Original Criticism

Chase Dimock: On "A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island"

A Few Queer Notes on Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”            

Without its title “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”, the queer space of O’Hara’s poem taking place on Fire Island could pass easily undetected without the image of hoards of tanned men partying on the beach evoked at the mention of the now famous gay resort. Although the poem itself has little to say explicitly about sexual identity or its attendant politics, I believe that it benefits from being situated in the specific context of Fire Island’s history in the lgbt community. Today, Fire Island is a famous summer vacation spot populated heavily with gay men during its high season. While the 21st century discos, raves, and circuit parties on the island today make it a carnival atmosphere, in the time of Frank O’Hara, Fire Island was more of a traditional east coast village of summer homes—just prominently populated by queer men and women. Fire Island was an especially popular destination for gay writers and artists. In her ethnography of the resort, Cherry Grove, Fire Isla, Esther Newton mentions the legend that W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood once attended a party at the famous Duffy’s Hotel dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede. Whether this is true or not, it establishes the space Fire Island occupied in not just gay culture, but also gay literary history, as a space that nurtured and inspired queer expression. Since even before O’Hara’s stay, Fire Island has had a place in the gay imaginary as a queer oasis—an escape from the bigotry and obligatory discretion of urban life. Along with promising romantic liaisons (however brief their durations) Fire Island was also a rare space of queer domesticity where gay men and women could live almost like their straight counterparts in the suburbs and residential communities outside the city.             

The “Hal” in this poem is Hal Fondren, a friend of O’Hara’s who, according to Joe LeSueur in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, rented a beach house on Fire Island every summer with his “longtime companion” Jack Shaw (183). O’Hara was staying with Fondren and Shaw in their summer home while he wrote this poem in mid July of 1958. It is then significant that O’Hara chooses this specifically queer space, a gay oasis, as the place of his quasi-mystical communion with the sun. Not only does the idea of the sun as a spiritual entity like God choosing to speak to O’Hara and give him encouragement to write poetry (even leaving him “a tiny poem in that brain of yours”) speak to a certain narcissism, (“You may not be the greatest thing on earth, but  you're different.”) but he also writes the poem as an homage to one of his influences, Valdimir Mayakovsky who previously wrote a similar poem about talking to the sun at a summer cottage. Thus, it makes sense that O’Hara would have this spiritual experience at a gay Mecca, and by channeling Mayakovsky’s poetic conceit, O’Hara queers Mayakovsky’s original poem, rewriting it in his own space of divine sensual and sexual revelation.             

There is a certain queer transcendentalism to O’Hara’s communion with the sun on Fire Island. O’Hara touches on the specificity of Fire Island as a place where queers could be open in nature with the sun’s explanation of why it chose to speak to O’Hara on the island:             “Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s             easier for me to speak to you out             here. I don’t have to slide down              between buildings to get your ear.             I know you love Manhattan, but             you ought to look up more often. The sun explains that it would have been much more difficult to reach O’Hara in his urban home because it would be blocked by the buildings. Gay identity and culture was made possible in its present form due to urban spaces where single men and women could move away from the family home, work independently, and form communities based on common interest and desire. Thus, gay culture is overwhelmingly shaped by and associated with the realities of urban living in a cosmopolitan environment, represented by O’Hara’s mention of the buildings. Conversely, gay culture is rarely associated with rural communities or the wilderness. Fire Island would have been the one community in that era that constituted a well-known queer space outside of a densely populated metropolis. Living on Fire Island would be far from roughing it, but it is nonetheless an environment chosen for its natural beauty, including the beach and the pines from which it gets its name. Fire Island is the gay Walden Pond—where queers could escape the urban jungle and safely commune with nature (and sometimes commune with each other in the nature of the bushes). If Mayakovsky’s communion with the sun at a summer cottage could be restaged in a queer context amidst the sexually repressive cultural atmosphere of the 50s, Fire Island would have been the logical, if not only choice.

John Marsh: On "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango"

As I write about Martin Espada in April and May of 2001, the island of Puerto Rico, which often figures in many of his poems, is suddenly in the news again. The New York Times, among other media, is giving national coverage to the protests against the United States Navy for its continued use of the island of Vieques as a bombing range and a place to stage its simulated war games. "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry," Andrew Jacobs reports in the April 29, 2001 The New York Times. And I wouldn't bother to point out the political blind spots in Jacobs' article if "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry" didn't confirm much of what Martin Espada has claimed about U.S. imperialism towards Puerto Rico (and other Latin American countries), specifically the racism and erasure of history that makes such imperialism possible.

