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Clarence Major, who
in his first volume of poems Swallow the Lake (1970) showed he could be an
artisan of the colorful as well as an artist of color, seems now, on the evidence of his
new collection, Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998, to have opted
for more amicable hues of color-consciousness than stood out heretofore. Also present
(which was not there before) is a penchant for the sort of atelier abstractionism
associated with the poets loosely associated with Conjunctions, a journal of new writing
edited by Bradford Morrow of Bard College. Not that anger born of hair-trigger racialism
need be upfront and personal in every work by every African-American writer as proof of
his or her authenticity, but when its there and then suddenly not there one
cant help wondering what might have prompted its disappearance or obvious racheting
One such example of retrenchment in Configurations
involves a poem titled Isolate. Composed sometime around 1970, it was one of
three pieces by Major selected by Paul Hoover for inclusion in his anthology Postmodern
American Poetry (1994)a collection some might say was tilted toward
Conjunctions-approved poetsand for some reason failed to make the final cut in New
and Selected Poems. Whether this in any way reflects Majors shift from an open
collar to a decidedly buttoned down persona in the late 70s and early 80s is
anybodys guess. But what cannot be denied is that Isolate bristles with
an energy and vitality that ersatz runes like On the Nature of Perspective and
Looking at Images Reflected in the Showcase Plate Glassboth dated
1998all too plainly lack. The case is best made by citing the earlier poem in its
She knew more about me than let us say.
Most difficult, the American, she said.
Said a requiem is quite heavy, very dull and
These violet people in gentle expenditures!
impossible to translate one:
Mass, and the day of masses.
Yet how was it to be ease for her, feeling
nothing of my spirit, knowing less of her own.
She knew only the visits to the tombs in me.
This pilgrimage she bled into her principles.
Higher, deeper, than my closed eye.
Sees difficulty more in her church blood
than in her cycle.& she started
on the birthcontrol pills again.
Some terrible romance of the flesh wedges us.
Here she was everything to me, after the crude
Cramming of Nothing: but now
I want isolation. I told her what.
She said, then isolate motherfucker.
Not only is the idiom here instantly recognizable as living speech, but
theres not the slightest trace of histrionics drummed up to mask an underbite of
realization. In too many of Majors poemsthe newer ones particularlyso
much time is spent loading arguments relating to how art interpenetrates and transmutes
anything it rubs up against that any artfulness the poem might in its own right lay claim
to is left to reproduce itself, as if by magic, through self-referencing problematics
suggestive of classroom demonstrations requiring slides. Shunted back and forth between
whipsawing Creeleyisms of 30 years ago
When I was born I saw
death devour the birth
of something, perhaps
the first thing so deep
now its hard to say,
fruit perhaps, peaches
on my mothers table
Saving Just the Real (1968)
and slamdunk dialectics in the service of no real problematic to
speak of, the reader is left to his own devices in the absence of substance provided by
Note, for instance, how in Stillness and Vertigo the
muchness of the mazy scenario, melted and thawed out of Nothing, can only at last resolve
itself into ado:
What is that chanting?
bowls and brine kegs
and crossbars of silver,
gilded bronze, velvet-
where dancing is done
in trick mirrors
where ones self
runs the risk of being lost
in the fibrous tissues
and fantasies of another,
you enter. . . .
Such pseudo-erotic hokeyness (for which the objective correlative was
probably provided for all time by Stanley Kubrick in the much talked about scene from Eyes
Wide Shut) advances not a single piece on anyones board; nor in the denouement
is any help in the offing (truly, no pun intended):
My entrance meets
yours on the turning floor.
We touch in the mirror,
crazed with fear
of the loss of balance,
like two sacrificial victims
waiting to be beheaded
and left to dry
in ceremonial sunlight,
as a concoction,
But not all goes awry in Configurations.
There are moments when the Major of old pokes through the duck blind and gets off a shot
that separates the live ones from the decoys in a wing-flapping thrice. The Swine
Whos Eclipsed Me (1989) is not only graced with a great title but it has a
genuinely pressing moral crux to parse, namely the difficulty of getting the evil twin (to
whom we are joined at the ego) in a tight enough hold as to be able to wrestle ourselves
to the ground with his blessing. And Round Midnight (1984) outruns the
parallax of jazzy referentiality by burrowing under surrealist commonplaces to the
nightmare solo we all at one time or another, in one place or another, hang choruses on:
You know my story.
They want to make me liable
to punishment for this picture.
So my spirit is closed.
Im a delicate engraving
with semitones, curled at the edges,
in mysterious trouble. . . .
This has a hint of menace about it that insinuates itself under the skin
with a kind of limpidity that borders on the opalescent. Its threatening offhandedness
tantalizes us into imagining a You who is both all-knowing but also benignly
complicit in the poets offstage-originating discombobulation:
I redate all my efforts.
Reconsider a cluster
of old houses nearby,
but not the church behind it.
You know why. . . .
