Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "Axe Handles"

The metaphor of the axe handle - which organizes the volume of that title similarly to the way in which the star and pine-cone organize Myths & Texts and the way the figure of the wave structures Regarding Wave - is both a figure for interdependence and a figure for the notion of model itself. As the first poem in Axe Handles, 'Axe Handles' begins the first section of the book, Loops, thereby advertising itself as a mode of beginning, a model of starting which always loops back to an earlier beginning. Not only does the opening poem lend the book its title, but it also features on the back of the book-jacket, printed in full, thereby functioning as both beginning and end of the book. Instead of any cover photograph of the poet, or any description of contents or critical endorsements of the book, Axe Handles pictures a Japanese figure on its front, painted in a modern stylized version of traditional Oriental technique by a contemporary Japanese artist, Mayumi DOA, and entitled 'Treasure Ship, Goddess of Snow'. On the back cover is reprinted 'Axe Handles': front and back cover together thus indicate by the mode of presentation - both poetic and pictographic - that the book is about modeling and about the kind of continuity provided by a certain model of modeling.

Although the book is dedicated to a place rather than any person - 'This book is for San Juan Ridge' - there is an essential recognition and development of the notion first elaborated in Regarding Wave that central to the continuity afforded by models is the woman. That is, the fundamental model of the axe handle as a metaphor for model comes to be represented as inseparable from the model woman who functions generatively - through her maternal body to provide for the continuity of the species. Thus the book's epigraph - quotation functioning as model - analogizes the axe handle and the woman:

How do you shape an axe handle?

Without an axe it can't be done.

How do you take a wife?

Without a go-between you can't get one.

Shape a handle, shape a handle,

the pattern is not far off.

And here's a girl I know,

The wine and food in rows.

From Book of Songs (Shi Change) (Mao no. 158): a folk-song from the Pin area, 5th c. BC.

The model of the axe handle thus begins to look unpleasantly familiar to readers of Levi-Strauss, or Irigaray, or Eve Sedgwick - those theorists who have analyzed the way in which women function as a medium of exchange between men, women coming to be defined as objects exchanged by men, their substitutable- and object-status representing the guarantee of male masculinity, which masculinity in turn is defined as the participation in and maintenance of that exchange.

Within the terms of this social arrangement of gender, it is also therefore not accidental that 'Axe Handles' images continuity in matrilineal terms, the axe handle coming to represent the model for the patrimonial training in masculinity which passes from father to son - the implication being, of course, that the boy learns how to be a man from his father. And patrilinearity is certainly not an alternative model of influence or tradition; instead it represents the very embodiment of tradition traditionally conceived. It is insufficient here to argue that we cannot expect any different from the epigraph considering its historical setting since although the text originates at a time when a wife was more overtly an object to be procured by or for the man, that structural relation between the sexes survives today in the symbolic function of the Law and its institutions - the Name of the Father, the marriage ceremony in which the bride is 'given' to the husband by her father, and suchlike. The structure has indeed been reinforced rather than dissolved by its transformation from a relatively literal structural arrangement into a more symbolic one. Neither is it acceptable to suggest that modeling and continuity is bound to be figured in terms of matrilineal masculinity as a consequence of the poet's family structure in which there are two sons but no daughters. The question has rather to do with the place of the woman in the structure of continuity and with the function of a certain image of woman as that structure's security. Ultimately, this gender question extends to issues such as the figuration of American land as feminine, to the figuration of the natural cycle via the metaphor of the female cycle of fertility, and consequently, to the place of the woman who wishes to write. If the feminine - as land, cycle, Muse or voice - functions as enabling metaphor for the man who writes, then what is the woman's relation to those metaphors, and how is the project of inhabitation gender-biased and heterosexism? These questions require extensive examination which is not possible here. However, I wish to indicate at this point the inextricability of the gender question from the terms and objects of analysis, so that in the space remaining such questions can be brought to the foreground, and in this way the issue of poetic beginning the issue of writing as a man in the American West - together with the implications and stakes of these contextual issues for my argument - can be considered more fully.

The place to begin - the place at which the textual paraphernalia I have been describing directs us to begin - is the poem 'Axe Handles'. Unlike the majority of the poems I have analyzed in detail so far, 'Axe Handles' is more overtly a narrative poem (as opposed to the shorter descriptive, reflective lyrics which characterize what is best - as far as I am concerned - about the earlier work). The poem is also more directly autobiographical, referring as it does to the proper name of Snyder's elder son, and comprising a consistent narrative voice from which other voices are clearly distinguished by the foregrounding of quotation. The narrative moves from a specifically defined locale and event - an afternoon near the end of April, throwing and making an axe with the son - to a generalized statement regarding the continuity of community and culture. This narrative movement of the poem, in which both the son and the father are seen to learn something new, provides a structural analogy between the tropic form and the reflective content of the utterance: in each instance there exists the movement from the particular to the general, and the generalization - the making general - has to do precisely with realizing oneself as a general instance rather than as a specific individual. That is, it is not only the statement which is made general, part of a larger whole, it is also the speaker who is made general, part of a process of which he is but an element. In this way, the text functions analogously at both the connotative and preformatted levels, and both the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement become subjectively dissolved or generalized. The process of generalization, of the dissolution of specificity, is achieved by beginning with alliterative details and with identifiable, distinctive voices. Thus, for instance, I think we can detect the indirect discourse of either father or son in the phrase, 'And go gets it' (this is not just a single narrative voice, whose grammar would be 'And goes to get it'). The sense of process, of narrative re-enacted rather than reported, is also produced by the present tense, which then contrasts with the past-tense reporting of memory, quoted in the present tense to indicate its resonance for the present process, yet shown as anterior to the discoveries made in the poem.

