Friday, April 17, 2009

On Benjamin S. Grossberg's Poem "Blue -Black" from His New Collection Sweet Core Orchard

Courageous. Whenever someone praises a book for its courage, I expect to hate it.

With the rise of the annoyingly territorial label "Creative Non-Fiction" (we need to make sure we're not confused with those "uncreative" academic types), we rotely celebrate trauma. Writing trauma is seen as courageous. You're baring your soul for all to see. Critics often forget that one benefits in disclosing the private. That's what people want and what people give their money to read. Buying a book is confirmation of love. We overlook true courage: formal invention. Once again. For a sob story.

Who wants to hang out with someone who’s courageous? Except another noble dullard?

No one would describe Grossberg’s Blue-Black as a courageous poem. In fact, I think a lot of people would skip over it. Or their criticisms would be obvious. Too glib. Too understated. Well-crafted, but not all that substantial.

Despite all of its strength I cited in the previous post, “Prayer of the Back Handed” knows it’s a Serious Poem dealing with an Important Issue, and, while that doesn’t necessarily diminish its aesthetic virtues, I believe that it limits its ability of to see abuse in a new light. No surprise that Jericho Brown almost, but not quite, resorts to a pat even if effective transcendent move:

God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward into fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

Brown redeems those closing lines with the final two words: excuse me.

Which I read as deliberately ambiguous. We may see is as a meek pitiful plea. Or as a justifiably snide refusal to accept the abuse. With a similar inflection you might use when a careless waiter bumps into you. I prefer the latter.

Whenever you fear Brown may go in a predictable direction, he subverts it to an extent. However, Grossberg envisions a wholly new take on the abuse poem. Here it is in its entirety:


standard poodle. His dog
had a seizure before

I was in the apartment two minutes:
pointed its snout to the ceiling

and froze up, stiffened, emitted
no high, penetrating whine. Just

silence. Later, in bed,
he explained it had been

beaten severely as a pup. But
that it was still a good dog. Nice

to be able to share the intimate details
of his dog’s childhood

afterward, our pillow talk. He was
the first man I’ve ever been with who

faked an orgasm. Or maybe others
faked it better. Not to be

a cad, I asked. He kept his body
to the side and quietly explained that

“there wasn’t a lot.” “What’s with
your dog,” I said,

swinging my feet off the bed
to the pile of clothes on the floor, his

and mine. Poodle rescue. He’d hoped
to show the dog, even had

its hair cut right, undignified
for such a serious-looking animal.

You know, once you’ve had sex
with enough men, you learn to draw

reasonably accurate conclusions; this guy
was molested young. How

do I know that? I laced my boots
while he told me about the time he tried

to show the dog. It was too timid.
Wouldn’t even enter the room; all

its training went out the window. Partially
I know by the behavior

he coaxed me into: the scripted
entrances and exits, the cues, props

to appear in one act, to be fitfully
discharged in another. His script:

neither violent, nor elegant, but
his pleasure had no part in it. The dog

approached again
after I dressed, laid its black head

on my knee and looked up
with vulnerable eyes.

I cupped its head briefly in my lap
stroked its ears.

He was out of the room by then
so I spoke to the animal. “You’re

a good boy,” I said. “A good boy.”

Poets interested in abuse often create a tortured first-person protagonist offering a litany of violations. This well-meaning dull narrative intensifies the obvious: people are abused, and that’s a bad thing. No matter how well-crafted the poem, it doesn’t offer new ways of thinking about the relationship between the abused and his audience, author and reader.

Grossberg does something quite special.

His poem is a meditation about the limits of empathy.

Unlike Tayson and Brown, Grossberg rejects the desire to pathologize the victim. The first two authors illustrate the familiar: the immediate suffering of all involved, perhaps with some blurring of the dichotomy of victim and victimizer. Content-wise, they don’t do much else.

On the surface, Grossberg establishes what should be a simple story. Gay Man and his trick arrive at trick’s apartment. The trick’s dog suffers a seizure. That doesn’t keep them from going to bed together. An intimate moment is shared. When trick leaves room, Gay Man pets dog’s head. The end.

Here’s the rub: The intimate moment belongs to the narrator himself, no sweet engagement with the trick.

The protagonist presumes that his trick was abused, molested when a kid.

No actual confession of abuse in the poem surfaces. The presumed victim never says anything about his childhood. No doubt the poem suggest the possibility none occurred. The trick’s failure to orgasm precludes the narrator’s assumption of abuse.

The narrator needs to feel better about himself and his own insignificant comic tragedy: the trick didn’t come. As a result, the narrator all too conveniently improvises an abuse narrative.

Can we not see the narrator as a stand-in for narrative and lyric poets? We devise abuse stories to secure our own worthiness. In a self-delusional way, we write the abuse of others to secure our own artistic (or in the case of the narrator, physical) idea of success: a poem, or a satisfying fuck. Or maybe both.

When we write others’ suffering, we realize someone is worse off than ourselves. Which is solace. Which is proof of our own artistic and emotional maturity. And we want to show the world we are, indeed, compassionate.

Perhaps this is why so many critics routinely praise poems like Tayson’s and Brown’s. This is not in any way a particular criticism of their work. But instead a necessary identification, and maybe, an explanation as to why some equal, if not better, work finds itself ignored. Tayson and Brown’s abused characters, imagined or not, allow us to congratulate ourselves as concerned, moral readers.