Again, there is much in this New and Selected
Poems that charms the spirit and keeps hope alive that Major might yet resume
trailblazing when he has put buttoned-down theme parks behind him once and for all. There
is too much enterprise in memories of his walking naked in such volumes as The
Syncopated Cakewalk and Inside Diameter (especially its title poem) for his
readers to hope for any less.
Thom Gunns new book of poems Boss Cupid, on the
other hand, continues to flesh outand quite impressivelya body of work that
has now exceeded the normative career highwater mark of a Collected Poems (1994)
by two more volumes, Shelf Life and the present collection, which, without
lowering its Queer Nation butch-rating so much as a notch, shows its author developing
sensitivities beyond the closed circleso dominant in his poetry throughout much of
the last decadeof AIDS quilts and nostalgia for lost erotic New Jerusalems. In a
sense Boss Cupid is about sorting through dust samples left by the now pulverized
sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. Its chief focus is not on what is
salvageable of that hole-in-times imploded glory, but on what might prove recyclable
by and through poetry of that Babel of images set loose by the very Dionysian forces
(stretching in musico-poetical terms from Stravinskys Baba the Turk of The
Rakes Progress to Pete Townshend & Co.s Baba OReilly) which
also unleashed that French-Canadian flight attendant-out-of-hell who singlehandedly
blighted bathhouse bacchanalia before it had even barely begun.
Gunns carefully modulated responses to this catastrophe run
from the subtly elegiac to the quietly confrontational; from a refusal to surrender hard
won gay rites to the affirmationstoically assertedthat though much ground may
have been lost, it is no less sacred to the gods for that, not to mention the fact that
sex once liberated cannot be deliberated. Nor should there be any talk of going gently
into anyones good night when there is still the coming of so many nights to be
anticipated by the bold and the brave.
Not that Invictus or its bloody and
unbowed rhetoric is invoked anywhere in Boss Cupid. The collection
opens with a deeply moving tribute to Duncan, a poet stricken and made silent
by illness and age, and closes with an equally arresting spate of poems on the subject of
David, who, as psalmist and king, experienced the tribulations of chosenness and perfidy,
and by embracing both in the person of Bathsheba, came to know that it is only the desire
that burns through to the bone that is capable of reconstituting itself as wisdom blessed
A common sequence I observed:
Love leading to duplicity.
Displeasing to the lord I served,
Also, eventually, to me.
Yet from such commonness and greed
A wiser king than I was grown,
For in our very draining need
The seed of Solomon was sown.
Yet, between Duncan and David are to be found
poemsand extremitieswhose occasion and disposition some readers are sure to
find alienating and hard to swallow. Awash as we are in generosity of spirit, a good
number of us are still unable to negotiate the distance between homosexuality as a fact of
life and being able to sit still when those facts and that life are shoved, even somewhat
politely, in our faces. Or, more shockingly perhaps, when the facts of that life are
brought into contact with particular sorts of crime whose enormities seem inseparable from
the news-drenched world of homophobia whose inverted substance they mirror.
An example of this sort of thing may be seen in the sequence of
five poems titled Troubadour: songs for Jeffrey Dahmer, whose intent
seems neither to humanize nor to dehumanize a notorious serial killer, but rather to admit
(implying perhaps that more of us should) that I thought you were gone, / But you
are here and will remain with me. Gunn then goes on to link, in a highly complex
fashion, Dahmers cannibalistic hoarding of body parts to an obsessive
desirenot unlike the submission to manato own in its entirety each
desideratum of flesh whose attractions possess him:
The strain, the strain returns
Of my desire to own the elusive one
I have not even possessed. Though you recoil
At my first touch, your flesh yields when it learns
That love must be ensnared while on the run,
later it will spoil.
Now, the open pursuit of male sexual apparatus butt tends not, as was
suggested earlier, to be something around which the average straight reader can easily
wrap his mind. The straight reader being what he or she isand the gay lifestyle
being what it is, an arcanum whose mysteries are only scannable by heterosexualsif
at allthrough a shot glass darklymuch of what Gunn writes about, and in
writing about it, extols, keeps the non-gay reader at a respectable, if respectful, degree
of removal. Furthermore (and to make this particular cheese more binding), Gunns
well cruised corner of that lifestyle is one of conspicuously pumped up preoccupations.
The unignorable buff of Gunns own proprietary slice of the San Francisco Bay
areawhich is to say one limitless and ubiquitous Castro Street, where abs ripple
unconscionably and pecs bulge uncontrollablyis capable of dissolvinginstantly,
and in ways he is at pains to show us can take ones breath awayinto the most
fleshly and irreconcilable of paradoxes: How can ones cool be kept when one inhabits
a world where almost everything falling within the purview of ones desire is younger
than oneself, mind-bogglingly available, and hot?
