Category Archives: GLBT poetry

“A Better Life: Poems” by Randall Mann— A Look Within the Poet

Mann, Randall. “A Better Life: Poems”, Persea, 2021.

A Look Within the Poet

Amos Lassen

Observing modern life, poet Randall Mann gives us an authentic look at gay life from the point of view of a multiracial person who explores how he has faced life. It is a haunting exploration of what makes a person who he is through satire and honest reflection. As we know, poetry plays on the emotions more than any other literary form. It draws us in, chews us up and then spits us out. It is often raw as we see in “A Better Life” and it uses words to express feelings that often are dormant in our daily lives. The choice of words is primary, the sound of words is what makes verse sing and the thoughts we gain from poetry make us think. Randall Mann shows us how he uses the three ideas. He does so by exploring the concept of time as he looks within himself. He is tender and nostalgic and not afraid to share the bad times alongside of the good times.

I find it especially interesting that the title of the collection, “A Better Life” is so fitting to how we are living through the virus that has affected us all so deeply. A better life is what we yearn for and this period has caused so many of us to introspect. Mann publicly introspects and we find that so many of us share his thoughts on what he has found. Our relationships have changed since the advent of Covid and what was before the pandemic seems to be now so far away. In becoming estranged from the past, we look within for signs of the future. Memory does strange things as we look back and for many of us, looking forward is very difficult.

To thumb through these poems, written a few years ago now, is to feel a kind of knowing estrangement, like a place imagined into existence through memory. The phrase “a better life” is used so casually, so obliquely, in the parlance, but it’s always seemed to me quite fraught: It’s aspirational, but there’s something slightly suspect, or hollow, in that aspiration—in all aspiration, really—which is part of, I hope, the complication, the “latent double,” to quote Stevens, in the word “better.” Better, indeed, than whom? Who is quantifying what? I love taking quotidian phrases, and idioms, and trying to breathe new life into them. Culture has changed and so have we. We have begun to wonder about things that we once looked at only on the surface.

Mann’s poems are extensions of his ideas and his obsessions. Being locked in has brought him to self- discussion about joy and sorrow, success and failure. As he writes about lust and love in queer life, corporate employment, remembering those who have preceded us, he examines his own past life and the obsessions that have brought him to where he is. Change is everywhere and makes me think of the first sentence of James Joyce’s short story “Eveline” that simply says, “Everything changes”. For so many life has become a reverie. We attempt to find ways to lose ourselves; Mann does so through his poems.

Each poem stands on its own with form and content of its own long conversation yet when taken together we become involved in an intense conversation through short powerful lines. In looking at queer culture, Mann reflects of the art of the poem through some of his favorite poets and how they look at sexuality. He shares with us the enormity and richness of the queer universe. That sense of community that we now share even when it is under threat as it has been recently. Poetry is a way to escape the mundanity of everyday life, a haven away from the threats around us. Politics has invaded our lives including the life of poetry and we really see that creating art is a political activity. Writing has always been a subversive activity, personal writing such as the poems of Randall Mann are subversive as they explore who we are. In the title poem, “A Better Life”, Mann writes,

“It’s silly to think

fourteen years ago

I turned thirty.

How I made it that far

I’ll never know.

In this city of hills,

if there was a hill

I was over it. Then.

(In queer years,

years

are more than.)

Soon it will be fifteen

since the day I turned thirty.

It’s so remote.

I didn’t think I’d make it

to fourteen years ago.

Fear lives in the chest

like results.

You say my gray, it makes

me look extinguished;

you make me cringe.

I haven’t cracked

the spines of certain paperbacks,

or learned a sense of direction,

even with a slick device.

But the spleen doesn’t ask twice,

and soon it will be fifteen years

since I turned thirty.

Which may not sound like a lot.

Which sounds like the hinge

of a better life:

It is, and it is not.

“I Wish My Father” by Leslea Newman— A Gorgeous Tribute

Newman, Leslea. “I Wish My Father”, Headmistress Press, 2021.