The importance of memory for continuity is made apparent early, since the child first 'recalls the hatchet-head', which then prompts the speaker's first recollection -'A broken-off axe handle behind the door / Is long enough for a hatchet' - and subsequently prompts further remembered analogies. What is significant is that the speaker remembers his own models - Pound, Chen - as he himself becomes a model for his son in the act of making a model. And what are remembered are words, words which 'ring' in the ear like axe-blows, and which are seen to be analogous to the axe handle as model by their intermediate status: just as the epigraph claims that one can no more make an axe handle without an axe handle than one can get a wife without a go-between, so the transmission of culture and its laws is seen to be dependent on linguistic mediation.

It is tempting to compare the avowal of 'the phrase / First learned from Ezra Pound' with the avowal 'I cannot remember things I once read' at the center of the earlier poem, and to suggest that it is only once one is sufficiently established to become a model for others that the relation to one's own models can be articulated. Such an argument is tempting to elaborate principally because Snyder's poetics often seem so Pounding. However, I think it is less a case of uncovering a poetic repression than it is of perceiving another way in which the Other speaks through the subject, a perception which the poem's speaker clearly achieves: just as the son 'sees' what his father shows him, so too the speaker 'sees' his own sonship is-a-is Pound, Lou Jib and Shi-hissing Chen (biographically, we might note that the mentor Chen is the 'father' for whom the 'son's' literal second son is named). In this way the speaker recognizes himself as the tool of earlier speakers: once again, rather than recognizing the self in the Other, he recognizes the Other in the self.

To the extent that the model relation is associated with an 'Essay on Literature', it is possible to interpret this poem placed at the head of the book as an implicit statement of poetics; if this interpretive extension is correct, then the poetics is a traditional one of mimesis, in which continuity between representation and its referent is assured because 'The model is indeed near at hand'. Although the mimetic relation appears to involve no loss, it is still the case that it is a cultural relation which must be learned: it must be translated and taught to the next generation so that its transmission is assured. One mode of that transmission is, of course, poetry. Thus although figuring transmission in patrimonial terms makes the relation a linear one, it is the interdependence of cyclical relation which the volume wishes to stress.

The acknowledgement of necessary mediation constitutes a recognition of the voice of the Other - whether that Other be linguistic, paternal, the landscape, the teacher or the woman. In allowing the Other to speak - indeed, by making it the function of poetic discourse to articulate the Other's voice - a relation of interdependence is seen to exist. It is in this sense that the notion of a mediated relation between the sexes (which is proffered as analogy for the model of model-making by the epigraph) - that is, the idea of the impossibility of even bodily immediacy in a sexual relation - in fact constitutes a Lacanian notion, a notion of impossibility which is held as a consequence of recognising the linguistic alterity whose very intervention makes relation possible. The paradox of the Other is that it both enables relation and disables relation, rendering communication always imperfect and effectively disharmonising connection. That is, the necessary routing of desire through the Other of symbolisation - through language, the Symbolic - precipitates an opacity which alienates the subject from any direct relation to its own desire. It is for this reason that Lacan can say that 'man's desire is the desire of the Other' - which does not translate as implying me desiring what you want, but rather signifies the way in which the Other, the function of alterity, commandeers desire, making its fulfillment strictly impossible. Hence the much-vaunted Lacanian pronouncement upon the impossibility of the sexual relation - a pronouncement whose emphasis is not on the impossibility of the sexual but on the impossibility of relation.

There is in Snyder both a recognition and a refusal of such medically. The recognition occurs in the form of identifying and acknowledging structures of interdependence - in which, for instance, one is not just a father but also at the same time a son. The disavowal of medically occurs principally visa-a-visa language, when the notion of medically makes of language a mediate function analogous to the tool (say, an axe handle). As Headgear discusses it in 'The Origin of the Work of Art', the tool occupies a curiously indeterminate - because intermediate - relation between the worker and the object.' The inner jacket-cover of Axe Handles quotes David Latecomer quoting Jakobson in an appropriately displaced assertion about language's medically- 'Language is chief among tools that make tools. Poetry as language is a tool to make tools - a tool, but also a model, like the axe handle.' This is drastically incorrect. Language is not a tool, since language speaks the subject rather than the reverse (we note in passing the diametrically opposed interpretations derived from jakobsonian linguistics by Latecomer and Lacuna). No one can master language in the way that somebody like Snyder can master the craft of tool-making and tool-use. The unconscious as an effect of language an effect, that is, of the disjunction between signifier and signified - means that language is constantly evading our grasp, failing to effect our intent. Unlike the axe or the saw, language is always doing rather more or rather less than we either desire or know.

It is for just this reason that the Other cannot ever be directly spoken for. The Other can speak through the subject - this is Snyder's shamanism poetics - and can indeed speak the subject (in which case it is the subject who tends to be spoken (for), but the recognition of the Other in the self implies the impossibility of self-mastery, let alone any control over the Other.

Tim Dean: On "Riprap"

"Riprap," the last poem of the first book, functions as a distilled poetic summation of the Snyderian aesthetic. . . .

Change is in thoughts as well as things because thoughts are figured as things, having an equal status with rocks and with people. Such a notion represents a development of Williams's demand for poetry, 'No ideas but in things', since ideas, natural phenomena and linguistic units are spoken of by 'Riprap' as evidencing the same ontological status. A riprap is 'a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains', according to a note on the title-page of Riprap; the onomatopoeic term and its referent thus appear homologous by the juxtapositional placing of similar-sounding syllables to form a word which describes the juxtapositional placing of similar-looking units of stone to form a means of access. The analogy - which the poem would have us believe constitutes an identity - extends from the poem to the book to which it lends its title and for which it is the summation: the poems in the volume function like stones leading across difficult territory toward the understanding of relation as it is figured in this final poem, and the visual patterned spacing of the words on the page mimics the arrangement of the riprap of stone in the world. The syllabic unit 'rap' as slang for speech serves to strengthen the analogy between word and rock-in-relation, thereby pointing to the analogy between poetic structures and social structures. If 'Riprap' is seen as an aesthetic statement or declaration of poetic method, then a further analogy can be read from the etymology of 'method', which stems from the word for path-cutting or trail-making. The critical bipartite feature of such an aesthetic or method - the characteristically Snyderian method - consists of the emphasis on structure as predicative of access.

