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Michael Montlack’s new poem collection Cool Limbo, for starters, looks really cool before it’s even opened. The collection establishes a definite and intentional first impression: with its sassy cover illustrating a bygone scene (addressed in the title poem): a certain sort of girl, luxuriating in her aloofness, sunning on a deck chair near some backyard pool–face wrapped up in her shades, brow kissed by big hair, lost in her radio songs, Marlboro dangling between painted nails; in the water a curious little boy floats in the pool, buoyed by giant inflated wings, gazing at this girl in his semi-lassitude with what might be the kind of fear, envy, and worship a kid can have for an older sister. Cool Limbo traces the emotional development of an awkward boy, adrift in a suburban childhood, into a gay man and a poet who, perhaps, now bobs reflective in the deep end of memory’s swimming pool. It’s pleasing to report this exercise dodges around the narcissistic, sentimental missteps it’s easy to make with this kind of delicate work–and, rather, hits upon a poetry entirely alive with wit, charm, and an unselfconscious voice; his attention is fastidious and oft focused toward the rendering of a sturdy confessional lens through which our everyday relations are decoded. What’s most obvious about this collection is that it is fun. That’s not an insult–fun poetry isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it’s damn hard to accomplish. There is a road that runs between the borders of silliness and the overwrought, and the humor of Cool Limbo cruises down it, ever onward, like a champ. Next, it also manages to carry a ton of weight–this creeps in unobtrusively but is fully evident by the end. The book is deeply touching in its ingenuous sensitivity, enabling the poet’s heavier verse-tales, along with even some of the funkier experiments, to pry apart the functions of remembrance, shine a light in those spaces. Montlack’s work is beguilingly comprehensive in its steadfast intention present through his diverse approaches. The heart of the book is always beating; we can hear it alike behind the cartoonish, the personal, the resolute and pensive techniques (and on).

At its most superfluous, the book offers us wry musings about what would happen if Hello Kitty had a mouth (“Maybe she’s just meow. / Or maybe …”), a prayer for the Golden Girls, or an apologia for Vanity Smurf; but the lightest pieces keep the whole buoyant and, moreover, prove a tonal gamut that runs from camp all the way to the end of love. The poems are divided into two sections: “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS” and “BOYS, BOYS, BOYS.” The girl parts are full of dedications and percipient character studies of females famous and quotidian–a gay man’s poetic exegesis of his relationship to women and femininity (what he sees in them and what he sees of himself through them).

Montlack has an aptitude for flushing out an emotional condition through hazy lyrics about place, as in “At Tamika’s”:

In the tight kitchenette, petite like her mother,
whose wide face was heavy with frown lines,
rice and beans simmered but never boiled
on the back burner 24/7–a beacon, the house’s pulse.

And perfect details, like this snippet from “Running with the She-Wolf”:

She powdered her cheeks, suburban gothic:
Fully bedecked just to smoke in her yard.
Was this a duty as the town hot chick?
Her spikey galaxy: I the co-star.

And streams of meaningful but simple anecdotes, which especially fortify the character of a twin sister, Michelle, as in “My Twin Sister the Drag Queen”:

When the neighbor’s Dobermans
snarl through the chain-link
as Kimmie hoop-sifts the garden,
my sister automatically growls back,
silencing them as she did bullies
who were dying to shout faggot
whenever she let me bead necklaces
with her and the other “gals” at recess.

All of which is tempered with a sharp critical voice that drifts in and out to ground a thought, like here in this stanza of “The Break Up”:

But still, how scary it is–to find love
now when we have only ourselves
to blame for annihilating it.

The boy parts continue to develop upon the thematic work of the first section, switching the gender concentration, which introduces a milieu of figures including Peter Berlin, adult friends (straight, dead, aging, remembered), the poet’s father, some denizens of Fire Island, old hooks-up and past boyfriends–of predominant interest is Chris, the subject of several of these poems (generally, reflections in the wake of a rough separation), including “The Break Up” itself, which is atypically joyless. The poem employs a killer angle by ambiguously addressing a recently terminated relationship between two men through an unfamiliarly wide frame of reference. The end of a contemporary love sends the lovers’ narrative hurtling through possible contexts, different social and political climates where the love could have sparked and played out. What would their lives have meant to each other during the early days of the AIDS crisis (maybe they would be “watching each other waste away / faster than civilized countries / could give our disease a name”), or during the Holocaust, or during the worst of it in a dark age that our country is newly crawling painfully and glacially out of, where their love would suffocate under its required, permanent disguise?