Grossberg’s poem crashes this grossly symbiotic relationship. We refuse to identify with the obnoxious, insensitive narrator. Out of fear our voyeuristic motives may not be altruistic as well, we need to distance ourselves. Remember how the narrator eliminates any nuance in the trick’s behavior: “I know by the behavior/he coaxed me into: the scripted/entrances and exits, the cues/props to appear in one act, to be fitfully discharge/in another.”

Which is more scripted: the easy explanation of abuse, or the trick’s alleged pathological behavior?

Look at the mentions of the theatre, the script, performance. Grossberg makes his narrator use a form of the word “script” twice: "the scripted entrances. Not to mention that the narrator says, “His script:/neither violent not elegant, but/his pleasure had no part in it.” The narrator’s cynicism is as staged for himself as our need to write an abuse narrative, even if possibly and most likely unwarranted, benefiting only ourselves.

The ill dog inspires no sympathy from the narrator except for a perfunctory petting. Which makes him feel good about himself. Unconsciously, he uses it as a way of distancing himself from his trick, and yet purging an innate need to offer something to someone.

And more importantly who is a dog in the exchange of the Victim Narrative Poem? The audience too willing to eat up the stories? Or the ingratiating victim, forced to run around, hoping to be petted once they share their misery? Or that literal pooch who doesn’t have a care in the world?


  1. A curious trio of readings. The Tayson poem is easily dispensed with. Tasteless. That leaves a duo, Brown and Grossberg. I'd have thought that a sort of fair test ought to have beem applied. But not so. With Brown, you focus on details, to fault the language. With Grossberg you focus on general tone, avoiding the flatness of language, even its dullness. This allows you to go from general tone to a generalisation about how Grossberg's poem shows a new tone and approach to abuse. To me, your reading is interesting, but partisan. I don't think you're comparing a god-like poem and a demi-god poem, just comparing two different, well-written poems.

  2. Hi Eshuneutics.

    Thank God I have someone so smart responding to my blog. Even though you're wrong whenever you disagree with me. :)

    The Grossberg poem is meant to be flat. Understated to the point of deadness. That's the point: there is a horrible jadedness in the narrator which reflects his lack of kindness.

    If you look at Grossberg's line breaks closely, I know you would agree that they are at least in the same range as Brown's. If there was a self-conscious striving for music, the poem would undoubtedly a failure. Don't you think?

    Confession: Do I think they are two different, well-written poems? Of course.

    I am though the kind of person who around Christmas time gets excited about Top 10 Lists. I love looking at what movie critics name the Top 10 movies of the year. Is it an absurd enterprise? Of course, but it's a fun game.

    Just like the Lambda or Publishing Triangle or National Book Critics Circle Award. I want someone to ask me to judge one of those. I have a decent mind.

    Also: why is everyone so protective of Jericho Brown's book? It feel like it's blasphemy to critique it. He's a big boy; he put it in the public realm--he can handle it.

    BTW No one ever invites me to be on their AWP Panel. Are you going? These American gays ignore me. We need to rent a duplex.

  3. Dr. Fellner - What does it mean if I gave this post a day's worth of serious thought and consideration and came up with only the same things to say that were my initial reactions?

    I was by far more interested in the Grossberg poem. Let's yawn right past that first one you had up there, if you don't mind?

    Okay, the first thing I noticed about "Blue-Black" and what you had to say about it was that we had pretty different readings of the poem.

    First thing I have to ask: what's a "trick?" Which one of these characters did you say was the "trick?" the narrator or the man he sleeps with? Because I figured that trick was basically a term for like, someone you paid for sex, like a prostitute, at which point, I would have thought that the narrator was the prostitute... but that doesn't matter. To me, let them just be the narrator and the guy with the dog. Getting too far into terms is probably wasting time.

    Okay. You seem to, if I'm reading your post right, take it that the guy who owns the dog was the one who was abused. Evidence: he faked an orgasm. But that's where I read it completely differently.

    I read this poem as being about the narrator's abuse. He's defensive of the dog's history, the dog's haircut. He's preoccupied with the dog, not with the man he's sleeping with... so I wrote the man he slept with off.

    When I first read this, I imagined that it should be a short story, but then I wondered why make it a poem? Wouldn't the narrative come out better, with more room for everything involved in it, in a short story? And the answer I came up with seemed to correspond with my original feelings about the poem.

    The narrator is in a stage of dealing with his own abuse that has him displacing it, not confronting it. Notice all of the line breaks he takes in the middle of the narration? He's literally picking up his baggage and placing it somewhere else.

    I liked that this made it completely different from the standard, air your shit, abuse piece. For some people, before they can deal with their own problems, they feel the need to sit around and try to fix everybody else's, or think about everybody else's... or figure out the whys behind things that are going on with other people. In this way, they ignore themselves, pick up all of their problems and work them out being sympathetic "good friends" to other people with problems. I'm glad somebody is taking a different tact about dealing with abuse in poetry.

  4. Hi,

    Trick=any man you do for a night. Maybe two. No long term or even ultimately short term commitment.

    So you're saying the narrator is projecting through his trick (ie the man with dog)????