A Gorgeous Tribute

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new poetry collection from Leslea Newman and now she writes about her father in a companion volume to her earlier “I Carry My Mother”. Newman knows how to awaken emotions which makes her poetry not just personal for her but for her readers as well. If you have lost a parent, you know how difficult it is to put words about him or her down on paper and with Leslea, we feel her loss with every verse she writes. She begins with the death of her mother and the separation between her parents and goes through the death of her father which brings them back together again but this is also a tremendous loss for her. During the five-year period that her father was without his wife, he went through difficult times and through the poet’s voice we feel his sense of loss (as well as her own), his anger and his longing. The couple had been together for sixty-plus years and with his wife gone, Newman became a caretaker for him. She learned so much about the man who raised and loved her. At the same time, she learned more about her mother and herself.

I was so reminded of my own father who was like Leslea’s— both were strong Jewish stubborn men for whom the word “compromise” was foreign and acceptance was difficult. Both of our fathers lost their wives before their own deaths and had difficulties being lonely and separated from the mates upon whom they doted. We really see that changes of time and loneliness bring. The strength they held as married men evolved to something else as widowers. Because of the similarities between our fathers, this was a rough and highly emotional read and I often had to stop and dry my eyes. At the same time, I found that as I wept, I better understood the man who had been something of a stranger in my life; a man who had no idea of how to deal with a son who was “different”.

Many of you may know Leslea Newman as an author of children’s books and not as a poet. If that is the case, you have missed some of her best writing. Pick up this book and its companion. “I Carry My Mother” and sit back and enjoy the profundity of her wonderful poetry.

 “I Wish My Father” looks at the relationship between a daughter and a father in gorgeous ways. Grief is a rough emotion to deal with and an even rougher emotion to write about. Here we see grief from two sides— the grief of a man losing his wife and the grief of a daughter losing her mother. While their grief is often shared, it is also very personal and hurts. It is a feeling that we all will face one day and have to deal with. Newman here has done so with grace and beauty. We are introduced to Newman’s father through those that he loved and we feel his pain at their loss.

Choosing to concentrate on her father’s last few years. Newman does not avoid the man who he once was when he was a vibrant attorney and together with the sad feelings of loss, we also get bits of humor and what it means to be a father as well as what it means to be a daughter.

There are things we do not realize about the ones we love when they are still alive and this is perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with when they are gone. I certainly felt this having moved away from my folks and not seeing my father for thirty years when he died. The memories I had about him were usually negative until he was no longer here. To this day, it has been a very long time since I saw him last, I have trouble remembering what he looked like. With Newman, it was very different as she took care of her father during his final days but it is important to remember that near the end, our parents are not what we once thought them to be. It is very hard to reconcile what was with what is yet Newman has done so with such beauty that she provides a lesson for all of us.

“The Book of Anna” by Joy Ladin— Empathy, Trauma and God

 

Ladin, Joy. “The Book of Anna”, EOAGH Books, 2020.

Empathy, Trauma and God

Amos Lassen

Joy Ladin writes in the voice of Anna Ach Asher, a fictional Czech-German Jew who spent her teen years in a concentration camp and now lives in 1950s Prague. She answers phones for the secret police.

In “The Book of Anna”,  she writes about her present and past, living under a totalitarianism and having experiences the horrors of a concentration camp. She deals with the issues of empathy and suffering, trauma and God.  These are the same issues  that many of us face today especially because we never thought that they would be part of our present lives.  She keeps a prose diary in which she writes autobiographical poems that examine her present state and how she has to deal with it. She shares her process of writing as well as details about her life including sharing thoughts about how she interacts with neighbors, her obsessive sexual behavior, her smoking, and how she explores Jewish tradition.  We read about her attempts to deal with horror, survival, and what comes afterwards.

She reflects onher pre-war love of a Heidegger-reading yeshiva student, on the women who saved her life in Barracks 10 and on the Biblical “song made of songs” where she finds the absence of God yet where the rabbis see God everywhere. She attempts to find a reason to live after having experienced the horrible fates that she dealt with and says that the reason that she has written these poems to rise above having had her poetry rejected for publication. “I can’t blame him for finding my lyrics unattractive… My muse is rage, not beauty”. We are punched in the gut with that very first diary entry.

