Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the Coming Out Narrative and Matthew Hittinger's "Two Men on a Bed"

Call me naïve, but I always expect true excellence to found immediately.

Can I blame discrimination against queers as a reason for a number of gay male poets don’t find their books in print? Or is that too easy? Is it just a simple fact that it takes a lot of tries and chance to find publication?

Whatever the reason, Matthew Hittinger and Eduardo Corral should already have their books published. If there’s any justice in the world, they will receive a number of awards when they do.

I have never met these two poets; I don’t really have any desire to do so. I haven’t even had a conversation with them. They were two of the very first bloggers I began to read.

Charming bloggers tend to morph into cloying dullards in real life.

I’ve only met two gay poets in real life. One was nice. For the five minutes we talked. One scurried away from me within seconds. I’d rather not repeat the experience.

But I do like repeating the fun inherent in (re)reading Hittinger’s poems.

For this post, I want to talk about his poem “Two Men on a Bed”’s reinvention of the coming out narrative.

It made its appearance in Issue Three of a literary magazine I never heard of. It’s called Ouroboros and includes other poems by queer poets like Dustin Brookshire.

For some time, I’ve been bored with this genre of The First Gay Sexual Experience Poem. Proposition 8 effects adults not children. In terms of content, aren’t the ways in which we suffer as adults at least as important as the strangeness of our more youthful days?

Not to mention that the coming-out-narrative often lends itself to sentimentality. In these days, this doesn’t do us much good. We can fawn over our dumb childhoods after we’re given our equal rights.

When I read Hittinger’s poem “Two Men on a Bed,” I realized how wrong I was. You could use the coming-out story as a vehicle for a vital investigation of art, perspective, and time.

Here’s the terrific opening of “Two Men on a Bed”:

sounded erotic: affix homo
and you qualify desire not bodies: but suggested

a plot a scene and that word history: so let me
invert sequence and dispense three facts: Francis

Bacon’s 1953 composition echoed in 1887 photo
by Edward Muybridge: and I write, type this

rather: in early 2003: one hundred thirty-four years
since homosexuality came to be: forget history:

its language bores me: let’s trace memory: first
time I was one of two men on a bed: July 1997:

want details: our bodies blurred where they met
in shadow...

How great to see A.R. Ammons influencing a younger poet! Lately, I’ve read one too many gay poets claim as inspiration the stodgy work of Donald Justice or the mostly facile Alberto Rios. It’s especially disconcerting when the poet has already way exceeded his mentors’ work.

In “Two Men on a Bed”’s opening, you can see Ammons’ impact: the colons, the discursiveness, the sudden shifts in tone. I love the litany of historical dates segueing so naturally into the personal. His casual, comic-asides pump more fun into the poem. As Hittinger writes: “forget history: its language bores me." One of the best tossed-off lines I’ve read this year.

But most importantly, Hittinger unerringly synthesizes whimsy with larger epistemological inquiry. His work in this area rivals the better sections in Ammon’s stellar, Pulitzer-Prize nominated Garbage.

An authentic inquisitiveness pervades the poem. After the beginning, Hittinger, from a distance, further describes the physicality of the scene. And then he offers a helpful art lesson:

...who’s on top: well that depends at which

point you enter how the body bends and how you
decide to plot the bodies and bed if you feel anchored

by a room’s rectangle or a sphere’s gravity...

Hittinger’s measured gentlemanliness , almost Southern in its hospitality, never feels simply rhetorical or insincere. He even makes an off-color joke or two that momma would not approve of:

...should I pull these
shapes out of focus mute the palette: would you

rather words like mount slime teeth bared-
like-an animal: I draw lines

With Proposition 8, so many gay poets understandably want to issue unequivocal statements, unyielding answers. The political realms begs for that fortitude. In poetry, we need someone who still inquires rather than tells. Hittinger does this. Through relaxed persistence, he doesn’t let gay men forget their own bodies.

Hittinger’s euphonic yet melancholy tentativeness inspires. The government may want to deny gay men our bodies, but through poetry, no matter the limits of words, a little (even if tainted) hope remains:

..if I describe two

bodies as ashen pasty ghostly must I also urge
words like sinister wail and should I pursue

bars or can I exit through streaks that rise fall
fold and splay like a thin but shimmering veil

1 comment:

  1. Matthew is a doll---on and off the page. He also has some work up in The Smoking Poet. I think you'd like it, Steve. (