will seem as dated to future gay audiences as the myth of Er does to us.


  1. I have always found McClatchy a rather cowardly and archaic poet but one who also sometimes surprised me by what he supported and valued. You do a nice job of raisin the issue of his generation as a gy poet and his multiple sense of audience. Thank you for actualy calling him out, in this small piece, but also for praising his social moves and arguments. A well balanced and honest post.

    sean thomas dougherty

  2. Steve, you ask some wonderful questions. They often come, however, like juggernauts. It's as if you always have to squash the poet to the dimensions of road-kill then guiltily attempt to resurrect their reputations. I think of what you said about love as entertaining another's tedium. (Is love really that?) Boredom and love are so close in your criticism. You love poems to death. You are not, however, boring critically or like some major gay writers critically boring :-).

  3. I wonder about gay artists turning to seriousness to get validation from the heterosexual community. For a while, I felt I was using comedy for the same ends (although didn't realize it at the time) and made a kind of minstrel show out of my poems so that no one would feel uncomfortable or put off by their queer content.

    Do you think gay poets can use seriousness just because the poems themselves are meant to be serious? Consider, I suppose, something like my Matthew Shepard poem as a "serious" piece v. what it would have been like if it used comedy somehow (but how could it?)

  4. Since I'm happy to out myself as friend of Steve, I want to explain my gloss of the poem a bit more fully. Steve is better at reading poems with a little bit of distance and social context. I think I read poems too closely--like there's no air between me and the poem. Not cultural context for me--just the word "er" was enough to make me cringe. McClatchy plays with this Er word, making the "Er" at the end read like an errand but this poem touches in no way upon real obligation. The gloss on the myth offers nothing but happenstance. Er just found himself back at the fire, as much in bewildernment as his parents. The boyfriend, left behind, suffers no sense of obligation either. So why the etymologcial play at the end? The bird pretends to call purposefully but there is no purpose here. Just unfortunate (or lucky) predicament.

  5. Charles-

    Yeah: of course: I think a serious poem doesn't need to contain humor. But I do think a great poem has to possess some new content and/or a creative formal strategy. Yours does both. You offer one way of mythologizing Shepard and it's done with tonal and rhetorical shifts. You invite us into your myth making process with the generous white space, the strategically inconsistent placement of lines on the page.

    My problem with McClatchy is there's nothing new here. Content or form. Someone could have told me that this poem was written in 1840 by one of Wordsworth's less interesting, second-tier poet/friends and I would have believed them.

    I like that you bring up comedy as potentially a concealment of queer rage, etc etc. I'll steal that idea. I know that's always been one of several fundamental self-criticisms of my own work: ingratiating humor so overblown it's embarrassing--affected quirkiness.

    BTW: A cool poet back channeled me and said that you always say great things.

    As for Nik, I don't know who you are. I have no friends named Nik. Super smart ideas, tho. But stop harrasing me. Go troll someone else's blog.