Monthly Archives: September 2019

Anais Nin at the Grand Guignol – Robert Levy (Lethe Press)

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Anais Nin (1903-1977) was a woman writer ahead of her time. Born to Cuban parents in France, she was trilingual in her lifetime. She lived in Paris with her banker/filmmaker husband from 1924 to 1939, when she wisely escaped to New York in time to avoid the German occupation of France. She became known for her apparently tell-all journals, published in edited form while she was alive, which revealed her emotional sensitivity, her bohemian lifestyle, and her affairs with several famous men. She was persuaded to publish her erotic short stories, originally written for a mysterious private patron. Anais Nin has been a role model for erotic writers ever since.

After Nin’s death, the 1990 film Henry and June popularized one phase of her life in Paris, when she was in an erotic triangle with American writer Henry Miller and his wife June. In 1992, her diary from 1932-34 was republished with all the censored information restored, including her affair with her own father, a musician and composer.

Was Anais Nin drawn to Le Theatre Grand Guignol? This doesn’t seem clear from the existing records, but Robert Levy’s fictional version of one of Nin’s diaries from 1933 is uncannily plausible.

The “Grand Guignol” was a small theater in a former church in Paris where the gothic architecture perfectly suited the gruesome subject-matter of the plays performed there. Established in the fin-de-siecle (1897), it attracted a cult following into the 1930s, but attendance declined after the real-life atrocities of the Occupation and the Holocaust. The theater closed in 1962.

In Levy’s version, Anais Nin goes to the theater with her husband, Hugo, and both are aroused by a scene in which a doctor mutilates a female patient. Anais responds to her husband’s “squirming:”

“I bring his hand to my lips and kiss his knuckles, the room electrified with murmurs and movement as the patrons resettle in their seats. Like me, they are unsure how to feel, how best to absorb and respond to what has just taken place before them. Did they see their own objects of desire and longing in the patient, the way that I saw June? Did it make them feel the same exquisite satisfaction, the first twinge of a new and awakening pleasure inside?”

Between trysts with her lover, Henry Miller (after June’s departure from them both), writing sessions, and appointments with her real-life psychoanalyst, Dr. Allendy, Anais returns to the “Grand Guignol.” There she meets real-life lead actress Paula Maxa, an opium-addicted creature of the night who tries to protect Anais from her master, pimp, or stalker, Monsieur Guillard. “Maxa” apparently doesn’t know that Anais has already had a disturbing vision, or encounter, with Monsieur in Dr. Allendy’s office, in the dark box called an “isolation accumulator,” in which a patient is supposed to focus on dispersing negative emotions such as guilt and shame, and eventually feel herself “awash in positive light.”

Alone in the dark, Anais imagines herself on a beach when she sees a being with “silver-yellow eyes” emerging from the water. The being is strong and male, and Anais feels him dragging her by the ankles into the sea to drown.  At this point, the threatening male figure doesn’t introduce himself.

Soon afterward, however, the man with the penetrating gaze shows up everywhere in her life: at Paula Maxa’s door while Anais is visiting, and at a masquerade party that Anais attends with Hugo, where Monsieur Guillard accuses Anais of summoning him to find her. He echoes what Paula Maxa has already told her: once Monsieur claims you, there is no escape.

Is Monsieur a seductive, sadistic father-figure conjured from the depths of Anais’ masochistic hero-worship of powerful men? Is he a supernatural being? Is he the resident spirit of Le Theatre Grand Guignol?

“Maxa” suggests to Anais that Monsieur has given her the magical power to enact the fears and secret desires of every member of the audience, and that this power must be paid for. She lets Anais know that she can’t protect “Maxa” or any other woman but herself from Monsieur, and that this can only be done by staying away from him.

So far, this slim novel looks like a mildly erotic study in traditional feminine masochism and psychological horror.

However, Levy’s version of Anais is resourceful as well as curious. She comes to the profound realization that although a supernatural being or an archetype can never be killed, human flesh is mortal. The requirement of human flesh for lust to operate on not only makes Anais and other female victims vulnerable to physical violence, it also makes Monsieur vulnerable when he appears in human form. The Man is not all-powerful after all.

Many years before the advent of Second-Wave Feminism, Anais discovers the wisdom and strength in a group of women focused on a common purpose.

