Love in Contemporary American Gay Male Poetry in the Works of Richard Siken, Eduardo C Corral and Jericho Brown

By | 1 October 2015

The insufficiency of Queer theory

‘Queer’ theorising has complicated and undermined the achievements of the politically radical, gay liberationist movements of the Nineteen-Seventies and Nineteen-Eighties and has made sexuality (and therefore identity) so ambiguous and contingent that it is difficult to stitch together any protest, let alone a cohesive, liberationist strategy. Supporting the development of queer theory, Annamarie Jagose makes the following claim, ‘as queer is unaligned with any specific identity category, it has the potential to be annexed profitably to any number of discussions…’1 Indeed, and here lies the problem. While Jagose claims ‘profitability’ in ‘Queer’s’ very diffuseness and therefore, its capacity to be tacked on as ‘value adding’ to just about anything, there is also the potential for dilution of the urgency and focus necessary towards a radical, political thrust. Radical effectiveness is therefore profoundly and irrevocably compromised, as even Jagose seems to acknowledge (somewhat uneasily) when she asserts that queer identification should still be understood ‘largely in relation to the more stable, more recognisable, categories of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’’.2 Really? Then what is the point of ‘queer’ if indeed it should still only be ‘understood’ in terms of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ anyway? Jagose clearly wishes to have her cake and eat it.

It was (and remains) simple: the binaries that determine our lives exist. They define and constrain us in the 21st Century as much as they did in the 1990’s and earlier last century. Certainly, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are essentialist, binary categories and I am aware of the negative and limiting notions surrounding them and of the work that Judith Butler, among others, has done to subvert their ‘abjected’3 histories (and those of gender itself). However, if we check with any young gay lad in an Australian outer suburban high school, or in a Chicago tenement, or in the mid-west of America, or within a farm community in Western Queensland, or on the gang-ridden streets of Harlem or South LA, or on the streets of Muslim Senegal, black or white or Latino or Asian, he knows exactly what it means to be a ‘gay’ boy in a ‘straight’ world. Being concerned, theoretically, about his identity is not a luxury he can afford because his enemies are not so troubled by such niceties. The lived reality for the gay boy forced to eat his own shit, or be driven to suicide, or have his home burned down around him in Senegal4, is that the binaries define him. Essentially, they define his life in terms of the failure of hope.

The gay liberation model remains the most effective in practical, political terms and is optimistic at its core, in that it asserts core identity as a given, from which a radical, activist movement is initiated. This position is neither conservative nor reactionary, despite the potential anxiety that promoting ‘fixed’ discourses to do with sexuality might provoke. I maintain that the only logical and indeed radical position is one that asserts gay as different (and oppressed) by a straight hegemony, and that in its political dilution, the queer debate (in being all things to all) has fundamentally misfired, and so sacrificed political agency and urgency, and has thus been seduced and absorbed.5 This at a time when, according to José Esteban Muñoz: ‘Queerness is not yet here’6 anyway. He goes on, in his introduction to Cruising Utopia, to claim that:

Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued as a potentiality … used to imagine a future.7

This is all very well, comforting perhaps. However, in the anxious meantime, it remains incumbent on the gay community (and on gay poets) to assert particular and different (and determined), radical imperatives based on clearly defined thought and practice.

Richard Siken expresses himself with what might be called post-modern abandon, where images shift or cohere, apparently at random and where prose-like sentences stretch and bend in long lines. Siken has essentially dispensed with any formal restriction such as rhyme, in a bid to get it all down and fast, in long, iambic lines, unimpeded by anything that might otherwise block the flow. In this, he is most like Ginsberg, and his eloquence appears anarchic, obeying the imperatives of immediate thought rather than reflection mediated by formal structures. Further, there is a heightened sense of hysteria in much of Siken’s poetry, an outpouring of the urgent and immediate.

