Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Robin Ekiss' Poem "Contemplating Quiet"

No doubt I’ve shamelessly used heterosexual women as a way of proving my own self-worth in the public realm. I can remember times in graduate school, when I somewhat unconsciously, somewhat not, pursued the friendship of the most attractive women, using them as ornaments, hoping that their presence would bolster my social status. I don't mean to say that I didn't love these women. I did. But every relationship has a more insidious side worth identifying. There is too often an unchallenged romanticism of gay male-straight female relationships.

This was not a result of low self-esteem instead it was of hubris. I deserved to have the most appealing women surrounding me. When I discovered my social status was threatened by my enemy—another gay man—I worked fast. I was paranoid enough to think that if I somewhat ditched my somewhat less attractive female friend for a more striking looking woman, I would appear even more cool. After three years, this gay man and I ran into each other at a conference, and both of us confessed that we were insecure dorks, nervous to go to gay bars even though we both had been out for years. To fill our lack of a queer social life, we surrounded ourselves us with great women.

This is what makes our typical gay male behavior more sexist: without a care in the world, we ditched them once we had the nerve to start fucking the men we thought had hot chests. (As you can tell from my posts, I have a pectoral muscle fetish--it's because I was never breastfed.)

I don’t know the poet Robin Ekiss—absolutely have no knowledge of her. But she and Denise Duhamel would make me feel popular if we were paling around with each other. I must admit that because Duhamel chose my book in a contest I felt hip for a period of time. Like I had something gay men wanted. Like I was "in." It wore off after awhile, or at least I feel the need to pretend it did.

When it was first published, I missed Ekiss' "Contemplating Quiet." Which bums me out. It is one of the kindest recent portrayals of queer men. For me, it matters that it was written by a heterosexual woman. I hope she's happy in a marriage. (The only woman I wished bad things upon was a woman who told me that she wanted another gay graduate student to have a threesome with her and her husband in front of me and the other queer. She then realized she ignored me and said, "I'm sure you would be that bad either." I put a curse on her unborn kid; I wanted him to become Damien from the Omen. And he did.)

"Contemplating Quiet" details “the first marriage/of sound and image:/seventeen seconds of film/in which two men are dancing/to the wheedling strains of a violin.” It's true that one of the first movies with pre-recorded sounded ever made was created for Thomas Edison in 1895. The experiment almost failed. Only partial synchronization happened.

The experimental movie features two men dancing. Is the duo gay? Who knows? But I prefer to think yes. And if not gay, then undeniably queer; no expected heterosexual coupling appears. It’s weird to me that I haven’t found a homosexual poet deal with this important part of queer history. Here's the link to the film:

"Contemplating Quiet" then goes on to further describe the fleeting movie in terms of what isn’t present:

nothing to imagine
beyond the frame, one man's song
buzzing the air again and again

like bees bearding the wall
of a hive, as if to prove
its existence unaltered

by the loop of history.

This is what impresses me about the poem: Ekiss’ refusal to psychologize these queers. By allowing the queer spectacle to remain a spectacle, by refusing to add anything more, she reveals a deep sensitivity. She doesn't bolster her poem through presuming what’s in their head, what she thinks may garner sympathy for these men. Generously allowing their image to remain untainted, she excels.

Ekiss shows these queers as a dancing couple. Nothing necessarily more, definitely nothing less. As a poet, she doesn’t barge into the image and take center-stage. This is an act of kindness. In one of the rare times she begins to extrapolate from the image, she offers mere rhetorical questions and then immediately pulls back:

What synchronized mystery
accompanies them?
to hold us so tightly in their grasp

Did they suffer in silence
or because of it?

It goes without saying that the "mystery" is potential homosexuality; the silence can be read as a not-naming of gay identity. Her refusal to convey invisible suffering is commendable. Lesser heterosexual writers would go for such an easy, useless approach. Straight people have a hard job in making homosexuals feel comfortable. On one level, they need to name their gay friends and family as queer as an acknowledgment of the difficulties they face; at the same time, they need to know when such labels don't matter.

The poem concludes with a final imperative:

In the space between

notes, the absence of women
is easily accounted for,
but an echo leaves the room

for sound. To contemplate quiet,
shut your mouth, as they did,
until nothing comes out.

By elevating these men into models (role models?) of behavior, she transforms and normalizes queer behavior, possibly even the expression of sexual desire. The stridency embedded in the final lines (the words aggressively say "shut" your mouth not simply "close" it) tries to protect these queer men from judgmental language. It doesn't matter if the speech results from curiosity or dismay; Ekiss pretty much refuses to give anyone, including herself, permission to distract them. She instructs her presumably heterosexual audience to watch the image and their own reactions with kind, generous silence.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

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