It would shock me if poet James Allen Hall has not read A. Loudermilk's inexcusably neglected book "Strange Valentine." It is undoubtedly an important literary predecessor to Hall's own award-winning collection "Now You're the Enemy," which deals with class on its own terms. Both books talk to Saeed Jones' important blog post "The Importance of Class & How to Write Ourselves Back to Relevancy." More complicated in its technique and class analysis, "Strange Valentine" acts as an antidote to the number of the more mediocre poems in Hall's exciting collection. Which is a book obviously by a young talent trying to find his own idiosyncratic vision. I think A. Loudermilk's poems will, if they haven't already, prove to be a touchstone for Hall.
What is instructive about A. Loudermilk's poems is that they refuse in any way to romanticize poverty or at the same make the claim that we're all --even the middle-class--impacted by its reach. Some people do suffer more than others, and to pretend otherwise is a dangerous fallacy. Self-awareness doesn't make you any less culpable for other peoples' predicaments.
The December 2009 issue of the Writer's Chronicle boasted Natasha Saje's annoyingly diplomatic article entitled "Poetry & Ethics: Writing about Others." From the piece, it could be extrapolated that Saje encourages what I see as the inclusion of pathos as a way of mitigating any political discomfort between the poet and marginalized people represented in a poem. In her discussion of Larkin's poem "Faith Healing" she makes the claim that the poem (consisting of a narrator observing a minister's attempt to heal his female congregants.) succeeds. Even though the narrator describes the women as objects, according to Saje, there the poet "seems to recognize what he is doing and he makes himself vulnerable." In other words: allow your narrator to feel a little guilty, and his own sins and the poem's problems will be redeemed. Liberal guilt goes pretty far in Saje's remedies for troubled poems that deal with cultural distances between people. Thankfully, A. Loudermilk avoids Saje's questionable solutions.
Here are the first stanza of A. Loudermilk's poem "Rent":
My bed is on the landlord's floor. His men are in the basement
clattering up dirt rooms where old wood smokes sunlight
chronometrically. They address the rotting timbers. The men
are in the basement, the teeth are on the saw, small mice
they worry, worry, & bed is on the breadth of my landlord's floor.
I love him so much I haven't touched myself for three days.
The initial repetition of passive verbs sets us up for the expectation of plain diction; the moves feel familiar. We've seen one too many depictions of a lonely tenant occupying a dilapidated apartment, feeling the landlord's oppressive presence. But then A. Loudermilk jolts us; that intriguing word-chronometically- takes us by surprise. It's definition --the scientific measurement of time--and its accompanying line break elevates the bleak scene into one containing a surprise: a beauty in the steadfast cycle of nature.
At the same, the word encourages us to see (without romanticization) the workers as doing something important, something that could be mistaken as rote, but isn't, according to A. Loudermilk. Their cleaning up of the outdoors deserves to be named in as precise of a way as possible. It is worthy of any middle-class scientist's job and warrants the same alluring, specialized.
A. Loudermilk refuses to pass over the working-class men's job without any special mention. In the next sentence, the verb "address" confirms this generous class awareness; the men aren't seen as perfunctorily chopping down the trees; instead the workers are speaking to the trees, treating the environment with the dignity they know it deserves.
The one-lined stanza that follows is more than a comic punchline. If this scene appeared in a movie, the landlord would be seen as a cranky obstacle to be avoided. A. Loudermilk allows his narrator to feel a weird identification with him that results in a devotedness. What is a greater display of love for a gay man than abstaining from masturbation?
Here's the rest of the poem "Rent" in its entirety:
First floor, my bed is on the floor. Sing mattress springs
to the trio of hammers against you & I will think of Matthew
in a v-neck romantically. Our bodies full of drum. The men
are in the basement, a claw is at bent nails, my morning
knocks hurry, hurry-rent is due on the landlord's floor.
How refreshing to not make the lower middle class narrator an object of pity, but an oddly romantic figure who takes happy refuge in the shabbiness of his apartment. Hall's poems sometimes unkindly makes his characters' shame feel lurid.
This narrator's "dirt room", his undoubtedly crappy bed, becomes a setting for dumb romantic play. The personification of the singing mattress springs allows for an imaginary threesome between the inanimate, Matthew, his boyfriend or trick, and himself. All bodies should be full of "drum," (and all poems) stealing people away --for a brief moment, anyway--from the lower middle class worries of getting that stupid rent check in on time.
The Writers' Block
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