The article begins by quoting a protester ("This is the Vietnam of my generation. We want to stop the mayhem. We want to make a difference.") and Farrique Pesquera, an independence advocate ("People have no self-esteem here.... They have been brain-washed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north. Struggles like this one will change that.") But from this relatively high water mark of journalism, the rest of the article is reduced to how the bombings may or may not have affected tourism. "But most of the tourists who take the 20-minute flight from San Juan," the article cheerily ends, say large-scale development [what might happen if the Navy left] would also be a tragedy. Paul Smith, 37, an audio technician from New York, said he found the Navy's presence here insulting but admitted that he liked the unintended result. "We wanted to find a place that wasn't superdeveloped, where there isn't a casino and where music isn't piped into the street.... I'm sure it must be awful to live with all that bombing, but I have to admit that if it weren't for the U.S. military, this place would have been ruined long ago."

At least the Times and Paul Smith acknowledge that the bombings and the recent death caused by them are "tragic"; that they share this status with an imagined (over) development that would ruin Puerto Rico's Edenic otherness is less encouraging. (Vieques--and by extension, Puerto Rico--would be "ruined" if the U.S. military allowed "tragic" superdeveloped casinos and piped-in music. The suggestion is that the U.S. military is keeping such ruination and tragedy at bay--not perpetrating ruination and tragedy. Keeping the world safe from tackiness, as it were.) Such willed political naivete is indeed laughable, but unfortunately all too common: Puerto Rico exists, and since its colonization in 1898, has existed, as an instrument of American interests, whether for simulated war games, a firewall against other Latin American countries, or as a more or less tacky tourist getaway. Mention is made in the article of "the real problem"--"poor roads, an overburdened sewer system, poor schools and an unemployment rate near 50 percent"--but no mention is made of the source of those problems. Especially occluded from the article is the one hundred year history of U.S. Puerto Rico relations, which includes bloody repression of Independence movements that sought to correct such inequality and privation.

In an interview with Steven Ratiner, Espada explains

I begin my book with a series of historical poems concerning the island of Puerto Rico for two basic reasons. First, the need. My sense of the educational system of this country--having been through it myself and also having taught in that system--is that it has in general no sense of history beyond `souvenir history,' the kind of history that is commemorated every Fourth of July. A very superficial understanding of history. And that furthermore, there is no sense of the history of Puerto Rico whatsoever, which is not a coincidence. Any time a country is a colony of another . . . you can expect that the history of that people will be conveniently forgotten at best, and suppressed at worst.

My inclination is to argue that Andrew Jacobs and the New York Times fall somewhere in-between conveniently forgetting and actively suppressing Puerto Rican history. American reporters, as "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" demonstrates, are notoriously at a loss for any deep understanding of the politics and history of Latin American countries. And although the occasion for the poem is El Salvador and not Puerto Rico, I would nevertheless like to read "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" from the perspective of the erasure of history and requirements of imperialism evident in Jacobs' article and theorized by Espada above.

The poem begins with a woman, "with the tranquillity of shock," describing "the Army massacre" to a group of reporters. The massacre goes unnamed, though it could refer to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of El Mozote in 1981 by a battalion of soldiers trained and funded by the U.S. Army, and the woman achieves a level of tranquillity, partly because such massacres were (are) all-too common. "The historic role of the United States in El Salvador," Howard Zinn writes, "was to make sure governments were in power there that would support U.S. business interests." Part of that historic role involved training, funding, and propping up undemocratically elected governments that committed frequent human rights abuses against their citizens in efforts to consolidate power.

The description of the massacre in Espada's poem, though, belies the lack of material evidence--"there were no peasant corpses,/ no white crosses..."--and reporters fill their notebooks with rows of words but mutter skeptically "that slaughter/ Is only superstition/ In a land of new treaties and ballot boxes." The reporters reluctantly record the history, but a history that (for them) has no meaning beyond myth and superstition. Further, they've come to believe their own lies: that new treaties and ballot boxes, metonymies for new (U.S. supported) government regimes, have ushered in a new age of democratic elections and reforms that make obsolete the violent past. Except that the "new treaties and ballot boxes" simply continued, at least in El Salvador, political corruption and violent repression. Reporters, and by extension the American readers of their reports, are unwilling or unable to make sense of history and its relation to the present (abuses)--a point the second stanza of Espada's poem dramatizes:

Everyone gathered mangoes Before leaving. An American reporter, Arms crowded with fruit, could not see What he kicked jutting from the ground. He glanced down and found his sneaker Pressing against the forehead Of a human yellow skull, yellow Like the flesh of a mango.

