I always feel a slight surge of panic when I write a less than favorable review of a new book of poems by a gay poet--am I ultimately offering a self-critique as opposed to reading the poet on his own terms? am I jealous (yes--I have internalized that much-offered pathology used to immobilize anyone who has any sort of opinion)? and maybe, most importantly, have I overlooked the poet's best work? am I centering my critique around what even the poet would say is his lesser poems? if so, then that really isn't fair. How many poems does any critic really like in a book? I tell my students that if you're wowed by even one, then you should buy it. Without hesitation.
Once I posted my critique of Eric Leigh's book "Harm's Way" I felt that same sort of anxiety. A personal rule of mine: if someone should comment on a post, unless it's an extraordinary circumstance, I don't alter anything I wrote. But I felt a compulsion immediately after I typed that past review to reexamine the book once again. To make sure I had represented my views accurately. And upon reflection I can say that I was right.
It has become a joke, rightly so, in my classes of my use of the word idiosyncratic. In its own way, it is as useless as trotting out the word voice or tone, but I don't care. When students are at a basic level--unable to ask themselves why writing something like "I'm falling down a deep, deep, dark abyss" is maybe not-so-good poetry--you have to be brass tasks: a buzzword isn't a bad thing if it teases out the more peculiar idea within the more generic one.
That's my problem with Leigh's "Harm's Way" --I don't feel that I know who Eric Leigh is--and I don't mean that in terms of the offering of autobiographical material. For example, I think the longest poem in the book reveals Leigh's weaknesses. The poem called "The Dark Light of the Spring" is an eight page, five section poem-- which deals ostensibly with his father. With Leigh's choice to use the poem as a finale to the first part of his book, he corroborates how important this poem is to his project. Not to mention his using the phrase "sickness and health"-- a phrase repeated as the title in the final poem of the book.
"The Dark Light of the Spring" is a maudlin poem about a son and his brother who mourn what appears to be their father's suicide. Here's essentially the thesis of the poem:
An old story but one my father loved: Castor and Pollux,
one brother so unable to live without the other
that their father placed them side by side in the sky.
What he didn't share was this: the truth about stars
in the truth about men. Brothers. Us.
All the tropes of the poem mingle here: the motif of the stars and universe, the love triangle between the father-son-brother, the conflation of familial identity, etc. Leigh typically employs an aphorism when he wants to emphasize a point--he needs to tone that down a bit. A few lines down from the above quotation: "Proximity can be a trick of the light, intimacy/an ever- fluxing span..."
The poem is harmless--it's just difficult to tell whether or not Leigh is a poet or not--and I don't mean this as a quip. There's some potentially intriguing thematics in the poem. At one point, the narrator says:
"Horseshoes and hand grenades,"
my father always said, meaning, "close
but no cigar." Cliches were his home
Is this meant as a critique of the narrator's own words? Isn't star imagery as banal as "close but no cigar." Or in a way am I supposed to see the narrator as jealous of the father--one of the best lines in the poem is that "horseshoes and hand grenades" and he has no choice but to attribute it to his father?
Am I supposed to read the final lines in the second section as a straightforward admission of his own writerly anxiety about his own work even though the lines are embedded in his memories of a father's funeral:
those funeral days when strangers
held us close, apologize for our loss,
as they struggled to anchor
letter to letter, word to sentence,
to forge their way like each of us must
to say something, anything, when nothing is enough.
What's curious about this book is that in a lot of ways it's extremely similar (in terms of its strategically flat diction and tragic domestic family themes, its unyielding privileging of narrative) as James Allen Hall's book "Now You're the Enemy"--also from the University of Arkansas Press, edited by Enid Shomer.
No doubt that Hall has found his own idiosyncratic vision, but it does concern me that the editor Enid Shomer seems to championing the same sort of gay poets. Much in the same way as University of Chicago Press. On one hand, we have The Serious Chronicler of Family Tragedy (Hall is best when he isn't serious) and the other Anglophiles.
Do I think this is a bad thing? No. No, I don't. I can't wait to read Hall's new book, and I look forward to seeing what Leigh can create once he moves beyond this more automatic sort of writing.
When I was at AWP, I was genuinely thrilled to see how many gay books there were. But I am concerned that there's not enough self-reflection among editors (in this case Enid Shomer) of how and why gay men seem to be pushed toward certain set of aesthetics and contents in mainstream (for poetry anyway) publishing.
There are some presses that seem to know and appreciate the need for aesthetic diversity between gay poets themselves. Take Martha Rhodes from Four Way Books. No matter what you may think of the books: Tom Healy, C. Dale Young, and Jason Schneiderman are very, very different poets. I hope more editors/publishers follow her example. Rhodes knows what most people deny: diversity is more than cultural, it is also aesthetic.
Anyone who helps publish gay poets is cool by me, but I shouldn't be asked to be so grateful that I can't hold writers and editors responsible for making their arguments known so that we can avoid making the gay poetry scene as monolithic as it sometimes can be.