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“Just promise me you’ll keep / your mouth away from mine.” —“Stable”
There are ways in which this collection of poems (by turns light and searing) doesn’t necessarily want the reader to get too comfortable. There’s no winking, here; no “look at my cute young gay self.” The collection provides, rather, an unflinching look “through the boy’s locker room, / the smuggled towel, the smell / of come, of childhood, like dirt” (“My Subdivision”).
At the end of the opening poem, “The Fall of 1992,” the speaker is re-doing his face in a restroom mirror while a drag queen admonishes from the stall: “Don’t hold out for love.” The reader is likewise (and thereby) warned not to expect love in this collection, but disquietude; the uncomfortable still life, not the expansive landscape.
Even Mann’s “Landscape,” which starts on a street corner, ends up a sort of tortured self-portrait, as the speaker identifies with a San Francisco rent boy: “You and I are a vanity plate, which I hate, / all shellacked flesh, rigs, and exultation.” But the language of the poem—and the collection—is often playful, always vivid and musical. Earlier in “Landscape”: “Your Days-Inn, pullout life. / Your sweatpants, happenstance life.” And from “Larkin Street”:
Her shade surprised me,
the leather lark in the Night-Train
dark of Polk Gulch, her arch face
like a thirty-
day clock on its last tick-tock.
On a formal level, the poems likewise don’t want us to get too cozy. Several require reversals or re-readings, as directed by the poet. In “Cockroach”: “Nothing came between me // and my Calvins, not really, / and I was gay for pay— / not really.” In the fifth stanza of “Stable,” we are to replace words from earlier in the poem with new ones, e.g. “alone” for “hungry”; “hearse” for “horse.” To borrow from theatre parlance, this breaking of the “fourth wall” keeps the reader at arm’s length; we won’t get too far into a poem if we’re always aware of reading it.
These reversals have the further effect of making the narrator unreliable, so the “I” of these poems, the “confessional” voice, appears to function as a mask or guise, a vehicle for memory, for self-reflection, sometimes–condemnation.
Surfaces are emphasized throughout Straight Razor: from the first poem’s moss and Madonna, and through hairstyles and cologne in later poems, to the wounds and flesh in the book’s closing lines. Rhyme, meter, and wordplay accentuate this emphasis by calling attention to the words of, not the narratives in, the poems.
The tension between singsong lines and their “serious” content calls to mind Plath, as when (in “Daddy”), she achieves a near-comic effect: “A man in black with a Meinkampf look // And a love of the rack and the screw.” From Mann’s “To Mercury, in Retrograde”:
I bought a tanning bed.
My surface wounds are fresh.
My corner smells of hunger
and slathered, burning flesh.
Traditional poetic forms are sometimes honored, sometimes toyed with. There are complete pantoums, but also semi-sestinas, and quasi-villanelles. In “Hyperbole,” for instance, the villanelle form is abandoned a stanza early, so rather than the expected quatrain, the poem ends with a couplet, sans the “required” repeated lines. But since the speaker of the poem has skipped out on his trick (“I left before he might reciprocate”), the poem, by abandoning the form, seems to follow suit.
Like the figure of the Hustler in “Landscape,” the speakers of many of the poems seem trapped. Mann’s repeated use of passive voice suggests a kind of stasis, further amplified by end-stopped lines, and the more or less abrupt endings of several of the poems:
“There’s nothing worse / than wanting out. I watched the weather vane.”
“It wasn’t love, or lack thereof. / It was 1978.”
“—Years ago, there was Tennessee.”
These poems—like their protagonists—don’t hope for happy endings or look back with resolution. The speakers may therefore seem to know less than the reader in 2014. But “1978” lives on in our collective psyche, and though many of us have escaped or found ways in, the strength of this collection is that, in many of the poems, we are left with (and reminded of) the discomfort of wanting out.
By Randall Mann
Paperback, 9780892554300, 80 pp.