One of the exciting things about being a critic is when you find a poem that you’re enthusiastic about by a writer you had previously dismissed.
This is what recently happened to me with gay poet Jericho Brown.
Without qualification, I can say that I thought his book Please was one of the most over-hyped books the year it was released. I admittedly had nothing more than a tepid response to what I felt were its fairly ingratiating representations of bad sex and domestic abuse. The book’s organization of the extended conceit of a recorder seemed mannered, much in the same way as Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, which brought her to fame. With Brown, you have the recorder (poet) playing songs (poems); with Gluck, you have the gardener (poet) planting flowers (poems). People seem to like books that flaunt their cleverness in guiding them through easy metaphors, and their obvious transitions, and definite circular natures. Brown does it through his musical allusions and self-consciously labeled and organized sections reflecting that of an album.
People got really angry by what I wrote, and I wasn’t exactly sure why the defenses were so stern and automatic, especially since I had said some equally unfavorable things about other poets.
But I shook it off, and tried to read the book again—maybe I had missed something. I did, and still couldn’t find anything that really engaged me. The poems seemed at best fine.
Now much time has lapsed. In a recent period of boredom, I found myself surfing the web for a gay poem that I could focus on. I came across a poem entitled “Contrast” that appeared on Verse Daily. It first appeared in Copper Nickel. I almost ignored the poem because its title is at best forgettable.
But the first three couplets intrigued me:
I want to relax, but it’s April. My students cross and un-
Cross bare legs as if one must Take a turn holding the other
Down. Earth opens into 18...
Combined with the metonymy of the legs, the line breaks amplify the actual physical motion of the bodily restlessness. The raw sexuality submerges and emerges itself in a fun lurid way. And then it allows itself to transform itself into something larger with fierce lyricism. Here’s the rest of the poem:
...Earth opens into 18 stems, each limb, every stem,
Battling the next, all erect Enough to win. I live with
disease instead of a lover. We take turns doing bad things
To my body. We share a house But do not speak. Both eat
What I feed. Spring is a leg And can’t be covered. One day,
I was born. That was long ago.
This admirably compressed lyric manages to revitalize pretty familiar tropes: the seasons, suppressed sexuality, rebirth through its sardonic sense of humor: referring to spring “as a leg,” the welcome nastiness of “doing bad things/To my body,” nature’s erectness not necessarily achieving its full virility, but it being enough “to win.”
And the final two lines are near perfect. The penultimate line takes on two different charged meaning depending on how you read it. You almost (and I do) want to insert what could be seen as an implicit “for” between the beginning and ending fragments so that it “And cant be covered for a day”—claiming that nature, sexuality can’t be repressed. This reading accentuates the final line as more of an unreserved declaration, a claim devoid of longing.
This offers a bold ambiguity in its closure: is the birth being longed for or is it being boldly rejected? And if one is to read this as an AIDS poem, one cannot help but applaud the poem for managing to offer these two seemingly contradictory feelings. It subverts the idea of AIDS as simple disease, and perhaps, even of an empowerment, a defiant rejection of the sentimentality of rebirth.
It’s funny, when I read this poem to a friend, he asked me if it changed my opinion of his book. In keeping with the spirit of the poem, I told the truth: no. The past was not born anew; it was still the past. All I can say is I hope this is the future of Brown’s new work, because I like this present.
Jericho Brown's Please is available through New Issues Poetry & Prose or click on the book image (above) for more information.
When you’re gay and young, there are words you cannot say, or at least, may be afraid to say, or taken on additional meaning when someone else says them. Faggot, queer, homosexual, cocksucker, gay, etc. etc. Because of the dangers of these words, you are inevitably impacted as a writer. Vocabularies are charged, dangerous, if not fatal. You cannot “happen” to be subjected to these loaded words. You are these loaded words. You cannot “happen” to be a gay poet. You are a gay poet. To pretend you “happen” to be a gay poet is essentially to be still in the closet, dealing with your own self-hatred.
Once I came out in college, I joined a Speakers Bureau in which three open queers were sent to classrooms to tell Human Sexuality classes what the "homosexual lifestyle" was like. Whenever I went to speak, I admired the way the other speakers said how their lives had “got better.” They gained a significant other, went to more parties, and developed a greater number of friendships.
When I came out, I said, it was strange, nothing much happened; I was still waiting.
How long have you been waiting? someone asked.
Four years, I said.
The class asked, but didn’t your life get better?
I said, not as far as I could tell. Nothing much happened. Maybe I missed something.
Once one of the other speakers took me after class and said that if I couldn’t at least pretend to be more well-adjusted that I should stick to help making floats for the next pride rally.
My freshman year of college I joined a speech team—you had to perform what would amount to a serio-comic after-dinner speech in various classrooms, competing against other students. There was someone who ranked you on content and delivery ---three different judges, three performances. The only reason I participated was you traveled on the weekends to other colleges. Translation: I didn’t have to accept that I had no one to hang out with on Friday and Saturday night.
My speech was about not being "The Ideal Male." It was all a huge self-deprecating joke about my weight and effeminate nature. Not once did I ever use the word gay. Or homosexual.
I remember the first time I competed. I knew it was well-written speech, even if unfinished, and I predictably forgot an entire section, making it far shorter than the time requirement.
I was a disaster. I didn’t care about my scores. I just wanted to go home—I was already planning what I would do as my two other roommates went to Bible study and then came home and watched The Blues Brothers. They did this every weekend night. I can still remember huge patches of that movie by heart. Ask me sometime to recite it to you.
But something weird happened. I won the tournament. I was shocked. I thought there was a miscount until I kept winning tournament after tournament. I ended up a national champion in After Dinner Speaking for the American Forensics Association. Look it up.
After the season ended, a speech coach from another team came up to me and said, “Next year you’re not going to be able to play yourself. That is the reason you won after all. It was a smart move. No doubt you knew most of the judges would be gay. How could they deny you a trophy based on your content?”
“But I never said I was gay,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
A few week ago a friend came up to me and said, I heard all you teach is gay material. I was upset and went into my office and examined all my syllabi. Here are the books I’m using in my classes this semester:
Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line by Sean Thomas Dougherty This Noisy Egg by Nicole Walker Red Fort Border by Kiki Petrosino Teahouse of the Almighty by Patricia Smith The Tunnel by Russell Edson Recyclopedia by Haryette Mullen AM/PM by Amelia Gray The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
And two anthologies:
Seriously Funny edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman
As far as I know, none of these anthologists or writers are gay/lesbian. I felt the need to emphasize this fact to my friend. “Look,” I said, taking out my syllabi, “Here’s the evidence I don’t just teach gays and lesbians.”
“Evidence?” my friend said, “Evidence for what?”
In the wake of these recent publicized suicides (though, unfortunately, it may be a misconception that the problem is simply getting worse-- and not that it's been this bad for a long time) Dan Savage now has an important project titled "It Gets Better." For this project, members of the GLBT community, both famous and not-so-famous, make videos telling about how their lives have changed and improved since their youth. The project is intended to give young GLBT people hope and offer the idea of a better world to those contemplating suicide.
Does "it get better"?
Ask me now. Even for me, chubby, geeky, I have found happiness with my partner, and I found love.
Things aren't perfect by any means, but they sure as hell are better than they once were.
And despite all the words and all the stupid shit gay people hear in our lives, that's enough reason for anybody to live.
Steve Fellner's second book of poems The Weary World Rejoices was published last year. His first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award.
His memoir, All Screwed Up, focuses on his relationship with his ex-trampoline champion mother.