Except that Cavafy is always discussing sex,
only he never seems to be in the clutches, as I pointed out in my last entry, like Rigoberto Gonzalez, who's absolutely gripping, clawing, entering, being undone by, torqued, worn, re-bodied and re-boundaried by violent desires--where sex is his religion, the death of self and the resurrection. The body too is exchanged in this transformation of person, except in Cavafy there's no psycho-porn, there's only the momentary reminiscence of lips and face and hair.
It's this distance that demands oblique, antique phrases like "erotic pleasure" to Gonzalez' frank, "finger, foot, cock," that I'm referring to when I call Cavafy a Gay Republican. Tonight I'm haunted by the feeling that I was brazen and wrong, that I've hurt my feelings for Cavafy--
that I've wounded a secret love. Though I'm right to say he's a demon with a blue eye.
. . . . .
"Picture Of a 23 Year-Old Painted By His Friend Of the Same Age, An Amateur"
He finished the picture yesterday noon.
Now he looks at it detail by detail. He's painted him
wearing an unbuttoned gray jacket,
no vest, tieless, with a rose-colored
shirt, open, allowing a glimpse
of his beautiful chest and neck.
The right side of his forehead is almost covered
by his hair, his lovely hair
(done in the style he's recently adopted).
He's managed to capture perfectly the sensual note
he wanted when he did the eyes,
when he did the lips. . .
That mouth of his, those lips
so ready to satisfy a special kind of erotic pleasure.
. . . . .
Friends and Strangers, Gonzalez' achievement is that he risks the psychotherapeutic "I" to descend into sexuality, when most contemporary poets use it to romanticize a family drama (still clouded, unknowing Lowell-ists) or to document the daily mundane (as if pure journalism could serve us as poetry), poorly idolizing W.C. Williams. Sex is horror. The challenge for Gonzalez, Sexton, and anyone else who attempts sex as subject (say Bidart, or more recently Siken) is that to avoid being funny or caricaturist, the poem must be more than provocative. Its nature is to shock us. Poets of sexual descent, especially those of us affected by post-modernist sensibilities, have to worry whether this shock will be discredited as pornographic or simply poorly executed. This is not a concern for Cavafy, whose distance from sex itself is as great as the distance between the stone and the light, the living and the remembered.
. . . . .
How do we achieve, on the other hand, something contemplative, quiet, unless we write like Cavafy, apart, at a distance. Is it possible to disrobe in a poem? I mean to actually fuck in a poem? Can poetry succeed in the middle of a sexual display, can poetry really achieve its own Dyonisian impulse and not result in sounding disturbing?
Cavafy is forever considering loss, and not really sex. He's a sensualist, and in the end sensualism is always adorned by a death. His young dead lover is ever stoned by the light of his memory.
For me Henri Cole is more like Cavafy than Gonzalez. His approach is distanced by omniscience, the recounting of a memory. It's so internalized, quiet--and, like Cavafy, this is a mark of its beauty. But it's so much an inward movement that we end up in the air. It's as if he's reading an obituary. It's as if the experience belongs to any of us, and especially to someone else.
The strong sad ritual between us could not be broken:
the empathetic greeting; the apologies
and reproaches; the narrow bed of his flesh;
the fear of being shown whole in the mirror
of another's fragmentation; the climbing on;
the unambiguous freedom born of submission;
the head, like a rock, hefted on and off moist earth;
the rough language; the impermeable core
of one's being made permeable; the black hair
and shining eyes; and afterward, the marrowy
emissions, the gasping made liquid; the torso
like pale clay or a plank, being dropped;
the small confessional remarks that inscribe
the sole; the indolence; the being alone.
The power of a poem like this is that in the end we're greedy eavesdroppers--because this is someone else's life, we're reading his journal, he's talking to himself, offering his fallen confession, but we're listening too, secretly, and it sounds like our own experience in the embrace of a shadow: "the impermeable core / of one's being made permeable". Cole succeeds in a compelling exhibitionism without an ounce of vulgarity. I mean, "marrowy / emissions, the gasping made liquid"? You couldn't get any more exact and simultaneously non-descript.
. . . . .
