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Charles Jensen, winner of the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, has delivered an admirable full-length collection with The First Risk, a recent Lammy finalist for best gay poetry. Above all, The First Risk is a study in contrasts, dualities, and fractured relationships. Divided into four sections, the first—and perhaps, inevitably, the most powerful—shuffles together a series of poems about Matthew Shepard with a series about the death of Adonis.
Eulogies and artistic statements about Matthew Shepard have been fairly common in the twelve years since his brutal murder, but many have failed. Loaded topics can misfire—poets still struggle to find the right note regarding 9/11—and, especially for gay artists, Matthew Shepard is a powerful symbol, on the order of St. Sebastian, but also a potential liability.
As a mark of his control of his craft, Jensen strikes just the right chord, first demonstrating his personal connection to Shepard in the opening poem, “It Was October,” and then on the facing page beginning his series of ruminations on Renaissance painter Luca Cambiaso’s painting “Death of Adonis.” The poem is welcoming, and offers the young speaker’s (and implicity, the poet’s) admission that he can’t fully understand the weight of Shepard’s murder:
It was October. What did I know of love that year,
shuddering in my nervous skin. Miles away, the boy was lashed to a fence and shivering.
What did I know of love then
but that it wasn’t enough.
The poem’s slightly formal tone and measured confessionalism help coax the reader into the treacherous waters of this topic.
In “Venus at the Body of Adonis,” Jensen describes a similar “wake-up call”: Venus “now she understands / how love, its curse // makes a mortal of her, or something like.” In a later poem, “Venus is Haunted by the Death of Adonis,” Jensen cleverly introduces images from the world of film, which will reemerge as themes in two subsequent sections of the collection: “butterfly shutters parse light, snap time into frames and freeze him like this—like this—like this.” Effectingly, the final stanzas echo thes images and sounds, in describing the death of Adonis, and tacitly, that of Shepard as well:
his body sputters, skin goes numb.
Too easily his mortal lungs give up,
give in, give his breath one last shove
like this—like this—like this—
Jensen’s most explicit handling of Shepard comes in “I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down.” Written in long lines (Lethe has accommodated these lines by publishing the book in an extra-wide 8.5” by 8.5” format), the poem calls Walt Whitman to mind, particularly in its “Song of Myself”-style anaphoric use of “I.” It’s a style most common these days in rant or brag poems, and given the delicate subject matter, it’s a big risk, but overall, it pays off.
On the page, “I Am the Boy Who is Tied Down” can seem too expansive at times, but read aloud, it emerges as both shocking and poignant; in fact, it’s the kind of poem that contemporary audiences respond best to at readings, and it’s likely that when it’s read by the author in person, it elicits tears. Moreover, where other poets can sometimes fade out or trail off, Jensen’s poems consistently end strongly, and here is no exception:
I am the path from the truck to the fence, the body of the body of the boy
pushed down, picked up, pushed down.
I am the halving of this distance,
the half of that, the half of that.
I refuse to let the boy reach the fence.
The following two sections return to the filmic images glimped in the first section, but with a more detached touch. Part II, “City of the Sad Divas,” is organized around a delightful premise: all the poems reference female characters in films by gay Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. While the concept fascinates, the section may elude readers not familiar with all of Almodóvar’s ouevre. For this reason, Part II could have benefited from the other chapters’ juxtapositions, which allow each poem to answer or echo the next. Nevertheless, neat phrases and images emerge, as in “La Agrado Explains Plastic Surgery”:
Once my body was a boy—
uncomplicated. Smooth eyebrow lines,
full head of hair. Then chaos:
If you want something done,
do it with a knife.
Staying with the cinematic theme, the third section, “The Double Bind: A Critical Text,” provocatively pairs somewhat dry film criticism-style prose poems about Hitchcock’s Vertigo with short lyric poems. The prose poems (which read as mini essays, and really only emerge as poems in relationship with the poems they face), are insightful—one in particular interests with implications about latent homosexual and transgender identity in the Jimmy Stewart character—but they rarely lift off the page.
The short lyric poems, though, with their oblique narrator(s)—the author? Kim Novak? Novak’s character Judy/Madeleine?—shimmer with a sense of presence and place, and, of course, with those signature endings. From “Int-San Francisco Hotel-Night”: “You are like a hotel that has a vacancy: / I want to fill you with me.” From “Producer’s Note on the Rushes”: “I carry him like this, inside me. / Lilacs crowding the mouth of a small vase.”
Despite the thread of visual art and cinema that helps to stitch the ambitious themes of The First Risk into a cohesive whole, the collection is ultimately more reminiscent of music than film. Jensen’s poems, with their strong narrative voices and endings like soft crescendos, demand to be heard.
THE FIRST RISK
By Charles Jensen
Paperback, $15, 79p