Monthly Archives: April 2014

Butcher’s Road – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

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Lee Thomas has always made the most delicious novels from the most disparate of ingredients. His latest, Butcher’s Road, tosses a ruined pro wrestler, Irish and Italian mobsters, a psychotic hit man, and a secret society out to retrieve a stolen relic into the Thomas Mixmaster, folds in Chicago and New Orleans color circa 1932, dashes of same-sex longing, and a heavy dose of dread and comes out with a powerful, riveting thriller that will satisfy anyone’s hunger for compulsive reading.

Former wrestler Butch Cardinal is muscle for the mob and witnesses a murder while picking up a package. He flees, taking the package with him. And his boss wants it back. Cardinal tries to lay low in New Orleans, but researching the contents of the package — a necklace with a metal pendant called the Galenus Rose — brings him to the attention of those pursuing him. Can he find the answers he’s looking for without destroying himself and the man he’s just learned to care about in the process?

I wouldn’t possibly spoil the answer to that last question except to say that story gets the ending it deserves and not necessarily the one the reader is looking for. As someone who loves having his expectations countered (in fiction, at least), that’s a bloody marvelous occurrence. But many aspects of Butcher’s Road are bloody marvelous, including the character of Butch Cardinal. Not just a mass of muscle, Cardinal has brains, wits, and an uncommon self-awareness that leads him, rightly or wrongly, to the choice he makes at the end of the book. And as many signals as we’re given that that particular outcome will be the one that happens, it’s still a surprise when it does.

Cardinal, however, is not the exception. All of Thomas’s characters pop. Hollis Rossington, Cardinal’s host in New Orleans, is wonderfully world-weary and matches NOLA’s steamy languidity (if it’s not a word, it should be) perfectly. Paul Rabin, the psychotic hit man whose wife has Alzheimer’s, is also multi-leveled, and the team of Hayes and Brand, members of the secret order looking for the Galenus Rose are terrific supporting players. But really each is his own star.

My only quibbles are incredibly minor. Not all these characters, unfortunately, survive to the finale. Although it’s part of Thomas’s plan–and someone has to go–I found myself wanting them to be part of the eventual outcome. I also found when I got to the end, which sees Cardinal squaring off against the mob boss Marco Impelliteri, I wanted to understand more of why Impelliteri wanted the artifact. We get some of that, but a better understanding would have been helpful in fleshing out his motives and how far he’d go to get what he wanted.

Still, this is small potatoes when compared with the masterful storytelling to be had in Butcher’s Road. If you’ve read Thomas before, you won’t be disappointed at all. And if you haven’t, shame on you. This is a wonderful place to start.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Young Digby Swank – Owen Keehnen (Wilde City Press)

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“Only an Irish Catholic could be condemned to eternal Hell, and still worry that life would get worse.”  “Young Digby Swank” by Owen Keehnen

Here we have Digby Swank, an unplanned child whose moment of conception was notable to his mother, Lila, who, with her alcoholic husband, Rog, atop her, uncharacteristically opened her eyes presumably when sperm met egg, saw paint peeling on the ceiling, and said, “That will never do.”

And, alas, it never did really do. At least, for her it didn’t. Knowing no other way to pacify this strange child who seemed intent on further complicating her barely manageable life, she showered with sugar and carbs—a mother’s love through the convenience of consumption.

The infant’s first notable expression was a smirk; his first word was “me.” His first lie was telling his caretaker, Grandma Swank, that he loved her.

Before we continue, an axiom: One doesn’t actually practice Catholicism, rather one is haunted by it. And, perhaps alas—for those of us who understand this axiom—Mister Keehnen’s narrative does haunt…over and over again, at times delightfully darkly so.

Raised in the dreary burg of Running Falls, schooled by nuns at Holy Martyrs School, living in a lower-middle class family, Digby’s world revolved within a kind of Dickensonian cosmos where, I believe, he did the best he could with what he had.

His Grandma Swank was a stern taskmaster whose rosary became a weapon as she swung it at him, the crucifix and beads becoming “…nunchucks of the lord…” intent on exorcising Digby’s left-handedness, something she believed gifted by Satan. Digby’s introspection, however—a key to his persistence in developing whom he would become—allowed him to recognize that he shared a “…commonality between [him and Grandma Swank]…a desire for a more dismal reality, or perhaps a world that more accurately reflected the darkness each harbored inside.” Digby’s environment, his family, his teachers, all of it (the major economic force in Running Falls was the Band-Aid factory, for heaven’s sake!) embraced as the dark sides of an abysmal dream as he submerged within it.

Digby was plump and effeminate. He was flamboyant. He acted out inappropriately amongst his classmates and was taken to task by Sister Clementia for his insistence on over-essing his esses. Sent to the school counselor, the conclusion was that Digby certainly had “…difficulty functioning on a social level at Holy Martyrs.” How could he not, when it was his belief that “God was basically Liberace and His pad was nothing short of a Vegas show palace.”

