Thursday, February 10, 2011

On Jeremy Halinen's "What Other Choice"


In 2010, there weren’t very many better books –gay or straight—than Jeremy Halinen’s What Other Choice, which deals with that taboo topic: explicit gay male rage, sometimes evolving into queer-on-queer cruelty.

If there’s any justice (and I believe there is), Halinen’s book will be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

One of an incredible number of stand-out poems includes "My City," which admirably deranges the gay male-best female friend trope. The average poem develops a rocky yet fairly congenial three-way triangle between a gay guy, the aloof male that he's dating, and his female BFF. It ends on an earnest, not sincere, passage where everyone acts reasonable—a quality that queer art and gay male life needs to avoid.

What I love about Halinen's poem is its gross intensification of the queer rage towards the woman for intruding in his affairs. Smartly, Halinen focuses only on the rage. There is no desire to offer expository material; he ditches the narrative arc, if not the story itself. Immediately with droll gallows humor, we get truly shocking, unbridled rage:

When I think of what I know about Spokane,
I think of beating my boyfriend’s best friend
in the Safeway parking lot one evening,

between a Honda Accord and a cart return.

The poem turns on a dime at this point and any preceding comedy dissipates. Jealousy becomes a desire for literal and deeply disturbing violence. The gay male is so angry that his fantasies overstep the boundary of already worrisome imagined violence into a desire to rape, rhetorically, and physically. This poem functions as a critique of gay male misogyny— something demanding of insight:

…It was a sort of
violent surprise
that a bloody nose could turn me on

so much I’d almost wish I were straight enough
to take her home...

Or in an even more aggressive statement later in the poem:

My knuckles reveled in the moment, in the wetness
I’d always known she hid in her.

The connotations in these lines accumulate and amplify one another: “turn me on,” the disgust with the female body (the verb “hid”), and, of course, “to take her home.” To take her home and do what? The inference is unavoidable: he even wants to invert his homosexuality to become a misguided sexual aggressor.

By offering minimal characterization in the poem, Halinen suggests that the problem of gay male misogyny doesn't entirely lie in a particular psychology of a particular homosexual. Instead the hatred may in part lie in the pressure that gay men face often having been denied love so long and sometimes only in particular private spaces. It may seem like a slight extrapolation, but that the imagined psychotic violence happens outside--often where gay male couples are not allowed to show their affection to one another. The fact that his boyfriend and his best friend could engage in an intimacy that he couldn't necessarily reifies his anger. His violent fantasies are pointedly located specifically near the type of grocery story where a lot of heterosexuals display open gestures towards their own nuclear family. Is it really any surprise that in these confines a homosexual male may have to check his own jealous anger? Yet Halinen still evokes the element of surprise by taking it to violent extremes. Misogyny is equated with language that might equally describe a gay bashing.

I’m always suspicious of gay male poetry that alludes to classical mythology or the Bible; gay men need to find their own metaphors rather than seeking ones they know will lead to a perfunctory affirmation of their own education. Yet Halinen’s collection is so strong that when he ends a great poem “Or” with reference to Odysseus, it feels downright necessary. In "Or," a possible definition of gay-on-gay sexual violence comes to the foreground. The poem’s opening: a gay male narrator is waking up from being “cast/in alcohol-and-GHB-/induced sleep.”

And then the charges are disclosed: the narrator's trick is “still/unaware of what/he’s done, blood/and shit and lubricant/and what he left/ to mark, as if it/were his...”

We never know the exact context of this sexual encounter, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it does trigger something much greater than a victim narrative. Instead of seeing his experience as a justified sob story, a narrative about the fear of HIV, the narrator uses this experience as a way of exploring an odd, warped, careful, and perhaps correct philosophical explication of the events.

So original with warping common gay tropes, the poem does what more queer writing needs to do: it tells and doesn’t show. In a world where only just recently, with the repeal of the military's statute, gay men can begin to tell. Which is good. If we want to save our young gay brothers (to the best of our ability) from killing themselves, we need to start telling and and telling and telling some more.

Through a rigorous speech act, the poem opens up a space for the gay male mind trying to make sense of the confusing and tenuous boundaries between sexual aggression and coercion, desire and desperation.

The narrator’s engagement in such issues results in profundity, not one of conclusiveness, but of admirable exasperation:

...as if his flesh

had been a hook,
barbed, that had been,

by me, caught,
as if my body

had been the trap,
the transparent net

lurking
in the fish’s mouth,

and he’d been lucky—
and what other choice,

finally, did he have—

The narrator’s empathy is a horrible thing. In this intellectual inquiry, he decides on a “compassionate” reading of the events. That, though, doesn’t keep him from taking a certain glee in how he’ll anticipate his revenge, something he doesn't need to set in motion, because it already is. The narrator realizes that after the gay man pleasures himself from his transgression (“...yielding no doubt,/an elation stained/with sorrow), he will suffer genuinely sustained loss:

...no less

stinging, loss
of six men—

by Odysseus
as he passed, safe

himself, through
Scylla and Charybdis,

unaware of his ship’s
forthcoming wreck.

Herein lies the narrator’s justifiable nastiness (a word meant neutrally, not pejoratively): he conjures the perpetrator’s loss to be more than a minor one.

Through the literary allusion, the loss becomes an epic one with all-consuming psychic after-effects for the trick, who now may feel distant from those consequences. That’s why the allusion works: it’s embedded as part of the “telling” of the poem’s argument rather than “showing” unnecessary erudition on part of Halinen.

I could happily write about so much more of this book. I would make the claim that “Where There’s a Fist, There’s a Way,” “My Cock Is Climbing Mount Everest,” and, perhaps my favorite, “Note,” prove to be the best poems in an already amazing debut.

Jeremy Halinen's What Other Choice is available through Alibris.