Monday, June 1, 2009

On Brent Goodman's Poem "First Queer Poem" in His Collection "The Brother Swimming Beneath Me"

Before I bought Brent Goodman’s collection of poems “The Brother Swimming Beneath Me,” I was concerned about the title. It seemed to me that its baldfacedness could indicate an unwanted sweetness in the poems. For the most part, I was happy to find out that I was wrong.

One of my favorite poems includes the excellent “First Queer Poem” which deals with a different sort of gay male exhaustion than the one I identified in Aaron Smith’s wonderful “Open Letter.” In case you’re interested, here’s the link about Smith’s work:

Goodman’s sonnet also provided a strong directive to the gay male community about what its poetry needs to avoid. Here’s the poem in its entirely:

Of course I shake all my martinis Sapphire,
appreciate art, MFA’d, these shoes international,
chocolate chaise zen-modern, whip-smart attire.
By necktie noose I am a creative professional.

By night I product my hair to a perfect mess,
unwind my tongue around velour conversation.
Oh, do stop. My mirror adores me when I undress,
big boy, abs groomed smooth to chiseled definition.

Eyes up here, buddy. Your future wife is watching.
No secret: married me sometimes rest-stop cruise,
flashing headlights like sad lost deep sea creatures.
I live on the surface. I’m for real: ask me anything.

How dramatic my coming out, tears blurring my eyes.
Father puts his fork down. My mother feigns surprise.

Effective parody is tricky to pull off. Not only do you need to poke fun at your subject, but you also need to show some sort of affection. After all, you once were invested in the more serious aspirations of the material. A lot of parodies transform themselves into mean condescension.

No doubt every young gay writer has valued their own coming out poem, their first sex poem, their derivative I’m-longing-even-more-than-Cavafy-once-did poem, etc. etc. More importantly, we all reveled in the fact that we could write about such novel ideas! To totally dismiss gay male investment in those subjects would be at best unkind.

But Goodman knows better than that. His choice phrasing reveals this mandatory gentleness: “necktie noose,” “velour conversation,” and, of course, that wonderful closing couplet.

(As a teacher, I always find myself surprised when a student tells me his struggle with his identity. “Don’t worry,” I’ve said recently, “Things get worse once you come out. You’ll finally meet the assholes you’ll be dating for the rest of your life.” And then I got my student and myself a Kleenex.)

The sonnet, though, doesn’t balk at revealing its own impatience with the subject matter. A lot of can’t help yawning at the expected tropes, no matter how much we buy in themselves, too afraid to venture into more unexpected, mature terrain.

Even though we, as homosexuals, may understand the needs for this kind of a catharsis, we’re exhausted of having to go through it. Time and time again. It’s as familiar as the plodding rhyme scheme of a sonnet.

For a parody to work, the writer and his audience must be overly familiar with the subject material. That’s what makes parody work: the collective knowingness of the conventions. As Goodman knows, there’s not much space for any more investigation on these subjects ready for parody. You can’t write a parody of a parody.

Only a dumb heterosexual could find pleasure in such repetition.

Then again, with Proposition 8, there might be more than enough of them.


  1. An interesting reading. I appreciate what you say about parody, that it needs to keep a core of empathy or at least sympathy engaged. I think this poem does that.

    But what I like is its impatience, its rushing feel. For me, that evoked the high-energy way I see many young gay men I know rush through their lives, their first relationships—drama, drama, everywhere, everything is heightened emotion and tragedy—all with the certainty of fresh discovery, "no one's ever been through this before!" even though any gay man above the age of 30 could tell dozens of similar stories. So the poems works for me.

    Where I lack patience, in hearing all this all over again and again, is where the poem presents itself as rushing and impatient. For me, one of the ways a poem becomes good is when the style reflects the content: when the container is the appropriate match. This poem does that.

    You speak of the exhaustion of repeated catharsis—or more properly, of being constant witness to an endless stream of new catharsis, as younger men go through the stages of growing up. It's more about going through the known stages of the coming-out process, perhaps, even, than purely about growing up.

    More mature poems from more mature gay poets are sometimes a balance. Although I've noted more than once that growing old doesn't mean growing up, and plenty of drama queens in their 60s never get past the emotiveness depicted of the young in this poem.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Although I do say I love immaturity! And I do plan on talking other aspects of Goodman's poems, particularly his exploration of being Jewish and gay--something I can relate to personally.

    I hope you visit more.

  3. I look forward to it. I've made a link to you from my own gay/arts blog.

    I'm attracted to immaturity, yet also aware of its ephemeral nature. (Well, okay, one hopes it's ephemeral.) :)

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