Not all the mysteries are resolved by the end of this book, and that is part of its charm. Levy persuasively imitates Anais Nin’s writing style, and his imagery fits the subject-matter. In the last scene, Anais writes: “I turn, and I face him [Dr. Allendy.] I face them all.” Fear, desire, surrender and resistance are shown to be inseparably connected.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Duncan’s Fall Poetry Roundup

When Duncan isn’t playing with his bone, he reads poetry. You can probably tell that by his soulful, sensitive eyes. Oh, that’s not all he reads. He loves a good mystery now and then. Some Buddhist philosophy. Reprints of old Erma Bombeck columns. But he has five new selections for your autumnal enjoyment he’s been working on all summer. It’s not that he reads slow; he has trouble swiping on the Kindle.

Have You Seen This Man?: The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney – Jim Cory, ed.

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The idea of the unheralded and tragically short-lived artist is hardly a new one, but it seems particularly poignant in the case of Karl Tierney, a poet working in San Francisco in the 1980s. The 50 poems he left show a poet almost fully-formed, time being the only ingredient necessary to improve the depth and maturity of his work. Sadly, he did not have that luxury. Nor did we. What we do have, however, is by turns emotional, dispassionate, sad, and hilarious–all with a craftsman’s eye for detail. One of my favorite pieces, “Caligula or Nixon Leaving” is as applicable today as it was then:

…and as the helicopter lifts from the Rose Garden lawn/from someplace like Istria or Capri and a fat bank branch/three guards roll up the red carpet/as if we’d never invited him into the palace/in the first place.

Informed by everything from sleazy sex to Billy Idol, these poems are far more entertaining than a legacy should be, and that makes their scarcity all the more lamentable.

Genre Fluid – Dan Webber (Big White Shed) 

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Dan Webber bills himself as a reluctant bear and an attempted vegan who has performed in many spoken word shows only to be told he’s a comic at poetry nights and a poet at comedy nights. When faced with material as witty, earnest, and well-observed as this, the last thing that should concern us is which box it goes in. “Homo on the Rocks,” “Anonymous at 6 am,” and “Some People Never Learn” are among my favorites in this slim but fully packed volume. The ending of “Child of the 90s” in particular resonated with this child of the 70s.

On New Year’s Eve 2016/I told my oldest friend I preferred men to women/And he was livid/Not because I liked guys/Because I had lied to him for all these years/I’d never told him when I was most happy.

Webber shifts effortlessly from comic to serious, changing the layout up with different typefaces and pictures and little bits. His predicament about being pigeonholed highlights what I’ve always wondered about the line between poetry and standup comedy since I first heard Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. Webber’s insights are very interesting indeed.

Spring Sonnets – Don Yorty (Indolent Books) 

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Where Webber is non-traditional, New York City poet Don Yorty provides a more formalistic approach with sonnets to spring written during a six year stretch from 2003 to 2009. Those fourteen lines of iambic pentameter are to poetry what the five-paragraph essay is to composition, and you can be just as creative within that structure as you want to be. Yorty’s eye turns to everything around him, tying it all back to spring with the mention of a flower, a scent, a food, or a memory. And his subjects are myriad. But writers never stray far from their own heads, so we get sonnets featuring pencils, smudges, and of course, writing itself:

Writing’s a thing of opposites, putting/on clothes, taking them off, whispering shouts/starting a fire and then putting it out./You don’t want to burn the pages

This is clearly a lot of poetry, but this collection is definitely worth your while. Savor it slowly–one or two at a time–and make your spring last until the snow flies.

Love and Detours – David-Matthew Barnes (Blue Dasher Press)

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This is also a large collection, but many of these poems have appeared elsewhere and it’s wonderful to have them neatly compiled in one place. A writer of many guises and genres, Barnes’s poetry is very dynamic. It’s always on the move. Someone’s running or walking or searching. These are pieces of escape, of rebellion, of restless adolescence. Love and Detours is all about destinations and shifting places, imbued with Eighties pop culture. One of my favorites, “Walking to K-Mart to Buy a Dolly Parton Album,” is also an award-winner:

Someone protects me when I’m ten: a boy/ in my class. He’s stronger than the others./He waits for me each day, walks me home./He’s convinced I’ll be the next/Nancy Drew and encourages me to open up/my own detective agency. He colors the green/construction paper signs we tape in store windows.

