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

By | 1 October 2015

The poet denies negative imperatives latent in any restrictive or hostile, wider context. The sexual/blissful moment is all. In Corral’s verse, there is a clear and deliberate celebration of darker sexualities, made possible through urgent fantasy. The poem ends with a remarkable and beautiful image that could easily have come from magic realism and the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca:

When I’d yawn,
he’d pluck black petals out of my mouth.1

This is a tender image, one that resists any idea that the lover might simply be an unrelenting brute, bent on punishment and violence and holding ultimate power. However, the petals are black, signifying death perhaps, or more positively the death of moral imposition.

Also, the submissive/dominant play referred to is just that, a type of conscious ‘play’, indeed it is theatre and essentially performative, requiring two willing parties, as subject and other (inter-changeable). Within this very active dynamic the two lovers are equal (and so equally dependent on each other) and in expressing love performatively, they are, in Judith Butler’s terms:

transformed into a more internally complicated mode of human striving (where) the drama of recognition and labor must be seen as permutations of desire: self-consciousness as desire in particular.2

The notion of ‘performed’ subjectivity, enacted as desire and expressed during the submissive/dominant play, is both pertinent and instructive and leads inevitably to the recognition of an ’embodied identity’3 and the capacity to understand identity in terms of difference, which goes to the heart of any broader understanding about the players in this very particular and individual drama. The actors are lovers and their shared fantasy is based on the lived reality of a sexual relationship. Within that, they choose (together) to play out dominant/submissive roles and so transcend the limits of the normative or everyday, and create instead a wholly more energetic, fugitive and shifting relationship aligned to their deepest sexual desires and identities. As a consequence, the raw honesty of Corral’s declaration here is remarkable and challenging in that it allows access to his own vulnerability as ‘performer’ and ‘desirer’ (and desired).

In ‘Ditas Deus’ (God enriches), Corral confronts another powerful taboo, that of the more usually suppressed link between eroticism and filial love, a connection in fact that Carl Phillips calls, a ‘disorientingly thin line’.4

I learned to make love to a man
by touching my father.
I would unlace his work boots,
pull off his socks,

& drag my thumbs
along the arches of his feet.

When he slept I would trace
the veins of his neck,

blue beneath my fingertip.
He would lift me each morning

onto the bathroom counter,
dot my small palms

with dollops of shaving cream
so I could lather his face.5 

As expressed here, the ‘thin’ line between sexual and filial love is indeed ‘disorienting’. However, there is nothing forced nor coerced, indeed, nothing more than the warm and natural (and loving) skin to skin contact between a father and his young son. Perhaps this is something more readily accepted in cultures other than white, Anglo-Saxon ones.

There is another poem in which the ‘line’ between eroticism and filial love is even more dramatically problematised. In ‘Want’, the poet links his father’s desperate hunger while crossing the desert in Arizona and the poet’s own ‘hunger’ to fellate a man:

Abandoned by his coyote, my 
father, sand seething beneath
his sneakers, trekked
through southern Arizona:
...
he picked up 
a rock, killed a blue lizard
…
shoved guts & bones 
into his mouth 
…
the first
time I knelt for a man, my 
lips pressed to his zipper,
I suffered such hunger.6

This poem is confronting in that it represents an attitude (an acceptance perhaps) of the complex, difficult (and at times) violent relationship between a straight father and a gay son, recognising a powerful collision between these two, especially within notions of ‘manliness’. It is as if in the very act of kneeling to a man (a ‘master’) the poet repudiates the hostility and contempt that a ‘straight’, strong man might have for his ‘weaker’ gay son by willingly (demandingly even) accepting submission. That the son recognises his sexual ‘hunger’ as something imperative and undeniable (and indeed understands it within the frame of his father’s heroic gesture of eating the lizard) is extraordinarily telling in relation to the dynamic between this particular father and son and by implication between straight and gay men more generally. The act of fellatio becomes a powerful statement of the valorisation of power, in celebrating the ‘passive’ act as equal to the otherwise heroic mandate as penetrator, occupied without thought by straight men. The act itself is a subversion of male, penetrative power and so claims violence, tenderness and love as complex and troublingly ambiguous.

It seems that the very first poem in any collection offers much in the way of clues about the poet’s particular core interests and frame of mind. The first poem, more often than not, is a marker for the poet’s central concerns in that it sets the scene and tone for the remainder. This is certainly true of Jericho Brown’s wonderfully confident opening poem, ‘Track 1: Lush Life’ in Please.

The title immediately tells us the poet thinks of his poems in musical terms, or as songs, like tracks on a CD or record (or tape). This trope is repeated again and again in the collection, as if the poet wants us to view the grouping of poems as we might on a record album, that is with different ‘tracks’ developing a theme, or at least a consistency of thought, presented within strong relationships in terms of pace and rhythm. Further, Brown often references actual songs, mostly from the rhythm and blues repertoire, not just in the titles of the poems but also within the poems themselves and in his detailed notes. However, his reference points are not to just any songs, but distinctly to those belonging to a ‘cooler’, earlier age of rhythm and blues, an age that was context for the early lives of his parents and grandparents and for himself. He grew up with those ‘tracks’ and they formed the context of his life. The song ‘Lush Life’ itself, is a standard from the great American songbook and was written by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s legendary and influential composer. However, while Brown is careful to note the source of the song, his emphasis is on the singer, Mary Griffin, a woman he saw perform many times in New Orleans (where he worked as a speechwriter for the Mayor of the city). Mary Griffin is a female singer in a litany of women singers Brown writes about, including Patti Labelle, Diana Ross and Janice Joplin, all icons in the world of popular music, blues and jazz, women who understood pain and love and who sang about both.

