Queer poet Rigoberto Gonzalez is a master of languid creepiness.
This daring artistry creates a profound unsettling effect for the reader, necessarily challenging commonplace gay male domestic narratives, prized in most circles, limiting more complicated inquiries into gay male lives.
In his prose, Gonzalez has articulated the importance of the possible and necessary intersection of aesthetics and politics. His poems "Other Victims" and "My Crush on the Crisis Counselor" should satisfy anyone suspicious of such a mingling.
Refusing to conventionally write about the expected gay themes (first sexual experience, first trip to gay bar, first encounter with a drag queen), Gonzalez permits his poems to ooze with the matters of lust and disgust, often embodied in the idea of compassion. In a way I wish could have avoided the employment of the word ooze, but Gonzalez in his obsession with the grotesque, makes such words appropriate to define his vision.
This artistry happens not only through strategically deranged word choice, but also disturbing themes, often considered taboo in gay male literature such as what could be called invisible ways gay lovers "abuse" one another. It's daring to deal with the lack of fulfillment within gay male relationships. If read against the grain, the poem also deals with the potential jealousy gay men feel toward martyred victims such as Matthew Shepard. All this is done with a morbidly comic confidence.
There are a number of important poems in his book Other Fugitives and Other Strangers that demonstrate this affinity with taboo themes. Other than the ones mentioned, these touch a nerve in me: "Rapist: A Romance," "Body, Anti-Body," "The Strangers Who Find Me in the Woods."
It’s expected but not wholly unnecessary that a gay poet make his themes accessible to a straight audience, revealing the commonality of experience. To a certain degree, Gonzalez resists this verisimilitude, and we’re thankful.
I’d like to focus my energy on "Other Victims" and "My Crush on My Crisis Counselor." Here’s the opening:
Thank heavens for victims who find their way
to folly. They walk on the lean streets in your place
and into a world rich with abuses. Their fates would have
no place to shine if not for that journey, the possible
headlines, and sigh pushed out by the odd relief that
it wasn’t you. You are lucky.
As in many of Gonzalez’s poems, he shows himself strategically contorting the meaning of compassion.
Yes: the spectacle of a gay male victim’s death, such as that of Matthew Shepard, functions as a wake-up call to gay men regularly denied access to some surprising public spaces that should be safe such as streets at nights. Gay-bashers (even the police) create a world “rich with abuses.”
But the poem presents another wise ambiguity: homosexuals are bonded as a result of these tragic deaths. The compassion that arises for these victims arises from the idea of thankfulness: “Thank God, another faggot died, and not me.” It's not uncomplicated mourning.
The spectacle of a gay man’s death can provide a panacea to a homosexuals’ worst fears. Immersed in a compassionate mourning for another queer, you lose sight of the potential threats of violence to yourself. Another gay man's tragedy allows you to relax. This creepiness is not located in an individual's psyche. We, a conspiracy of gay men, happily dwell in this psychological space. Notice the use of third person "you" as opposed to the first person "I." This also could be embodied in the title. Is the relationship of the victim to his oppressor the connection of gay men to a heterosexually-defined oppressor or simply another homosexual?
This uncomfortable idea of compassion infiltrates a lot of his work. Look no further than “My Crush on My Crisis Counselor.” One could say it functions as a sequel to the “plot” of this poem and a continued investigation of the limitations of compassion. You could say the third person “you” in “Other People’s Victims” transforms after the consistent threat of tragedy into a more urgent first person, needful of psychological support. Look at how the client to the “Crisis Counselor” immediately projects (and possibly not) a jadedness toward the fact that gay men statistically often are more likely to kill themselves from outside pressures:
How is it, good doctor,
that your eye won’t dry up,
soaking up dawn after dawn
of would-be suicides?
The pupil floats as rigid
as a lily pad over that
polluted iris, crystallized
into bulletproof glass.
"Other Victims" begins the wonderfully twisted inquiry into that compassion. It raises the idea of gay male jealousy towards members of community who do die as a result of homophobic violence. After all, the victims cash in on a world “rich” with abuses. And this yields a “shining,” a certain fame in the form of “possible headlines.” Where does this leave gay men who deal with the threat day in and day out? Matthew Shepard may live on as a myth, but what about the gay men who still live in this world? Our lives are ignored now, and with that fact, we can't fathom that our suffering will provide any relief for anyone else. There's only so many spots for immorality, and Matthew Shepard took one of the few.
Perhaps we're supposed to read the sentence "You are lucky" as sarcasm. Or perhaps even more the tone of that sentence can be seen as an intriguing gesture of disappointment.
Regardless the narrator tells us we are lucky. But then spends two of the poem’s three stanzas warning us of the unremarkable, daily instances of domestic "abuse", perhaps what should be our most highly privileged fear:
...The man you live with
would never kill you, not in the violent way
other people die, all horror trick theatrics with costumes
so dirty they could only thrive in other parts of town,...
In other words: there is substantially less of a chance that, you, as a gay male, would become a public spectacle of violence. Think about Shepard’s death –the tying of his torn body to a fence. To a degree, these public lynchings are a distant reality; how can gay men live with the threat day in and day out? At the same time, gay men suffer from the violence, literal and metaphorical, in their own homes all the time.
Those small acts of domestic unkindness have cumulatively harsh results.
Obviously, not all domestic "violence" is literal, or at all has the same root cause as a gay bashing, but the sheer pressures of outside terror takes its effect on a homosexual’s psyche and by inevitable consequence, his lover’s. The effects may result in various, subtle ways: neglect, alcoholism or pharmaceuticals (“a poison that falls in love/with your sleep”), and the stress of caretaking: "A compassionate man, he won't let you die/in public, or alone." This much-needed domestic assistance could possibly be (or not) a result of homophobic violence. How can our private, domestic life not be altered in a deleterious way if the world will “let” us “die/in public, or “alone"?
Rather than offering a mere description of this domestic "abuse," like most queer poets, he offers an incisive political analysis as to how it comes to be.
In contrast to our outdated gay poets like Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, and J.D. McClatchy, who sadly never shed their feathers as “culture-vultures” –Corn’s own self-description, not mine- Gonzalez draws undoubtedly upon new, important myths, such as Matthew Shepard.
The younger and most important queer poets have realized that you can only go so far reinventing those classical myths. And let’s be honest: those books are old.
We need new ways of analyzing our lives, new pages that have only begun to be written by poets such as Rigoberto Gonzalez.