It is important here to distinguish both the means and object (the aim, the what-is-to-be-attained) of access, since the prominence of rock as a theme of the declaration of poetics recalls the classic Formalist tenet that 'art exists to make the stone stony'. Although both aesthetics may appear superficially similar, they are in fact counterposed to one another, since formalism declares, 'Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important' (ibid.); while Snyder's poem always privileges the object over its representation: the poem exists not to make the stone stony, but to make the stone real. And as I have already indicated, this real consists in the homologising of word, idea and object to the same level of referentiality - a level of reality which renders each dimension available to use, amenable to manual work. Thus in the riprap of the poem, anything can be used to construct the path, and the imagery expands metonymically outward, casting from the minute details of 'Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall' to include the entire universe, the Milky Way and 'straying planets'. Riprap as a metaphor for poeticity suggests that the business of poetry is the discovery of relations between all elements and dimensions of the cosmos.

It is not only the largest and smallest natural phenomena which must be found to be related; also the world of the text and language in its reflexive - besides its referential - capacity can count in the construction: the referentially reflexive 'rocky surefoot traits' can be included, and even 'These poems', the parts of the book itself (the textually reflexive), form an element in the structure. Thus it is not merely the three-dimensional phenomenal world of 'space and time' which comprises the field of the structural arrangement, but rather whole 'worlds like an endless / four-dimensional / Came of Go' (Go consisting of a Japanese game of unit-structure and relation similar to draughts - in England - and checkers - in the United States). The simile images the hopping over and strategic positioning of elements which is achieved with words in the poem, with things in the world (properly done), and with worlds in the Milky Way.

To elaborate on the structural arrangement of terms in the poem (the textual riprap), we may assert that if riprapping constitutes a metaphor for poem-making, then the method or technique of that making is resolutely metonymic, consisting of the substitution by term rather than by resemblance. The indented third line of the poem - which elaborates the opening, two-line sentence - begins the imitative form of presenting words as objects, elements for construction and apprehension. The arrangement of these objectwords follows in the following twelve lines, in which the metonymic placing of elements juxtapositionally both resists the hierarchic structure of metaphoric meaning and symbolisation (dependent as these latter are upon a literal vehicle or image and an abstract, non-phenomenal tenor or idea), and functions in the radically metonymic mode of the list, in which relations are implied rather than directly indicated. The second part of the poem, beginning a new sentence with 'The worlds like', links by its syntactical structure the words like rocks which begin the poem (and which the intervening lines have elaborated or produced) with the worlds like a game of Go: poetic structure thus relates words, things and worlds in a single plane, a metonymic, non-hierarchic, non-symbolic chain of relations.

From this overarching perspective - the meta-perspective of the poem-maker who can see and order relations - the attention shrinks back to a focus on the minute constitutive details of 'ants and pebbles / in the thin loam', as if presenting another natural image for the visual arrangement of the riprap, and, crucially, in order to avoid any tendency toward transcendence. The reminder that value inheres in the smallest, apparently insignificant elements represents both a tacit endorsement of immanentism and a kind of Emersonian gesture of finding an essential relation between the tiny (the ant) and the sublime (the endless 'four-dimensional / Game of Go' in Snyder, and the endless, sleepless labour of Herculean proportions in Emerson). The difference between the Snyderian system of relations and the Emersonian Transcendentalist system is that no 'seeing beyond' is necessary in Snyder: where for Emerson 'the visible world is the dialplate of the invisible', for Snyder the visible world is the dialplate of the world of natural relations. Transcendent vision is not necessary for Snyder; rather, the requirement is for a kind of vision - named here by 'Riprap' as poetic - which consists in the finding within relations a non-disruptive place for the human - a 'finding' imaged here as a journey, a making way which is the partial effect of poetic utterance properly deemed work.

In this poetic scheme, the figural is literalised, the image literally concretised. That is, in its conclusion, 'Riprap' focuses attention on the rock as that figure of substantiality which may ground the word. Rather than the avowal of word as rock, we read:

each rock a word

a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

 

The rock represents both the fundamental element of the riprap and the fundamental element of the cosmological system within which the riprap functions. The simile which begins the poem words like rocks - has solidified into a metaphor - each rock a word - as an effect not of language but of, precisely, rock: 'Granite: ingrained' indexes and is that metaphor, since granite is both rock and word (a type of rock and a particular linguistic unit); etymologically, 'granite' derives from the word for 'ingrained' (Latin granum means grain). Granite forms by the action of volcanic heat on rock, compressing different elements (chiefly feldspar and quartz), so that the geology of each element is implicated in the other. Granite as the effect of this 'torment of fire and weight' bears the physical force of its history locked into both its substance and its name (an analogy is found in the gentler, alliterative 'creekwashed stone', whose shape is the product of an opposite natural action). Hence the link between etymology and natural processes - 'all change, in thoughts, / as well as things'. This allusion to Williams's 'A Sort of a Song' (1944) makes thoughts into things by using the rocks broken by flowers (the metaphor) in Williams's poem to construct the riprap of Snyder's poem.