The American's arm crowded with fruit suggests the process of exploitation by American businesses, which had to rely on government repression to insure their presence. Further, the American reporter, in this process, unknowingly kicks up the past, a skull from a peasant's corpse, the skull whose absence disappoints everyone in the first stanza. The stanza makes an explicit connection between economic imperialism and government massacre--and finally a connection to the inability of American reporters to grasp that connection, thus making shoddy and obeisant journalism complicit in both economic imperialism and government massacre. That is a theme continued in the final section:

He wondered how many skulls Are crated with the mangoes For sale at market, how many Grow yellow flesh and green skin In the wooden boxes exported To the States. This would explain, He said to me, Why so many bodies Are found without heads In El Salvador.

The reporter attempts to make a joke out of the connection between decapitated bodies and the exporting of fruit to the United States--indeed, he can imagine no other historical or political explanation for decapitated bodies in El Salvador. The irony, though, is that his joke is precisely the relation between foreign exploitation, American consumption, and political violence. "The Skull Beneath the Mango," to borrow from Marx, resists reifying the commodity, instead showing the relations between individuals--repression and slaughter--that mask themselves as innocent products, mangoes. The reporter, who has all the pieces, literally stumbles over history and the material evidence (skulls beneath mangoes) that would allow him to make the connections. Espada's poem, then, does the historical and critical work that the American reporter is unwilling or incapable of doing--an unwillingness and incapacity that does not (witness "Small Island Becomes Bug Rallying Cry") require much effort to establish, but does (witness the continued abuses and inequality in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries) perpetuate naivete and American complicity with those abuses.

Copyright © 2001 by John Marsh

Michael Simeone: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.”  In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists use to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very people’s Roosevelt sought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up the dominant narratives of the state.  He describes a statue of Roosevelt situated in the school auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez.  Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated war broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest.   Unable to reconcile the statue with some narrative of statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war not only voices a condemnation of the war but also contaminates the language and images of memorialization with the contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal.  

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber  or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses,  or a podium to clatter with speeches  glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating him in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at containment or submission.  The destruction that he unleashed against the brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish- singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.”  The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution. Roosevelt is surrounded

by all the faces  he ever shoved in eugenic spite  and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,  hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors.”

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that the most aggressive, imperial nation on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually kicks the bully’s ass. That is, that a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses.  The installation of belletristic icons like Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of stormtrooping Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his portraiture.  As mongrels all, we spill over into each other.          

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

Jonathan Vincent: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.” In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists have elsewhere used to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very peoples Roosevelt fought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up dominant narratives of the state in something like what Donald Pease has called an “ahistorical supranational essence.[1]” He meditates on a statue of Roosevelt situated in the auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez. Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated military episode broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest and a masculinizing adventure aimed at overcoming any lingering “effeteness” of the late nineteenth century for white American men. Unable to reconcile the statue’s message with some narrative of benign statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war voices not only a condemnation of the war but also labors to contaminate the language and images of memorialization with the very contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal. As Walter Benjamin has famously quipped, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[2]

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses, or a podium to clatter with speeches glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating Roosevelt in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at their containment or submission. The destruction that he unleashed against the Brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish-singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.” The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution in paradoxical juxtaposition to Roosevelt’s hubristic testimonial to white nationalism.

Roosevelt is surrounded  by all the faces he ever shoved in eugenic spite and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race, hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the final satirical jab is thrust as the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors” by the brown faces which ominously “surround” it.

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that one of the most aggressive, imperialistic nations on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually overcomes some paralyzing dread to kick a thuggish bully’s ass. That is, a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing of the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses. The installation of belletristic icons like statues of Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of laughing Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his militant portraiture. As mongrels all, Espada seems to suggest, we spill over into each other.

 

[1] See “Hiroshima, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, and the Gulf War” in Cultures of United States Imperialism (Duke, 1993), co-edited with Amy Kaplan, p. 558.

[2] See “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Illuminations (HBJ, 1968), p. 256.

