Roz Kaveneyâs Dialectic of the Flesh may be pocket-sized, but the poems in this book open up into pathways dark and guttural, witty and wistful. A finalist for the 25th annual Lambda Literary Awards, the thirty-one poems in the book vary between tightly constructed poemsâsonnet variations and villanellesâto free flowing confessional narrative ones. (more…)
AndrĂ© Aciman’s new novel, Harvard Square (W. W. Norton & Company), a story of two young men trying to come to terms with their outsider status in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been receiving a lot of buzz about its timeliness in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But it’s the timelessness of the book’s themesâassimilation, finding one’s place in the world, deciding who you want joining you thereâthat will make it a novel worthy of discussion and admiration for many years to come. (more…)
How does one write a biography about someone who has been dead forÂ 40 years, was a bit of a recluse his whole life, and whom fewÂ people really knew? If you are Mary Blume, and the subject is Cristobal Balenciagaâone of fashion’s most unique and forward-thinking designers in his dayâyou focus on the fashion itself, the time when the subject was mostÂ creative,Â and on the impact he had on fashion.Â (more…)
This spring the books that most caught my attention were a trio by old friends â Neil S. Plakcy, Jack Ricardo, and Marshall Thornton â plus a 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, which he adapted as the script for a quasi-controversial 2012 film. (more…)
Love by the Numbersâa book about a bookâand its author, Professor Nicole Hathaway. Nicole is a numbers kind of gal. Sheâs a cerebral perfectionist who exhibits little emotionâexcept for the annoyance she feels at her Indian mother for serving vindaloo for dinner and her intrusion into Nicoleâs personal life. Everything is pretty black and white for Nicole. That is, until she slips on that leather jacket and becomes âCole, the âbad girlâ who loves them and leaves them breathless as she disappears into the dark of night.Â Then things get all gray and mistyâand sensual.
If you are reader of Mia McKenzieâs blog, Black Girl Dangerous, you already know, and youâre probably already excited to read The Summer We Got Free, Mia McKenzieâs debut novel. For those of you who do not know, you are about to be introduced. (more…)
Contemporary books that invoke the classics risk pretension. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Greg Wrennâs Centaur, with its eight-poem cycle on a man who transforms himself into one of the mythical horse-legged creatures. What I found, however, was a book which deals much more with personalârather than Ovidian or Kafkaesqueâmetamorphosis.
The speaker of the title sequence becomes a centaur with the help of a Brazilian expat surgeon. As one might expect, this leads to some delightfully absurd moments, as in the ad the speaker responds to, which reads, in part: âDo you believe in CENTAURS? /You can rid yourself of burdensome footed legs.â If the entire section were handled with this glibness, it might grow tiresome, but Wrenn leaves plenty of room for pathos and reflection, as when the speaker recalls how:
Some man touched me in the crib,
warped my bones.
Never could run
like the other boys, those lithe
cheetahs flying past the dugouts.
Echoing the rest of the book, the âCentaurâ sequence concerns itself primarily with desire and disappointment, the human and the animal, the erotic and the grotesque, and the oftentimes murky borders between these sets of seeming opposites.
Sections II and V, both of which feature series of standalone lyrics, pick up these themes in poems such as âPromiscuityââin which an isolated, reflective speaker exhorts himself, âI must stop thinking /about my heartâ and âOne of the Magiââa meditation on the impulse to find familiarity in the divine, written in the voice of one of the visitors to the Infant Jesusâ nativity â and âSelf-Portrait as Robert Mapplethorpeââabout the eponymous photographerâs attempts to grasp his humanness through a string of sexual encounters. One of the last poems in the book, âRevision,â sheds light on another of the bookâs predominant themesâthat of remaking, reseeing, as Wrenn âswitch[es] every pronounâ and leaves the reader at âthe moment blown into glass, /held and broken.â
There is much of the grotesque in Section III, a poem sequence titled âVirus,â in which Wrennâs speaker discusses his fatherâs battle with illness and the speakerâs resultant examination of his own mortality. The admixture of beauty and ugliness here is nicely encapsulated in the third poem, in which Wrenn writes âThe staph infection on the inside /of his thigh persisted, a field of red poppies /unable to wither.â Adding to the complexity, these reflections are intermixed with erotic memories and borderline incestuous desires. The seeming lust for the fatherâexpressed in lines such as âDaddyboy, why do I want to inhabit you?â and âJust outside a tortoise burrowâ /thatâs where I left his dick. /Wrinkled clownââseems to be symbolic of a desire to know the father in ways that cross the traditional boundaries of shared knowledge between a parent and a child, likely brought about by the realization of their shared mortality and the imminence of the fatherâs death. Furthermore, Wrennâs use of sex as the metaphor effectively expands the desire to know the father outwards to a desire to know the unnamed lover who is also mentioned in this section, a man he âenter[s]âŠ /without latex,â a satisfying experience, but not as satisfying as his ultimate wish âto break through /âŠthe skin around his heart.â This is a bold move and, while it works for Wrenn, I would have liked to have seen the section focus even more tightly on the father/lover dynamic. How do gay menâs relationships with their fathers affect their perceptions of their lovers? This is a question that Wrenn raises but ultimately leaves unanswered.