This materialising of language - of which 'Riprap' is Snyder's best early example - represents the effort to link poetry to the body, to work, and thus to what is taken as the immediacy of the real. Poetry is thereby accorded a continuity with the world and can be seen as effective in socio-political terms. Snyder is indeed correct to emphasise the materiality of language and its potential for effects. However, language's material dimension - the dimension of the signifier - is precisely that which renders it resistant to the manipulation of human intention. It is thus less a question of Snyder's conception of poetic language operating in opposition to the Lacanian account of language with which we ally ourselves here, than it is a question of emphasis: both conceptions of the linguistic properly highlight the realm of linguistic effects; the difference resides in the conception of how linguistic effects are obtained. 

Tim Dean: "Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty"

It was Mark Doty’s third volume of poems, My Alexandria (1993), that gained him widespread acclaim and critical recognition. His first two volumes, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), have recently been brought back into print by University of Illinois Press in a single volume. This earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes—beauty, mutability, aesthetic invention—and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet C. P.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "Esta Noches"

"Esta Noche"

This poem takes its title from a working-class gay bar in San Francsico’s Mission district, a down-at-heel area of the city inhabited primarily by African-Americans, Latina/os, and other ethnic minorities. The bar’s name is the Spanish word for "tonight," and on the night in question a female impersonator who calls herself la fabulosa Lola acts as the mistress of ceremonies for a drag show. In spite of its subject matter, Doty’s poem belongs to a very ancient tradition of epideictic verse—the poetry of praise. Unlike traditional epideixis, however, the object of the speaker’s praise, Lola, is neither a hero nor his beloved, just as she is neither exactly a man nor a woman, but a beguiling combination of both. Lola is also, significantly, a singer, like the poet himself—even if she is only lip-synching.

        . . . [S]he tosses back her hair—risky gesture— and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy,         all will and black lace, and lipsyncs "You and Me

against the World". . . .

This is classic camp: an imitation of high cultural seriousness—the grief-stricken widow in a tragedy—rendered hilarious by its inauthenticity and the incongruity of its context. As with the kitsch Christ in "Homo Will Not Inherit," camp often works by presenting an emotionally serious subject in a trashy or parodic frame. The tone of defiance that was treated soberly in "Homo Will Not Inherit" is here handled irreverently; and the interpolated phrase "risky gesture" clinches this attitude of impiety. In other words, the widow’s moment of bravado, in which she throws back her hair, is instantaneously undercut by the hint that she’s wearing a wig that might fall off. When her wig becomes dislodged or falls askew, the drag queen is undone.

While the poem takes as its theme aesthetics—the study of beauty—and marvels at how "perfection and beauty are so alien / they almost never touch," Doty nevertheless treats this serious topic as an occasion for comedy. We are supposed to find "Esta Noche" funny as well as poignant. The poem does not make fun of the drag queen so much as it ventriloquizes her sense of humor, having learned from Lola’s sensibility. This comic tone is introduced in the poem’s second line with the single word "late," which is set off by medial caesurae:

la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs[.]

The line forms a symphony of hard and soft consonants, with the apparently dispensable word "late" prolonging the alliteration of l sounds in the title that the queen has conferred upon herself. The word "late" also echoes the plosive t sounds in the words that surround it: enters, mounts, stairs. We might even say that the repetition of this hard consonant creates a clattering sound in the line that mimics the noise of Lola’s heels as she ascends the stairs to the stage. But the word "late" is interpolated into this line to indicate above all that Lola follows what is known as "gay time." No drag queen in the world has ever shown up on time for anything. We do not need the word "late" in this line for purposes of narrative or of realism; the word is there primarily to make us smile, and to suggest—via the economy of a single crisp syllable—that the poem inhabits a stereotypically gay context.

Hence part of this poem’s complexity lies in its rendering Lola as both a comic and a serious figure. Although drag queens appear throughout Doty’s work, one of Lola’s most significant prototypes is, curiously enough, the nightingale in Keats’s famous ode. Keats’s poetic speaker identifies his voice with that of the beautiful singer, a bird that flies straight out of the English countryside into the space of mythology: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird," Keats’s speaker apostrophizes the nightingale. Somewhat similarly, Doty models his poetic voice on that icon of artifice and in-betweenness, the drag queen. This gesture of imitation emerges most definitively a few poems later in My Alexandria, in "Chanteuse," where

in a nearly empty room over a crowded bar, a beautiful black drag queen—perched on the edge of the piano, under a blue spot,

her legs crossed in front of her so that the straps of her sparkling ankle shoes glimmered—sang only to us.

One effect of this iconic moment is to encourage an identification of her song with his, thereby repeating the structural trope of Keats’s Romantic ode. Unlike most contemporary poets, Doty does not aspire to a natural voice; and in this respect he departs from the strong influence on modern American poetry of Whitman, of Ezra Pound, and of William Carlos Williams, all of whom in their various ways aspired to make poetry conform to the idioms of natural American speech. Thus despite his poetry’s accessibility and popularity, and despite his poems describing natural scenes and objects, Doty is a poetcontra naturem, a poet of the made (and made-up) rather than of the given. He takes the ancient and persistent charge against sodomy—that it is a crime "against nature"—and makes of the unnatural a virtue rather than a vice.

If the angel is one of his poetic figures for liminality and the coastal shoreline is another, then the drag queen represents a hybrid figure that combines "blur of boundary"—"shifting in and out of two languages like gowns / or genders"—with the achievements of artifice. The drag queen, like the poem, is a work of art; and it is Doty’s inclination to find works of art in the unlikeliest of places, to find loveliness in ruin. He does this in almost all his poems, showing us the radiance in what has been discarded or deemed undesirable. In "Esta Noche" he finds beauty in both the figure of the drag queen and in her dilapidated setting:

            . . . She’s a man     you wouldn’t look twice at in street clothes, two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile     sadly narrative—but she’s a monument,

in the mysterious permission of the dress.