 
 

Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Vincent

Tim Dean: "Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty"

It was Mark Doty’s third volume of poems, My Alexandria (1993), that gained him widespread acclaim and critical recognition. His first two volumes, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), have recently been brought back into print by University of Illinois Press in a single volume. This earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes—beauty, mutability, aesthetic invention—and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet C. P.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "Esta Noches"

"Esta Noche"

This poem takes its title from a working-class gay bar in San Francsico’s Mission district, a down-at-heel area of the city inhabited primarily by African-Americans, Latina/os, and other ethnic minorities. The bar’s name is the Spanish word for "tonight," and on the night in question a female impersonator who calls herself la fabulosa Lola acts as the mistress of ceremonies for a drag show. In spite of its subject matter, Doty’s poem belongs to a very ancient tradition of epideictic verse—the poetry of praise. Unlike traditional epideixis, however, the object of the speaker’s praise, Lola, is neither a hero nor his beloved, just as she is neither exactly a man nor a woman, but a beguiling combination of both. Lola is also, significantly, a singer, like the poet himself—even if she is only lip-synching.

        . . . [S]he tosses back her hair—risky gesture— and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy,         all will and black lace, and lipsyncs "You and Me

against the World". . . .

This is classic camp: an imitation of high cultural seriousness—the grief-stricken widow in a tragedy—rendered hilarious by its inauthenticity and the incongruity of its context. As with the kitsch Christ in "Homo Will Not Inherit," camp often works by presenting an emotionally serious subject in a trashy or parodic frame. The tone of defiance that was treated soberly in "Homo Will Not Inherit" is here handled irreverently; and the interpolated phrase "risky gesture" clinches this attitude of impiety. In other words, the widow’s moment of bravado, in which she throws back her hair, is instantaneously undercut by the hint that she’s wearing a wig that might fall off. When her wig becomes dislodged or falls askew, the drag queen is undone.

While the poem takes as its theme aesthetics—the study of beauty—and marvels at how "perfection and beauty are so alien / they almost never touch," Doty nevertheless treats this serious topic as an occasion for comedy. We are supposed to find "Esta Noche" funny as well as poignant. The poem does not make fun of the drag queen so much as it ventriloquizes her sense of humor, having learned from Lola’s sensibility. This comic tone is introduced in the poem’s second line with the single word "late," which is set off by medial caesurae:

la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs[.]

The line forms a symphony of hard and soft consonants, with the apparently dispensable word "late" prolonging the alliteration of l sounds in the title that the queen has conferred upon herself. The word "late" also echoes the plosive t sounds in the words that surround it: enters, mounts, stairs. We might even say that the repetition of this hard consonant creates a clattering sound in the line that mimics the noise of Lola’s heels as she ascends the stairs to the stage. But the word "late" is interpolated into this line to indicate above all that Lola follows what is known as "gay time." No drag queen in the world has ever shown up on time for anything. We do not need the word "late" in this line for purposes of narrative or of realism; the word is there primarily to make us smile, and to suggest—via the economy of a single crisp syllable—that the poem inhabits a stereotypically gay context.

Hence part of this poem’s complexity lies in its rendering Lola as both a comic and a serious figure. Although drag queens appear throughout Doty’s work, one of Lola’s most significant prototypes is, curiously enough, the nightingale in Keats’s famous ode. Keats’s poetic speaker identifies his voice with that of the beautiful singer, a bird that flies straight out of the English countryside into the space of mythology: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird," Keats’s speaker apostrophizes the nightingale. Somewhat similarly, Doty models his poetic voice on that icon of artifice and in-betweenness, the drag queen. This gesture of imitation emerges most definitively a few poems later in My Alexandria, in "Chanteuse," where

in a nearly empty room over a crowded bar, a beautiful black drag queen—perched on the edge of the piano, under a blue spot,

her legs crossed in front of her so that the straps of her sparkling ankle shoes glimmered—sang only to us.

One effect of this iconic moment is to encourage an identification of her song with his, thereby repeating the structural trope of Keats’s Romantic ode. Unlike most contemporary poets, Doty does not aspire to a natural voice; and in this respect he departs from the strong influence on modern American poetry of Whitman, of Ezra Pound, and of William Carlos Williams, all of whom in their various ways aspired to make poetry conform to the idioms of natural American speech. Thus despite his poetry’s accessibility and popularity, and despite his poems describing natural scenes and objects, Doty is a poetcontra naturem, a poet of the made (and made-up) rather than of the given. He takes the ancient and persistent charge against sodomy—that it is a crime "against nature"—and makes of the unnatural a virtue rather than a vice.

