Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Dante Micheaux's "Amorous Shepherd"

In the debut book of poems Amorous Shepherd, Dante Micheaux offers an elegy to pioneer African-American gay poet Reginald Shepherd. Micheaux tells him that "you deserve/something radiant...," and then adds, "...if I am to be true/to my aesthetic, elegies should/be more epistle and less ode." It's an intriguing if confusing sentiment: Does Micheaux see it as an act of kindness to letter-write to the dead, so the spirit doesn't need to respond right away? What can you do if you are the listener? Ignore the speaker or offer a quick, spontaneous, and most likely insufficient reply?

As in the case of the great Shepherd elegy, entitled "Goodbye, Curmudgeon," and others, Micheaux does his best work when he resists his friend Shepherd's influences: Shepherd's haughty lyricism and reliance on Greek myth.

One of the best poems of the book "And If I Break You Are You Mine?" shows off Micheaux's writing at its best. Michaeaux writes: "If you were here, it would be different/somehow; I wouldn't be held back,/separated by the ocean..." With the most subtle of line breaks, the placing of the "somehow" on the next line, Micheaux transforms what could easily have been a banality into a comic exasperation and a tragic disappointment. In the final of the three stanza poems, Micheaux declares: "I'm just an ordinary demon outside/your door; it will be me or another,/so I'll ask the question again." The line break that initially separates the door from the more general outside becomes a threshold, intensifying the threat. These subtleties are sometimes abandoned when he deals with broader historical material.

At the same time, I was also troubled by an elegy to 15-year-old Lawrence King, who was murdered for being gay. Micheaux creates the "The Boy in Highheeled Boots" as an ode: "If you want cute boots, you have to buy/the expensive kind, you said--/and I bet that's where you've gone; to a shoe store in the valley..." This opening leaps to a comic childhood memory of a friend who answered the door in his mother's "mock-croc pumps." The poem then comes full circle with an ending too conclusive in its sentiment: "When your classmate let the bullet fly,/you clicked those $30 knock off heels./Now you're back where you belong." Micheaux seems too eager--perhaps understandably so-- to put the events to rest. Perhaps a letter, the sheer messiness of that sort of composition, would have created more satisfying ambiguities than an overdetermined ode with a far too pat ending for the event it describes.

Sometimes these more tepid moves infest his poems that deal with Greek myth. In "Pentheus Up in Drag," Micheaux writes: "I'll show my mother how to be a queen./How to sit exemplar. How to decree with a nod or a slow blink." You can feel the impact of J.D. McClatchy or Richard Howard--it's difficult for young gay writers not to succumb to the lure of inserting mythical poems into their books. When those older writers did it, it was almost necessary; it gave the queer poems a sense of legitimacy. By asserting classical allusions, the poems anchored themselves into the History of Literature and made them more defensible. Now those choices seem at times less erudite and more a failure of imagination. Why not invent our own myths?

Often Micheaux excels when dealing with explicitly sexual material. In the poem "Analingus," the speaker pontificates about how he learned fellatio: maybe he "...watched his addict mother being coaxed/into it by a john or learned it the way/most things are passed down: in secret." What ultimately becomes a seedy aphorism has a low-down enjoyably gossipy feel. Another strong example is the poem "Daddy-O", dedicated to a Venus Thrash: "She's real smooth/parquet smooth, smooth like danger,/Great Uncle Chooly/smooth, brown skin on a/backside smooth...creeping through the/window smooth,/panty-dropping smooth..." Here, he relies on silly rhythms for fun and a liberated coherence,
instead of more general thematic inquiries.

Micheaux's better poems make me want to read more. Whether Micheaux champions the ode or the letter is insignificant, his chief focus should be on establishing his own myth-making, as he does in his elegy to Shepherd. In one of my favorite passages in the entire book, he tells his dead friend how he feels: "...you lived/in Florida and, as much/as you loved your quiet life,/you died in summer/and I just couldn't be bothered,/and it was The Panhandle no less,/and you shouldn't have been there." Direct yet blithe, Micheaux offer tough-love in a more poetic way than any of the hijinks of some overexposed Greek gods ever could.

Dante Micheaux's Amorous Shepherd is available by clicking on the book image (above) or through Sheep Meadow Press.