I am totally in love with the way that Ladin uses the language and imagery of sacred Jewish texts including the Biblical story of Tamar, Talmudic disputation, the imagery of the Song of Songs, mystical texts about golems and psalms that we use for the celebration of Sabbath.

While Anna experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, this is about so much more and is really about what it takes to survive after one has lost all; every shred of faith and humanity. Naturally we feel the bitterness in Anna’s voice but we also sense the brutal honesty with which she writes. She deals with an omnipotent, omniscient God who seems not to understand the creation and yet who accepts prayer of praise and lament.

This is the second edition of a book that has become one of theclassic texts of trans literature and it has a new afterword by the author in which Ladin looks at her reflecting on this book’s importance for her own development of poetics and identity. And as Anna reflects on her life so does the reader reflect. Memory after memory came rushing back to me as I read and I was both shattered and uplifted at the same time. Anna is an unforgettable person yet she adds so much to how we value the poetry of Jewish America.

Ladin follows Anna’s as she tries to find something  that will let her continue to live. She ultimately does but only after a heart-wrenching journey that lets her become whole. What you might not expect is that this is a love story in which Anna learns to live. We are all so lucky to have had the chance to travel with her. She responded to the Jewish ideal of “CHOOSE LIFE”. I understand that Joy Ladin wrote “The Book of Anna” during her gender transition and faced the same questions that she did and herein is the book’s total relevance for today.

“Suitor” by Joshua Rivkin— Desire, Family, Memory and Forgiveness

Rivkin, Joshua. “Suitor”, Red Hen Press, 2020.

Desire, Family, Memory and Forgiveness

Amos Lassen

In “Suitor” Joshua Rivkin’s writes of desire, history, memory and forgiveness. He examines maleness as it is in the world today and how he sees it.Divided in two sections with a lyric essay, “The Haber Problem”; we read of suitors as an observer in the first section and in the second section, the observer becomes the subject.

It begins with a group of poems abouta mother’s boyfriends and lovers, and how these relationships influence the poet’s  understanding about Eros and masculinity. The essay, “The Haber Problem,” retells the story of the scientist Fritz Haber. Other poems then deal with the past with erotically and through desire and longing  directness, longing, and lyric intensity. We are led to think about what it means to be a suitor and to follow and chase our desires.

Rivkin’s mother had quite a collection of boyfriends and we read of them in the opening poem. We also read how the poet perceived them. We then move on the essay where the subject is compared to the writer’s father, who left his family in the name of science. Even with that we see that the poet still loved his father. We then move to the second section which is a collection of the poet’s sexual relationships with men and women, real or imagined and human desire.

Taken as a whole, the poems are an exploration of desire, history, family and memory. Rivkin looks at the psyche through poems about sex. He looks at the relationship between parents and children and how their stories make up the story of civilization as it is. Rivkin studies behavior to show the yearning for connection with others. We are all waiting for that connection.

“We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics” edited by Andrea Abi Karam and Kay Gabriel— A New Poetry

Abi-Karam, Andrea and Kay Gabriel (editors). “We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics”,  Nightboat Books, 2020.
A New Poetry
Amos Lassen
*Note— I used the synopsis of this book to form a review and you will recognize it if you have read anything about this text.
“We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics” isa collection of work from a dynamic range of writers, edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel. The contributors recount their histories and imagine worlds in which need and desire are always met. The selections represent a world in which everything belongs to everyone.” Misogynist violence and trans joy are both everyday occurrences, We Want It All crafts space for the complications. The writers here were invited to be fluid an present  a conversation around what gender can do as a form and as a possibility. By writing, it is possible to combat oppression and to ask difficult questions about the purpose and potential inherent in every person, every body. The writers here are hungry and possess a liveliness and urgency that comes together with the intention, rigor, beauty, and tenderness of everyday trans life. We read of abolition and decolonization, cam work and the State. The limits of genre and space are subverted, poetry is reconstructed and changed. New ideas are evident throughout as utopia and dystopia are dealt with in canon-defying to open the imagination and show collective and individual futures. The selections are an intergenerational constellation of radical trans writers from various locations and points of origin. The anthology embraces euphoria at the cross section of a fight for autonomy and liberation.
Writing in dialogue with emancipatory political movements, against capital, racism, empire, borders, prisons, ecological devastation. The writers present a  different, overturned world in poems that pursue the particular and multiple trans relationships to desire, embodiment, housing, sex, ecology, history, pop culture and the working day.
The editors present this anthology as an experiment: how far can literature written and/or collected from a standpoint of identity. We see a new language and a new form to express the desire to shake the American public out of its lethargy. We see courage here as the writers face suffering. Pain is singular yet it reaches its targets one at a time. We live at a time of indifference and here we are reminded that each one of us is somehow responsible for everything that is done.