We notice here that the dress grants "permission," just as twilight ("permission’s descending hour") did in "Homo Will Not Inherit." This word "permission" signals in both poems an impending metamorphosis, an almost magical transformation. "The costume is license / and calling," we are told at the end of "Esta Noche," in an avowal that could be spoken by either Lola, the speaker, or a hybrid voice that fuses their subjectivities. More than merely "permission," the dress is also a "calling," a vocation, as if from God or the poet’s muse. Thus more than a nightclub entertainer, the drag queen has become by the poem’s end another kind of poet, transfigured by his or her vocation.

The poem is attentive to the tawdriness of the scene—"the plywood platform," "the wobbling spot [light]," the "unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth"—and thus to the miracle of transformation, given how unpromising are the raw materials of this spectacle. Yet the spectacle reaches out to encompass the whole of nature, so that by the close of the poem the sky itself is seen as in drag:

        . . . She says you could wear the whole damn     black sky and all its spangles. It’s the only night we have to stand on. Put it on,     it’s the only thing we have to wear.

The starry sky has become a sequined dress, and the cosmos is revealed in its most elemental as drag material. "Esta Noche" makes nighttime itself into a realm of artifice, as if artifice were unavoidable—"the only night / we have to stand on." This curious locution treats the sky as a glittery fabric—"the rippling night pulled down over broad shoulders / and flounced around the hips"—yet also as something about which one has no choice: "it’s the only thing we have to wear." In this way of seeing things, artifice is ineluctable and yet there is something poignant about this inevitability. If in "Homo Will Not Inherit" "twilight, / permission’s descending hour" suggested a luxury that made anything seem possible, in "Esta Noche" the possibilities of night seem more like necessities for survival.

This idea of drag as necessary and inevitable, rather than optional and decadent, appears also in the earlier poem "Playland" (Bethlehem in Broad Daylight98-100), and in "Crêpe de Chine," a poem from Atlantis that might be paired with "Esta Noche." Promenading down a Manhattan street and imbibing the sensuousness of commercial display, the cross-gendered speaker of "Crêpe de Chine" echoes Lola in her chant:

I want to wear it, I want to put the whole big thing on my head, I want

the tumbling coiffeurs of heaven, or lacking that, a wig tiered and stunning as this island.

That’s what I want from the city: to wear it. That’s what drag is: a city

to cover our nakedness[.]                  (Atlantis 72)

Here as elsewhere the poet is not so much describing the drag queen as speaking in her voice and adopting her point of view. It’s not simply a matter of giving voice to the marginal figure of the drag queen, but of extending her sensibility, seeing the whole world through her eyes. Doty expands this sensibility—an appreciation of artifice learned as much from downtown gay bars as from Wallace Stevens’s aestheticist philosophy—by identifying it with urban architecture and cosmopolitan space as such. To want to wear the city—to describe drag and the city in terms of each other—is to desire an intimacy with urban space that suggests the poetic speaker’s dissolution into the very shapes and surfaces she beholds.

It is important to distinguish this approach from that of Whitman’s poetic speakers, who, when they move through the city, aspire to absorb what is seen into the poet’s self. Whereas the Whitmanian poetic self may be termed all-encompassing, Doty’s poetic self would be characterized more accurately as all-adoring. His poetic self exhibits a porosity that makes contact with urban forms and surfaces of all kinds endlessly stimulating and delightful. In experiencing sensuousness almost everywhere, this porous poetic self finds aesthetic pleasure in abundance. Doty seems to appreciate both the trashy andthe sublime, the beautiful and the dilapidated—or, more precisely, his poetic sensibility refuses to draw a hard-and-fast line between these conventionally polar categories. This sensibility is part of what makes his work "queer." It is also what has led some critics to censure his work, to find it either excessive or inadequate.

In the end, what a certain critical position finds objectionable in Doty is his poetics of praise. When Doty’s poetry appears too concerned with surfaces and with glitteriness; when he piles adjective upon adjective, what some critics find uncongenial is his poetic speakers’ adoration of the objects of their sensual apprehension. Without being fully aware of it, these critics (Harvard’s Helen Vendler among them) are objecting to what Doty loves. Their critique of his aesthetic is, at bottom, antigay—or, more precisely, antiqueer. Two comic poems in Sweet Machine, both of which are titled "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," respond to this denunciation of his delight in surface, artifice, and sensuousness. Both poems are antiphonal, structured as quotation and reply, and both crystallize themes evoked in "Homo Will Not Inherit" and "Esta Noche." The first version of "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work" employs the genre of the drag queen’s snappy comeback, replying to the critique with this camp riposte:

—No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins.            (Sweet Machine 36)

For this sensibility, excess is not superfluous but vital. The second, much longer version of the poem elaborates on the first version’s epigrammatic rejoinder by explaining that "Every sequin’s / an act of praise." Appreciating the surface of what he encounters, Doty elevates this appreciation into a poetics of praise—a mode, that is, of honoring the broken, the marginal, the dispossessed, the abandoned, the artificial. In the end, Doty is a love poet, though his love is rarely directed solely at other persons. His is a truly promiscuous aesthetic, one that finds beauty and therefore something to praise virtually everywhere it turns.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "Homo Will Not Inherit"

"Homo Will Not Inherit"

This poem takes its title from a flier that someone has posted on a downtown wall. The legend on the flier reads: "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be saved." Doty’s poem picks up this anonymous, explicitly antigay text, and replies, in effect, that no repentance is necessary for salvation. Instead, the poem’s speaker embraces carnality and finds redemptive transfiguration in the netherworld of urban gay public sex. Rather than simply rejecting the Christian doctrine that views homosexuality as an abomination, this poem converts the abomination into something holy. We might say that the poem’s wager is not to forgive but to sanctify sin. According to "Homo Will Not Inherit," gay people don’t need to be accepted by the Christian church, because homo sex is itself a religious experience. For Doty the spiritual world is reached not by denying the flesh, but, on the contrary, by indulging it. In this conviction he follows Allen Ginsberg in Howl, who in turn was following William Blake.