The mythic is taken up again in section IV, âThirteen Labors,â based on the twelve labors of Hercules. Helpful to those of us who are a bit rusty on our Greco-Roman mythology, Wrenn provides a truncated list of these labors in the bookâs index. Interestingly, these labors are generally reseen through the lens of technology: the hydra is slain in a computer game; the cleaning of the Augean stables is reimagined as a Photoshopping of an unflattering self-portrait; an online avatar frightens off digital Stymphalian water-birds. At their best, these poems speak to human joysâânaked bodies against the vast /touchscreenâs glassâ[where] thereâs squeaking, /laughingââand insecuritiesâconstructing âprosthetic tricepsâ and a ârubber torso rippling /in the window light.â The less effective poems err on the side of obtuseness. I could not make much sense, for example, of the eleventh labor, âMarriage,â which closes with the lines
Hesperian tree pulp
plus butterwort lube for
guardian serpent: weâre
climbed left to right
Even so, what I find most impressive about Wrenn is his ability to write both strong lyric poems and compelling experimental pieces like âCentaur.â He looks at familiar poetic conceptsâdesire, mortality, isolation, communionâin bold new ways, and this more than makes up for the occasional slip into the cryptic.
By Greg Wrenn
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback,Â 9780299294441, 77 pp.
The things gay men do outside of same-sex sex, the way they are, their subjectivity, are well documented in popular stereotypes, but less so in scholarly writing. Daniel Humphrey, in his new book-length study on the Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, points out that since Bergmanâs films were brought to America in the 1950s, gay men have been watching them in a unique way that was then âforeignâ and today seems just as âstrangeââtwo adjectives Humphrey spends a large amount of his book historicizing. Combining theory-heavy formal film analysis and a compelling treatment of urban homophile history, Humphrey enlivens a forgotten mode of Cold War-era queer art-house spectatorship in order to offer up âother ways of being homosexualâ that are at once historical and new. (more…)
‘Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side’ by Rayya Elias
Millions of Syrian refugees have fled their homeland due to decades of civil war. While most settle in Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, those with a little more money can travel farther from the chaos. As of May 2013, approximately 150,000 Americans identify as Syrianâa small minority, even among other Arab Americans living in the United States. Syrian immigrants have historically settled in tight-knit communities in New York, Boston, and Detroit, but wherever they’ve landed, âhomeâ has been with family. (more…)
In Relative Stranger, Starr Spenser returns home to Portico Ferry, Missouri, after being cast off by her Las Vegas lover, Alana. Starr is fed up with the hijinks of her father, a man who thinks robbing a bank to pay off a mob debt is perfectly acceptable behavior. Starr strikes out for her childhood home. When she arrives at the bed & breakfast owned by her fatherâs ex-wife, Letisha, she finds that Letishaâs mental capacity is somewhat questionable. Her memory seems diminished and her loyal housekeeper is deeply concerned. To make matters worse, Leitisha is dating a cad of a man at best and a scam artist who has designs on her money at worst. His ill feelings for Starr are evident every time he speaks to her, but Starr holds her tongue as she tries to figure out the situation. If that were the only problem Starr had to contend with, it would be a cakewalk, but thatâs far from the only issue sheâs got to plow through upon arrival in town. (more…)