 

“13th Balloon” by Mark Bibbins— A Personal Elegy

Bibbins, Mark. “13th Balloon”, Copper Canyon Press, 2020.

A Personal Elegy

Amos Lassen

Mark Bibbins in his fourth poetry collection, “13thBalloon” looks at the American AIDS epidemic. He has dedicated this collection to Mark Crast, his former lover and friend who was a victim pf the epidemic and died when he was just 25-years-old. Here is a look at his persona loss against the larger societal tragic event. We read of intolerance, and “the intimate consequences of mismanaged power.” There are still really no words to express how we were affected by AIDS and Bibbins helps us understand that there is value and importance in continuing to wonder what to say and how to grapple. Bibbins dares to say what so many of us cannot utter.

This collection is not about the gay rights movement or AIDs but about his lover and friend who died, and for whom he continues to grieve. Bibbins shares his own background as a gay youth and a gay man. His writing comes from a place of deep personal pain and experience. Injustice is at the center of the collection and it is the reason that we have these gorgeous poems.
In each stanza, Bibbins tries to put his soul back together and to reconnect with his loss. Both a discussion of loss and a commentary on the AIDS crisis, the poet is both personal and political. He shares what  it means to lose someone physically and how we carry them with you into our own future, and the cost of  remembering.

“After Rubén” by Francisco Aragon— A Conversation Around Poetry

Aragon, Francisco. “After Rubén”, Red Hen Press, 2020.

A Conversation Around Poetry i

Amos Lassen

In “After Rubén”, Francisco Aragon takes us into  journey in poems and prose, bringing together the personal, the political and the historical which he intersperses English-language versions of a Spanish-language master: Rubén Darío. He presents portraits of public figures and sketches of his father while evoking his native San Francisco as well as his ancestral spaces in Nicaragua. He shows how poetry relates to Latinx and queer poetics.

We read memory poems from an American poet about his childhood lived between two worlds that reflect upon the inspirations that he gained from other poets as seen in an elegy about his mentor, Ruben Dario who is considered as a great Nicaraguan poet. Aragon shares both his home in San Francisco and scenes of Nicaragua along with looks at other places he has been in the United States. We are with him as he searches through cultures, books and languages as he takes us into queer Latinx poetry looking at both his family and scholars.

Above them all is the poetry of Dario and what his legacy means to him concentrating on his new translations of ten of the poet’s works. Aragon dares to share Dario’s imagined, intimate diary as Aragon writes of his own life that he has dedicated to the study of words. We sense the gamut of emotions and his experiences with solitude, separation and grief alongside of his life as an outsider. In this way he writes about “the individual Latinx experience and the universal desire to belong, to be heard.”

“The Idea of Him” by Charles Flowers—- The “Flower”ing of Desire

Flowers, Charles, “The Idea of Him”,  A Midsummer Night’s Press , 2020.

The “Flower”ing of Desire

Amos Lassen

Desire is the ultimate theme in Charles Flower’s poetry collection, “The Idea of Him”. We know that desire is a driving force in our lives and while it is a popular literary subject, Flowers’ poetry really shows its importance. The poems are no ride on a slow streetcar but a jet flight into the nature of what drives the soul.