In this remarkably enjoyable collection, is the poet really that kid we see bobbing in the pool, staring out at the enormous world–or is it more likely that the beautiful pool is empty and he’s projecting this collage of personal history into a blue container–between the pages of a book–filling up the pool again, feeding the ever-draining cavity of what’s happened to our families, our friends, our lovers, our lives? Cool Limbo concludes with a meditation on turning 40–Montlack, for sure, isn’t as old as those who saw the most of a whole gay century–through the furtive pathologizing and criminalization between wars, the stirrings of liberation and a new movement, the social destruction and death wrought by AIDS, the reemergence of a culture in the form of a mainstream marketing demographic, and onward. Older gay writers like Larry Kramer think the youths now are disassembling the homo subculture, turning their backs on history, in favor of the conformist line of being an individual exactly like everybody else. I can see Montlack’s take on identity and sexuality managing a tricky space between the historical narrative of gay men and the ahistorical post-everything world of queer kids. The backyard pool from childhood is empty, there is no swimming allowed, the beautiful pool is empty and still the poet makes a wonderful effort to remember what he has seen best, and felt most, onto the space of today.

A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

What does he write of? The poet searches into his own lonely darkness and parses the secrets buried within it. He gets down, fat and breathless in his small turning, puts his body down in a stale bed, leans into this isolation, closes his eyes and dreams your body there, next to his, and relishes the event of your mutual rest, the transient physicality of your mutual interest, your deliciously losable connections, the time he was with you: he is making you again, not wholly but religiously, snacking on such remembrances, scooping up the fragments of you lingering in the lacunas of your being gone. He builds a reclusive paradise next to the bittersweet ways you have slipped away from him, from life, the way death’s stern promise folds you up in an incomplete absence, and there and thus he almost saves you, unsatisfactorily but earnestly; he mingles his melancholia with your traces, and eats that imaginary paradigm like a meal taken directly after a meal, without guilt (or with a pleasure in guilt), with the indulgence of a body alone to rule his own kingdom of shadows of you. The poet writes through the way of his life, “the ordinary composure of loving, loneliness, and death.” You are not invisible, not totally irretrievable, you are “buried in so many places,” halfway waiting in the unrecognized seduction of the liminal world between the back of the nightstand and its shadow on the wall. His is a poetics of longing, the profundity of desire, and this construction, this tragicomic funhouse populated by what’s indelibly left of the disappeared, is a sorry confirmation that neither you nor he will be, finally, saved. “I’d trade these words on the spot / to see you again.” If this ritual is not really seeing, what then? what does he write of? what is happening?

Maybe the archetypal James L. White poem is a memory of intimacy, the hard-won, precarious sort known by a culture of outsiders, which is uniquely coded, uniquely sentenced to expire, yet still so desired, still utterly precious, if not in its instance than in the recovery of it when the bed is let back to a single body. To capture such intimacy, that which was tinged with unreality and doom even as it happened, is to embrace its fictive capability, to invoke the fantasy of a fantasy, to find the supernatural weight the other’s presence gifted the room, the poem moving around it “the way ships move heavily between moon and sun, not lost / but like a well-piloted dream.” Then, for the real bruise of resonance, to try and carve into the fiction and pull out the emotional injury locked in its marrow. “I pant hard over this poem / wanting to write your body again.” Sometimes this seems like enough, like the verse is really discovering at something that means, but the disappointment of this practice, the masturbatory futility, can also shut down the pleasure and significance of it: “I want more.” In these poems where White performs, reruns, his lovers and friends out of their departure and back into his bed, to a seat next to him at his table, to his touch, sometimes he takes it so far that he breaks the poem, which he candidly acknowledges: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.” Exposition has its limits. In the clutter of angst, though, these poems will suddenly stab directly at something so nakedly honest, it’s impossible to disbelieve White hasn’t reanimated something displaced by circumstance. Through the tenuous panting across the empty space, he captures how it feels to be in love, lines himself inside the feeling. This is how “Skin Movers” concludes:

In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die
as you and the milk pods open their centers
like a first snow in its perfection of light.

Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.

James L. White died before I was born. In an autobiographical fragment, he describes himself thus: “I was a half-rate ballet corps dancer, a soldier, a poet of some small merit, and wanderer of the earth, and a self-hater.” He has never found a position in the canon of gay American poets, most everything besides his final, posthumously published, work The Salt Ecstasies is seemingly totally dismissed, but the importance of his writing is not so rarefied that it has gone completely unacknowledged. He is simply relegated to the quiet niche of the outsider artist, the wonderful secret, poet’s poet or whatever, where this book has somewhat languished, though now brought back to a kind of prominence with its inclusion in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View series, which aims to guide “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print” under the direction of series editor Mark Doty, who handled the reissue this year (which includes a modest sample of previously uncollected material) and also wrote a marvelous introduction.

For me, the closest points of reference, in considering this book, are Leland Hickman and John Rechy. The similarly obscure, though denser, Hickman wrote poems with thematic overlaps; Rechy, of course, conjures a twilit world populated by lonesome, maladjusted denizens lurching around each other’s bodies under what White called the “tit-pink” neon of a bygone age of lurid cruising. As Mark Doty notes, “memory supplies context for this desire, and lust leads to the memory that wounds.” For anybody, especially a queer body, who read any of these three writers’ work around the time of their publications–one gets the sense he felt exposed to a new kind of writing, a display, an accomplishment, hitherto uncharted: the liberation of a gay male psychology across the page. Writes Doty (re: White), “In 1982, I’d never read a poem like this […] The diction of sex is fraught with peril.” But Doty also describes how a much younger poet once received The Salt Ecstasies: “He hated the book. He objected to the speaker’s seemingly intractable loneliness, to his night-realm of bars and baths and bus station […] He hated the shame that informed the book; White’s poems did not affirm him; they did not offer hope.” That perspective is understandable as it is unfortunate. White’s poems are mired in a period, but not stiffly so: they breathe, they surf along the pulse of memory and desire; while they cannot speak to today’s reader in exactly the same manner as a contemporary of Mr. Doty’s, they speak yet, complicatedly, and settle down into your spine all the same. The political climate has changed (maybe less significantly than we would like to think) and yet the base themes threaded through the verse of this collection, so lovingly stitched, trigger our guts and intelligences despite an anachronistic hopelessness (if White’s poems can even be said to articulate a profound lack of hope instead of, say, a lens of opulent solitude). Doty’s greatest insight, in his introduction, offers us a mature way to read the haunting quality of these poems: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair. Not that we’d trade this hard-won freedom for anything; it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.” We are free to believe that the answer to What does he write of? is you.

When I first saw the papers concerning the young freshman who killed himself over being exposed kissing another man, I looked at the boy’s picture. I was in my office here at Binghamton, and I could not stop crying. It brought back my own brutal mocking when I was in high school at St. Mary of the Assumption High. I once had 100 students in an assembly sing the “Scruvy Joe” song while I sat, defenseless. No teacher ever told them to stop mocking me. They were told simply to stop making noise. I was not gay. I was clumsy, and depressed, and different than others, and I was an easy target for kids who, under other circumstances, would be considered really nice. We are not much different than chickens. We see a bleeding chicken and peck it to death.

I did not kill myself, but I also did not survive. No one survives the irrational contempt and disdain, and meanness of a mob, whether they persecute you because you are a certain color or sexuality, or simply because they are a bunch of insecure teenage morons who want to have some fun. My classmates never knew the pain they caused me. I went home every day to a mother who was dying of cancer. I never opened my mouth—not even when some of the jocks in the school began literally spitting on me. Not one teacher—not one in that whole Catholic high school—ever said to me: “Are you ok?”

