Tim Dean: On "Esta Noches"
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