If the angel is one of his poetic figures for liminality and the coastal shoreline is another, then the drag queen represents a hybrid figure that combines "blur of boundary"—"shifting in and out of two languages like gowns / or genders"—with the achievements of artifice. The drag queen, like the poem, is a work of art; and it is Doty’s inclination to find works of art in the unlikeliest of places, to find loveliness in ruin. He does this in almost all his poems, showing us the radiance in what has been discarded or deemed undesirable. In "Esta Noche" he finds beauty in both the figure of the drag queen and in her dilapidated setting:

            . . . She’s a man     you wouldn’t look twice at in street clothes, two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile     sadly narrative—but she’s a monument,

in the mysterious permission of the dress.

We notice here that the dress grants "permission," just as twilight ("permission’s descending hour") did in "Homo Will Not Inherit." This word "permission" signals in both poems an impending metamorphosis, an almost magical transformation. "The costume is license / and calling," we are told at the end of "Esta Noche," in an avowal that could be spoken by either Lola, the speaker, or a hybrid voice that fuses their subjectivities. More than merely "permission," the dress is also a "calling," a vocation, as if from God or the poet’s muse. Thus more than a nightclub entertainer, the drag queen has become by the poem’s end another kind of poet, transfigured by his or her vocation.

The poem is attentive to the tawdriness of the scene—"the plywood platform," "the wobbling spot [light]," the "unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth"—and thus to the miracle of transformation, given how unpromising are the raw materials of this spectacle. Yet the spectacle reaches out to encompass the whole of nature, so that by the close of the poem the sky itself is seen as in drag:

        . . . She says you could wear the whole damn     black sky and all its spangles. It’s the only night we have to stand on. Put it on,     it’s the only thing we have to wear.

The starry sky has become a sequined dress, and the cosmos is revealed in its most elemental as drag material. "Esta Noche" makes nighttime itself into a realm of artifice, as if artifice were unavoidable—"the only night / we have to stand on." This curious locution treats the sky as a glittery fabric—"the rippling night pulled down over broad shoulders / and flounced around the hips"—yet also as something about which one has no choice: "it’s the only thing we have to wear." In this way of seeing things, artifice is ineluctable and yet there is something poignant about this inevitability. If in "Homo Will Not Inherit" "twilight, / permission’s descending hour" suggested a luxury that made anything seem possible, in "Esta Noche" the possibilities of night seem more like necessities for survival.

This idea of drag as necessary and inevitable, rather than optional and decadent, appears also in the earlier poem "Playland" (Bethlehem in Broad Daylight98-100), and in "Crêpe de Chine," a poem from Atlantis that might be paired with "Esta Noche." Promenading down a Manhattan street and imbibing the sensuousness of commercial display, the cross-gendered speaker of "Crêpe de Chine" echoes Lola in her chant:

I want to wear it, I want to put the whole big thing on my head, I want

the tumbling coiffeurs of heaven, or lacking that, a wig tiered and stunning as this island.

That’s what I want from the city: to wear it. That’s what drag is: a city

to cover our nakedness[.]                  (Atlantis 72)

Here as elsewhere the poet is not so much describing the drag queen as speaking in her voice and adopting her point of view. It’s not simply a matter of giving voice to the marginal figure of the drag queen, but of extending her sensibility, seeing the whole world through her eyes. Doty expands this sensibility—an appreciation of artifice learned as much from downtown gay bars as from Wallace Stevens’s aestheticist philosophy—by identifying it with urban architecture and cosmopolitan space as such. To want to wear the city—to describe drag and the city in terms of each other—is to desire an intimacy with urban space that suggests the poetic speaker’s dissolution into the very shapes and surfaces she beholds.

It is important to distinguish this approach from that of Whitman’s poetic speakers, who, when they move through the city, aspire to absorb what is seen into the poet’s self. Whereas the Whitmanian poetic self may be termed all-encompassing, Doty’s poetic self would be characterized more accurately as all-adoring. His poetic self exhibits a porosity that makes contact with urban forms and surfaces of all kinds endlessly stimulating and delightful. In experiencing sensuousness almost everywhere, this porous poetic self finds aesthetic pleasure in abundance. Doty seems to appreciate both the trashy andthe sublime, the beautiful and the dilapidated—or, more precisely, his poetic sensibility refuses to draw a hard-and-fast line between these conventionally polar categories. This sensibility is part of what makes his work "queer." It is also what has led some critics to censure his work, to find it either excessive or inadequate.

