Contemporary books that invoke the classics risk pretension. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Greg Wrenn’s 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 personal—rather than Ovidian or Kafkaesque—metamorphosis.

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: “Do you believe in CENTAURS? /You can rid yourself of burdensome footed legs.” 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 “Centaur” 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 “Promiscuity”—in which an isolated, reflective speaker exhorts himself, “I must stop thinking /about my heart” and “One of the Magi”—a meditation on the impulse to find familiarity in the divine, written in the voice of one of the visitors to the Infant Jesus’ nativity — and “Self-Portrait as Robert Mapplethorpe”—about the eponymous photographer’s attempts to grasp his humanness through a string of sexual encounters. One of the last poems in the book, “Revision,” sheds light on another of the book’s predominant themes—that of remaking, reseeing, as Wrenn “switch[es] every pronoun” and leaves the reader at “the moment blown into glass, /held and broken.”

There is much of the grotesque in Section III, a poem sequence titled “Virus,” in which Wrenn’s speaker discusses his father’s battle with illness and the speaker’s resultant examination of his own mortality. The admixture of beauty and ugliness here is nicely encapsulated in the third poem, in which Wrenn writes “The staph infection on the inside /of his thigh persisted, a field of red poppies /unable to wither.” Adding to the complexity, these reflections are intermixed with erotic memories and borderline incestuous desires. The seeming lust for the father—expressed in lines such as “Daddyboy, why do I want to inhabit you?” and “Just outside a tortoise burrow— /that’s where I left his dick. /Wrinkled clown”—seems 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 father’s death. Furthermore, Wrenn’s 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 “enter[s]… /without latex,” a satisfying experience, but not as satisfying as his ultimate wish “to break through /…the skin around his heart.” 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 men’s 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, “Thirteen Labors,” 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 book’s 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 joys—“naked bodies against the vast /touchscreen’s glass—[where] there’s squeaking, /laughing”—and insecurities—constructing “prosthetic triceps” and a “rubber torso rippling /in the window light.” The less effective poems err on the side of obtuseness. I could not make much sense, for example, of the eleventh labor, “Marriage,” which closes with the lines

Hesperian tree pulp
plus butterwort lube for

guardian serpent: we’re
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 “Centaur.” He looks at familiar poetic concepts—desire, mortality, isolation, communion—in bold new ways, and this more than makes up for the occasional slip into the cryptic.

 

Centaur
By Greg Wrenn
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299294441, 77 pp.
May 2013

 



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  • Ron Fritsch

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