Oh, let’s just say that Digby was so queer, in so many ways that the multitudinousness of his spirit was self-eclipsing. At one point, he even thought he was the Second Coming incarnate— God Himself. Then, banished from Saint Martyr’s for a time, he found Walter, a student at the public school, who provided a more worldly sophistication for him to emulate. Walter was “…witty, urbane, and slightly aloof. …He was the Noel Coward of the tween set.” And, AND, Walter explained sexual intercourse to Digby, a watershed perhaps, the machinations of which were duly affirmed when he was allowed to return to Saint Martyrs where he found the coolest, most progressive, newly-hired teacher there had become Mister Beloni, who, Digby discovered, had a boyfriend, both cuddling on “…a tasteful avocado couch.” Ahem…

And so it went with Digby until…well, until “…a trim blonde in a Speedo, named Roland, doing laps in a [motel] pool…”

No, I won’t give you the epiphany. You’ll have to read Mister Keehnen’s albeit quite long, but equally insightful, astute, funny, dark study of this boy, Digby Swank…where Mr. Berman is the mailman.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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Spring Poetry Roundup Part II

Joy_ExhaustibleJoy Exhaustible – Assaracus Presents: The Publishers – Edited by Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Leave it to Sibling Rivalry to come up with the great idea of devoting an issue of their Assaracus journal to publishing poetry (and in some cases, prose) by the best and brightest current gay publishers. This volume is an embarrassment of riches for the beautiful and inspiring poetry, the deeply absorbing prose, and the informative articles about the publishing houses. Here you have terrific artists and businessmen like Jameson Currier, Steve Berman, Donald Weise, Felice Picano, Lawrence Schimel, Charlie Bondhus, Ian Young, Perry Brass, John Lauritsen, and Borland and Pennington themselves serving up chunks of their art along with insights about the publishing business in the beginning and now. The treat is in seeing both sides of these talented and driven individuals, giving the reader a feel for the men as well as the work they produce and publish. Rarely have I re-read portions of a book during my review period, but I did just that savoring parts of this collection. You’ll be well-rewarded if you can do the same. We need a second volume for the distaff side, Bryan and Seth. Please.


Hibernation and Other Poems by Bear Bards – Edited by Ron J. Suresha (Bear Bones Books)41tFO-9CvkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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And speaking of terrific ideas (and delectable covers), Ron Suresha has put together an incredible collection of bear poetry from such bearluminaries as Jay Neal, Daniel M. Jaffe, the always welcome and always interesting Jeff Mann, Emanuel Xavier, Owen Keehnan, Raymond Luczak, Alfred C. Corn, Gregg Shapiro, and so many others. From the pitstinkykink of Jack Fritscher’s “Lazy Bear Gym Exercise,” to the delicious “blow for bucks” of Shawn Syms’s “Head Money” to the road story of Dan Stone’s “Goldilocks and the Papa Bear” to the Christmas porn of Jeff Walt’s “Santa,” Hibernation has all of the bear bases covered. But in addition to all the basic reference points, we find some surprises delivered. Miguel Morales turns in an aching ode to aging in “Reflection,” and Rocco Russo delivers some heartfelt discourse on domesticity in “If I had the time”: There goes the buzzer on the dryer and/The bark of the dogs to walk and the towels/To press or was it the sheets to spread…/I had wanted to write you this poem/But alas I will navigate the terrain of/My household and wait to embrace you. As with the previous entry in this roundup, all I can do is ask for more.


ZebraFeathersCover-210x300Zebra Feathers – Morris Stegosaurus (Minor Arcana Press)

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On another side of the genre we find well known furry and performance poet Morris Stegosaurus delivering his first collection to Evan Peterson’s Minor Arcana Press. Absurdist, avant-garde wordplay collides with odd imagery made even more disturbing by its juxtapositioning with common everyday subjects to form a universe uniquely its own. The titles only tell a part of the story: “This is Where Monkeys Fuck Up,” “ Customer Review of Tuscan Whole Milk,” “In Base 13 I Am Still Only 29,” and the bizarre “Only a Puppy May Lick the Drunk Death.” Well, they’re all bizarre, really, but Stegosaurus’s world is so well and completely constructed that if you stick with it, it makes its own sense and never colors outside of its own lines. Its humor and sense of playfulness is evident throughout, including my favorite, “YMCA Debunked”: Contrary to the opinion so eloquently expressed/in the Village People’s 1978 hit single,/staying at the YMCA is an unpleasant affair/to be avoided in all but the most desperate circumstances/…The mattresses are stuffed with bread crusts, and/instead of a Gideon, each bed stand contains a copy/of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition bound in naugahyde. Stegosaurus’s world is well worth the trip.