The first poem in Richard Siken’s Crush, ‘Scheherazade,’ displays an attitude and energy that is immediately seductive and distinctive:

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again … the horses running … how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance … and the days were bright red …Look at the light through the windowpane … These, our bodies possessed by light … Tell me we’ll never get used to it.8

In borrowing heavily from contemporary cinema, the poetry rings all the bells at once and is anything but restrained. It is as if, in Louise Gluck’s words, the poet simply, ‘can’t stop’9. He is driven to verbal and imagistic excess as protection against the void of silence. If he stops, even for a moment, he faces ‘catastrophe’10, as Gluck claims. In the driving thrust of the rhythms and the accumulation of disparate images there is considerable imagistic and verbal power. This results in a cacophony of clashing images that somehow seems entirely appropriate in the midst of lives lived within a dislocated contemporary world, seen as if from a speeding car, racing across an imagined apocalyptic landscape of threat and anxiety.

In ‘Scheherazade,’ Siken demands that we simply let the poem’s images wash over us and through as a flood. To stop is to die, movement forward, no matter how desperate, is desired – and all that is possible. However, within this general motion towards disorientation, there is the controlling mechanism of love, obsessive and difficult as that might be, but at the centre nonetheless. For Siken, his dead lover ‘is a fever I’m learning to live with’11. Many poems in Crush address this male lover directly, a lover who died in the early 1990’s. This from ‘Dirty Valentine’:

There are many things I’m not allowed to tell you.
I touch myself, I dream.
Wearing your clothes or standing in the shower for over an hour, pretending
that this skin is your skin, these hands your hand
…
We’re filming the movie called ‘Planet of Love’—
there’s sex of course, and ballroom dancing,
fancy clothes and waterlilies in the pond, and half the night you’re
a dependable chap, mounting the stairs in lamplight to the bath, but then
the too white teeth all night,
all over the American sky, too much to bear, this constant fingering,
your hands a river gesture, the birds in flight, the birds still singing
outside the greasy window, in the trees.
There’s a part in the movie
where you can see right through the acting12

The poem challenges the usual sentimentality of the valentine, which is a sentimental love lyric, given as a gift. What Siken does is to ‘dirty’ the cliché in a poem that subverts the very essence of the form − and of love itself. Again, there is a demanding accumulation of images and ideas that while desperately enjambed, somehow begin to make sense as a direct address to a lover. This conceit provides a focused viewpoint, febrile as that might be, because this too is undercut and questioned. However, as in the ode (where formal address shapes the poem), the address acts as a stabiliser within a sea of images, a still point (or points) in the apparent chaos of the utterance. In the frenzied landscape of ‘Dirty Valentine’ (apparently ‘set’ again for a film) the particular address is ever-present, anchoring the images. The self (who asserts the ‘you’, a kind of address contiguous with that of Shakespeare’s sonnets and indeed in much lyric love poetry) is at the heart of the poem and craves love, no matter how fraught, fugitive and elusive. This notion serves to lend weight and stability to the poetry by providing a ‘formally differentiating’13 mode that protects us against overwhelming complexity.

In Siken’s work, the issue of violence, especially because it is tied most often to sex, must be addressed. This is both disturbing and compelling because the genesis of Siken’s apparently compulsive interest in it appears to come from a fraught, personal history. The poet was attacked as a child, for being gay, not uncommon in the histories of gay men and in ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’ Siken writes, as if explaining something to himself:

The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater
because he is trying to kill you,
and you deserve it you do, and you know this,
and you are ready to die in this swimming pool
because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means
your life is over anyway.
…
You know how to ride a dirt bike
…
and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless
he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you
didn’t do,
because you are weak and hollow and it doesn‘t matter anymore.14

There is rage expressed in the bitter sarcasm and scorn, rage that many gay men know (the same rage that sparked the Stonewall Riots in the sixties, where it drove a determination to hit back at the police who had, until that time, enjoyed free reign to bash and bully)15. However, in ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’, Siken expresses inner-shame and doubt in verse where every nuance of self-hate and fear is deeply absorbed and understood. And it is perhaps this self-loathing that drives the poet’s particular anger, which is expressed in terms of sexual, retaliatory violence.

