Monday, February 11, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Three

As promised, I am continuing to post presentations from my AWP panel of the same title, in neutrally alphabetical order. Christopher Hennessy's piece presented a dialogue if not a polyphony of gay male poetic voices all addressing the question of what gay poety is and what it can or should do. Brad Richard's presentation questions the question itself, wondering whether there is such a thing as gay poetry and whether and why being gay and writing poems (including writing poems about guys) constitutes being a "gay poet," writing "gay poetry." As he wrote me before the panel, "I think the main thing I've learned from this is how little identity politics, from a gay perspective, has really meant to me, even when I've written 'gay' poems. I'm interested in painting, war, and guys--but I couldn't just say that." So I will say it for him, via ventriloquism.

Brad's presentation ends with a beautiful poem on a painting by Thomas Eakins, which he discusses in his piece. However, the poem is a full-page composition, and I have no idea how to reproduce its formatting in Blogger. It is integral to his piece and so I must reproduce it, but please note that the original is written in stepped-down triplets loosely corresponding to William Carlos Williams' triadic foot as used in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," among many other later poems.

And now, my good friend Brad Richard.

“The Burden of Connectedness”: A Few Remarks on Identity, Poetry and Possibility

In an interview, the artist Paul Chan has talked about what he calls our shared “burden of connectedness,” a phrase I find interesting, although, as I think you’ll see, I want to pursue some connotations he may not necessarily have had in mind, connotations relating to identity and poetry. Chan has in mind our cultural and political connectedness in a world in which much of our experience occurs through mass media. For him, this entails a responsibility to all things, past and present, to which the media connect us. He calls this a terrible burden, because we have to find ways to yield to this connectedness without becoming desensitized by it; furthermore, he believes that we inevitably end up trying to protect ourselves from the burden, in our attempts to escape from it, whether through analysis or fantasy. But if I understand him correctly, art is one way of dealing with the burden, of being sensitive to it in a way that creates “a space for the kind of not-knowingness that holds the promise of something to come.”

For our purposes, I’m interested in considering identity as both difference and connection, or as connection through difference. Part of the burden of identity, then, is that it allows me to experience connections and similarities while also making me aware of difference. And if I choose to take identity into consideration when making or experiencing art, then it would seem to be both part of the burden and a way of being sensitive to the burden, of sharing and bearing it. But what of the differences to which I also know I am connected? Aren’t they also part of the burden I’m taking up in writing or reading a poem? In that case, identity may have to yield to that vital not-knowingness Chan speaks of, to the extent of not taking itself for granted, of questioning itself and allowing itself to be questioned in the context of connections, of something to come, of possibility. And in that case, identity may always be post, always after, always subsequent to—and also, because of our connectedness, always antecedent to that which it has not yet become. To make a rather obvious connection, “Je est un autre,” and that other, to me at least, is possibility.

At this point, I should confess that I have never felt bound to or, if you’ll pardon me, felt I identified with identity politics or poetics. I’m very aware of the ways in which being gay has shaped my perceptions, interests, and politics, but, particularly as a poet, I’ve always been more interested in what is possible than in what is—even if what is possible is that which is also past. This brings me back to the word post, which, of all the words in the title of this panel, is the one with which I most strongly identify, as it denotes both an historical acknowledgment and a sense of possibility, factors that I find playing ever larger roles in my own work. For example: a few years ago, I became obsessed with a painting from 1885 by Thomas Eakins, called Swimming. At first, I was obsessed with it because I couldn’t decide what it meant, or if I even liked it. In it, six nude men and a dog are swimming or sunning themselves near a rock ledge, somewhere in an idyllic America. Surely I felt connected to the subject—but what exactly was the subject? And what connections was I bringing to it? The more I looked, the more I felt a burden of connectedness that was also alienating me, making me different from what I saw. As I spent more time with it, and researched it and began writing about it, I realized, in part, that I had been trying to make the painting mean something in terms of myself, of my own experience and identity. Eventually, as I learned and imagined more about the painting and the men in it, I yielded to the burdens I discovered—burdens of war, democracy, desire, art, poetry, and history. Here, then, is the middle section, “Is it democratic?” from “Three Essays on Swimming.”

2. Is it democratic?

Listen: you won’t hear hammers slung on steel,
or calls of stevedores at the docks;
no bickering in market stalls,

the ragman’s plaint, the newsboy’s cry,
trolley’s bell, cop’s whistle, screams
of a child crushed by carriage wheels.

And no gunsmoke, no drumtaps:
it’s twenty years since the war.
Here, the air is fresh, and no noise

distracts these men, these citizens,
from bathing in freedom
imagined at an abandoned mill.

Even the diver—George Reynolds,
9th New York Cavalry Regiment,
Congressional Medal of Honor

for taking Virginia’s flag at Opequon—
dives unheard, silence the anthem
uniting these isolatos.

• • •

June 18, 1885: two hundred fourteen crates
arrive at Bedloe Island in New York,
Liberty as yet unassembled.

Erect, she will be robed and crowned,
bearing her torch and message;
millions will crawl inside her

as she stares across the Atlantic.
Now watch as Jesse Godley turns
his bright body away, face in shadow

as he calls our gaze to the picture plane
and no farther, staring where the diver’s
body shatters shade and reflection.

Or will, soon enough: composed,
so long as we look, their bodies’
arc holds them in place, in a place

not paradise, not even home,
barely natural, their freedom
imagined in a place abandoned.

• • •

Man-made, the foundation of layered rocks,
the stream widened by a dam,
the pigments ground and blended,

the idea that they were naked
for us to look at them now,
if we like, if we let ourselves

believe we really see them
as they meant to be seen.
Or as we mean to see them,

wanting to watch Laurie’s hand
touch Jesse’s thigh, feel Ben
reach up to Laurie, as if touch

would connect us, would signify
noble kratos and loving demos,
akin to daiomai, “I divide.”

—Or: it’s an act, every work of art
an act that excludes, but holds us
watching, with them all summer.

• • •

“very democratic, but all decent behaving” :
Whitman, watching “squads of boys”
bathing by the Harlem River,

“glittering drops sparkling,” “the dark
green shadow of the hills,” boys laughing
and diving, their “movements, postures,

ahead of any sculpture.” Whitman watching,
Whitman listening, democratizing,
sits alone “under an old cedar

half way up the hill,” believes his boys,
“[a] peculiar and pretty carnival,”
rehearse for him an art unknown,

figured in their live, loud bodies.
Chaste motifs of an August day,
echoes of the poet’s artifice

assembled, whose bodies hold
their silence together.


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