- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
- OUR SUPPORTERS
At this year’s AWP, I had the pleasure of reading in a four-hour, cross-genre literary marathon called Queertopia at Boston’s Club Café. I was excited to receive an invitation to participate, but even more excited when I learned that I would be reading in the same segment of the program with one of my new favorite writers, Aaron Smith.
Only the week before the conference, Denise Duhamel, my friend and faculty mentor at Florida International University, left a copy of Aaron’s book, Appetite (University of Pittsburgh Press), in my department mailbox. She mentioned that she had chosen his poem “What It Feels Like to be Aaron Smith” for Best American Poetry 2013 and wondered whether I knew his work. I didn’t. But no one who reads Aaron’s work stays a stranger for long. The poems are immediate, intimate, astonishing in their unabashed candor, their wicked and insightful humor. This is another way of saying I laughed as hard as I cried, that I looked up from the book believing Aaron himself must be standing in the doorway or sitting in the next room. He was that close. I felt I knew him already, the way the best post-confessional poets can leap, fully embodied, from the page into our lives.
At Queertopia, mine was the first name called for the raffle. An enticing array of newly released books and literary journals had been donated, but I chose Appetite without hesitation. I wanted to mark on the pages and turn down the corners and annotate the lovely white margins of my very own copy. I also wanted to write this review.
The third section of Aaron’s book is a seven-page list poem called “I love the part” where the speaker conducts a plangent, ekphrastic exploration of a wide range of popular movies, including Moonstruck, Good Will Hunting, Steel Magnolias, The Wizard of Oz, and Casino Royale. Each stanza begins “I love the part,” an anaphoric anchor that allows Smith to riff on each film with a mix of sharp wit and sincere self-reflection. One of my favorite examples is as follows:
I love the part in The Object of My Affection where the guy with bushy eyebrows says to Paul Rudd: “I’ll talk to you about poetry.” It was the nineties, and I thought I could find that guy if I made a list of qualities I wanted in a man and thought positive thoughts. It wasn’t true.
I love all the parts in Aaron’s “I love the part,” and I love the gestalt that emerges from reading all the parts of this book. But since I can’t respond to each poem—let alone each part of each poem—with the close attention it deserves, I will consider here a triptych of poems that represents the scope and risk I admire most in Smith’s project.
For the left panel, I consider “After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong about the Sadness of Men Who Love Men,” the most touching poem in Appetite. Here Aaron is working at the outer limits of tenderness, walking gracefully along that tightrope where so many tumble into self-indulgence or misplaced sentimentality. The poem is simple, direct, as Aaron’s poems typically are:
It’s Palm Springs and you’ve slipped away
from a day of swimming and drinking to lie
for a minute with your eyes closed
in the other room while the air-conditioner
moan-groans outside the window—your body
chilled from sunburn and untouched
I experience this scene viscerally, the soothing cool air on my burned body, the speaker’s relief to be out of the sun and also his loneliness as he withdraws from the group. The second person implicates me in what has been and what is to come. The speaker tells me that I (in the form of “you”) begin to listen to conversations happening all around me in the adjacent hotel rooms. I am so close to the speaker at this moment that when I hear “Has anyone seen Aaron?” I want to answer on his behalf: “Yes, I’m right here!”
But that’s where the poem turns: “You don’t say anything but listen to the man/ saying your name.” Why doesn’t he speak up? They’re looking for him. They want to include him. The speaker makes me wait for an explanation, just as he waits to respond to the man calling for him. It is one of the most honest and poignant epiphanies I have read at the end of a poem in a long time—nothing forced, the speaker’s vulnerability palpable in these last three lines:
to remember this. You’ve waited
your whole life for them to miss you.
For the right panel, I consider “Fat Ass,” the most irreverent and hilarious poem in Appetite. This is Aaron playfully subverting the reader’s expectations of permissible content in poems. As a gay man in a culture that routinely denies his full citizenship, both legal and social, Smith is writing from the perspective of an outsider who is also an insider, an outsider who understands that everyone is implicated in the false binaries of our society, all those vexing, hierarchical, and deeply political categories of “us” and “them.” Yet, in the philosophy of the poem, no one is exempt from labels, and no one should be. No one is too high, or mighty, to be equalized by this phrase: “fat ass.” There is no one, the poet-speaker included, who cannot be cut down to size for their excesses, both literal and symbolic, and I think, profoundly American:
The woman in the next cubicle: fat ass,
the man on the train: fat ass […]
Me on my fourth cookie:
fat ass. My mom in her chair: fat ass […]
David Lehman: Best American
Fat Ass. Jesus fat ass. The devil fat ass.
The fat ass pope in his extra big fat ass robe.
Not since I first encountered “The Pope’s Penis” by Sharon Olds have I found myself looking over my shoulder as I read, wondering if I was allowed to enjoy the power and verve of the poem as much as I did. Likewise, just reading “Fat Ass” makes me feel like a renegade while at once exploding the boundaries of what I can imagine myself writing.
The central panel of this triptych, and the most challenging poem of the book for me, is called “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Backs).” This poem frightened me on first read with its intensity, the ferocity of the concluding litany (“I hate straight students who”…, “I hate straight men who”…, “I hate straight women who”…, “I hate straight people who”…), and most of all, because I had thought, if not voiced, most of the sentiments expressed in the poem. Reading it, I felt guilty, exposed:
Fuck straight women who don’t think
what we do is fuck ,
and fuck straight women who don’t ask
about my lover!
I just want to hold Michele’s hand
without straight men yelling out the car window.
Can one thing in the world
have nothing to do with them?
I’d like to rip their balls off!
Then, I remembered reading this poem last year in Court Green and how it had made so uncomfortable I forgot having read it, forgot the name of the poet who had written it. I became a 1950s housewife on the spot, terrified that someone would glimpse me in my hot rollers carrying my dirty laundry to the machine. I didn’t want straight people to know that any of them had ever provoked any of us, gotten under our skin, rattled us. I didn’t want them to know that we were capable of the kind of capacious anger expressed in this poem:
Max after the art opening:
Sometimes I hate straight people so much
I want to kill them. That’s why
I don’t write. I can’t say that in a book
And that’s all I want to say.
Now I think I needed this poem more than any of the straight people who may have read it or who will read it in the future. “The Problem with Straight People” does what the whole book does, what the best art does, too: it forces an issue, confronts a taboo, says the unsayable, breaks a silence—the silence that surrounds our most paralyzing human emotions: shame, sadness, and in this case, rage.
Appetite reminds me I am hungry, articulates my hunger in new ways, and feeds me well. Most of all, this book whets my appetite for more from Aaron Smith.
By Aaron Smith
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 9780822962199, 72 pp.