Every month, “Appreciations” looks closely at a poem or poems from recently-published books by LGBTQ poets. Each column celebrates new work by appreciating some of the figurative and formal achievements of these poems.

This month’s poem is Ben Ladouceur’s “I Am in Love with Your Brother,” from his powerful recent collection, Otter (Coach House, April 2015) . The poem takes the form of a toast at a wedding reception—the speaker addresses the groom, Richie, a longtime friend. In this hour of celebrating new possibility and potential, the speaker insists on bearing witness to loss, as he relates some important truths about his shared past with the groom. Emboldened rather than daunted by the festive nature of the occasion, he reminds us that tragedy is never as far away as we might wish.

I Am in Love with Your Brother

Richie made me promise not to relate any stories of
embarrassment or crime, but, Richie, on
this, the evening of your nuptials, I must tell them about
our long day in Truro. I just must. The fallacy then
was a dark twin of tonight’s fallacy, we
and the dogs—who are thought to be clairvoyant
on these matters—anticipated storms
that never came, and here we are now, beneath
a tarpaulin, on an evening they reported
would be clear and ideal for regattas.

As Truro woke, as Truro’s rodents spat their
morning songs, Richie came across my notebook, open
to its core, and spotted my little admission:
I am in love with your brother.
The first line, I insisted, of a song I’d been arranging
to be played on the Wurlitzer, though now I
come clean, Richie, while your soul is at its smoothest
and most forgiving, I did love him, the crimson acne
flecked across his neck, he was like a man
a guillotine had made an attempt at.

We rolled that whole notebook into joints, didn’t we,
Richie, then drove into the boonies to shove ammo
into rifles folk left above their porch doors.
That summer, your brother’s motorboat
slipped into the Irish Sea, his mannequin body
demolished, and I’ll bet he is here now, and is
glad, I am sure of this. Caroline, Richie
is one hell of a guy. You would do best to keep
his body firmly in yours, how seas contain boats,
for he is only stories to me now.

At a time of celebrating vows, the poem begins with a promise broken, launching a paragraph of ironies both stark and subtle. There is menace even in the first two lines: “Richie made me promise not to relate any stories of/embarrassment or crime, but . . . .”

By deferring the completion of the speaker’s prepositional phrase–the speaker establishes anticipation, and the conjunction “but” marks the shift to a subtle threat that whatever is about to happen isn’t supposed to. The urgency in these impending revelations is reinforced by the repetition of “must,” which even takes a turn toward the ironically casual in the phrase “just must,” the way one speaks of gossip one can no longer contain.

The speaker goes on to suggest that his story and the circumstances of this very evening share one thing in common: false premises. The speaker introduces the foreboding metaphor of the “dark twin” to preface the story he is about to tell:

[…] The fallacy then
was a dark twin of tonight’s fallacy, we
and the dogs […]

Here, in the first of the paragraph’s two uses of “we,” Ladouceur’s enjambment allows this “we” to exist as an appositive, identified with “tonight’s fallacy”—as if to suggest that, in the context of this wedding reception, there is something false between the speaker and Richie. Once the clause continues into the next line, and “we” reveals itself as the subject of a new idea, then the phrase “tonight’s fallacy,” becomes retroactively available as a characterization of the wedding itself. There is momentary relief from the tension of these potentials, with the diverting non sequitur about the “clairvoyance” of dogs. And, compounding its over-determination, the phrase “tonight’s fallacy” turns out to refer to a faulty weather forecast—storms when it should have been clear, just as, on another fateful day the “anticipated storms. . . never came.”  “[H]ere we are now,” he declares, pointing to the irony of the weather’s reversal, but the pronoun expands beyond its earlier intimacy: this “we” includes an audience, and whatever the speaker needs to say will no longer be exclusively between them. But “fallacy” is such a strong word to describe failed weather forecasts, and surely its power is more than meteorological. As with a sudden cloudburst, one man’s release and relief might be another man’s ruined party. And, in retrospect, the mention of “regattas” foreshadows another, far darker twinning.

In the second verse paragraph, it becomes increasingly clear that another, perhaps more essential, pair of fallacies exist that have nothing to do with the weather. The story the speaker is finally telling is about a day that began with a foiled attempt at revelation. Richie found his notebook, “open/to its core”—that is, left open, consciously or not, as if to ensure that the confession it harbored would be seen: “I am in love with your brother.” It is a bold yet timid gesture—a “little admission”—if not in its content, then in the careful simplicity of the gesture that makes self-revelation possible. The admission is also “little” in that it is retractable. But is this a retraction motivated by fear or tenderness? That is, is it a step back into the closet, or is it the alibi for the betrayal of a relationship with Richie beyond simple friendship? There is more ambivalence than certainty in the renewed confession:

[…] though now I
come clean, Richie, while your soul is at its smoothest
and most forgiving, I did love him […]

To “come clean” is not simply to reveal the truth but to suggest that one has committed a crime and now seeks relief from its heavy secrecy. Here, the crime cannot be the fact of the love itself—this is a man who is now unashamed of, and uninhibited about, that love. From what we know about the earlier denial, the “crime” may simply be secrecy itself, and “com[ing] clean” a restitution both sought and paid by telling the truth. A plea from Richie himself, however, is embedded in this revelation: “come clean, Richie, while your soul is at its smoothest/and most forgiving.” Grammatically, the subject of “come clean” is in the preceding line:  “I.” Ladouceur’s enjambment thus draws attention to the hidden plea that these words, in themselves, contain. If they are still at the reception, the couple has not yet consummated the marriage as such. The encrypted plea to Richie could be that he retreat, lest he defile his newly-pristine soul, by participating in an illusion that denies the truth of the past (and, in some ways, the present).

