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An important thematic element emerges early in the collection He Does the Gay Man in Different Voices, winner of the 2013 Lambda Literary Gay Poetry Award, in the titular poem, with its childhood to manhood shifts and emphatic observation:
You know I love you, even though we fight every
other night in this bedroom, where the safety of walls
turns into a steel cage I can’t escape, for you hold
all the keys.
In his startling debut, Mills writes tremendous poems concerning entrapment (the final phrase of the book happens to be “and you are captured”) in its multitudes: the speaker stifled in a day-to-day pattern, in a cubicle (“under bad lighting, / grading paper after paper after paper”), in bedrooms, apartments and bars, the victim in Misery, the victims of car (“steel coffin”) wrecks and Jeffrey Dahmer, and later in the book, in prison. The poems themselves have the appearance of cages: boxy and barred-in; yet within, Mills’s work is expressive and blunt, forging “a new intimacy.”
Oscillating between Florida and rural Indiana—where “a good fuck is hard to find”—Mills clashes backdrops of intense, violent imagery such as “Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy,” with moments of longing and tenderness. He writes about the danger looming around hookups, the randomness of bad luck and the cyclic pattern of savagery. In the matter-of-fact script-like setup of “Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” he observes the fusion of media exploitation, hate and fear in bleak and isolated landscapes: “tucked inside the crowd, are the future victims and killers / patiently waiting their turn.” Atrocities linger (“nothing ever truly leaves us,” the ghost of Little Edie says), whether it be in Ted Bundy’s frat house, out the window of the speaker’s classroom or on the plot of land of Dahmer’s torn down apartment complex (“people will always know / this is the spot”). There’s the sense of being fascinated with violence (sadomasochism; stories about a killer on the loose, a suicidal group of girls) and also a sense of being repulsed by it. He “almost sympathizes with Annie [of Misery]…” and finds that “Love is love, even if it’s forced, or confused, / or one-sided.”
The writing may have a flat Midwest tone but the poems are ferocious, forceful and sweeping, sometimes spunky and dryly funny. There are also moments of subtlety that could be overlooked. I particularly loved the poem where the speaker meets Little Edie’s spirit at a gay bar. The two leave the bar to look at the ocean out back:
We walk hand in hand. She’s thankful we met.
Says, where you been all my life? I shyly remind her
that her life is over, that she died alone in her condo
here in Florida. Her body rotting for nearly five days
before she was found.
It’s a quietly devastating moment in the book.
Elsewhere, Mills shows a sophisticated knack for revealing detail. In the opening of the section-long poem “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore,” the speaker divulges about his first time having sex with his boyfriend of now seven-on years:
I walked the aisles of Wal-Mart: the only
shopping location left in our corn-fed,
Indiana town. The local shops shut down
by falling prices and smiley faces. There
I bought condoms, KY Jelly, and blueberry
muffins for the morning after, attempting to be the dream guy.
Besides the inherent music in the text, the quirkiness of the blueberry muffins (which figure later vividly as “crumbs cascading down our torsos, / landing softly in our public hair”), there’s a rich array of Middle American detail here: the sense of isolation and displaced farms (his grandparents lost theirs) with the shadow of Wal-Mart, with its anonymous customers looming over it. It makes this first tryst seem all the more exciting and urgent.
In the final act of the book, there’s a sense of levity. The poems still have subject matter that is serious-minded but they are a bit more broken up, often in tercets. Mills allows the reader to breathe and contemplate everything that came before. There are poignant poems about writing to an incarcerated former porn star and two poems I particularly liked: “$5,000” and “$10,000,” where the speaker describes various, sometimes humorous ways this figure of money was or wasn’t spent (a pair of stanzas that are gems:
My boyfriend and I have spent nearly $10,000 on drinking and tipping
drag queens in the last year and a half,
because when you’re in debt and hate your job and hear every day
on the radio that things might get worse, there’s nothing
better to do than drink, dance, and stick dollar bills in a sweaty drag
queen’s hand or down some man’s g-string.
The last poem invokes a line by C.D. Wright: “Behind every anonymous number, a very specific face.” Throughout the book, Mills plays with specifics and numbers—dates, days, years, currency—and what they can and can’t stand for.
After googling the title He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices [(a riff off of T.S. Elliot’s original title of The Waste Land, He do the Police in Different Voices (a quote from a Dickens novel)], I got results like “My friend has a gay voice does that mean he is gay?”; the wiki entry for “Gay lisp”; and a topic on the Men’s Health forum on “Do gay men ever date women?” And what an irony—here among Mills’s rich and dynamic poems are all of these cages people create, these encapsulations by others to encapsulate what it means to be gay. This is perhaps why I crave poetry and the uniqueness of it as an art form: it’s unfettered or fettered, it can attempt to reflect or resist reflecting, it can’t be summarized by Wikipedia (or maybe it can?), and it’s in many different voices.
He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices
By Stephen S. Mills
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420086, 100 pp.