Nothing beats finding new gay poets except resurrecting old ones, especially those taken too soon by the epidemic. Those voices are fascinating because they are, for the most part, art in embryo. Not only do they reflect the times in which they lived and died, but they leave clues as to how those voices might have changed had they been allowed to finish their songs. Such is the case with Boston poet Walta Borawski, who certainly would have had something unique to say about aging and how devastating the loss of nearly an entire generation of artists has been.
Borawski’s renaissance is due to the efforts of author Tom Cardamone and author/publisher Sven Davisson’s collaboration on a new imprint–The Library of Homosexual Congress–dedicated to the rediscovery of classic gay literature. Invisible History is their inaugural release, curating both of Borawski’s collections, Sexually Dangerous Poet (1984) and Lingering in a Silk Shirt (1994) as well as his uncollected work for many now-defunct journals and periodicals.
And what work it is, swinging with abandon from sex in theory and practice to glimpses of Harvard to family history, commentary on pop culture or classic literature, and odes about love. Many pieces are viscerally lyric and in some cases, as Philip Clark’s introduction suggests, are best read aloud rather than with an internal voice. Although there’s no substitute for auditory evidence from the poet himself, when that’s impossible, one has to rely on one’s own sensibilities for cadence and intonation. I’m no slam poet, trust me, but my rendition of several selections from Sexually Dangerous Poet at least kept the attention of my golden Lab/Great Dane, Riley, long enough to stop chewing his Nylabone. No mean feat, that.
This living room performance art is perfect for pieces like “The Autobiography of Utensils,” which starts almost like bad disco lyrics (When it comes to loving I am/a colander. You/can pour your water/all over me, you’ll/drain my noodles but/your love will/disappear.) but changes on a phrase to a comparison that throws the previous stanzas into a different light, showing their cleverness. Other pieces, such as “Indexing Judy Garland’s Life: A Found Poem, from Gerald Frank’s Bio.” work better when the voice is internal. This one is particularly interesting because no line is over five words, yet when put together, they summarize Judy Garland’s life brilliantly. And still in the poetry-about-words category, “Cornwall’s Servant” is a noteworthy piece about a minor, unnamed character in King Lear. In the same vein, we have “Art & Remembrance,” which begins: “They traumatized a Yugoslavian orphan/to make a U.S. tv miniseries. A/formidable actor held the 3-yr.-old/upside down off & on for several/hours while a woman playing/his or her mother screamed,” yet “Finally someone in the silent mass of crew/people complains and the child is/released. An American actor child/is brought in, does the scene, and/gets to be in the final version,” a perfect encapsulation of the idea that those who actually make art aren’t always recognized for it.
As with many if not most gay male poets, sex is always a part of the equation (“Surprising Kisses,” “Hunger,” “Sociologically Challenged”) but Borawski asks the larger questions as well, as in “Against Sex” where he opines: “If it’s followed by depression,/a sense of something missing,/& depression leads to premature/
departure, why do it?/If it’s going to disco/bars to be lulled to be/deafened to be dulled, do/regimented, fascist steps &/call it dancing why do it?” But his question is rhetorical, as he’s already answered it in “Power of One”: “I am the sole homosexual/in Wilton, New Hampshire, & I/was imported only this afternoon”… “Hurricane David yanks branches/from fruit trees, Japanese/beetles make lettuce artless lace,/porcupines pierce the tongues/of hunters’ dogs—all because/there’s a faggot in New Hampshire.” Borawski knows we can change a landscape merely by existing, never mind having sex.
I had never read Walta (name changed from Walter to reflect Striesand’s spelling of Barbara) Borawski prior to this collection, and I was mightily impressed by both his subject matter and his treatment of it. He’s a perfect author with which to start an imprint devoted to works which beg for reprint. Kudos to Cardamone, Davisson, and editors Philip Clark and Michael Bronski. This is a winner.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler