- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
- OUR SUPPORTERS
Towards the end of Walter Holland’s book Circuit (Chelsea Station Editions) a few sonnets suddenly arrange what had been a formal feeling into form. “Afternoon, Fire Island,” my favorite poem of the book ends
this rental house we have—a real wreck—
old and worn, “Leisure” from another time—
hardly the glamorous places we used to rent
but that’s OK, I’m fine
with more modest digs—I’ve spent
enough time here on display
to now accept things as they are—“come what may.”
That note of acceptance and comfort rises to Holland’s elegant phrasing to capture a moment in which everything seems to be after something else. The book’s subjects—childhood, AIDS, parties, glamour, sex—all seem to have found repose. If they are not over, they are at least in a fairly stable state of equilibrium.
There is very little poetry that embraces calm and comfort as its dominant moods, and very little gay poetry that seems not just to have weathered the storms, but to have weathered them entirely in tact. These are the poems of a healthy, well-adjusted happy man.
Holland’s major achievement here is to build a persona that is as unabashedly gay as it is charmingly decorous. I never thought about how much I tend to worry about the speakers of gay poems—how damaged and endangered our speakers tend to be. You never worry about Holland. He seems refreshingly adult. He seems OK.
Holland’s poems about sex are wonderful. He manages to combine the primal first person of desire with the watching third person of the intellectual. He is near and far, able to comment from within and without. In “Morning Sex,” Christian theological templates provide the basis for contemplation, until his partner is joined to the scene:
Grant me, just
a moment of heaven’s bliss,
reticent, not one for the kiss, you
are the progenitor of a Jewish past—
force and anger taught you to prove your worth—
while I look up in suffering ecstasy. (75)
On one hand, it has the wry humor of a Phillip Roth character showing up in a Caravaggio, but on the other hand, it keeps the lovers distinct. There is no ecstatic dissolve of the lovers into each other. Rather we see how the lovers come together and stay themselves, the ecstasies distinct, but mutual. Holland is always respectful of boundaries, which makes him more able to enjoy crossing them.
It’s a bit of cliché to call a place the main character in a book, so I won’t say that Fire Island is Circuit’s true protagonist; I will say that Fire Island is the book’s tether. It’s the center of gravity, the place that will always provide solace or excitement. And it’s quite successful in terms of keeping the reader grounded. Fire Island lets Holland access a pre-AIDS gay history, and it lets him out of choosing between the urban and the rural. Fire Island, the weekend community, is an ideal ground for Holland’s contemplations.
My only real complaint about the book is that the section breaks seem a little too clean (and at six sections, there are a few too many). Some subjects are allowed to float between sections, but others are held firmly in place. Poems about AIDS are almost exclusively contained (quarantined?) in the third and longest section, with the unfortunate effect that the loss and grief are never able to rub up against any other subjects.
Because the tone of the book is so consistent, I kept wishing that the book were less orderly. I wanted the maybe-just-a-little-bit-gay father to follow on the lovers caring for each other as they died. I wanted Proust and Lorca (foreign literary heroes can be found in the fourth section; Anglo-American literary heroes are in the sixth section) to push back against hung over party boys on Fire Island.
A section break is a rest, the conclusion of one movement and the start of another. I ended the book with the sense that past struggles had been subordinated to present comforts, and that ultimately, that the pains of the past had been overcome. I also left with the sense that AIDS couldn’t quite be reconciled with the way we live now. And yet, what else is Holland doing in this poem, as he finds the historical constant towards the end of another sonnet, “Auden’s House””:
…The Master at his rhymes
better captured the vicissitude of the gay estate
spending some days in the forties out here—
he’d sooner not be surprised, chalking it up to Fate—
gay marriage, AIDS, adoption, Queer
Studies—with beauty of course, worshipped just the same
in a society still smitten with wealth and fame— (87).
By Walter Holland
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9780984470754, 98pp