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Nefarious, Emanuel Xavier’s latest collection (Rebel Satori Press) is a testament whose utterance often feels less printed than voiced by a cool gust pushing newspapers along the city’s now-gentrified streets and renovated piers, where hustlers and other outcasts of society once made defiant gestures of survival. Contouring the afterlife of these landscapes, the wind titters with sly humor—
“This place once stained with lube and cum is now a great picnic spot. The grass is different. You cannot smoke it.”
—or rises to mournfulness:
“I have never known innocence.” (“Eucharist of the Reformed Whore”)
“My eyes are as dark as the rooms/in which children are abused.” (“Savior”)
“The trajectory of my love life so far/or, rather, the tragic story” (“Eucharist of the Reformed Whore”)
That echo of tragic story playfully haunting trajectory displays the grim humor with which Xavier’s speakers observe their predicaments. The disembodiment of this voice arises too from the communal, choral note struck amid self-examinations. Stepfathers, neighbors, fellow hustlers, murderers, mentors, are brought to life in swift brushstrokes, colors faded.
It was here that Jose & Luis vogued inside a parked jeep blaring “In The Mix” before Madonna took them on tour. It was here Willi Ninja held court and told me to write about us so that we would not all be forgotten. It was here that I truly fell in love for the very first time with that hustler named Supreme. The graffiti is gone and the air is now full of reason.
Exorcising the dysfunctions of the formative household, or recalling desperate calculations of his survival in the streets, Xavier’s work peels off euphemistic labels like “marginalized communities” and “at-risk youth” like scabs from wounds healed, if at all, by only half.
No ghosts or angels or Christ haunting them,
only loud prostitutes on the Brooklyn street corner
outside—cold, weathered, waiting for the next trick.
That poem, “Prey,” is an appropriately structured triptych. Nefarious retains the erotic religious resonance of Xavier’s work in earlier collections like If Jesus Were Gay and Americano. The word demon arises multiple times in a text concerned with possession both spiritual and bodily, after flesh is either forcibly claimed, or offered with compromised volition. “I am simply blinded by my own demons and desperation,” writes the speaker of the collection’s roomy, 21-part centerpiece “Eucharist of the Reformed Whore.”
One might call a priest to exorcise demons, but Catholicism is itself a ghost nearly impossible to exorcise. The poet’s name, Emanuel, means “God is with us,” yet with the self-forensic incision of Nefarious, the “narcissistic prophet” of this poetic persona becomes increasingly ironic as the speakers ask where God hides when children are being abused, when disease strikes down old friends, when caring people are gripped by horrific happenstance.
In 2005, a brutal assault in Bushwick left Xavier with hearing in only one hear, an incident his work now treats with equanimity, in contrast to some of the rawer indignation in his earlier collections. Rarely has the arbitrariness of fate been so achingly rendered as in these snapshots of a world bereft of deus ex machinas for those on the margins of America’s capitalist resources. Individuals are spared the fates of friends or relatives by winds of sheer chance. God is shown to be deaf in both ears.
But at the auditory level, Xavier’s underlying sense of rhythm and rhyme, honed in the Nuyorican scene and exemplified in the work of mentor figures like Miguel Piñero, subtly pulses in the veins of these lines. From the acidic “Trespass”:
Were’t not that you were repulsive on
your underside or on any side, whatever
humanity left within me might take pity
on your hideous corpse
Elsewhere, straightforward prose, including text rendered as diary entries, flaunts its own resignation of expression: “We are all/ in danger of getting hurt emotionally or physically.”
What is left when the heart, the body, all innocence is given away? “Strangers do not know how much it hurts to feel anything more than their penetration,” he writes. He laughs in order not to weep: “I will die alone in my bed. My cat Alexis will eat me.”
The magnetism of Xavier’s poetic persona may lie in the fact that “secretly, we all long to be challenged to reveal ourselves,” as the poet muses in “Eucharist of the Reformed Whore.” Stretching the poet’s body on the examination table, scanning posthumous headlines from a life’s landmark events, unflinching in the face of loneliness and mortality, Nefarious is so direct in recounting the self-annihilations demanded by survival, the reader might wince at its unsparing confession. The poems’ conclusions circle back incessantly to touch on childhood injury, like a phantom limb, as the speaker contours his longing for a companion which may or may not be the father, or the Father, who failed to protect him.
This search for a reciprocity that rings true, suffused with the electric charge of bodies remembered, recalls the eerie wistfulness of Whitman’s “Voices”: “O what is it in me that makes me tremble so at voices?/Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow.”
As always, Xavier’s voice is one to follow—even if the streets of Nefarious might lead to your own reflection at pier’s edge, the mortal face, a fleeting ripple on dark water.
By Emanuel Xavier
QueerMojo/Rebel Satori Press
Paperback, 9781608640942, 88 pp.