I believe the dead listen to us. After his poetic mentor, Ai, died, Rigoberto Gonzalez wrote quite movingly about her: "Even in my third book (which I dedicate to her memory) I can still detect traces of her influence--we shared a love for the dark and disturbing narratives and gave them homes on the page."
Never mawkish in his elegiac statements regarding Ai, Gonzalez has always appeared respectful and honorable. No doubt Ai appreciates his prose tributes, but I strongly believe what would matter most to her is the development of his poems. With Black Blossoms, his new collection, Gonzalez has performed the ultimate tribute: he has made his poems better than hers. I have no doubt she is still listening and learning from his work.
As an undergraduate, I was introduced to Ai in my first poetry workshop. I remember reading Cruelty and The Killing Floor and being shocked and relieved that someone could write about lower middle-class people with such determination. Ai truly strove to have an empathetic imagination and risked the potential failure and the predictable criticism that comes with it. I can still remember various Ai dramatic monologues: a boy who has just murdered his family; an aborted fetus; James Dean. Over the years, when I've returned to the poems of Ai, I've grown more ambivalent about her work. It's too easy to say that the poems are sensationalistic, exploitative. It is one of inevitable dangers of writing persona poems; it's a pretty boring knee-jerk liberal criticism--you're exploiting a certain class of people. However, truth be told, sometimes Ai did just that.
Gonzalez's poems, though, offer a generous and urgent corrective of her occasional limitations. Through his extraordinary use of figurative language, he reveals that a wholly self-conscious aesthetic can triumph over a flat, journalistic one. To defend Ai, I think that her desire to tone down the language was most likely the belief that understatement works best when dealing with sex and violence. By rarely, if ever, challenging this assumption in her work, her books become somewhat repetitive. Through what I see as honorably defying Ai, Gonzalez reveals the breadth and depth of what a personae poem can do.
One of Gonzalez's recurring trademarks is his obsession with similes. Due to spiritual reasons, I've always been suspicious of them. Why not accept the fact that everything in this universe is on some level uniquely its own? To imply that something is "like" something else is to ungenerously take away from the thing's specialness. But in Black Blossoms, Gonzalez's book, which consists largely of persona poems, the figurative language is used less to compare but to show a different side, a nuance, or a shocking oddity of and within the same thing.
In the poem "Flor de Muerto, Flor de Fuego," Gonzalez exhibits this masterfully. Here's the opening. Pay particular attention to the two similes embedded in the rhetorical questions:
Cempoalxochitl. Marigold. Flower,
the scent of cold knuckles delights you, as does
the answer to death's riddles:
What's the girth of the hermit tongue once it retreats
into the throat and settles like a teabag?
What complaints do feet make when they tire of pointing
up and fold flat like a fan of poker cards?
Or take notice of the unexpected similes in the poem "Floricuatro":
Every birthday you eat a year off your mother's life--your mother plucked
in parts, petal by petal like the schizophrenic daisy, stares down as her heart
bubbles out vulnerable as yolk.
The list could go on indefinitely. But I must add one last one which is the opening of "The Mortician's Daughter Dies Each Night":
"When my father laughs my stomach scatters in the wind like hay."
Teabags, a fan of poker cards, a schizophrenic daisy, yolk, and --yes!-- even hay. What an odd and fascinating list of things juxtaposed in a single book of poems. By inserting these sort of images in a book that deals significantly with the grotesque, decaying bodies, political injustice, and violence, Gonzalez's relies on similes to create an intimacy with the reader (you might not understand mental illness, but you can imagine a daisy!).
At the same time, he pushes the reader away by forcing them to remember that all they're doing is reading a poem with strategically artful language. The self-consciously slippery poetic language acknowledges that these personaes, these "scoundrels" (to use Ai's word) cannot be captured. They haven't found a home in life or on Gonzalez's pages. He's acknowledging them in a supremely graceful and ethical way. Also, he gives the grotesque, the tragic some sort of relief. Rather than affirm the horrible with a comparison to a grotesque object, he offers the reader a kind of momentary solace; he doesn't want to add insult to injury.
Another prime example of how Gonzalez achieves this is through metaphor in the poem entitled "Mise-En-Scene." After the title, it appears "after Lizzie Borden." Then the actual poem begins:
You are not a woman
you are not a ghost,
or the shrill that makes the neighbor's hounds abort.
You are not a space between buildings,
not wind tunnel or porthole
through which the indigent cat slips in and out of its coma.
You aren't the hermetic door with its back to the street,
You are not the center.
You are not the interruption of the window
surprising the postman as he skips the tin mailbox once more.
Every person in this house has died.
You buried your mother with a plum pit in her throat...
This poem is merciful. Gonzalez allows the narrator of the poem acknowledges his own failure in his need to "capture" Lizzie Borden. Gender is but only one of ways Gonzalez does this, creating a wonderful, peculiar jitteriness
You are not the dress
that opens from the outside like an iron gate,
you're not the stupid woman
with her finger shoved inside her mouth.
When she goes up in flames
she will melt into the fruit bowl.
You are not the fire, you are not the bowl.
There's what I like to call a discursive lyricism operating in Gonzalez's poems. Although the poems are long-lined (at least much more so than in his last book, Fugitives and Other Strangers), Gonzalez interweaves just the right amount of figurative language with a necessary talkiness in the speech of these tragic personaes.. To limit, as Ai did, your characters' speech into "chopped" prose, isn't fair--they deserve the space, a large enough space, to explore their thoughts, motivations behind their unsavory actions. Paradoxically, as the personae of Marisol in "The Mortician's Bride Says I'm Yours" says, "Sound is death because it's /irretrievable and every time I speak I die a little more."
If it wasn't sacrilegious to insist, I would say that through the splendor of Gonzalez's poems, he allows them to live once again in every delicate, precarious way they deserve.
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:
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.
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.