Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Gay Male Despondency: A Square-off Between James Cihlar and Alex Dimitrov in The American Poetry Review

James Cihlar
Alex Dimitrov
In the September/October 2011 issue of The American Poetry Review, and only a few pages apart, there are two poems which deal with the issue of gay male despondency. With the frustrating, even if successful, queer movement, exhaustion and depression occur in both the private and public realms. Very rarely do gay poets make this emotional state the subject of their poems; its something that occupies the edges.  These days, it could be seen inaccurately as total resignation and not empowering. This is unfortunate for gay male poets who are in desperate need of new subject matter. Going to your first drag show, or seducing the football jock, can only go so far.

Alex Dimitrov's "Darling" and James Cihlar's "The Projectionist" approach the topic in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. The latter poem is the superior of the two; it not only has a more sophistical stance and curious tonalities, but it also avoids the sometimes overly-familiar feel of the former (a shame, since the poet in question there has produced much more interesting work).

Dimitrov's poem seems to use the subject of gay male despondency as a predictable pose rather a line of inquiry.  Pose and artifice are not necessarily bad things-- they can be invigorating-- but here it needs a boost.  "Darling," I'm tempted to tell this poem, "have a Red Bull."

More on that later, but first, the poem with what you could call the more "effervescent" despondency(!).  Deadpan is a pretty hard thing to do well. And perhaps, it's impossible to deal with the subject of despondency at all without some sort of use of this device. The title of Cihlar's poem "The Projectionist" is an obvious key on how to read the poem. The projectionist refers not only to the limitations of the escapism of movie-watching, but also a psychological coping mechanism. Here's the opening:

Is it pathetic to see the insides outside?
Matthew Arnold thought the sea was sad,
then he realized it was him.

I don't know how the world works,
how a friend becomes a stranger,
what a murder looks like on the face,

a hurricane. Brush lightly as you pass.
Sometimes an age just ends.

The poem is essentially a litany. What is exciting is the way it doesn't overwork the typical strategy of creating (what the writer thinks is) a sneakily revealed emotional crescendo resulting in a far-fetched epiphany. The poem just seems to "happen," much in the same way he declares life does. With grace, he constructs a strategically blithe inevitability:

...Celluloid culture
becomes cellular culture.
Anita Hill's college students

didn't know who she was.
We all get ahead on someone else's pain.
Once you start rewinding,

you have to go back to the beginning.

Unforced and unhurried, the poem's refusal to judge human nature, while at the same time, offering a comic disappointment toward what it entails, guides the poem to its charged closure:

We all get ahead on someone else's pain.
Once you start rewinding,

you have to go back to the beginning.
Everything we touch becomes infected.
I won't end like that. No rosebud,

no I don't give a damn, no lovers on the beach.
Dial it back to Paul Henreid in a white dinner jacket.
It's good to feel generous.

Does the "generosity" refer to the actual mission of his job in that he is in charge of offering these transcendent moments? Because he is the one who changes those reels, "dialing" the footage back night after night, he gives audience after audience the pleasure of projecting their desires upon these characters. They gain by the rote nature of his profession, making his job as something other than benign drudgery, but a useful, unappreciated "generosity."

To a certain degree, the poem's casual open-endedness allows for a mystery, something special created in what could be viewed as a despondency a gay writer sees in the world.

In the same issue of American Poetry Review, Alex Dimitrov's poem "Darling" is showcased. The title immediately announces that the poem will at least be in part about queer affectation. This could be a fun idea, if the poem lived up to that promise with inventive word choice and less middle-of-the-road syntax.  Dimitrov begins with a clear yet uninspired image of gay male despondency: "The days fall out of your pockets one after the other./Soon you'll need a new jacket with tougher leather/..."

The five (unrhymed except for the first) couplets that make up the poem continue in the same vein. We're given the stereotypical images of loneliness: "Soon you'll bring/the old books into your bed and sleep easy/and alone. It must be December again." Unfortunately, the laconic, deadening pose never reads as if its in tension with anything else--diction, imagery, larger philosophical inquiry, tangents, etc. This causes the poem to feel self-satisfied. It revels in its own despondency, but unfortunately yields only what feels like an unproductive self-romanticization. 

A little affectation is not necessarily a bad thing. Having lived in Western New York for seven years, I actually crave it--there's only so much rural earnestness I can take. However, the poem doesn't own it.  And if you're going to draw from the old and oft-used well of "winter" and "sleep" and the like, it would be good to drop that bucket down deeper, bring up something with a little more depth of cold and dream.

Here's the closure of his poem: "With heavy black boots/in a calm procession of darling and honey--they walk up and down the narrow streets of your heart." (Does any gay man use the word "darling" anymore? It oddly dates the poem. You feel the poem was written by someone in the Violet Quill Club, not the Wilde Boys.)

It's a shame, too. Dimitrov has written some really good poems. I happen to like "Passage" which appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Boston Review. He manages to reference both Hart Crane and Orpheus in a way that feels contemporary and sincere. It's difficult to do. I hope his book, Begging for It, which is coming out from Four Way Books, avoids the sort of phoniness in a poem like Darling.  Or else wildly polishes the idea of artifice and phoniness until it burns.  Dimitrov has the talent to do it-- let's see if he does.

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