From the geographic name-checking in “Looking for Homer” to the freestyle images of “Subway Stations, Atlanta,” Barnes’s poems are all conscious of the fact that they are memories–that is to say, they have a self-realization that these events are in the past, observed from a safe platform of better-if-not-well-adjusted adulthood. I can guarantee you’ll relate.

Infinity Standing Up – Drew Pisarra (Capturing Fire Press)

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Sonnets, yes. But unlike the above-reviewed Yorty, Pisarra’s sonnets are more directly Shakesperean in nature. And lustier. Not only that, but Pisarra has a wicked sense of humor that makes this one of my favorite volumes. “Sonnet 45” is about a vinyl single, “Sonnet 11 PM” about bedtime, “Sonnet 666” about Satan, “Sonnet 69” about…well, you get the idea. I love Pisarra’s warped viewpoint and willingness to take on any subject, such as the penis in “Sonnet 6″‘:

Hey shlong, listen up. Hey penis, pay attention./Pecker! Turn your unblinking eye over here./Oh, thick-headed prick, oh tool of no pretension,/ oh wood that could, and dick shaped like a can of beer/I have ogled and gagged. I have ridden such cock.

But the effect is not all fun and games. “Sonnet -1” is about a particularly tough break-up, and “Sonnet 12.11.15” is a portrait of the beginning of a relationship which may or may not still be extant. Pisarra is as confident and sure on the serious side as he is with wit and a well-turned phrase. As with the Yorty, I’d do one a day just to keep your spirits up.

And there you have Duncan’s Fall Poetry Review. He’s looking for something to read for Winter, so if you’ve a mind, drop a line.


© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Be warned: Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt by Jeff Mann is aptly named—there is plenty of righteous indignation here. He suffers no fools gladly, and aims his wrath at homophobes and hypocrites of all kinds—regardless of their religious or political affiliation—and takes no prisoners.

Of course, that is not all that this volume of essays is: it also contain wry humor, nostalgia, regret, and even some acceptance and detachment. Mann wrote the twenty-two essays contained herein (of which thirteen have previously been published in print anthologies or online) over the past ten years, between 2009 and 2017. (Reader warning: Mann explains in his introductory Author’s Note that these essays were not initially intended to be collected together, so there’s a fair amount of overlap in autobiographical details. Mann eliminated some of this repetition when reprinting these essays, but kept some in order to preserve the integrity of individual essays.) That being said, they run the gamut: to borrow a culinary metaphor, this volume is a smorgasbord of writings, everything from short, lyrical elegies (“David”) to serious, substantive pieces about teaching Appalachian writers in college curricula (“The Feast Hall, the rsenal, and the Mirror”) and his literary influences (“Romantic”).

Most of Mann’s essays reflect on the various intersections in his life: being Gay; living in Appalachia; being a leatherbear; being a Gay leatherbear in a non-urban part of Appalachia. Mann recognizes that he is cast very much as a niche writer; nevertheless, most Gay readers will be able to connect with him to some extent when he writes about such universal topics as family, both by blood (“Amy”) and by spirit (“Big Queer Convocations”), and home. Additionally, older readers will empathize with Mann’s looking back as he nears middle age, and grows more contemplative. (Oh, the aging leatherbear is still surly; but now he has learned to choose which battles he will fight.) And Mann simply could not write a book of this length without also discussing food (“Scrapple,” “Muslim Food”).

While these essays are without doubt entertaining, the real value for the reader is that Mann writes unapologetically and with unflinching honesty about topics that most writers shy away from: the kind of sex that turns him on (passim), the memory of a long-ago affair (“Thomas”), hiring a hustler (“Whoremonger”), the envy he feels towards writers better known and more successful than he (e.g., his own father!), and his feelings towards the Civil War (“Confederate”) and about gun ownership (“Watch Out! That Queer’s got a Gun!”). These last two essays in particular demonstrate that Mann, rugged individualist that he is, is not afraid to hold an opinion at odds with “orthodox” liberal Gay thought. It is the rare reader that will agree entirely with Mann.

So, to those readers new to Mann and his oeuvre, this volume will be full of surprises; even long-time followers of Mann will find something new to chew upon. And as I noted above, this book is not entirely surliness: Mann writes about all the things that make life worth living—food, sex, nature, poetry, and beautiful men. And whether you gorge yourself on this feast entirely in one sitting or savor it course by course, you will find something to your taste, be it an exotic new perspective or the equivalent of literary comfort food.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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