The poem’s tone is both ecstatic and defiant. It is risky to take a legend that authoritatively spells out damnation for one’s very being—"Homo will not inherit"—and make it the title for one’s own statement of religious belief. In doing so, Doty is treating the antigay phrase in the way that some people recently have treated the antigay epithet queer, appropriating it as a term of proud defiance. This poem is important because it articulates a kind of credo, an affirmation of spiritual principle. If, as Scott Herring has remarked, for Doty poetry is a variety of religious experience, then a poem affirming his religious persuasions can tell us something about his idea of poetry too.

We see this affirmation of belief most clearly at the moment when the poem segues from description to reflection:

                        . . . I say it without arrogance, I have been an angel

for minutes at a time, and I have for hours believed—without judgement, without condemnation— that in each body, however obscured or recast,

is the divine body—common, habitable— the way in a field of sunflowers you can see every bloom’s

the multiple expression of a single shining idea, which is the face hammered into joy.

These lines form a single sentence that stretches easily, without convolution, over several stanzas. (Look again at the poem’s opening sentence, which takes up its first seven verses and culminates in the quote from the flier.) There is something of Walt Whitman in these long, prosy lines and in the poet’s organizing them by the repetition of parallelism and anaphora (repeated line-beginnings), rather than by the repetition of end-rhyme: "And I have been . . . / I have been . . . / . . . I have been . . . / . . . I have been. . . ."

"I have been an angel," the speaker says, invoking one of the dominant images of Doty’s previous book My Alexandria, in whose central poem, "The Wings," an angel is described at one point as "that form // between us and the unthinkable." The angel is a spiritual mediator, a being on the border between this world and the next. As a liminal creature, the angel is a figure for the geographical and social margins pictured in "Homo Will Not Inherit." "I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit," the speaker defiantly replies, "the margins / which have always been mine." The angel is associated with "the margins," which in this poem take the form of an urban wasteland populated by the socially marginal—gay men cruising for sex through "downtown after hours / when there’s nothing left to buy." Doty is a poet of the marginal, the edge, the border, the coast; as he says in "Description," the prefatory ars poetica ofAtlantis, "what I need to tell is / swell and curve, shift // and blur of boundary." The angel is a figure—though certainly not his only one—for "blur of boundary."

But angel is also a slang term for a gay man, and the poem converts this vernacular meaning back into religious significance. Describing a man he encounters in the steamroom, the speaker transfigures anonymous sex into a virtually biblical allegory of spiritual possession:

I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body, pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation. And I have been possessed of the god myself[.]

Here the hunk is a god, or a sign from God; and being sexually possessed by another man becomes a figure for the Holy Spirit’s visitation. Doty’s stunningly sacrilegious metaphor finds a similarity between the Spirit’s tongue of flame that lodges inside the believer and another man’s penis or tongue inside his own body ("I have been possessed of the god myself"). Whereas in orthodox Christian doctrine only Jesus incarnates divinity, in this poem "the divine body" inhabits everyone in a form of theological promiscuity.

The poem immediately cascades into another analogy to illustrate this principle, offering one of Doty’s favorite images, the sunflower, to insist that "you can see every bloom’s // the multiple expression / of a single shining idea, / which is the face hammered into joy." (For dilation upon this image, see "Four Cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down" and "In the Community Garden," both in Atlantis.) The "face hammered into joy" is both the flower’s face, its radiance personified, and that of the guy in the sauna who is "hammered into joy" by "some towering man" who fucks him. The verb hammered, which recurs throughout Doty’s work, has a double resonance here, connoting both vigorous sex and artistic creation—the way a smith hammers metal into something beautiful. To be "hammered into joy" is to go through pain and reach ecstasy, a trajectory the poem itself follows.

No small measure of this poem’s pain and defiance comes from the direction of its address—the fact that its second-person singular you turns out to be the anonymous author of the antigay legend: "you who’s posted this invitation // to a heaven nobody wants." We do not discover that the poem addresses its enemy until more than halfway through, and it comes as a surprise because the opening words specify a generic or typical setting, "Downtown anywhere." Unlike the majority of his poems, "Homo Will Not Inherit" is confrontational; then again, seen from a broader perspective, it is—like all poems—a reply to an utterance that precedes it.

The poem is set in the "edges no one wants," an undesirability that the speaker sets about transforming almost immediately with his description of "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," an image that sees oily puddles as beautiful blossoms. The poem’s derelict urban setting is significant because it points to the connection between homosexuality and city life; and Doty, like Whitman and Hart Crane before him, is very much a poet of the city. He’s a poet of New York, Boston, and (in Sweet Machine) Venice, but also of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the city he’s made his home for the past decade. Although not a major metropolitan area, Provincetown, like New York, is a gay destination, a place where gay men congregate. Doty is interested in how people make these places their own—how, for example, the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria was "transformed into feeling" by gay poet Cavafy, and how Hart Crane’s poetry does the same for New York City. The titles of Doty’s books are taken from these urban poets’ lovesongs to their cities: My Alexandria from Cavafy, and Atlantis from Crane’s poem of that title, his paean of praise to Brooklyn Bridge. Atlantis is the mythical lost island, not a city; but its name betokens a place that, while not exactly a utopia, is formed wholly from the imagination.

