Monday, January 22, 2007

Beautiful Suspect

The beginning of a poem:

The first lesson about picking up a trick
is to remember everyone is a terrorist.
They carry strapped to their body herpes
or that STD with a pretty flower name,
or HIV, or else depression or diabetes.

They are not mules; they know what they carry,
but still yearn to breed death. Terrorists,
in short. I should add here, "like you and me,"
but that is not how I think of them, not
like you, love, and certainly not like me.

What I say applies only to big cities, of course.
In a small town, everyone knows everyone,
and so when you marry Cousin Dick, you
know what you are getting. The risks
are incalculable when you go tricking.


Anonymous said...

It's good this isn't finished. We'll hope it doesn't end up in a place as nasty and smug as it begins. How Bush era,to bandy around the word, "terrorists", like that. It sounds like some self hating Foley just picked up some little bumps somewhere. But it's irony, right? Right? It is puzzling though, the way the ironic absurdity of including depression and diabetes is undercut in stanza two, where the speaker reassures us his smugness is real. HIV pos who don't tell anyone deserve this and worse. But"breed death" , for the rest? Besides, if someone wants to play in the sandbox, how much of his finger wagging can the rest of us put up with when he gets cat shit under his nails?

Where will it go from here? Maybe I'll come back to find out.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Anon,
but I am nasty, smug and self-hating. Catch me in the right mood, I am the opposite.

Jee Leong

Greg said...

Interesting exchange, anonymous and Jee Leong. I am a gay man & think of myself as progressive and eager to defend and affirm all kinds of sex between & among men--someone who could write a message like yours, anonymous. Yet I'm now remembering my response to Al Pacino's portrayal of Roy Cohn, the closeted gay homophobic McCarthy era (1950s) persecutor of gay men, in the TV version of "Angels in America" (available for rental if anyone's interested). Pacino played the part to the hilt and I was enthusiastically delighted with his performance AS A PERFORMANCE--in the realm of art not reality. To me it's interesting to consider how, while we definitely need to oppose politically those who position themselves as our enemies, at the same time it may do us good sometimes to enjoy play that mimics their point of view. The next question perhaps is how best to define and indicate the spaces where that play is, and is not, going to take place, in order for it to be best enjoyed.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Greg,
so now I am a closeted, homophobic political operator like Cohn? Why, thank you! :)

Jee Leong

Greg said...

i did NOT say that!! ;-) (I'm not actually upset) But from what I've seen most or all of us queers have a little bit of Cohn in us.
also--contrary to what I said above I actually am NOT "eager to defend and affirm all kinds of sex between & among men"--I am eager only to defend and affirm sex that is consensual and non-destructive, which is to say protected & lower-risk. I'm not defending or affirming barebacking or rape.

monkey said...

Or maybe you just play one on TV. :-)

monkey said...

(Greg and I posted comments at about the same time. My joke was addressed to Jee Leong.)

monkey said...

If I may indulge myself with another post:

Greg raised an interesting question - "while we definitely need to oppose politically those who position themselves as our enemies, at the same time it may do us good sometimes to enjoy play that mimics their point of view. The next question perhaps is how best to define and indicate the spaces where that play is, and is not, going to take place, in order for it to be best enjoyed."

There are stories and films that show acts of cruelty, sexism, and able-ism with impressive artistry, without overt condemnation of those acts, and sometimes with humor. I'm thinking of Thomas Mann's "Little Herr Friedemann", Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People", Milan Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game", and Neil LaBute's films. How to think about these works is a nontrivial question.

(I don't mean to say that Jee Leong's poem is only about prejudice or cruelty - I'm just using these works to discuss ethical or political responses to art.)

I read Kundera's story together with two friends. I was impressed by his psychological insights and his exploration of role-playing, but one of my friends (the only woman in our group) was offended that the story depicted abusive, misogynist behavior without clearly condemning it. She felt that although a story doesn't always have to take an ethical stance, there are certain kinds of behavior that a writer cannot depict without having the duty to oppose them.

