By Alistair Mccartney
The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry
Of The Next Wave (An Anthology)
Edited by Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou
St. Martin's Press
Hardback $27.50, 380pp.
In a popular culture that prioritizes art forms that tell it straight and bring in the bucks, poetry has been given a bad rap. Within the confines of a mainstream gay and lesbian culture suspicious of any cultural product that doesn't come wrapped in lycra or with compliments from Madonna, gay and lesbian poetry has fared no better. It too often conjures up images of fussy academic men in tweed suits, and dry society women in turbans, deeply repressed and overly fixated on Grecian urns, writing obscure texts while coughing from all the dust.
But if Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou, New York City poets and coeditors of the just published St. Martin's Press anthology of United States gay and lesbian poets The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave have their way, this image of poetry will be changed once and for all.
An updated version of the seminal 1988 anthology Gay and Lesbian Poetry in our Time, (edited by Joan Larkin and Carl Morse,) this vital book challenges such assumptions, wrenching gay and lesbian poetry out of the precious past and dragging it screaming into the precarious present. No Wordsworthian emotions recollected in tranquillity here, the book buzzes with an of-the-moment urgency.
As Michael and Elena boldly (and somewhat hyperbolically) state in their co-written introduction:
"It is difficult to remember a more receptive moment for poetry. The art not long ago deemed both irrelevant and unsaleable has been taken down from its Dead Poets Society pedestal and is being reinvented as a viable force that speaks to a new generation."
They envision the current crop of gay and lesbian poetry as an art form "no longer entangled in a cobwebby sense of history or duty" but as one pulsing at the very heart of daily life, concerned more " about rock musicians and movies stars than about Greek mythology." If there are any odes in the book, they're to pop icons and mass-produced, highly disposable items, like Regie Cabico's tribute to Antonio Banderas, Terry Wolverton's reflection on her slinky black slip, or this poem, celebrating the guilty pleasures of celluloid trash:
Move to New York.
Lose Your Virginity.
Become a star.
Send money to your mother.
Call pills "dolls."
Fire the talented newcomer.
Have a nervous breakdown.
Suffer from an incurable degenerative disease.
(From David Trinidad's "Things To Do In Valley Of The Dolls")
And it is most definitely the current crop: in a move that could draw critique, the 46 poets included are all living, leaving the continuing need to publish and document the work of the frightening number of poets lost to AIDS to other anthologies.
Thumbing through the book, it was astonishing to see just how many aspects of queer daily life poetry manages to cover. The poets featured dive into the grit of subjects and places where other forms (the overwhelming blandness of current stateside queer cinema for instance) fear to tread. From Dildoes to William Burroughs; from heading down to the grocery store to going to get a mammogram, laying bare the mundane and the visionary, the transcendent core of the ordinary.
Far from being full of impenetrable poems composed in a private language in an ivory tower, a great number of the poets go straight (or as straight as a queer can) for the jugular, confronting the weird joy of being, the fatigue of being, the violence of being, explicitly addressing both the reader and the world:
The shit b funky
Can you hear the base
Can you hear the base
1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 7 9 21
times can you hear the base of his skull
hit the baton
hit the ground
can you hear the base of his skull
hit the ground you walk on sometimes
(From Letta Neely's "Multiple Assaults")
Even more astonishing was what a sexy read the book is. From the subtle erotics of elbows to the in your face, maze-like pleasures of eating pussy, TWIU throws open the complex world of queer desire. For when it comes to articulating the joys and terrors of lesbian and gay desire, nothing does it better than poetry, bearing as it does the same root as desire--the breath and the body. Interestingly, to my gay male eye, jaded by the over-saturation of gay men's erotic representations, I found the women's work to be the hottest:
Her face is dark coffee, her head has no hair
Her cap shines like neon in the bristling night air
She pins her brass metals to my black brassiere
Tucks her teeth like bright trophies behind my left ear
This alley is very rewarding.
She tosses her jacket and rolls up her sleeve
On her arm's a tattoo of an anchor at sea
She points to the anchor and whispers, "That's me."
And the wetter I get the more clearly I see
This alley was made for submersion.
(From Gerry Gomez Pearlberg's "Sailor.")
But the girls don't get to monopolize spilling all the thrills. Reginald Shepherd's "That Man", a marvelous work about that most trodden of terrains--one man's desire for a stranger observed in a gym locker room--abstracts the desire until something new and gleaming is revealed:
Now he's the world of what happens
happening, flex of thigh or twenty-degree
twist of torso, unclassical
colors still painting the skin
while he extends himself
into the overheated room. Mimesis,
the body mimicking itself, in imitation
of other bodies. Sweat and the chill
of an opened fire door, a rise of skin
where skin can't be seen.
(The branching tree of bones he is.)
The book is a fine testament to the fact that poetry offers an aesthetic permissiveness-an open invitation to experiment--that historically has attracted and continues to attract gays and lesbians in droves. Far from being dry and academic, the poetry on offer in TWIU makes the majority of contemporary gay and lesbian prose look positively sedate and Victorian by comparison.
Although all anthologies, including this one, cannot help but bear the trace of those deserving writers who didn't make it past the door, the breadth of voice and style apparent in TWIU suggest that queer poetry presently being written in the U.S.A offers a refreshing space of radical eclecticism in the face of gay and lesbian uniformity. The poetic world offers a grounded utopian model for a gay and lesbian culture that still--despite all that rainbow hype-- resists authentic diversity (queer poets of color are very well represented.) The best work in this splendid new book lives up to the promise of the title, illuminating the fragile, lovely ecology that links our bodies and our words and our worlds:
The poem is now cleaned
out of power, as bed is
once sunlight has entered.
I see its mathematics: lines
built as an ornate frame around a skeletal feeling
That's faded from sight.
Who knows what I meant?
With time, I can guess
that I thought and worked hard, watched my words,
made them bright as they'd
beam, until I could say
to myself, This is full.
(From Dennis Cooper's, "Poem for George Miles.")
Alistair McCartney is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles.