‘Obscenely Yours’ by Angelo Nikolopoulos
It can be hard to tell if Angelo Nikolopolous’s debut collection is a masterfully lyrical tribute to gay sexuality or a highly sexualized vehicle for his lyric mastery. Obscenely Yours is both a romp and an expose. The collection is not defiant, but celebratory, as excited about the pleasures of language as the pleasures of the body. Nikolopolous pulls together the signposts of high and low culture, invoking Shakespeare, Tom of Finland, XTube, Barthes, and the Sabine women with an ease that is by turns campy, flirtatious, and serious. (I see a sly reference to Foucault in a poem about riding the subway after a trick, but I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.) Nikolopolous is eager to play with pieties. Early on, he turns Yeats on his head, using “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement” as an epigraph to the first section, the madwoman’s complaint returning as a naughty nod to anal pleasure; it’s as delicious as Auden’s double entendres. I fear that I’m making the book sound as though it wears its erudition on its sleeve, but in truth, the poems make no demands that they cannot fulfill themselves. Like his eroticism, his erudition is worn lightly, coyly exposing a bit of décolletage before sliding the shoulder back up.
Nikolopolous’s incredible control of sound and rhythm allow him to play with great confidence. Pay attention to the sound-work in these lines from the opening poem, “Take the Body Out”:
liquids before solids, milk before steel tip
and split pea soup, cotton-edged quilt
to stubbled frame of mouth
The assonance and consonance are stunning. The short “i”, “l”, and “s” sounds start repeating, before the “k” is picked up and reinserted. This technique of embroidered sound carries the poems across the book. Nikolopolous writes free verse with all the discipline of sprung rhythm. If Margaret Thatcher had the eyes of Caligula with the mouth of Marilyn Monroe, then Nikolopolous has the discipline of George Herbert with the libido of Allen Ginsberg.
Some of his freshness comes from using the language of Grindr, Scruff, and porn—perhaps the most recent set of developments in the history of written English. The shock of recycled language from personal ads or “missed connections” from Craig’s List can be thrilling:
You were a blond with a beard.
A tattoo on the back.
Sunday morning and I pour myself
a cup of misanthropy.
I was Latino, 20 and shy.
The lightness of touch is stunning—the poet is both the consummate observer and participant. Nikolopolous sees the absurdity of pornography and the desperation of personals without ever losing his deep love for their consumers and producers. In his explorations of sex, he sees its appeal, its limitation, and its necessity: “I can’t stop thinking about your safeword. / It’s too red.” For a long time in the gay community it has been dogma that seduction requires a kind of butchness, but Nikolopolous seduces wearing a kind of linguistic drag, refusing to turn off the camp in order to arouse. I don’t think I’ve ever read a line as simultaneously sexy and risible as “You live in New Jersey too.”
The lightness of touch and collaging of external voices lets Nikolopolous float through the book without having to develop a personal narrative, though the speaker does periodically emerge as an embodied figure with a history of seductions, pleasures, and sorrows. In the few poems that feel autobiographical, sex gets a slightly degraded position, as when the speaker is disappointed by the sight of his own sphincter, or when he acknowledges the homophobia of his family. But even here, there’s a refusal to be entirely serious. In a poem about realizing that sex can be competitive, Nikolopolous ventroliquizes his unloving, alpha-top’s feelings: “I am bigger than you, / I am faster than you, and I will always beat you.” If you didn’t get the reference… it’s from Mommie Dearest.
The subjects promised by titles like “Self Suck” or “Anonymous Creampies: Auditions” aren’t precisely new, even if the language is contemporary. Every generation is proud to congratulate itself on its enlightened attitudes toward sex, on its willingness to confront desire head on, and its refusal of yesterday’s prudery. Any reader of Genet, de Sade, or Catullus knows that explicit writing about sex is not new. But what is new and exciting about Nikolopolous’s work is not that he is the most recent in a long line of sexual liberators, but that he seems like the liberated person we’ve been waiting for. There is no suggestion that he is refusing shame, or insisting upon the rightness of his desires against a hostile world. Rather, he revels in his wide-eyed thrill as we share his sexual explorations. He never pleads. In 2013, the world is full of gay poets who write about the melancholy of sex, the hope of sex, the burden of sex, the desire for sex—but I think that Nikolopolous is alone in writing about the magic of sex. In the 1980s, as the queer theorists told us, the big question for gay men was “Is the Rectum a Grave”? Angelo’s response: A grave? It’s Disneyland!
By Angelo Nikolopoulos
Alice James Books
Paperback, 9781882295999, 75 pp.