The downtown of "Homo Will Not Inherit" has been vacated by middle-class flight to the suburbs, a sociological phenomenon that made downtownanywhere a place for gay men to gather in "blackfronted bars," which assure anonymity, and adult bookstores, "where there’s nothing to read / but longing’s repetitive texts." Suburban flight meant that only the families of the dispossessed lived downtown in U.S. cities, which then could be zoned for sex businesses such as the porno stores, gay bars, and bathhouses sketched in this poem. "Homo Will Not Inherit" offers less a critique of this urban predicament than an account of the imagination’s power to transform blight and "ruin" into beauty. It is not a case of the socially irresponsible artist’s aestheticizing a material problem, but rather of showing how an oppressed minority uses imagination to make an inhospitable reality into its "kingdom." The transformation requires a subterfuge or inauthenticity that Doty associates with the paradoxical authenticity of art. For this poet, artifice is an honorific not a pejorative term; his art emphasizes its madeness, its fabulated qualities, rather than aspiring to the status of the natural. For a wonderful example of this commitment to fabulation, see the poem "Chanteuse" (in My Alexandria), which pictures "the rapt singer / who caught us in the glory / of her artifice."

Doty’s emphasis on artifice is submerged in "Homo Will Not Inherit" by his fierce spirituality; yet the imagination’s power to transubstantiate the given world is revealed in the way that gay men’s desire surreptitiously invents another city within the architecture of public urban space. After office hours, the "public city’s / ledgered and locked, but the secret city’s boundless." As with many of W. B. Yeats’s poems, the time of this lyric is "twilight, / permission’s descending hour," the time when appearances change and diurnal reality melts away. Thus the poem’s temporal setting, as well as its geographical locale, is liminal, transitional, a no-man’s land—or, in this case, a gay man’s land. The "permission" that descends can be understood as both erotic and poetic license: a sanction to desire and pursue other men, but also an authorization to see things differently, to invest mundane reality with fantasy.

But this does not mean abandoning or transcending material reality. On the contrary, Doty embraces the dirty, derelict city and its vices, picturing "downtown anywhere" as equal to the heavenly city promised in Scripture:

                . . . This failing city’s radiant as any we’ll ever know, paved with oily rainbow, charred gates

jeweled with tags, swoops of letters over letters, indecipherable as anything written by desire. I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be? It’s written on my face as much as on these walls. This city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

This is the speaker’s final, triumphant riposte to the author of the poster that provides his poem’s title. Homo does not need to inherit the kingdom of heaven, because "I have my kingdom." The half-line, four-word closing sentence’s declarative assertion is particularly effective because it contrasts so sharply with the expansive syntax earlier in the poem. Notice how the attributes of "this failing city" reprise imagery that the poet has used already: the city streets "paved with oily rainbow" pick up "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," which are enhanced by the symbolical resonance of the rainbow, God’s sign to Moses. His description of urban graffiti—"swoops of letters / over letters, indecipherable as anything / written by desire"—recalls the poet’s characterization of pornography as "longing’s repetitive texts," an echo that not only dignifies what conventionally is considered sordid, but also draws his own poem into the same orbit, since this lyric constitutes something "written by desire" and includes "a dirty story" too.

In the ironically labeled "dirty story" that the speaker relates, the man in the bathhouse "nudg[es] his key toward me, / as if perhaps I spoke another tongue." The key, like a tongue, is a physical sign of sexual invitation: Come to my room. The key is also, of course, a stereotypical phallic symbol, an image of sexual penetration (as immortalized by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams). But it also carries the biblical resonance of access to paradise, since Jesus presents the believer with keys to the kingdom of heaven. These connotations of the image of the key return at the poem’s end with the speaker’s characterization of the city as "inescapable"—not because it’s "ledgered and locked," but because "the secret city’s boundless," unconfined by physical parameters. This idea and its metaphoric elaboration owes something to Emily Dickinson’s brilliant exposition on the scope of poetic imagination, "I dwell in Possibility—" (poem 657).

In the end, Doty’s city is ablaze with a fire that may be both infernal, the hellfire of damnation, and "pentecostal," the divine fire of spiritual transformation, as invoked several stanzas earlier. The image of "charred gates" evokes the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by the fire of God’s wrath for, among other things, the sin of sodomy. Yet there are also mythological and camp connotations to this image of the city "on fire," since it is both "the secret city" that arises, phoenix-like, from "the public city," and an urban space aflame with homosexuality (a flamboyant gay man is known colloquially as a flaming queen or, simply, a flamer). The phoenix is an important mythological reference for Doty, as the title of his most recent memoir,Firebird (1999), suggests. Indeed, for Doty, fire is an image not only of destruction but also of transformation, a figure for metamorphosis embodied by the phoenix. These multiple meanings are all condensed in the single phrase "and on fire."

"Homo Will Not Inherit" is a religious and a political poem. A brief summary of recent gay history may provide the context to help readers appreciate fully this poem’s ideological significance. Its second line refers to "bathhouse steam," and its "dirty story" describes a bathhouse sexual encounter. Bathhouses are gay sex institutions, places men go to have sex with each other. (Many of the scenes in Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots, are set in bathhouses and convey their atmosphere well.) Bathhouses flourished in the 1970s and early 80s in U.S. cities, but in the late 80s and 1990s they were blamed for the spread of AIDS and, in major gay metropolitan centers such as New York and San Francisco, were shut down. As a poet of the AIDS epidemic, Doty is taking a political risk by describing bathhouse sex in such rhapsodic, unabashed terms. His poem’s title, "Homo Will Not Inherit," conjures the idea of inheritance as dependent on death. In the 80s, U.S. political discourse suggested that gay men had inherited death itself as a result of too much sex in places such as bathhouses. This political discourse overlapped with religious fundamentalist rhetoric, which claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on unnatural sex (the fact that more heterosexuals than lesbians were dying from AIDS was conveniently overlooked). Doty’s poem turns these antigay assumptions on their heads by treating bathhouse sex as paradisaical and deeply spiritual. In his description of "worshipping a while in his church," he even alludes—comically and sacrilegiously—to a camp euphemism for cocksucking: having church is slang for blowing guys, because one kneels in front of a standing man in order to fellate him in a semipublic space. Church is also gay slang for the bathhouse.