The other friend retracted his initial recommendation of the story and said that unless there was some hidden irony that would turn the story into an anti-misogynist cautionary tale, he had to agree with her.

I'm not sure what to think about all these questions, but I think all these works, including Jee Leong's, have interesting nuances and ambiguities that will be lost if we try to reduce them to a message. Greg's points about performance and the "little bit of Cohn in us" are very well taken. On a psychological level, what's most interesting to me about these works is not what they show about some misguided group of people, but what they reveal about all of us.

Larry said...

If I may join in, I don't see any need to load any agenda on this poem; it is a sort of mock-confessional portrait of a normal young guy in a big city scene. You want to make it, but there's a lot of fear and the dangers are real.

The problem is that it's a really rough draft, and the third stroph needs to be edited out and rewritten. I'd say it should go back to the first lesson, and get specific: So when you take that dark-haired barman home, / and etc., etc. / remember to etc. etc. / and as you etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure self hatred is the main point here, though it touches on it.

Aside from the question of whether this poem reflects what the writer actually feels, (though he is telling us it is) I think the main objection to the poem would be this. It is very easy, in the “sandbox” to contract the first two of the std’s mentioned even while engaged in play considered, in varying degrees, “safe”. Those whose number has come up (Chlamydia is more or less a matter of a few doses of cheap antibiotics) and who either to abstain from certain types of play or practice informed consent with potential partners do not deserve to be stigmatized. Nothing in the text of the poem exempts them from the hyperbolic accusation that they “breed death”, which is likely to hit a nerve, and apparently did. The poet can choose to do this or not. Other people’s sensitivities do not have to be his concern, but he is going to get a reaction. It can be difficult to split hairs in a poem, but a lot rides on the distinction, for a lot of people.

Vulnerability to these std’s is more a matter of statistic than anything else, only a matter of time. If anyone suggests these people should not pursue intimacy, then, in the end, we will all have to stay home. Personally, I’d identify with a straightforward lament that the sandbox isn’t a safer place, and leave the judgments to the people who usually make them—those who are not involved.

monkey said...

The second anonymous post is thoughtful and informative, but I don't agree that Jee Leong "is telling us" that "this poem reflects what the writer actually feels". Jee Leong's witty rejoinders justifiably tell us nothing about that question.

This may be retro of me, but I think a poem has an existence independent of its human author, and when I wear my reader's hat (as opposed to, say, my friend-of-the-author hat), I'm more interested in the implied author (see also Wikipedia's entry on Wayne Booth). In "Beautiful Suspect", I see the speaker not as the implied author, but as a character (perhaps resembling the implied author) addressing another character. I realize this is just one way to read it, though.

In "The Poem as Autobiography", I do see the speaker as the implied author, and no amount of knowledge about Jee Leong's actual views on child abuse would keep me from being disturbed by the implied author's flippant tone. (Larry has discussed the tone much more articulately than I could.)

Best wishes to the human author and his human readers.

Larry said...


I can see your point about stigmatizing. And yet, I think you are being over-sensitive here, and pushing for unneccesary precautions. The way I read the "terrorist" warning is as a very paranoid, OTT reaction, which makes the narrator more than a little comical. It is also entertaining, and revealing, to see him exempt himself and his friends from the stereotype: it only applies to the "others". I think that the ability to enjoy this humor depends on how much trust you are able to grant the writer; if he were generally known for his stupidity and homophobia, or gave no evidence to the contrary, it would be distasteful, but if you become aware that he is winking at you over the poem, then you can share his toying around.

While we're at it - I really don't understand what depression and diabetes are doing there. Depression could possibly be developed into a funny spoof of how morbid attitudes spread - but diabetes? Hmmm.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thank you, Anonymous, Greg, monkey and Larry for your thoughtful responses to the poem and to each other. I only wish the "poem," not even a draft but a jotting down of ideas and phrases, deserve such deliberations. The discussion is important, of course, because of the issues raised by the "poem."