I had no dates. No girl would date the school dork. My former friends from grammar school joined in the taunting, and I never got better. I died: my self esteem, my sense of trust in others, my sense that I had a right to be weird without being tormented—all that was gone. They murdered me. They broke my heart. And, if confronted, not one of them would even realize they’d done anything out of the normal, for it is normal to bully, and look down on others. After all, if you don’t want to be bullied, show some back bone, or bully someone back!

I was tough, physically strong. Even those who mocked me would have admitted I was one of the strongest kids in my grade. I wouldn’t fight because the anger and sadness and despair in me was so deep that I was afraid I might kill someone. Also, I was a neighborhood kid, and the last thing I wanted was for my dad and mom to think I was a loser. I used to spend hours on my knees praying God would kill me. I was not weak. I was depressed, deeply so, because of the illness in my family, and I didn’t know how to defend myself.

I repeat: to take away another person’s dignity, to make anyone feel that what they are is somehow intrinsically inferior—this is an act of spiritual murder. We all know the difference between gentle ribbing, affectionate kidding and hard core ridicule and persecution of others—or do we? I don’t think we have a clue.

I survived because I hid in reading and music. I would have much preferred to be a cop or a plumber than a poet. Honest. I did not want to be different. Poetry was my compensatory act. I could scribble things in a notebook, and no one could destroy that aspect of myself. But I don’t believe in “blessings” in disguise. I don’t believe that all that doesn’t kill me, strengthens me. I believe I was murdered emotionally. I believed that an already severe sadness was aggravated by being taunted relentlessly. This kid who was outed without his permission, who was exposed for the “entertainment” value of the reality TV culture is not merely an instance of gay bashing. He is a test of our failure not to torture. He is a victim of our pro-exposure, lack of empathy, sociopathic contempt for privacy or kindness. I keep his picture on my desk. I look at him every day. No one knows if he would have identified himself as gay or straight or bi. Maybe this kid was just trying to find some love. Maybe he didn’t have a set identity yet. It was his right to identify himself, and this right was taken away from him by a bunch of kids who were no crueler (or kinder) than the one hundred good Catholic boys and girls who sang to the Mickey Mouse club song:

“Who’s the leader of the scurves who’s made for every scum?
S. C. U. R. V.Y., scurvy is his name!
Scurvy joe! Fat head! Scurvy Joe! Brown teeth!”

And on and on. I was spit at, hit on the back of the head. I developed a facial tick. I became broken, and the more broken I was, the more they increased their taunting until, finally, out of boredom, they stopped. By that time, my mother had died. It was senior year of high school. They were stupid teenagers. The teachers were not stupid teenagers. I would have loved if even one teacher took my side, took time to look into my eyes and see the hurt—had done anything more than uphold the diabolical norm. No one, not one of them got involved.

We cannot use law to fix our cowardice or our own lack of compassion. It will take more than trying those morons who outed this kid for hate crimes. It will take people who have some power to be on the side of the bleeding chickens for a change, instead of standing on the sidelines, while the so called “nice” and “normal” and “popular” kids peck them to death. Law is reductionist. The human heart expands when it is allowed to deal with life in its full complexity. Law simplifies by applying specific penalties to specific actions. Law can only provide the punitive. It cannot heal the heart.

In this week of coming out, perhaps we should put ourselves on trial. Perhaps we should search our own tendency to denigrate, to mock, to deride, to disdain. Maybe, instead of using those idiot kids from Rutgers as an example, we should look into our own past. That poor child was a talented violinist. He was probably taunted and teased more often than we’ll ever know. He is on my conscience every day for the rest of my life, and if I ever see a person scorned or mocked—gay or straight—and do nothing, take the side of the persecutors, then I will be a party to his death.

I try to make an example of acceptance in my classrooms, of being open to difference. I often fail. It is not enough to point my finger at those who hate. I have to keep trying harder not to be that way myself. I pray for that boy’s tormentors. They are dead too, in so many ways—spiritually dead. I hope with all my heart they can be brought to truly feel remorse for the pain they caused. I hope I can do the same.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.