This was to have been the Fall Poetry Roundup, but the Gay Romance Lit conference in Denver and Naked Heart in Toronto overwhelmed me with reading material, choices, and time consumption. Apologies to the authors and publishers who have been waiting. But it’s all good. And it’s all good stuff, so let’s get to it:
If good poetry is defined as form that touches all senses, Philip F. Clark is a hell of a poet. And he is. The work in The Carnival of Affection reaches deep into sense memory and comes up with some vital and stirring images that will really resonate with gay men of all ages. Consider the encounter in “The Correspondence,” where the narrator composes a letter while having bad sex (it’s grocery lists during Craigslist tricks for me), or one of the poems about parents–particularly the boxing match in “The Fathers” or the slow drip of family secrets in “The Dances.” I also liked the breathless rush of dialogue in “At the Bar,” ending with a delicious bit of irony only the gadfly gay man will truly appreciate. The poems named after men (“Joe,” “Vincent,” “Mitch,” “Martin,” and others) were also favorites of mine, particularly “Joe,” which details a night of lust for a man who lost an eye in a fire:
He wore his fire; half beauty, half beast. His face the deal/breaker every night in the bar, no matter how charming they found him. He/grew used to the averted eyes for years…He settled into unsettling everyone. He was the wallpaper and the fly,/drinking up and taking everything in with his one good eye./The other, a dare of blue glass.
One day, I will try very hard to write a phrase as guilelessly descriptive as “a dare of blue glass.” I doubt I’ll succeed, but until I make the attempt, I’ll have Clark’s work to encourage me.
Sven Davisson doesn’t write enough, but having teased us mercilessly with the odd short story or poem here and there, he’s finally produced his first full-length book of poetry and photography, The Desire Line. It was worth the wait. Except for the title piece, the book is separated into two sections: Memory and Impermanence, leaving me to wonder if the title piece is meant to be where the two meld or where they diverge. The work in the other sections is deceptively simple, full of solid, tangible images that range from celebratory (“Equally Buddha”) to elegiac–more the latter, actually. Elegies abound in both sections, including “Horizons (for Ruth Moore),” a lively and lovely piece about his grandmother, “Eight Dollar George,” about a neighborhood character, and The Jason Cycle of numbered poems at the conclusion of the Memory section. But I keep returning to the title piece again and again, which is where this whole collection comes together for me. It houses all parts of Davisson’s life and serves as both summation and a collection of points of departure:
Papa Legba is at the door–St. Peter at the gate;/Baron Samedi looks on impassively/seeing into two worlds,/absinthe and unmarked graves;/and Our Lady of the Three Marks/sitting in her silence/one hand on her lap the other/holding a pipe to her lips.
Davisson’s photography also comes into play here, many shots of New Orleans rendered in black and white (that choice antithetical to the parade of colors that New Orleans represents). Put them all together, and you have a stunning collection definitely worthy of your time.
Poetry is all about images and feeling, but the best poetry for me–the stuff that really sticks in my heart–tells a story at the same time. Philip Robinson’s chapbook We Still Leave a Legacy works the images like a boss but has strong narrative underpinnings that push his work to another level. The title alone clues you that much of this work is serious and, like the Sven Davisson above, elegiac. However, Robinson’s storytelling skills enable him (and us) to empathize as well as elegize, giving us context. From the heartbreak of “Shanelle’s Song,” which details the murder of a transgender man to the very different heartbreak of “When I Stopped Kissing My Father” to the truly celebratory title piece, Robinson takes us into his world and his arms. His experiences as an educator, his relationships with his family, and his racial identity are all fair game, and he renders all of them in intricately sketched cameos. The only problem with that narrative style is that it poses some difficulty for ‘umble reviewers who want to quote him. However, I can’t do better than the piece which opens the book, “Awakened”:
I woke up with the urge to write and found blood on the floor/The cold bottoms of my feet met the moisture and my heart skipped a beat./The trail’s drippings were warm and wet./The drench sensation merged with the carpet’s beige Shetland./I ran the course which led me to the opened door./I saw my cousin Terence pasted against the field/wielding a knife in his right hand.
One of the authors who blurbed this chapbook called out that first line as heart-wrenching, but I would say arresting. It’s just the thing to lead you into the rest of the book, but you won’t be disappointed no matter where you begin.
In On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: “What is most personal is most universal,” and the very personal poetry of Seth Pennington proves this out. Okay, so all poetry is personal, I hear you say. And you’d have a point. However, Pennington’s work seems more personal than most, more revealing, more of a celebration of his life with Sibling Rivalry owner Bryan Borland. Pennington’s tertulia is exactly what that word means – a social gathering for celebration of the artistic and literary life in which both men are inextricably bound. The snapshot-inspired “Some Birthday,” the intimate “On Love & Mono,” and “Bryan,,” are perfect examples of this. However, this is not Pennington’s only subject. He writes with equal facility about death, especially in the gritty “DNR”:
The suicide is/a mannequin, eyes wide with pupils/floating in skim milk, every part/open: mouth, ears, nostrils, bowels/loosed and piss down to the knee./The suicide is stoic. Bone-faced and bitter/orange skin stretched taut, like/laminate reacting to a heat gun.
His imagery is sharp and clear and his writing economical, all the better to convey the picture of a poet in the midst of his happiness, touched with regret and loss. A wonderful debut.
And there you have it, folks. The Winter Poetry Roundup. I hope these volumes find their way into some Christmas stockings this year.