The need for an illicit poetry that addresses taboo sensuality is not new, but it belongs to those tragic personages who risk their lives and public reputations to make of themselves an offering. Think de Sade or Georges Bataille. Think Verlaine and his disastrous affair with Rimbaud. Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Collette (god the French!), Anaiis Nin, Sexton, Kathy Acker. . . To write explicity about sex means you have to offend, challenge, face the admonition of the religious fear-mongers. And yet,
I started writing this to address Cavafy, to apologize for calling him a Gay Republican. Was that unfair? It was to reference his honesty about sexual identity masked with the daylight frankness with which he absolutely avoids sexuality altogether. Of course, this is blameless. Sexuality wasn't his subject at all--it was longing, and how the body torments us because it sails.
I started writing this to address and to define the boundary of erotic poetics, and whether a style of confessional honesty can offer us beautiful poems, or merely disturbing ones. Is the horror of sexual encounter, the terror of losing self, body, boundary, identity, all to the administering of physical pain--the bite, the lash, the orgasm--a realm where poetry can love? We are writing somewhere between the erotic and the sexually vulgar. We are balancing death with love. Love sends us a message:--from the distant light of his eyes to the hot presence of this blood--Naughty is the new Nice.
. . . . .
I don't know whether there is a poetry that couples the vulgar and the romantic, one that balances memory with the intensity of the sexual act itself. If this kind of poem exists, is it a descendant of something cultured or something brutal? Cavafy or Lorca? Straightforward Imagery or Symbolic Metaphor? Nature or Nurture?
I'm thinking now of Carl Phillips, whose work at first, because of the pressure of its syntax, feels related to Cavafy in terms of its portrayal of men in relationships, its reference to classical texts and figures and history, and the clarity of its imagery. (Though, for me, his resemblance to Donne--in terms of the metaphysical intensity of his work--is even more striking). But reading any of his books, you realize he's fearlessly grazing on the vulgar. But like Lorca, he gives it to us like a burning romantic. Even though he's over us, our whole obsession with romantics, with desire. Still, he's faced with the reality of it. How dow we write about something so boring? When every other heart has a love song to cry over? So he's an intellectual, and he's filthy rich, and he's bored with the help--but he's in love, and god it's gross to have to write about it, but oh. His syntax is trying to mezmerize us, hypnotize us. He really has to work hard to cast a spell. Its the beauty of philosophy, that has something sure to say, crossed with the irony of one who's self conscious of his own reflection in the water. He yawns and rolls his eyes and waves down to himself, Cold Narcissus. Well, what's one more poem to you, Friend and Stranger?
(And then the breeze comes through like a secret violence--that like Bishop happens syntactically:
"I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident"
and the whisper of it's enough to reduce us to the lost petals of his looks. . .
. . . . .
"Quarter-View, From Nauset"
Love, etc. Have been remembering
the part in Sophocles
where a god advises the two heroes
they should be as
twin lions, feeding--how
even the flesh of late
slaughter does not
distract them from keeping
each over the other
a guarding eye.
What part of this is love, and
is never said,
though the difference it makes is
at least that between a lily and, say,
a shield. I think of you
often, especially here,
at the edge of the world or a
part of it, anyway,
by which I mean of course
more, you will have guessed, than
the coast, just now, I
stand on. Against it,
the water dashes with
the violence of two men who,
having stripped it, now take for their
own the body of
a third man on the bad
sofa of an even worse
motel room in what eventually
we've seen . . . The way
what looks like rape
might not be. You'd like
the light here. At
times, a color you'd call anything but blue.
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
- ► 2008 (28)
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- CRUEL DIARY OF THE MANSUCRIPT
- THE SPECTACLE OF A FANTASY
- THE ANGELMONSTER OF SYNTAX AND SYNESTHESIA
- A KIND OF LISTENING SEEMS TO BE ANSWERING HIS SIGH...
- A NOTE FOR THE BRIEF EXCEPTIONS
- MY NIGHT JOURNAL AT THE RED GARTER
- GREEN IS THE SWORD TO DRINK DEATH WITH
- PURE DAYLIGHT IS THE STONE
- ▼ January (9)