Purpose & Devil Piss – Robert Siek (Sibling Rivalry Press)Purpose_Cover

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Back to Sibling Rivalry for a wonderful, if harrowing, collection from Robert Siek, Purpose & Devil Piss. Siek’s first collection is a masterwork of dread, menace, and foreboding. Even the most humdrum objects and concepts acquire a weighty danger, much like the clown on the cover–ostensibly cute but kinda creepy. Not that the peril here is supernatural. On the contrary, it comes from addiction, recovery, relationships, memories, and unignorable trauma. This is evident from the opener, “1979,” which name-checks horror movies The Brood and Phantasm and goes on to mention surgical steel, gloves, razors, and sealants. None of these are used on the narrator, of course, but their very presence lends an atmosphere of tension and fear. This is carried through in less obvious ways in such poems as “Leaf Blower,” “Turkey on Saturday,” “Hari-Kiri Holiday,” “Killer’s Morning,” and “Haunted Homo.” The search for a connection, even if it’s only for online sex, is never far behind, as in “Good Wording and Perfect Punctuation,” but even this has hints of danger: Maybe he can make me smile, or maybe he and I will write love poems/or letters or see The Color Purple for the tenth time together./Six different guys listed it as a favorite movie. One chose the book/as his best read ever. Like a homeless man balling pages
from a shredded dictionary and chucking them like basketballs/into a fire-pit garbage can, I continue to survive, to seek love./I forget an ex-boyfriend, a bad dream—an SUV/making a U-turn in the middle of a state highway—/you smash into the side and explode. Siek’s work is not to be read with the lights off.


9781590213551Waxwings – Daniel Nathan Terry (Lethe Press)

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Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings could, on one hand, be called nature poetry, but its meaning and sincerity transcend that (and other) labels. Nature is never far from Terry’s mind, as you can tell from such titles as “Winter Moon,” “Burning the Peach,” “The Swan,” “Snow falls in Hartsville,” “The Witch’s Tree,” and “Landscaper’s Curse,” but what better metaphor for life and all it encompasses is there–especially for one who makes his living with nature as Terry, being a landscaper, does? And Terry’s language is beautiful. It’s measured, intricately-wrought and finely balanced, hardy enough to withstand multiple readings yet so delicate you’re afraid to blink lest a misreading destroy its beauty. But beauty like this is tough to decimate. Although it all works together in concert to form one whole portrait, one of my favorite pieces is the title work, “Waxwings,” which opens: Waiting for the school bus at the end of the gravel drive,/eyes skyward, the boy counts thirty-seven waxwings/necklacing the telephone wire. They are too distant/to see the glistening red drops for which the birds are named,/but he knows they’re there, at the tip of those folded wings/like seals on old correspondence between lovers. Other concerns crop up in this collection such as self-discovery (“Gay Son of a Preacher”), familial relationships (“The Last Christmas with My Brother,” grief (“Late Morning in Oakdale Cemetary”), and the question of whether or not permanence is actually permanent (“In the Tattoo Parlor”), but in the end Waxwings comes down to man’s relationship to the natural world around him, no matter what the setting is. Highly recommended.

And there you have Out in Print’s Spring Poetry Roundup. You owe it to yourself to pick up any or all of these slender collections, whether your interest is in the odd, the beautiful, or the inspiring. It’s a shame fiction writers of our station (and by that, I mean those of us who aren’t Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) make so little money from our craft, but what happens to poets is a crime. Once again, this is my call to support gay poetry so that the amazement can continue.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Spring Poetry Roundup Part I

aprilWhat better time to do the Spring Poetry Roundup than National Poetry month? And I’ll have two installments covering eleven chapbooks and/or regular releases between this week and next. Note that these works may or may not have been released recently, but I’ve only just gotten to them. My apologies to the poets and the publishers, but a mention is a mention, no matter when it comes. I’m always astounded at the quality of poetry I see coming from every corner of the community, and I think you’ll find an astonishing variety in the next couple of weeks.


Between: New Gay Poetry – edited by Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)Between_NewGay_Poetry

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Jameson Currier and Chelsea Station continues to impress with this volume with some very familiar names as well as poets I haven’t read before. The theme of this collection is the relationships between men–gay men and their lovers, spouses, exes, families, and friends. The breadth of this collection is astonishing, from tricks with sailors (David-Matthew Barnes’s “Blue Navy”) to the pangs of settling down (Jeff Mann’s “The Perils of Tres Leches Cake”) to indomitable grandfathers (Peter LeBerge’s “Breaking Open). With some entries heartfelt, some humorous, some hopeful, and some heartily homespun, this overview works best as a sampler of new poets as well as those who have been around a while. Dig in, and maybe you’ll discover a chapbook or two to order.


