Thursday, July 21, 2011

Randall Mann's "Breakfast with Thom Gunn"

I was curious to read this book of poems, a 2009 Lambda finalist. Thom Gunn is in the title. I have run into  Randall Mann's name on the Internet many times but had not read his poetry. I like to know what other gay poets are writing, especially writers near my age (Mann was born in 1972). My exact contemporaries lived lives different from mine, but could have been mine. In Mann's case, I don't know when he moved from Florida to San Francisco, but he moved from a world to a world, like I did. Unlike me, he lived through the AIDS epidemic at what was arguably its North American epicenter.

The book begins with exhaustion. At a time when "desire is a dirty word," the speaker finds himself "wanting,// again, a man I do not want" ("Early Morning on Market Street"). In "Election Day," he is "Tired// of the age of irony,/ everything a gesture, tired of the word gesture." The tiredness shows in the language. In the same poem,

The day does its melancholy thing.
I come home, watch pornography,
fast-forward the scenes in which a friend--

back in his methamphetamine years--
has unrepeatable things done to him.

This is language barely burning, until it flares up in the word "unrepeatable." The things done to the friend are unrepeatable in polite discourse, like poetry. They are also unrepeatable because the friend has gone off meth. He survives because he did not continue, repeat, his addiction. His fear saved him, but for a diminished existence. The poem makes the point awkwardly, "On the street,// a bag of paranoia costs less/ than a moderately priced meal out." Moderation saves, but at a cost. But at what cost? How much is a moderately priced meal? The poem gets the word "moderately" in, but obscures the comparison of paranoia to meal.

In the midst of cautious exhaustion, the poems risk fragile boasting. In "Song," the speaker brags in parenthesis "(One time, I swear to God,/ I fucked for weeks and weeks.)" But the past is not the only time for boasting, the present is too, when the "queens," lured to the speaker's house by the promise of the best crystal money can buy, "beg to sit on my fist." The boastfulness here is brittle, as indicated by the italicized over-emphasis. It is one aspect of the survivor's condition. But I am somewhat disturbed by the contemptuous and reductive picture given of the "queens." Aren't the queens survivors too? Instead, they arrive at the house, "prim." Their talk about antiques and art, which the speaker dismisses as "boring stuff," marks them as snooty. So rather unpleasantly intertwined with the speaker's brittle boasting is a delight in humiliating others from a different class, in making them "beg."

This limited sympathy is displayed, in a more off-hand manner, in "Fetish." The first of its five sections, each a tercet, begins:

Another Saturday, and the straights
and amateurs will come to my ghetto tonight.
Suspension of rights for all, I say.

"Straights" is a fairly neutral term, but "amateurs" is not. Both "straights" and "amateurs" are slumming, visiting the "ghetto" on a weekend, but why reserve a special malice for gay men who do not live in the ghetto? The half-joking tone is no explanation, for the mockery does not extend to the straights. This unequal treatment is particularly ironic since, in calling for "suspension of rights for all," the speaker alludes to the rights denied to gay men. But there are gay men, and there are gay men, the poem implies, those who live in the ghetto (what is the opposite of amateur?) and those who do not. And so a small community is made even smaller, as if in self-defence. It is a relief to come to a poem about a ghetto citizen, "Queen Christina," for there the poet shows his full powers of wit and sympathy. To celebrate his final Pride, the speaker's friend dying of AIDS dresses up in drag. When he compares himself to Greta Garbo, the speaker counters that he looks more like a "hobo-/sexual in heels." "We howled," the speaker says pithily and poignantly.

Perhaps self-defence is the natural response to the enemies of the ghetto. Dan White, who shot dead Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was found guilty of manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, and given a jail sentence of seven years. The poem "The Mortician in San Francisco" targets not so much White as the jury, who represents the homophobia in the wider society. The charge against the jury is made, however, in very tentative terms:

... the twelve who held his life in their hands
maybe didn't mind the death of Harvey Milk;
maybe, the second murder offered him a shot
at serving only a few years.

The tentativeness is only fair, for who could have read the minds of the jurors at that time? One can only speculate. But this uncertainty disrupts the sense of inevitability at the poem's end, a sense implicit in the narrative structure of the poem, and its sestina form. The poem loses its conviction, in both senses of the word.

The speaker of the poem is the titular mortician, a queer who prepared for burial the Great Anti-Queer. Mann's poem reworks consciously a poem by Gunn, in the latter's AIDS book The Man with Night Sweats. In Gunn's poem "The Beautician," the titular character makes beautiful the hair of a dead friend, as if she has "shaped an epitaph by her action." What Mann does is to take a poem that is primarily about a friendship and turn it into a matter of politics. In doing so, however, the Mortician becomes a mere mouthpiece, and not fully a person as the Beautician is. The story he tells of the shooting and its aftermath can be told by anyone. He becomes useful only in the very last line of the poem, to deliver the poet's parting shot against Dan White (and those like him), "And he was made presentable by a queer." How does it feel to be queer and to prepare your enemy for burial? The poem does not look into the human complexity of that situation, and so passes up an opportunity to go one up on Gunn, and, instead, goes one down. More, Gunn's Beautician is a figure for the poet himself: the reference to an epitaph (which, at one level, is the whole of The Man of Night Sweats) clues the reader in. The figure is, typically of Gunn, modest, "being a beautician after all." Mann's Mortician is a different kind of poet, injured, outraged, partisan, and still consumed by surface ironies.