Brown opens the poem, ‘Lush Life’ with the startling:

The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you,
To see you shake your head. The mic may as well
Be a leather belt7

The voice carries pain, delivered as if by a leather belt (used by his father to beat him). The voice somehow triggers memory of beatings, the belt and tongue are entwined in pain, and suffering is carried by both (and here Brown plays on the musical connotations of ‘belt’, a description about singing with force and power):

You drive to the centre of town 
To be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell
The difference between a leather belt and a lover’s 
Tongue.8

This conflation between the lover’s tongue and a leather belt is confronting. It is as if the poet, so damaged by the fact of his father’s (straight male?) violence and rage, sees the two objects, tongue and belt, as equally damaging. Love’s tongue no less than the leather belt used once to whip him. The lover’s tongue might even call you ‘bitch’, a term of endearment perhaps, but a sexual put-down nonetheless, an expression of the power held by the dominant partner over the submissive other. The term enacts the very contempt of the dominator towards the lesser (and weaker) partner, recollecting the kind of power play in the relationship between the poet, as a boy, and his father. This reckoning goes to the very heart of Brown’s apprehensions of sex, violence and love.

… you can yell, Sing bitch, and I love you,
… but you can’t 
Remember your father’s leather belt without shaking
Your head.9

The poet shakes his head, remembering pain and wondering at it. But this is not all; the very conflation of tongue and belt is played out yet again here, insistently. Also Brown invites (almost lasciviously) his lover to call him bitch, he ‘asks for it’, as it were, offering the promise that he will sing all night. His very sexual excitement is aroused by the tongue of the singer who ‘does not mean to entertain’ and especially by the term bitch. Orgasm (it is implied) will follow:

Speak to me in a lover’s tongue – 
Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long.10

The beautiful half-rhymes of ‘tongue’ and ‘long’ leave us with a sense of something having come to a kind of ending, at least sonically. These last two lines mirror an apparent summation. This resolution, however, is not in fact closure.11 Instead, the poet’s technical capacity allows the suggestion of openendedness about the sexual encounter and so provides a frame for the poem to open to a range of possibilities and vulnerabilities felt by the poet (and the reader). Brown’s deep sexual interest is determined by the humiliation of being called bitch. However, it is not ever as simple as that. In the very passivity of the role, the poet here asserts equal power. As he is fucked or hit or abused, so he gains pleasure, but a pleasure heightened by the act of submission, where the male body itself is proved to be penetrable. The penetrating cock of the ‘other’ (disembodied here) is only an instrument towards that pleasure and if the word bitch is used before and/or during the fucking, then pleasure, or better, bliss perhaps, is even more likely. In Brown’s poems love is ambiguous and shifting, and has to do with the deliberate playing of sexual roles and thus of sexual gratification at the deepest level. Sex is a dark and mysterious rite and is both a challenge and a release. However, whatever it is, it is certainly neither conventional nor suburban. This sexual play is of a different order and its ramifications regarding love are manifest.

Pain, violence and love also form a potent and volatile mix in the poetry of great sensual power and immediacy. And like Corral, Brown’s own father looms as a determined presence in Please, occupying an ambiguous but vital space in the work. It is as if Brown’s father and the poet’s ambivalent feelings towards him are the ever-present ghosts in the machine. (Brown’s first collection, Please, was published in 2008. His second, The New Testament, was published in late 2014),

At times the father is portrayed as a gentle and loving man. In ‘Again’, the poet writes:

Right now my mother’s asleep
On my father’s chest.
His arm has landed
In the same place around her
Most of thirty years.12

This seems to be tender enough and loving, but even in this apparently soft recollection, there is the carefully placed word, ‘landed’, suggesting the brutality of a ‘landed blow’ or the deliberate cruelty and ordinariness of a hand raised against a woman and/or child. Any ‘landed’ blow is a practiced one. Yet, in the same poem, we are told that the poet’s mother continues to love her husband, even if his hands are (or have been) ‘laid heavy against her’. The feelings here are more than complicated and Brown is nothing if not alert to the bewildering and ambiguous ramifications of his father’s violence. It is that which proscribes Brown’s own shifting attitudes towards the man he both loves and (once) feared as a child and about whom he continues to be ambivalent.

The poet addresses the reader directly in the poem and thus implicates us in the psychological drama being played out. In a heart-felt cry of exhaustion, he moans as if the very telling of the abuse is such an old tale that its re-telling seems hardly worth the energy expended:

I’m so sick of it – 
Another awful father
Scarring this page too –13
  1. Eduardo C. Corral, Slow Lightning, 3
  2. Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (Columbia University Press, New York, 1999). 43. Butler develops a complex argument to do with desire, identity and subjectivity in the chapter, ‘Bodily Paradoxes: Lordship and Bondage’. My reference to this is cursive.
  3. ibid.
  4. Carl Phillips, Foreword to Slow Lightning, xi
  5. Eduardo C. Corral, ‘Ditas Deus’, Slow Lightning, 17
  6. Eduardo C. Corral, ‘Want’, Slow Lightning, 17
  7. Jericho Brown, ‘Track 1: Lush Life’, Please (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 2008), 7
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. The concept of ‘closure’ as alluded to here, is developed further by Carl Phillips the poet in The Art of Daring (Graywolf Press, Minnesota, 2014), 2
  12. Jericho Brown, ‘Again’, Please, 15
  13. Ibid
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