Broder_cover-213x300This Life Now – Michael Broder (A Midsummer Night’s Press)

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Divided into three sections: “My First Ten Plague Years,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sodomite,” and “This Life Now,” this slim book from Lawrence Schimel’s A Midsummer Night’s Press packs quite the punch. Unlike much poetry about AIDS and the plague, this is not elegiac. It delves into the personal instead, sacrificing the broader points for a much sharper and individualistic perspective. The impact of the first section (as exemplified by the harsh “Tony Poem” and the blunt “Days of 1999”) are somewhat offset by the pre-disease personal history of the second, but the third is the most fully realized, as in the ingenious “Cases,” which examines our relationship to the natural world through a grammatical construct: “Nominative, locus of being;/the river rises, the river falls/The genitive’s whole, that of which one is part,/as the river’s breath that sweetens us/To the dative we abject ourselves,/as to the river we bring what we love.” Playful yet powerful, This Life Now is a thinking man’s ride.


Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues – Walter Beck (Writing Knights Press) 0060-3060-MENTHOL-SLIM-Cover

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Walter Beck is one of my favorite young poets, as much for his attitude as his work. His Hoosier reactionary gonzo alcohol and vitriol fueled raves and rants strike deeply at the core of this old hippie’s soul. Beck may wear his pop culture influences on his sleeve, but he has internalized their lessons, and it’s always a joy to hear where he’s coming from. In this chapbook, Beck has been working for his Wild Turkey and brings us his view of life behind the counter of a gas station convenience store. The titles tell much of the story: “The Ten Commandments For Gas Station Customers,” “Pacing the Cage in #8030,” “The Register’s Shadow,” “Learning to Smile While I Sell You Cigarettes,” “Customer Portrait #3:Eyes of a Killer.” Beck’s work has a plainspoken, Midwestern directness whose underground underpinnings are reactionary and refreshing. If, at times, he sounds beaten down, carving out your own niche is hard work. As he asks in the closing of “Sales Floor Killing Blues”: “A sixty-hour stretch/In a shiny new black shirt/Is it all worth it?/Is it worth growing old and cold/under those fluorescent lights?/Is it worth holding that plastic smile/Until it turns into a scowl?/Is it worth it/To watch your world close in?” We know the answer, and in these days when selling out’s de rigueur, it’s good to know that someone else does too.


midnightnThe Midnight Channel – Evan J. Peterson (Babel/Salvage) 

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Evan Peterson is another of my favorite young poets. Deeply and wonderfully warped by horror/slasher films, Peterson wallows in the genre’s camp and culture and finds heart, soul, and meaning in what others dismiss as mindless. His latest, The Midnight Channel, sharpens (hehehehe) and refines his approach. From the opening piece, “Laurie Strode/Halloween” to the closer, “Ellen Ripley/Alien,” Peterson explores these slasher onslaughts with witty and pointed (okay, I’ll stop now) insight with brief–albeit violent–stopovers in other genres. Among my favorites were “Lucy Harbin/Straight-Jacket,” “Sergeant Neil Howie/The Wicker Man” and “Why I Want to Fuck Norman Bates.” Why would you want to fuck Norman Bates? Well, “He eats candy corn out of a paper bag/He knows how to sew a bird shut and doesn’t mind the sawdust/Even cute when he’s lying/He changes the sheets every week, whether they’ve been slept in or not/He knows how to clean up his own messes/He’s clever.” And, indeed, so is Peterson.


When I Was Straight – Julie Marie Wade (A Midsummer Night’s Press)Wade_cover-212x300

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This collection from Julie Marie Wade illustrates some fundamental truths about the coming out process. Divided into “Before” and “After” sections, the “Before” poems are all variations on “When I Was Straight,” while the “After” poems focus on various people who “Learn I Am a Lesbian.” The insights are certainly not news to anyone in the audience, but their expression is so genuine and wide-eyed, that those feelings of difference and inadequecy and hurt come rushing back. As Wade says, “When I Was Straight/It was like a game of Red Rover &/someone was always being sent over,/flung out into the field of un-belonging/& struggling to break back in/The team that called you didn’t want/you & the team that had you/couldn’t keep you. No one was/content to run or stay put.” As emotional as this is, the “After” poems are almost giddy in their excitement, honesty and irony, as in “When the Whole Office Learns I Am A Lesbian”: “Have you ever been to Provincetown?”/”How did you like ‘Brokeback Mountain’?”/”Do your parents know?”/”My cousin is gay and lives in West Virginia.”/”Was it hard for you in high school?”/”I want you to know I voted for Al Gore.” No matter what changes and how much, some reactions still remain, unfortunately, the same. And Wade has documented them admirably.


Next week, we will be looking at Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings, Robert Siek’s Purpose and Devil Piss, the latest issue of Assaracus and other goodies. Until then, please make an effort to seek out some of these books and chapbooks. Keep gay poetry alive and well.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler



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