Presence – Scott Wiggerman (Pecan Grove Press)
Confessions of an Empty Purse – S. McDonald (Frontenac House, Ltd.)
‘Tis Pity – David Bateman (Frontenac House, Ltd.)
The Sensual World Re-Emerges – Eleanor Lerman (Sarabande Books)
It might be difficult to believe, but the early years of the gay liberation movement were accompanied by an explosion of poetry. Among the women poets that stood out then (and now too) were June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Judy Grahn. But the gay male poets from England and the U.S. in that era were really too many to count: and the work of people like Sandro Penna. Takahashi, and Constantin Cavafy was just coming out in translation. A few years later, some of America’s best poets would come out also: Thom Gunn, James Merrill, Richard Howard, et al.
As one of the earliest of gay publishers, through SeaHorse Press, I confidently published editions of two thousand copies of poetry by myself, Dennis Cooper. Rudy Kikel, Mark Ameen, and Gavin Dillard in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Most of those books had to be reprinted once or twice in equal quantities because of demand. Poetry spoke to us directly then. Indeed, I was certain enough of the power of gay poetry that I gave a reading from my book, The Deformity Lover, at that most infradig of Manhattan private clubs, Flamingo, before a night of debauched dance in 1979. This probably sounds like an Age of Fable to poets today who are happy to get a few hundred copies out, but it is true.
Partly, I think, it was because we were in a hurry and didn’t have time for reading novels: after all we were busy creating a Lesbian and Gay Culture, experimenting here and there, trying this and that. Good poetry is instant and memorable. You can read ten lines in a few minutes and say “Yes. That’s exactly it.” At that time we were describing and explicating our selves and our experiences rapidly: Experimenting like mad. My title poem began, “The first one he loved – an accident/– was a deaf-mute/golden lean as a/ West Coast basketball star.” Who doesn’t get that? Cooper’s first collection was titled Idols and we all knew precisely who those guys were, both the Shaun Cassidys and the Seans across the street. Himself an excellent poet of a later generation, Walter Holland, taught a gay poetry seminar at The New School, and he called us Post-Stonewall writers “The Gilded Poets,” which others likened to The Silver Poets of 16th Century England.
Today few gay poets are well known or well read. Deservedly, Mark Doty, is one, so are Alfred Corn, David Groff, and J.D. McKlatchy. But, more off the track, I can recommend Jeff Mann’s Ash, Trebor Healey’s Sweet Son of Pan, Emmanuel Xavier’s Americano and Carlos T. Mock’s Infinitas. And check out the titles that Assaracus puts out. The cohesiveness inherent in announcing, declaring and explaining “gay” is gone. Instead there’s a wonderful and intrepid variety of unique voices.
The four books reviewed here represent a sampling of what I consider some of the most interesting voices available today and while they by no means demarcate anything as clear as a trend or a school, they do show what Queer writers are doing with verse to make it new and individual.
Eleanor Lerman’s poetry is so reminiscent, it seems familiar. She grabs your ear like the Ancient Mariner grabbed Samuel T.’s narrator and you listen: She opens with:
The body, which used to
float down the boulevards, wraithlike
radiating attraction, topped by
a face like a knife with a baby pout
now refuses to get out of bed
Why? Ask it. Go on, anyone
So this is a poetry of mature reflection as well as accusation. But by the middle of her collection, in the poem, “Rehoboth,” she can relax into:
Did I leave out that I miss you,
Whoever you are? That I don’t
need your help, but I wish that you
would come and live with me
Upstairs, there are empty rooms
and the curtains move with the breezes
someday it will be spring again,
come home, come home
Torontoan, S. McDonald’s Confession of An Empty Purse at first glance seems like the good old gay poetry. But if the Tallulah-esque drawing on the front cover wasn’t a clue, some titles are: “transsexuals on parliament,” “dr. renee richards or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the gender variant,” “our lady of playtex,” and ‘too big for high-heels.” This is on-the-street, in the women’s aisles of department stores poetry by a TG who knows everything and shall clue you in, ruthlessly, heartlessly, entertainingly, in perfect meter. As in “a round white suitcase.”
