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“We came in here to pretend.” So begins Brian Blanchfield’s “Open House,” a playfully serious poem about a gay couple who, in the course of a spring walk, encounter an up-market house they cannot afford. Their finances do not prevent them from running room to room as they imagine themselves making space for Hart Crane and Eileen Myles in a study or removing awful drapes from a window overlooking the bay. It’s a game couples play all the time, though the queer spin here signals other themes, namely the limits to which the American Dream is available to gay men, whose recent past consigned them to urban rentals in clogged asphalt jungles. That the game turns partially earnest (“we weren’t faking exactly”) suggests the poem’s jaunty veneer masks a darker truth: the dream is seductive—and forever out of reach. Its voice may possess a biting wit that includes references to Diaghilev and Nijinsky, Bouvard and Pecuchet, and the ironic appropriation of legal terminology and Latin phrases, but in the end he must admit he and his lover, who “blew in notional,” imagine a future that is “not us, not any more.”
On the strength of this poem alone, Blanchfield’s new book, A Several World, would be worth acquiring, but the remarkable truth is poems of such rigor and imagination are commonplace among its pages. Ten years passed since the publication of Not Even Then, the poet’s previous (and first) book. Given the strength of this new collection, it isn’t difficult to see why.
The title A Several World alludes to a Robert Herrick couplet called “Dreams”: “Here, we are all, by day; by night we’re hurled/By dreams, each one, into a several world.”
Therefore, “Open House” is not the only poem in Blanchfield’s book that juxtaposes the mundane, sometimes oppressive realities of day-to-day life with the rich possibilities inherent in dreams. Said dreams occur not only in sleep but as we imagine new lives for ourselves. In “Smalltown Lift,” two lovers make one last stop on their date to a photo booth. Between clicks of the camera, each must tell the other something true. One turns to the other and says, “This is the best way I could think to have my arm around you.” It is a short, powerful poem of affirmation, where romance coexists with resistance: that this is happening in a small town, that it is raining, that they wind up at a bowling alley not to bowl but to profess their love in an enclosed space usually reserved for heterosexual lovers, is an act of politics second only to their urgency to express genuine affection.
Blanchfield’s take on Herrick’s “several” is itself several. It may refer to several points of view, as it does in “Rods and Cones,” a magnificent poem in which a young boy and his Papa visit a public garden the old man has designed. At various times, the points of view here shift from a squirrel, to Papa viewing the back of his boy’s head, to an unnamed observer who wonders “why can’t I react sooner /to what I see?”
In “Man Roulette,” a gay man goes from one carnival booth to the next:
What booth is this? The last was a plastic gallows.
In the teach me to kiss booth, you paid one dollar
to promote, when prompted, a theory. Advised me about
standing close and touching him who might enter
in such a way that draws contrast, rough and smooth,
cool and warm…
He begins in a kissing booth, then proceeds from one adventure to another, including one where he must “man the booth” for someone else. Even if the booth has only room for one person, the voice insists: “Get in here and hold me up. / I would fall without you.” Here, Blanchfield questions traditional boundaries and pushes past them: “What good as a booth is this, what good if it be one?” In this poem, “several” suggests there must be room in this world for all manner of emotional attachment, that we must configure our space as we can, despite what others tell us is possible or impossible.
Indeed, one could discuss each of the 45 poems in A Several World on its own, as each poem, unlike so many books of poems today, is its own event. Nonetheless, certain features of Blanchfield’s style can be observed in brief. Consider, the first stanza of “Edge of Water”:
Standalone heron borrowing a pylon in Portage Bay
according in quarter turns her head by the dial
of her beak to motion under current
until certain. One of seven.
Here, the poet abstracts and repositions traditional verse imagery (a bird on water), thereby avoiding the usual clichés: a heron “borrows” a pylon on an “accounts payable” system. Gone is the usual sentimentality (or, in better cases, the objective austerity of the pure imagist) in favor of light satire; and yet, ironically, the magic and wonder of the setting are buoyed by the very language that initially appears to stand in the way.
Elsewhere, the unique “superfund” of Blanchfield’s powers tackles headier subjects, as in “According to “Herodotus,” where reference to the Phoenicians, “Good at trenches, bad at bridges” bridges the way towards the subject of demonym usage and then, in the lyrically-driven final passages:
….the word is
twenty-two years old. Imagine your own
twenty-two year old [demonym here] here:
curly hair, lashes, headphones if you like:
Tell him, if you like, learning where he’s from,
what he is. Now imagine
learning where he’s from, being what you are,
sending him back…
Similarly, the self-contained section called “The History of Ideas, 1973-2012” roils autobiography and collage with historical and philosophical speculation. As the beginning lines of “Paradox” demonstrate: “We came to, raced past, and let stand a syllogism/and doubled back, which is already metaphorical…”
Unlike many master verse stylists, Blanchfield is bursting with things to say, and in ways that have not been said before. As a result, A Several World is a challenging, baffling, wonderful book. It is also an essential entry point into a new poetics of the queer imagination. These poems understand the past and point decisively toward our future.
A Several World
By Brian Blanchfield
Paperback, 978155654588, 105 pp.