“We don’t have words for this…

For what we do, for what,

if anything, we mean

to one another…”

We meet the adolescent male body becoming aware of forbidden sexuality and then later we have its adult self after having been through casual encounters, upset by constant loss yet barely trying to reconnect. Here is desire as an eternal and unrelenting force that can come to the fore whenever and wherever. This desire places us at the mercy of whim and offers both pain and love.

Through reading the Hebrew bible, we see that desire was created with and has remained part of his/her makeup ever since. Even though we know it is there, we rarely speak of it except perhaps for the lustful urges that come to us.

“In 9thgrade, it was what I wanted most:

      A hairy chest, like my father’s

Like this football player, at school…”.

The poetry here is filled with compassion and sensitivity and it is meditative. We know the power of the pull of flesh and that desire can lead us in unknown ways. Charles Flowers puts it all out there boldly and yet with grace and beautiful language. His sense of disappointment and frustration is evident throughout.

“I pour over this photograph of you

At the beach:…

And I sway in the rush of months

When I was in love and everything seemed given…

All I could think of was your face.”

In his short story “Eveline”, James Joyce’s first sentence is two words, “Everything changes”. The love of that face above becomes a feeling of being wanted at age 40 while at age 20, there was the need for love. The poems here are personal— so personal that there were times I felt like a voyeur. I’m glad I had that chance to read the beauty of Flowers’ verse and lines of self-acceptance. I read of myself here and of so many others of my generation and I smiled and I wept as I read.

“What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life” by Mark Doty— Biogaphy, Criticism and Memoir

Doty, Mark. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”,W.W. Norton, 2020,

Biography Criticism and Memoir

Amos Lassen

Writer Mark Doty brings together biography, criticism, and memoir as he explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. He says that he has always felt haunted by “Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self.” In “What Is the Grass”, Doty traces “the resonances between his own experience” and Whitman’s life and work. Whitman asks “What is it then between us?”. Doty searches for an answer, both externally and internally. He meditates on desire, love, and the poet’s enduring work which is a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death and the love for a great city and the character of American speech. Through close readings with personal memoir and illuminated by wonder, Doty shows the power of Whitman’s presence in his life and in the American imagination. What we have is a conversation across time and space, a look at the “astonishment” that Doty finds in Whitman, and his attempt to understand Whitman’s vision of human possibility.

I believe that many gay men have read all or parts of ‘Leaves of Grass’ looking for the lines, that speak to me as a gay male. I understood that such lines of poetry were there and I wanted to know what another gay male, a poet felt about desire. Doty proves that he can give a scholarly look at the work and then write about in ways we can all understand. He delves into the meaning he sees of various passages that Whitman is not afraid to write about and thereby expose.  Doty covers “the etymology of words used and the newness of their use in his collection, the edits he makes over time, the typeset of his words, the quiet, blank spaces, his innovations, and the movement and placement of various passages in different editions.”

Doty sees Whitman as a man both of his time, and out of his time. He further explores Whitman’s family, his readings, his mentors, his motivations, his influence on writers who came after him, and his drives. He writes of Whitman’s genius and how that genius changed the face of American poetry as well as that of the world.  

I once met Mark Doty when he was the guest of the Little Rock, Arkansas library system. Here was a man who inspired me with his poems and who never hid his sexuality. The transparency of his writings show him as both a strong and weak person (like all of us). I was very proud to shake his hand.

As he looks at various passages from Whitman, he says he feels Whitman is speaking directly to him and to the rest of us. Whitman is present in all of our lives and we see that in how his poetry remains relevant through the ages. What Doty captures so beautifully is Whitman’s genius.

Reading Doty, we learn how to read Whitman closely as he shows us how the poems reflect incidents in his own life and those of his  contemporaries. Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience are woven into Whitman’s life and vice versa.

Doty’s life and words are on a par with Whitman’s. He examines Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and his cosmic theology. As he does, he takes us into his own life in candid episodes. Language comes alive and we see meaning and purpose in the world. What the two poets share the most is faith in language. Doty’s relationship with Whitman is intimate in its “reality and in all that it imagines”.

“What is the Grass” is a sublime read that is fully of grace and intimacy. It made me feel alive again while being quarantined and I was reawaken to the power of language and the beauty of words.