I used to want a
round white suitcase
with a long strap handle
You know, something
Julie Christie would have used
It’s so sly that you read on and are not anywhere ready for the end:
round white suitcase
like a host
who pass me by:
But then reality sets in for McDonald, as it does in “Slip” Here is the entire poem:
I want to be as thin as the scars on my wrists.
Another Canadian David Bateman is more, shall we say, Jacobean. In the aptly named ‘Tis Pity, the author is pictured on the cover of the book, in what might be Sascha-Fierce-TG -drag. But the poetry inside is often as personal as it gets, and at times funny and horrible and moving all at the same time. In a major poem on what it is to be infected with HIV, “What’s it like” he opens with a dialogue of an unspecified “she” asking exactly that. He begins to answer:
Uh, well, it’s just great, sweetheart
It’s given me a whole new lease on life
mind this lease is quite a bit shorter
than the last one I had
but I still love this one
it makes me look at a beautiful sunset and say
“Hey look at that, eh, its another bloody beautiful sunset.”
Bateman then takes the question onto an entire life and death and everything in between journey, well worth reading for the mental gyrations and emotional gymnastics filled with personal and cultural references that you simply know have to accompany such a diagnosis. He places himself
On the gutsucking soil of some posing-as-meek colonialist
it is a terrifying comfort
that’s what its like
it’s the only way to fly.
I’ve got some favorite poems here. “Mist” is impossible to describe, a Debussyan adventure in sense and texture and sound. Far easier is “why did you have to go to a car wash on the way to our mother’s funeral?” A question posed to a hetero older brother that is both hysterically funny and at the same time a real look at how utterly and painfully different sibling’s sensibilities can be, even at such a momentous occasion.
I love you a lot
but I love pretentious cafes more
outlandishly small entrees served in the middle of a
pristine white plate
smeared elegantly with pureed broccoli
sour apple martinis with a slice of
green apple on the rim
and people who know enough not to take me with them
to the car wash
on the way to my mother’s funeral.
But if the last two writers can be said to represent “edgy” who could be more down-home than Texan, Scott Wiggerman? His latest collection, Presence, is divided into sections denoted by the four elements, with a fifth, Sprituality, added on. These well-wrought poems, often in classic forms like sonnets and sestinas, deal with art and artists domestic life, relationships (“Skin, Power Outage, Shoot-Out”) landscapes and still-life, and are not very different from many of his Southern or Midwestern straight peers.
Take “The Chosen,” for example, about the animals in Noah’s Ark. As Wiggerman imagines them:
Sex, too, proved suscepitble to boredom
soon the cobras claimed headaches;
even the rabbits agreed to separate berths.
And his take on relationships is calm, considered, and deadly. In “Prespective” he writes
I will never know at what point
I started to disappear
to fitler away like hourglass sand …
But then we arrive at Wiggerman’s gay themed poems (“Family Will, Coming-ut, Letter to my Father-In Law” etc )and these are the artistic,considered and consolidated emotions of a strong, politically uncompromising, out gay man.
In “Coming Out,” the poets provides a long, curously familiar development of a man coming out with all of its side trips and illusions busted. Concluding
I have lived this poem
for enough of a lifetime
but no more
I’ve come too far
to ever go back.
And in his “Letter to My Father in Law, i.e. to his lover’s parent, who “stares through him like glass,” he opens ruthlessly:
I rode your son hard last night,
Broke him like a wild stallion.
Head pulled back, nostrils wide as moons
Feral cries piercing midnight’s marrow.
Both of us panting at breakneck speed
The rank sweat of man transformed to beast
Effusive as newly drilled oil.
You must know about cowboys and oil.
It’s a killer of a poem, the kind of thing you and I always wished we could say to someone who hates us but who is so close to someone we love.
Presence is exactly that: a major poetic presence. Highly recommended.
© , 2013, Felice Picano