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Unmistakably bisexual, accomplished and rich, The Horizontal Poet is an excellent offering of 57 poems from wordsmith Jan Steckel. A former doctor and current activist on bisexual and disability issues, Steckel writes about her relationships with women and men, thorny health problems suffered by patients as well as herself, social issues, neighborhood observations and her habit of visiting strip joints.
Some of her poems are crazy good. I keep wanting to read them over and over. I have too many favorites to mention but here are a few:
‘Black Leather’ recounts a history of leather gifts from the women in her life, ranging from the first girl she kissed, who entered the military, then was kicked out for loving a woman; to a loaned black jacket from a friend providing leather comfort for a broken heart; to a memento from a trip to Provincetown, and ends with:
When you tie my wrists in those soft leather ties,
they make me feel so loved,
the way a hood quiets a falcon,
or the way a black leather jacket comforts a lonely little bi dyke.
‘The Naked and the Dread’ is a poem about an evening spent visiting strip clubs. I got a good chuckle from her comments on a policy that alcohol can be served in topless bars, but not nude ones:
The California Founding Fathers, in their wisdom,
reckoned a red blooded working man
could control himself under the influence
of hooch and boobies, or coffee and coochie,
but not hooch and coochie both.
I admire her forthrightness when stating her preferences:
Hairless adult vulvas are like Chihuahuas
or naked mole rats, cute but creepy.
Give me a genitally bearded Jewess,
her lower tresses knotted into pubic dreadlocks.
‘The History of Our Love’ posits what lovemaking would be like if she and her lover were both skeletons. I enjoyed the alliterative clickety-clack of her verse: “We’d grind, scrape, click and rattle right through the night.” She goes for the ironic yet emotional connection underneath the gruesome images, “I’d be able to get closer to you than I’ve ever been.”
In ‘Hard as Nails,’ recalling her medical career, she uses nail polish as a talisman against death, asserting:
“If my nails were pretty on call nights,
no one on my floor would die”
To ensure good outcomes, she frequents
“a female manicurist from Odessa
who quizzed me about my lovers
as she pushed back my cuticles.”
But when she finally admits she lives with her girlfriend, appointments are no longer available. So she finds herself a gay Greek manicurist,
“who regaled me with tales of his Prince Albert piercing
and didn’t mind touching my woman-touching fingers.”
She describes medical problems with an interesting mix of medical vocabulary, poetic metaphor and compassion. Some of her poems seem haunted with problems of patients past, mixing emotional with medical trauma and the frustration of not being able to save people or protect them from the cruelties of cancer, abuse, or death and red tape.
She describes her own predicament in ‘Halloween Wedding’:
You were dressed up
as someone who loved me,
and I as someone worth loving
in sickness and health.
A bad back later
I’m flat on my ass,
twenty-five pounds fatter,
costumed as helpless
with premature age.
One poem captures an encounter with a homeless man; others, relatives lost to the Holocaust, illegal but joyous neighborhood fireworks, a party that gets out of control, odd abandoned objects observed on the street, and an outdoor guerilla art installation.
Many of her poems succeed spectacularly, but even when a poem doesn’t work as a whole, there is some striking phrase, or a few, that makes reading it worthwhile. In ‘Make it Look Easy’ the declaration, “I could swear that you glow in the dark sometimes—like no other man,” speaks to luminosity, not only of skin but of emotional and spiritual connection.
Some of her poem titles crack me up or are incredibly evocative:
‘Twenty Thousand Vaginas Under the Sea’
‘Look Back in Angora’
‘The Underwater Hospital’
‘The Horizontal Poet’
As someone who is also disabled, and therefore spends a lot of time alternating between computer and couch, I fully understand the complications of being a horizontal poet, activist, writer and thinker.
Despite those limitations, or maybe because of them, Steckel has produced an impressive volume of poetic expression.
The Horizontal Poet
By Jan Steckel
Trade Paperback, 9780929730943, 87pp