Why does the affirmation—“I did love him”—immediately follow the suggestion that Richie’s “soul” is at its “most forgiving”? Why does Richie’s capacity for forgiveness matter? The open and often defiant tone of the poem, along with the regret about the past’s secrecy, make it unlikely that the speaker would ask for forgiveness for his desires. It could be that he wants Richie to forgive him for not having trusted him enough to be honest with him on that day long ago.  Is the retraction of the songwriting alibi now a confession of a betrayal that would require forgiveness—perhaps, because it is his forgiveness that seems to matter, a betrayal of Richie himself? If the secrecy and shame are what make the “long day in Truro” a fallacy, is the opposite of this “dark twin” the wedding’s festive, open declarations of a different love? Love denied is the “dark twin” of love celebrated. And if that celebration is a fallacy, what does this speaker know about why? As confessional as this moment is, is there something he is holding back?

Before settling into tragedy, wistfulness, and warning, the third verse stanza traces the aftermath of the first confession, beyond the denial in the songwriting alibi. He and Richie “rolled that whole notebook into joints”—thereby erasing the confession with fire and the cozily distracting intimacy of smoking together.  The convivial rolling of joints yields to the more sinister loading of rifles whose owners assume they are unloaded, a random sowing of possible accidental death. These recollections establish that their solution to the crisis of that first confession was apparently to reinforce their connection to each other. Then, with an abruptness that reflects the disruption of the event itself, the speaker revisits (and, for the reader, reveals) the brutal circumstances of Richie’s brother’s death. The metaphorical reference to the brother’s “mannequin body” suggests an idealized, youthful perfection, just as it anticipates the helplessness—and lifelessness—that follow, as the next line begins with that brutal participle, “demolished.”

Reinforcing a powerful ambiguity that will inform the remainder of his speech, the speaker follows the stark, obliterating description of the brother’s death with a gesture toward his imagined presence now. He invokes the brother’s blessing, as he observes: “I’ll bet he is here now, and is/glad, I am sure of this.”

The line that begins with speculation about the brother’s benevolent spectral presence—“I’ll bet”—ends with a temporary affirmation in the way Ladouceur breaks the line: “and is.” The speaker becomes especially emphatic in the following line, in which he asserts that he is “sure of this.” The missing antecedent makes the pronoun “this” provocative in its possibilities—certainly, in spirit, “this” refers to the fact of the brother’s presumed gladness, or even removes any lingering doubt about his presence. But it has no such clarity, grammatically. By now one has to wonder exactly what he might be glad for or about. The presumed happiness of Richie and Caroline is no longer the only possibility. What does seem clear is that the speaker’s claiming an intimate knowledge of what would make Richie’s brother happy is a way to ally himself with the brother, rather than with Richie, the man he is, after all, toasting. Might Richie’s brother be glad that the truth is out, whatever it was, and that the speaker has finally had the courage to claim and declare his love? This gladness signifies differently if the speaker’s love for the brother had been requited. In that case, this imagined gladness might suggest a fulfillment, in finally and more fully being known himself.
Ending his speech by addressing Richie’s new wife, the speaker offers a warning that is both flippant and haunting:

Caroline, Richie
is one hell of a guy. You would do best to keep
his body firmly in yours, how seas contain boats, 
for he is only stories to me now.

In its jocular tone just after the remarks about Richie’s lost brother, the description of Richie as “one hell of a guy” can seem harsh rather than appreciative. He advises not only that she appreciate Richie and love him well: by instructing her to “keep/his body firmly in [hers],” the speaker hints that she should take care to guard him sexually. To compare such containment or care to the way that “seas contain boats,” in reference to the brother’s drowning, insinuates that Richie’s attachment to her body will be a kind of death. The final line reads as the relinquishing of a claim, not just as a farewell to the past, to bachelorhood, to a particular manner of being young. In the statement that Richie is “only stories to [him] now,” there may be a sense of release and acceptance, but there is, in the adverb “only,” a bitter implication that Richie had meant more to him. Insofar as this final note of advice is a reminder to appreciate those you love, it is a compassionate gesture; in its barely-veiled insinuations, it is undermining.
At this moment of Richie’s own presumed happiness, the speaker takes the floor to demand recognition of he and Richie’s brother’s possible happiness—either real, imagined, or thwarted by secrecy and death. This confessing is also the staking of a claim, if not on Richie himself, then on his memory. This is testimony. This is a refusal to be erased. And we—like Caroline, if she’s listening—cannot really know whether Richie and the speaker were ever something more than friends. What we know is that now they are aware of  the whole truth of their relationship. Whatever embarrassment they may have felt if, any, is no longer the speaker’s. If  Richie invited his friend to the wedding–his close and intimate friend–he must have known that the past would come with him, like a journal left open, just waiting to be read.

 

“I Am in Love with Your Brother” from Otter © Ben Ladouceur, 2015. Used with the permission of Coach House Books.


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