For if truth be told, the AIDS epidemic has done little over the
years to alter the penchant, long rampant among gays, for precisely those dangerous
behaviors which fell upon them like a shower of gold in less anxious times. From the
mid-90s on, knowledgeable insiders within the gay community like Edmund White were
confirming what many already knew, namely that no matter how old the liberated bathhouse
had gotten to be, age had neither withered, nor custom staled, its infinite variety or
insatiable appeal on both coasts and most places in between. The trajectory of the
poets own thematics during this period reflects the same tropism away from quilts
and the Great Dejection toward a status quo ante of the sort Gunn alludes to
Kinder than you will own,
pleasing yourself you say
through pleasing me
till a desolating
change of light
steals into the room
our packed intensities
of night . . .
The Homeric epithet rosyfingered surprises, even though the
poems being about dawn gives it ample justification for being there, juxtaposed,
without benefit of punctuation, to orderly, a term out of keeping, as rosyfingered
is not, with the packed intensities of night with which such heroic delicacies of style
are both sympatico and complicit.
Citing this (or any number of similar passages to be discovered
at large in Boss Cupid) cant help but reanimate memories of Auden and his
tribe at their witty and rhyming best. That such memories also invite the
suspicionnagging unto industrial strength coercionthat absent Auden and his
tribes efforts at keeping civility and artfulness the cost of poetry here and
abroad, American verse today would amount to little more than Williamss and
Zukofskys squandered remains (a boneyard considered home by countless
free-versifying clones for whom the stringing of word-chimes with femurs and tibia, as it
were, fulfills the poets obligations to his or her art)goes, as one wishes
much of the product of the above-mentioned stringers could also have gone, without a whole
lot of saying.
But none of this need affect the way anyone reads Gunns
verse, for all the debt his verse might owe to the practicing aesthetic underlying the
best work of Auden, Spender, Wilbur and Larkin. (If three of these four poets are English
born, then so be it; Gunn, too, is a British transplant to these shores.) Its hard
to miss the seemingly effortless interlacing of rhyme word and metaphoric hinge that keeps
a Gunn poem like, say, Saturday Night, on an even keel as it monkeys, almost
arrogantly, with the readers moral compass:
I prowl the labyrinthine corridors
And have a sense of being
As in a mine. . .dim light, the many floors,
The bays, the heat, the
tapes explosive sound.
People still entering, though it is 3 a.m.,
Stripping at lockers and,
with a towel tied round,
Stepping out hot for love or strategem,
Pausing at thresholds (wonder
Peering at others, as others peer at them
Like people in shelters
searching for their friends
Among the group come newest from the street.
And in each room a different
Friends by the bedful, lounging on one sheet,
Playing cards, smoking, while
the drugs come on,
Or watching the foot-traffic on the beat,
Ready for every fresh
phenomenon. . . .
Neither the milieu nor its ambiance is particularly new: weve been
living with such descriptions of orgiastic sex in gay bathhouses and porn theatres for
quite some time now, garnered mostly from the sort of no-punches-pulled accounts of
writers like John Rechy, whose novels Numbers and The Sexual Outlaw
diagram the addictive element in full-bore gay promiscuity.
But with a few details altered we could conceivably be
hanging in Walt Whitmans world, looking over his shoulder perhaps, as he checks out
the wagon drivers and dockhands in search of an available body electric with which to
share the packed intensities / of night. What makes Gunns hold on this
world his and uniquely so are the waysso marvelously distinguished that the reader
cannot help but admire them, regardless of the proclivities he brings to the
processin which a discerning connoisseurs gourmetrie is kept from
degenerating into a 70-year-old trolls leering gourmandaise. The poem
Office Hours is particularly revealing in this regard, opening with a
characteristic admissive spurt
these big handsome
with their goatees
and skateboards . . .
and easing, in defiance of the picayune, into the singular jargon of this
poets days and ways:
we sit close
is grandly deflected
because the ground
on which we meet
is Buntings flexible
or Wyatts careful
sidestepping of danger . . .
And so the poem unfolds, its sly (and playfully condescending) references
to the literary figures of Basil Bunting and Sir Thomas Wyatt snipping delicately, but not
tearing, the membrane that separates proximity to getting off from merely getting off on
proximity, until attractor and attracted can each relax, having come together not through
flirting with one another, but through cruising the poet they can both flirt with
together. Theres humor in the notion that in those imagined corners where
immobilizing trumpets blow, the triple tonguings of narcissism can make even the certain
rejection of an elderly queer by a ballsy young straight the stuff of art and therefore
meat for the heterodox maw of Gunns poesy.
No question, then, but that a sizeable chunk of Gunns
poetry consigns itself to the exotic bin where few but the curious and the ambidextrous
will care to browse for long. His manner of writing may indicate that he is for everyone
sharing his world, but only a multiculturalist asleep in his boots could fail to see that
his world is just not for everyone. It is in its way as stranded in its exceptionality as
elaborate scuba gear in the middle of Death Valley: all up to the minute but keeping its
timeliness in place for another place. Perhaps Boss Cupid is best read as a
travel book, superbly crafted and spun as a rotogravure of the gay lifes Kodak
momentousness, without any of the weekend supplements sentimentality or
lugubriousness. Its implied message might be summarized as Go there; you might be
surprised. Better yet, surprise yourself with a visit: after a while you might not know if
youre coming or going. Cupid is boss.