“Infinity Standing Up” by Drew Pisarra— Can I Love a Book?

Pisarra, Drew. “Infinity Standing Up”, Capturing Fire Press, 2019.

Can I Love a Book?

Amos Lassen

‘“Love never ends,” Or so you contend, “Well neither

Does pi” is my curt reply. “Affections divide

Till the end of time.”’

For me reading poetry reminds me that romance is still alive today. Now along comes Drew Pisarra’s “Infinity Standing Up”, a collection of sonnets and even in these troubling times I feel that all is good in the world (even though we know it is not). What a great escape from what is surrounding us now!

As were most of us, I was introduced to the sonnet in high school, a time when poetry was as far away from my thoughts as death at any early age. It was much later in graduate school in a seminar on Shakespeare’s sonnets and everything changed. So for me to get a new composed only of sonnets, I was ready to sit back and escape the world—- at least, for a few hours.

I do not know Drew Pisarra aside from knowing that he is my kind of guy. His poetry tells me that he is a lover and a romantic so I was ready to love these poems before I even opened the covers. He uses the form of the Shakespearean sonnet (14 lines, 10 beats to a line, rhyming true to the form: abab, cdcd, efef, gg) to share the story of a love affair and passion. They are celebrations of the body that look at feelings and emotions that run the gamut. I find it amazing just how much there is packed into each group of only fourteen lines and that includes wit, reflection and desire.

“Some things are we sorely wish were never said.

Equally true: What’s read can’t be unread”.

Taken as a whole, the sonnets in “Infinity Standing Up” are a look at a relationship with all that went to make it what it was. Because a relationship is made up of good times and bad times, emotions and feelings, the sonnet is perfect to share the story. As in drama, events occur in sequence and in acts. Pisarra uses that construction to bring his book to us in five acts but there is a surprise here that I will not share except to say that the ending is not finite but in our own minds and based on what we take from what we read. There is a concluding sonnet but it too leave room for interpretation but not for closure.

There are many surprises here and I became anxious to move from poem to poem and as I do opinions change or are reinforced. Here are two guys (I will explain) about whom I really can’t decide how to feel about them.

We begin with a short introduction by the poet in which he asks some twenty questions and this led me to believe that by reading the sonnets, I would find the answers. Do not be surprised that the questions will still be there when you close the book.

“Our now-gone love thing was a false question

Based on mistruths and a cruel evasion”.

Relationships can be tricky and it is so important to understand that a solid relationship is the result of compromises. There is love and there are arguments and misunderstandings. There can be resolutions but not always and sometimes resolve comes after a relationship is ended. Questions are parts of life and are not always answered or even answerable. We need to enter the questions we have and to do so means we have to open ourselves and our lives.

Drew Pisarra’s love affair stands at the center of the sonnets and like we all do, we laugh and we cry about it; we are lyrical and we are sarcastic and lamenting. Pisarra shows us ourselves through him.  The relationship here is between who I am assuming is the poet and a young lover. The poet relates his story in a variety of voices and in layers. Pisarra’s brilliance shows in that he can make anything poetic. He takes us through the different stages love, moving from early infatuation and lust to the sad breakup and the memories that follow.

                                    “Cupid likes to laugh

In the deadpan face of propriety.

Does anyone else find Eros funny?”

The structures of the sonnets are surprising in that Drew Pisarra creates it anew and with imagination. Like love itself, they are often hedonistic and absurd. Above all, we feel the emotion behind the words and each sonnet is relatable— we have all been there. Each of the sonnets is a journey through the love affair and those emotive feelings are there in the words.

What I have not said until now is that Pisarra’s love affair is one-sided and for him this was a battle to be won. We are privy here to his battles and to his joy. We are also privy to a wonderful collection of poems that I possibly could have missed had someone not said something. I do not want others to miss the pleasures I have found it that reawakened my love for the sonnet. Now you too can enjoy Pisarra’s “self- deprecating, playful journey of love, hate and the inevitable understanding that we are all a little crazy.” And yes, I can, indeed, love a book.