I frame these interrelated issues thus:
(1) What is the relationship between the speaker and the author of a poem? What is at stake when we conflate the two, as we so easily and commonly do?

(2) Should an author treat subject matter of a dubious morality, in a manner that that is not condemnatory nor ironic? This assumes that the author, in his real person, thinks of the subject as immoral in the first place.

My thinking on the first question:
The basic relationship between the author and the speaker is one of creator and creature. The creature may be made in the image of the creator (possessing some of the creator's autobiography, attitudes, intelligence, and what have you) but the creature is not the creator. But some creatures are more like the creator than others. In the Christian account, man is more like God than a platypus is. So some speakers are more like their authors than some other authors' creatures. Even within the same species, some men, and most women, are, arguably, more like God than others. So within a single poet's work, some of his speakers are more like him than others.

Monkey reminds us of the useful concept of "implied author." The concept is useful not only because it emphasizes the differences between speaker, implied author and actual author, and how those differences play out differently in different texts, but the concept is also useful because "implied" reminds us that our ideas of that author is an act of interpretation. So Larry read the implied author as a mock confessional portrait of a young gay man wanting to make it but frightened by the terrors of the city, while the first Anon read the author as a self-hating Foley. Also, "implied author" is a critical (i.e. readerly concept). As a writer, I think of the speaker and and him as both creations.

If we have read much and well, we know all this, and yet we so often conflate speaker and author. Why? One reason could be that we read poems to confirm our own understanding of the world. So we read something in a poem that triggers a response in us, and we want to praise or condemn it.

Praise, almost always, means the poem says something we agree with; condemnation means the opposite. But both come from the same source. We become literalists when we praise or condemn a poem's content. What is the alternative attitude? Keat's negative capability, with which we hold the mind open to ambiguities, nuances and possibilities, with which we resist reducing a poem to a message, whether Satan's or Gabriel's.

Does that mean the author can get away with saying anything? Perhaps. At the very least, a poem grants the privileges of a careful hearing and of a suspension of judgment. For me, that is the fun of reading and writing poems. That is why literature, in the ocean of texts and media, is so vital.

I find myself at the second question. I think of Monkey's response to Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game," and I bless his soul. If it were up to the woman friend who read the same story, she would have burned the book, abetted by the male friend who was swayed by her view. My "poem" is no masterpiece like Kundera's, but the principle is the same. The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful. (And I think that kind of judgment is inapplicable to a poem that is not even a first draft. Thanks, Larry, for the aesthetic suggestions for the poem.)

But I think monkey hesitates over some of the implications of his intuition. He is disturbed, like Larry, by the apparently flippant tone of "The Poem as Autobiography." But, in terms of appropriacy for literary treatment, what essential difference lies between flippancy towards child abuse and denigration of women? Is child abuse more prevalent? More damaging? Is flippancy more dangerous than hatred? More simplistic? Answers to that question quickly run into trouble. This probably signals my limitation, but I sincerely cannot see any difference.

Larry provides a clue to the disturbance felt. He described child abuse as a taboo. It is a strong taboo in this historical moment, one reason why writers want to write about it. In so many poems, child abuse gives the abused speaker's voice authority and sympathy, qualities so alluring to a poet marginalized within the wider culture. That allure is one reason why I exploit, and question, that topic in my poem. So in my mind, both Larry's and monkey's responses to the poem justifies my choice of the topic. Of course, what you are reading here is self-justification after the fact.

Eagleton defines a poem, in part, as "a fictional moral statement." However much we want a poem to give us unmediated access to the writer's mind, a poem is a fiction, or, in my terms, a creation. I am beginning to see the moral "statement" my poems make: my poems give me permission to say anything I want in any manner I wish. To put it in an unattractively self-aggrandizing manner, It is a moral vision that values every thought and feeling the human is capable of thinking and feeling.

I want to thank you again for giving me your thoughts on these issues. Your opinions have made me think, and will continue to do so.

Jee Leong