Superficially the two poets are similar, not least in their reliance on meter and rhyme. This reliance is real and vital to their art, but it is not dogmatic. It shapes, it modulates, it invents, it continues the link between individual poet and the poetic tradition. Gunn wrote and Mann writes free verse as well as tight, rhyming quatrains. D. A. Powell in his blurb for Mann's book even goes so far as to praise Mann for "formal prowess equal to the master to whom he pays homage." Not quite. Mann is very skillful. "Bernal Hill," a love lyric, is masterful in its control of the short iambic trimeter line, and the rapid rhymes. But I don't see why "The Mortician in San Francisco" has to be written in sestina form (with the predicable pun "spilt milk" on one of its end-words). The envoy is unaccountably missing. The pantoum form in "Politics" seems to drive the poem, instead of the poem driving the form. There are poems here titled "Aubade," "Ode," "Night: A Fragment," "Short Short," "Pastoral," "Syntax," "Poetry" and "Fiction." They lend the book a very self-conscious literary air.

This atmosphere is most pronounced in the second section of the book, which refers to writers, artists and mythological characters like Ganymede and Orpheus. Chief in this section is the title poem "Breakfast with Thom Gunn."  It is a strange tribute. For one, it does not paint a very flattering picture of the poet that it is memorializing. He goes to a cheap hotel. He talks rather than listens. He insults someone to a stranger as a "sleaze." He drops names in a fake casual manner. He does not stop the younger poet from "gush[ing]" about his books. And when the poem turns to praise him unambiguously for something, the best it can come up with is the rather sentimental gesture of giving "his change to men/ who've lost their homes and looks." The poem ends with the appropriate elegaic tone--"I hug him in the cold./ And then the train is gone"--but the poem's Gunn is not a poet nor a man, whom one will miss.

"Career" takes up a similar theme, the relationship between an older and a younger gay poet, but in a satiric mode. The older poet gives the younger a blurb in exchange for a sexual favor. The satire, however, is not very sharp, partly because such a transaction has become almost a cliche, partly because both poets are described in general terms that do not refresh the cliche nor identify the culprits. The only specificity to the older poet lies in his blurb--"If Bishop wed Magritte, these villanelles would be their spawn"--and his quotation of Bishop's line "love's the burning boy." A Bishop lover then, but there are so many! The satire would also have greater authority, if Mann does not behave, in another poem, like the fawning poet that he mocks. "Stranded" is the lowest point of the book. At a holiday party, the kind hosted by a man with bleached teeth, and attended by tipsy supermodels, the speaker wonders who is "that exquisite man// by the fire, stirring/ a highball with his clauses?" He thinks, "It is Mark Strand," and, after a stanza break the equivalent of rubbing his eyes, concludes "It is still Mark Strand." The poem has no reason to be, but to fawn.

If this poem has any value, it has to be read alongside the other poems about the relationship between older and younger men. In "Ganymede on Polk Street," the boy-whore must seduce his "ancient trick" as well as "take [his] shit." He is the vulnerable party. His seemingly confident assertion that "I'm foul but beautiful" is qualified by both the conjunction "but" and by its placement within parenthesis. There is fear, and there is debasement. In the companion piece "Orpheus at Café Flore," the older man teaches his "boy" the art of "not looking/ as if you are looking// for a man." The teacher, however, is unable to get the boys he wants, unless it is "With luck." Since the older man here is Orpheus, the poem is also about poetic inspiration. Age disparity in love is a rich seam for Mann. The poems that open the seam can delve deeper, below the polish of wit.

One genre in particular, not yet mentioned, Mann has made his own: the nature poem. "The Lake of Nostalgia" is a little gem. The finest poem in the book is rather pretentiously titled "The End of Landscape." It begins strikingly by observing what is usually overlooked, a pool of water beside an airport runway.

There's a certain sadness to this body of water
adjacent to the runway, its reeds and weeds,
handful of ducks, the water color

manmade. A still life. And still
life's a cold exercise in looking back,
back to Florida, craning my neck

like a sandbill crane in Alachua Basin.

The lines move with slow but assured cadence from the sad pool of standing water to Florida, a movement forward that is also a movement back. The philosophical observation, that life's a cold exercise in looking back, is slipped in unobstrusively between the concrete particulars of waters and birds. In Florida, in the past, the speaker obsessed about living inside Spanish moss, but was warned by the funny anecdote about a professor who did and was then covered with mites. In the present, flying out of San Francisco, he watches his lover watch the Sacramento river and sees the same effect on him as leaving Florida had on him. By his understanding of another person, the poet earns his conclusion that "everything is truer at a remove," as much as he does by his exact recall. It is an insight gleaned from being restlessly on the move.

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