Sincerely dutiful, gay poet Eric Leigh’s debut book “Harm’s Way” moves through themes that sometimes seem retro, as if it was catapulting us back to the early to mid 1980s, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It doesn't offer retrospective commentary of that time; it feels a bit standoffish in wanting to talk to gay men about the now.
You can feel Leigh sometimes using the pathos of HIV-impacted lives as a way of giving his exploration of family some gravitas. The book's congenial arc gathers momentum even though it feels predetermined.
The final poem “Sickness & Health” exemplifies what’s wrong and right with the book. In a cross-cutting narrative, Leigh has his HIV-positive narrator reflect about his ex-lover and the myth of Persephone. There are some undeniable nice line breaks in its intertwining of myth and experience:
So much time to lose yourself in the glossy pages
of someone else’s sorrow, while you wait,
while you wonder why Persephone chose that one
flower out of all the glade? I do not know
his name, the man who infected me. I know his smile
and lacquered hair...
But why is Leigh writing this poem in a book published in 2010? At one point, he writes in the poem: “You were the nightmare/that we’d forgotten, the tragedy we were told/didn’t happen anymore...” Does that "anymore" refer to us now? In 2004? 1997? 1993? Time for gay men is a precarious thing; with rights being taken away and moving forward, hope for AIDS cures offered and then deflated, we often don't know where we are, as if we're in a busted time machine. And, as in the case of Proposition 8, we often find someone else guiding the control panel, hoping our final destination won't be where we had already landed: mired in federal restrictions that oppress us in crucial aspects of our lives.
Some critics may make the claim that Leigh is more interested in content than form, and no doubt they are right. Personally, I think sometimes our political situation is so urgent that we do need to resort to plain-spoken narrative. Sometimes you sacrifice creativity for immediacy. Leigh's impulses are good here, and I hope he will develop them further.
One significant problem with some of Leigh's narratives, however, is that they can occasionally seem interchangeable with Paul Monette or Essex Hemphill’s landmark work. In the poem “Watching the Virus Attack a Cell” Leigh falls into a popular default mode, making the poem a passive examination of the language surrounding HIV. Leigh writes: “Give me/the cold reserve of your language:/attachment binding, fusion/ You mean to help me understand/how something replicates, loves/itself enough to make more of itself.” Well-intentioned, the poem reads like the Spark Notes of Susan Sontag’s 1988 classic “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors.”
One could see Leigh's poems as a blend of James Allen Hall’s domestic narratives in “Now you’re the Enemy” and Mark Wunderlich’s “The Anchorage” which then, too, offered snapshots of silent daddies and drag queens. Here’s an excerpt from Leigh's “On the Day the Last Drag Queen Leaves Town”:
Truth is you’ll be just fine. Remember, a girl
In high heels can still win a race.
You’re just missing the way she knew you-
The way the tree stump loves the ax,
because the blade still sees a use in an old piece
His analogy is sweet, but Leigh is working too hard to prove his artistic chops--a sign that he may at some time create some great work. But he's not there yet-- too many moments like that (unintentional?) allusion to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree" bog down his attempts.
It may seem to be an act of unkindness to be so critical of a first book by a gay poet, especially one who is still trying to find his subject. With all the difficulties that queers still face in the publishing world, why criticize? At the same time, Leigh's book is filled with dramatic monologues, direct addresses, and second-person narratives; we can't help but think he wants us to react, and how ungenerous it would be not to respond.
In one of his AIDS narrative "Bel Canto for Beginners," Leigh writes:
My first love was a tenor who sang only my name,
stretching those two syllables to their breaking
until his mentor told him, "Right now,"
someone else is practicing-and he will win."
He made a sign of it and hung it in his room.
How many nights my eyes spied that sentence
from his bed.
Autobiographical or not, Leigh could benefit from that same advice. He just needs some practice. From reading a contemporary anthology like David Groff and Phillip Clark's AIDS anthology "Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS" Leigh could "spy" sentences and lines, and, yes, whole poems, that will encourage him to find other rooms--hospital and stanzaic--to nurture what could be a fine career.