Friday, April 23, 2010

On Stephen S. Mills' Poem "Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran" from the most recent issue of "knockout"

In the Spring 2010 issue of knockout, I came across a brave poem entitled “Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran” by emerging poet Stephen S. Mills, who makes a complicated argument that addresses among other issues the controversial issue of bareback sex in the gay community.

In the poem, a middle-class man projects his apprehensions about going to Iran upon his partner:

You want to see the spot where they hang boys

for sodomy, want to feel the danger of being two men

together, of being caught in the act, one behind the other.

And the self-indictment grows as the poem continues in blunt and admirably unsparing ways:

...You are unmoved by my politically correct

pleas for respect to culture, to a religion that isn’t ours to have.

Fuck religion you say, and I want to agree.

Yet fear you long to be hanged, that the martyr in you

is desperate to get out, biting at your ribcage,

tearing at your flesh.

The final stanza of the poem develops the complicated theme:

But by morning you’ll back out, rip our plane tickets

into pieces, and we’ll lie in bed watching CNN,

fucking without condoms until everything burns.

You can’t help but admire the ambiguity of this closure: are we meant to see the “fucking without condoms” as an equivalent of “longing to be hanged”? Except that it takes place in ostensibly safe domestic sphere?

Or are we meant to consider bareback sex can be an opportunity for solace in a world that advocates for violence against gays. If people are encouraged to harm the gay male body, can bareback sex be seen as a form of queer radicalism—we’re risking the safety of our bodies in the way we choose.

It’s no coincidence that the poem ends with the word “burning.” On the most obvious level, the poem can be said to see bareback sex as a comfort in a world plagued with political national crises, leading perhaps to its imminent destruction: a burning from weapons of mass destruction.

But you can also see the “burning” as the result of a sexual disease, say, gonorrhea or chlamydia—which provides another ambiguity. Are we supposed to see the closure as an ironic reversal: American gays are in their own way causing their own physical pain as much as governmental sanctions in Iran.

Or again, is the gay male choice of engaging in risky sex an acceptable way of defending himself? If an aspect of sexual pleasure is to take your bodies to spaces it has never gone before, pushing your body beyond its past limits, cannot a secure private space where one can make choices, be oddly the most safe? Is the poem a refusal of the demonization of bareback sex as a necessary gesture of resistance against gay hatred or is it a critique of risky sexual activities that could lead to the destruction of the body, a self-imposed and misguided "marytrdom"?

What is remarkable about Stephen S. Mills' poem is that it doesn't take any easy way out, nor close off a conversation on bareback sex. In a mere three lines, a final stanza, he opens up a dialogue in a way that I haven't seen from a gay male poet. From his contributors' notes, he doesn't have a book of poems out yet. With as important and, dare I say, "risky" work as this, I look forward to it.

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