Further, the poet confronts power being played out within defined sexual roles that might seem coerced, but are nonetheless eagerly embraced in poetry not for the squeamish:

He hits you and he hits you and he hits you.
Desire driving his hands right into your body.
Hush, my sweet. These tornadoes are for you.
You wanted to think of yourself as someone who did these kinds of things.
You wanted to be in love
and he happened to get in the way.16

There is a remarkable and somewhat chilling sense of casualness in these lines where love is apparently discardable within the cauldron of power and pain, and where the figure of his dead lover is ever-present as a ‘fever’:

and everything is happening
At the wrong end of a very long tunnel.17

Siken addresses a subliminal reality, one of much greater force than any socially imposed and sentimental one and he demands that we look again at our own motivations and desires, within a very difficult landscape and within poems that force re-evaluations of notions of power, agency and control. That love survives the attacks made on it is proof of Siken’s commitment to its force as irreducible.

Eduardo C. Corral, like Richard Siken, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for a first volume.18 Importantly, Corral was the first Latino poet to win the prestigious award and writes in both Spanish and English, often utilising both languages, enacting important themes in the poetry itself: identity switching, anxiety concerned with ‘home’ and the very notion of ‘borderland’ (both metaphoric and physical). Corral’s voice, particularly as it is honed via slippage and ambiguity through the subtle use of two languages, especially in relation to love, is nonetheless distinctive and direct.
In ‘Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tony Rodriguez: 1998’, he begins with:

Before nourishment there must be obedience.
In his hands I was a cup overflowing with thirst.
Eighth ruler of my days, ninth lord of my nights:
he thrashed above me, like branches19

Already there is the insistence on power as the driver of love, expressed via an apprehension of love’s darker imperatives. However, significantly, shame and guilt are not part of this scenario. Instead there is sensual celebration:

The back of his knees: pale music.
We’d crumble the Eucharist & feed it to the pigeons.
Sin verguenza (without shame).20

Religious guilt ‘crumbles’ before the triumphant power of sensuality and love, even when these are expressed through a disjunctive relationship, characterised (as here) by dominant/passive sexual tropes. Corral asserts that the potency of love and sex lie in their capacity to blot out shame, religion and even time itself. The poem invokes what might be called ‘ecstatic time’21, when normal modalities of linear time are made irrelevant by the sheer force of the immediate experience. The world of the poem is an hermetic one, involving just two people.

  1. Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York University Press, New York, 1996), 2
  2. Ibid
  3. See, Judith Butler, ‘Critically Queer’ in Bodies That Matter (Routledge, New York, 2011), 169-185
  4. As described by my friend, Kafka, who recently fled from Senegal fearing for his and his family’s lives, after the Senegalese court found him guilty of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality.
  5. For the counter argument to my assertion that ‘Queer’ is fundamentally passive politically (and so negative in its effectiveness), see in particular, Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction.
  6. José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York University Press, New York), 1
  7. Ibid
  8. Richard Siken, ‘Scheherazade’, Crush (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005), 3
  9. Louise Gluck, ‘Foreword’, Richard Siken, Crush, vii
  10. Louise Gluck, ‘Foreword’, Richard Siken, Crush, vii
  11. Richard Siken, ‘Straw House, Straw Dog’, Crush, 31
  12. Richard Siken, ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’, Crush, 22
  13. Lyn Hejinian, ‘The Rejection of Closure’, Postmodern American Poetry, A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (Norton & Company, New York, 1994), 653
  14. Richard Siken, ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves’, Crush, 22
  15. At the Stonewall bar in New York in June 1969, gays, transvestites and drag queens representing the breadth of the gay male community, finally retaliated in rage at hitherto constant police harassment, rioting over several days and sparking the development of the Gay Liberation Movement. It has never been the same since and Stonewall has become the symbol of gay resistance.
  16. Richard Siken, ‘Straw House, Straw Dog’, Crush, 31
  17. Ibid
  18. The senior, gay poet, Carl Phillips, selected the manuscript of Slow Lighning in 2012. Richard Siken was selected for the same prize by Louise Gluck in 2004 with Crush.
  19. Eduardo C. Corral ‘Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tino Rodriguez: 1999’, in Slow Lighning (Yale University Press, 2012), 3
  20. Ibid
  21. A term used by José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press. 2009), 185-187
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