A Romantic Mann – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m one of Jeff Mann’s biggest fans and have been since his Lambda award winning collection of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire. But beyond his BDSM leanings, his tales of rough sex with country boys, his scholarly yet confessional essays, and his Civil War fiction, his poetry absolutely staggers me. A Romantic Mann is a terrific collection that gathers some of his best work in one slim, yet powerful volume.

No less than Trebor Healey, a marvelous poet in his own right, calls Mann “the gay epic poet of our age” in a blurb on the back of the back. While some of this can naturally be attributed to creeping blurb hyperbole, there is a great deal of truth in Healey’s assessment. I can think of many gay poets today, but none has mastered the epic sweep and the grandeur of Jeff Mann.

A Romantic Mann is split into four parts: the first dealing with romanticism (though this pops up other places as well), the second has a musical theme, the third has a homespun Appalachian bent along with some poems reacting to the student massacre at Virginia Tech where Mann teachers, and the fourth features poems with European locales.

It has been said if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed romantic. Mann’s cynicism is evident, but he fully admits his marred romanticism, especially in a thoughtful trilogy: “The Failed Romantic Contemplates Suicide,” “The Failed Romantic Discovers Amy’s Hot Pepper Relish,” and “The Failed Romantic Seduces a Blueberry Bar.” But no matter how Mann contemplates, he always retains a sense of humor. From the first poem of the trilogy comes this brilliant bit:

He would leap now, but who would/write his elegy better than he?/He plucks at his collar and wonders/how did Heathcliff avoid lint?

Food is also never far from Mann’s mind. The aforementioned hot pepper relish and blueberry bars aside, Mann is both a gourmet and a gourmand. The detailing of a sumptuous feast at “Galatoire’s” followed by “The Men of Taco Bell,” which has another of my favorite few lines:

We eat slowly to put off heading home/We plan how to fill our evenings./We undress burrito supremes and fajita wraps/from their coy paper clothing./The tortillas resist our teeth, then yield like skin.

But whether Mann is name-checking his favorite foods (“Sunday Morning Biscuits,” “Feasting in the Aftermath”) or his musical idols (Joni Mitchell in “Ionian” and Simon and Garfunkel in “Dorian”), his agenda is always epic, and he always keeps his poetic eye on how the detail fits in with the larger picture as in another of my favorites here, “Homomonument, Amsterdam.”

 …we sit together, knee to knee/in the Dutch sun’s imprimatur,/dipping frites into mayonnaise,/feeding each other./Perfect photo opportunity for those/in tour boats who float by. They listen to/the story of the Homomonument, point us out—/living examples!–aim their cameras. Smile.

Mann’s poetry is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s a treat to have all these pieces from various magazines and anthologies bound in one adroitly organized anthology. If you’ve never read Mann’s verse before, you really should. It’s epic in a way you’ll never forget.

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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