In the end, what a certain critical position finds objectionable in Doty is his poetics of praise. When Doty’s poetry appears too concerned with surfaces and with glitteriness; when he piles adjective upon adjective, what some critics find uncongenial is his poetic speakers’ adoration of the objects of their sensual apprehension. Without being fully aware of it, these critics (Harvard’s Helen Vendler among them) are objecting to what Doty loves. Their critique of his aesthetic is, at bottom, antigay—or, more precisely, antiqueer. Two comic poems in Sweet Machine, both of which are titled "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," respond to this denunciation of his delight in surface, artifice, and sensuousness. Both poems are antiphonal, structured as quotation and reply, and both crystallize themes evoked in "Homo Will Not Inherit" and "Esta Noche." The first version of "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work" employs the genre of the drag queen’s snappy comeback, replying to the critique with this camp riposte:

—No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins.            (Sweet Machine 36)

For this sensibility, excess is not superfluous but vital. The second, much longer version of the poem elaborates on the first version’s epigrammatic rejoinder by explaining that "Every sequin’s / an act of praise." Appreciating the surface of what he encounters, Doty elevates this appreciation into a poetics of praise—a mode, that is, of honoring the broken, the marginal, the dispossessed, the abandoned, the artificial. In the end, Doty is a love poet, though his love is rarely directed solely at other persons. His is a truly promiscuous aesthetic, one that finds beauty and therefore something to praise virtually everywhere it turns.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Rachel Blau DePlessis on: "Diving into the Wreck"

In this poem of journey and transformation Rich is tapping the energies and plots of myth, while re-envisioning the content. While there is a hero, a quest, and a buried treasure, the hero is a woman; the quest is a critique of old myths; the treasure is knowledge: the whole buried knowledge of the personal and cultural foundering of the relations between the sexes, and a self-knowledge that can be won only through the act of criticism.

Joseph Riddel: On "Of Mere Being"

"What are we to make of this late Stevens? Is he a man satisfied with his edgings and inchings, with the swarming activities of "statement, directly and indirectly getting at"? … Coming upon one of Stevens’ last edgings and inchings, a poem cryptically entitled "Of Mere Being," the critic is hard put to place his man. Does the "mere" of the title mean "simple" or "pure"? and does Stevens at last transcend (or inscend?) the physical to discover a central, the thing itself? [Here is quoted the poem in its entirety.] Beyond thought, beyond reason – here in the intuitive moment one perceives "mere being" but still perceives that one is perceiving. What he knows of mere being is a "palm" (a form, a faith?) beyond the physicality of tree and a bird’s song without meaning. Unreal, yes! – but that is Stevens" word for the reality of poetry, the "one of fictive music." What one knows of mere being is an image on the edge of space. at that point where being becomes nothingness. Is this not to prove the ultimate creativity of self, of the mind which must always conceive a reality beyond form or metaphor, beyond thought, but nevertheless at the end of, not outside, the mind?"

Henry W. Wells: On "As You Leave the Room"

""As You Leave the Room" was apparently completed a year after "On the Way to the Bus" [reprinted in Opus Posthumous, p. 136]. Its first eight or nine lines may have been written as early as 1947, according to the conjecture of Samuel French Morse, editor of Opus Posthumous. But the last seven lines appear to refer specifically to "On the Way to the Bus." Stevens has again been calling his life as poet to account and wondering if it has not all been misspent in pursuit of an illusion. Or has his fondness for introducing the intellect into poetry reduced his work to the dryness of a skeleton? Are his poems merely the skeletons of poems, not true, living organisms of verse? At this point he recalls a few of his resilient pieces, throbbing with feeling, alive in flesh and blood. He remembers his sensuous "Credences of Summer," with its affirmation of fulfillment in all phases of experience, his poem on the hero, and similar pieces. Above all, he recalls "On the Way to the Bus" [which ends with "a perfection emerging from a new known, / An understanding beyond journalism, // A way of pronouncing the word inside of one’s tongue / Under the wintry trees of the terrace"], celebrating the illumination which he experienced on a winter morning only a few months before and the resilient faith in life, emotion, and clarity of thought there expressed. No, he concludes, neither he as a man nor his poems are failures, skeletons, the shadows or apologies for life. They are vital, residing at life’s core."

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