When the speaker refers to the moment "after we’d been, you understand, / worshipping a while in his church," his idiomatic expression lightens the predominantly defiant tone of this poem with a comic note. And with the apparently throwaway phrase "you understand," we realize that he’s addressing not only the person who wrote the antigay slogan, but also his gay readers: the "you" who composed the slogan would not understand this euphemism for cocksucking, but the gay reader does. This style of double address—in which things are said that one audience will miss while another audience gets it—defines camp, a mode of presentation associated with both homosexuality and artificiality. Camp sensibility, which often comprises nothing more than a certain oblique way of looking at things, infuses Doty’s work without diminishing its seriousness.

Earlier in "Homo Will Not Inherit," there is another campy moment when the speaker describes "a xeroxed headshot / of Jesus: permed, blonde, blurred at the edges // as though photographed through a greasy lens." This is Hollywood’s Jesus, a figure so processed and contrived as to rival advertising images, 70s gay porn images, classic movie star images. This is kitsch Christ, the leader of a religion worthy of acolytes such as Tammy Faye Baker. We might even say that this Jesus—bleached, permed, and ready for his close-up—is in drag. The significance of drag in Doty’s work leads us to his poem on this website, "Esta Noche."

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "The Waste Land"

My account of impersonality shifts the critical debate away from closet logic toward a different way of conceptualizing sexuality’s impact on Eliot’s poetry. Sexuality in Eliot involves hiddenness not as a mode of concealment, but as an occult mode of access with erotic implications. His impersonalist theory of poetry compels Eliot—even in the face of his own conscious intentions—to embrace a passivity and openness that renders him vulnerable to what feels like bodily violation. Hence his propensity for embodying these qualities in women and sexually ambiguous youths, such as Saint Sebastian and Narcissus. Eliot imagines figures for the ideal impersonalist poet as eminently rapable, and he conceives this violation as the paradoxical precondition for that "inviolable voice," which, in The Waste Land, he attempts not merely to represent but actually to approximate. The raped and wounded figures in his poetry represent not abject bodies that Eliot repudiates as a means of shoring up his precarious masculine heterosexual identity, as recent critics have claimed. On the contrary, these violated figures represent Eliot’s poetic ideal. Rejecting the terms of revelation and concealment that have dominated Eliot criticism, I shall argue that from his impersonalist practice something fundamental remains to be learned about the relation between transhistorical conceptions of poetic utterance and modern forms of sexuality.

[….]

A rather different way of reading Eliot’s gestures of renunciation stems from recognizing in the modernist use of masks a technique of self-dispossession that entails a structural rather than a psychological form of masochism. By this I mean that impersonal masking—the speaking in a voice other than one’s own—involves the poet in a suspension or diminuition of self that tends to accompany the poetic medium itself, irrespective of his or her own preferences. While modernist impersonality is readily grasped as entailing the use of personae, we need not understand masking as solely or even primarily a technique of concealment. Persona originally referred to the mask worn by actors in Greek drama, but the word etymologically derives from the Latin phrase per sonare, meaning "to sound through." Rather than designating the visual form hiding the actor’s face, persona initially denoted the mask’s mouthpiece or a reed device inserted into it for amplifying the actor’s voice. Thus in the first place a persona was less a means of visual concealment than of vocal channeling; it entailed a form of speaking through rather than of speaking falsely. More than a mode of camouflage, impersonation may represent a way to inhabit other existences—a way to transform oneself by becoming possessed by others. This distinction furnishes us with a rationale for approaching modernist impersonality as a strategy not of dissimulation but of access to regions of voice beyond the self’s.

[….]

Eliot’s ideas about occult transmission are dramatized in The Waste Land. While Madame Sosostris stands as the poem’s best known medium, she is not the only figure associated with clairvoyance. Both the Sibyl, whose words compose the poem’s epigraph, and Tiresias, who supposedly unites the poem, are second-sighted. Given that Eliot derived Madame Sosostris’s name from a fortune-teller called Sesostris in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (a novel published only in November 1921), biographer Lyndall Gordon is justified in claiming that the Sosostris scene must have been a significant late addition to the poem; her pack of cards "is a unifying device," Gordon suggests, "a late attempt to draw the fragments together with a parade of the poem’s characters." Madame Sosostris is thus in one respect a modern incarnation of Tiresias, himself "the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest," according to Eliot’s note. It is not only as mediums but also as ostensibly unifying consciousnesses that Tiresias and Sosostris represent surrogates for the impersonalist poet.

[….]

Although associated with femininity and so-called passive homosexuality, the experience of self-dispossession cannot be understood as the prerogative of any psychological identity because it represents the loss of identity as such. Self-dispossession is rendered intelligible by psychoanalytic theories of masochism—or by cultural stereotypes about heterosexual women and effeminate homosexuals—but may in fact be a structural entailment of the poetic medium as much as a psychological impulse. "[T]he poet has . . . no identity . . . he has no self," argued Keats, in a formulation suggesting that the poet’s identity consists in the loss of identity or, as he put it in the same letter, in self-annihilation. In this transhistorical conception of poetic utterance, which stretches back to Plato’s Ion, the suspension of individual identity, by whatever means, is deemed necessary for poetic making. With Bersani’s account in mind, we could say that the "appeal of powerlessness" concerns aesthetic pleasure as much as it does eroticJouissance, because the medium requires a self-shattering or impersonalization that is synonymous with poetic practice itself.

From "T.S. Eliot, Famous Clairvoyant." In Laity, Cassandra and Nancy Gish (eds.) T.S. Eliot: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Desire. Cambridge University Press, 2004.