Category Archives: GLBT poetry

“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.

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me” edited by Fatima Asghar and Safia Elhillo— Celebrating and Protecting Muslim Identities

Asghar, Fatimah and Safia Elhillo (editors). “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me”, Haymarket Books, 2019.

Celebrating and Protecting Muslim Identities

Amos Lassen

Fatimah Asghar’s and Safia Elhillo’s edition of collected poems show that there is no single correct way to be a Muslim. Poems by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Warsan Shire, Tarfia Faizullah, Angel Nafis, Beyza Ozer and many others comprise “Halal If You Hear Me: The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3”, a wonderful collection of poems and essays by Muslims around the world. The contributors talk about everything from pride in their beliefs, to how it feels to deal with prejudice, to what it’s like to be an LGBQT Muslim, and much more. In reading the entries here, I was able to reach a better understanding of what it’s like being Muslim in a world where Muslims are often “vilified.”  We see the range of beliefs held by Muslims and see that are many different beliefs held by Muslims and that believe many different things.
Muslim identities is often seen as at the intersection of blackness and brownness, or claiming space inside/next to Muslim identity for varying gender and sexual identities. This anthology is filled with life and there is a lot to learn here about Muslims and identity.

“Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry” edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme— The Oldest Profession and Poetry

Dawn, Amber and Justin Ducharme (editors). “Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry”, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019.

The Oldest Profession and Poetry

Amos Lassen

This is certainly a book that I never expected to see. More than fifty self-identified sex workers from all walks of the industry (survival and trade, past and present) share their poetry.  The poems come in a variety of forms including lyrics, list poems, found poetry, hybrid works and more and these authors express themselves “with the complexity, agency, and honesty that sex workers are rarely afforded”. The contributors come from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia  and include Gregory Scofield, Tracy Quan, Summer Wright, and Akira the Hustler. I do not think that we often regard sex-workers as poets so there are plenty of surprises here. The themes explore intimacy, transactional sex, identity, healing, and resilience. The contributors are current and former sex workers, from all across the world; they are young and old, people of color, trans, cis, queer, nonbinary, men, women, and more.

The poem are not just about sex work, but also about sexual possibility and self-determination for everyone and  covers enormous ground while yet it is  “united by an unwavering commitment to speaking the truth in all its painful and healing beauty.”

I really love the shared stories in this amazing book. There is a lot of trauma and a lot of love.  The poem are raw, explicit, and unapologetic showing the violence associated with sex work. It also highlights the marginalized— LGBT, people of color and everybody else on the fringe of society.

Amber Dawn and others explain in the introductory pieces, it is imperative that sex workers tells their stories themselves instead of others doing so for them. Their voices are rarely heard.

“Hold Me Tight” by Jason Schneiderman— Risk and Vulnerability

Schneiderman, Jason. “Hold Me Tight”, Red Hen, 2020.

Risk and Vulnerability

Amos Lassen

I have long been a fan of Jason Schneiderman’s poetry and I love every new book of his that comes out, However, I was not prepared for the vulnerability that I found here. That is not a bad thing, far from it. It is a good thing because it meant the poet has descended from above and feels what so many of us feel.

“Hold Me Tight” is composed of five poetic sequences and looks at life in today’s world of technology, violence and anxiety. He explores selfhood and where life is going. The collection opens with “Anger”, a long poem about finding peace and the struggle it takes. Having just recently done some deep research on anger for a class I will be teaching on anger in the Hebrew Bible, I dove right in and realized that this is an extremely personal poem about an issue we all deal with from time-to-time. Using his own life as a basis, we see the universality of anger and no one is exempt from being angry.

“And I realized

That I’ve never

experienced anger

I only know rage.”

This is the conclusion he reaches after Schneiderman asked everyone how anger works and  after trying to find a definition of what anger is. Can we differentiate between anger and rage?

“What it’s like to want

Everyone else to suffer

As much as you

Are suffering,”

This is a question I leave for you to decide after reading “Anger”. Schneidermann looks for a definition for the anger he feels only to discover that it also has another name.

Next we have a series of parables about wolves used metaphorically to look at political conflicts, emotions and relationships that all seemed to have the perpetrator and the victim, “the predators and prey”. “Wolf loves Fox, which wolves don’t do… which makes all the other wolves hate him”. I reread that line over and over thinking how perfectly this applies to loving someone that society sees as unfit for me.

“All the wolves are named Wolf,

which usually works fine, but now that

Wolf loves Fox, they need a name to drive him

from them.

”… “Foxbutreallywolf [sic] says

…“I had to know you would give everything up

for me”. (Thinking to myself, “WOW!”. I have never heard it put that way before).

A group of ten poems about Chris Burden and his movement from the personal, self-inflicted violence of his early work to the larger questions of political violence of his later work.

“The submarines are undeniably beautiful,

suspended from the ceiling in a field…

‘Oh god, look at all that destruction we’ve

unleashed on the world!” But really,

Those are some beautiful submarines”.

We then shift to a group of poems about technology and art that looks at how technologies extend the possibilities of the human body and this alters what it means to be human.

“O newest of new words

Welcome to my mouth!

Are we open to dealing with the new especially when we see the tremendous amount of change in our lives?

“Because we die, because

We can more easily calculate

The number of possibilities

Than actually look at them.”

 In the fifth and final sequence, Schneiderman creates a series of “last things” where finality gives meaning to the people and things in question. That old humanism is here as is the holding, accepting and loving of the changes in the way we live and think.

“The last baby is only the last baby for a year or so”.

 Schneiderman’s project invokes a kind of old fashioned humanism, embracing the ruptures in our contemporary ways of living and thinking.

Risk and vulnerability abound in the entire collection. I was reminded that the line from the Book of Ecclesiastes , “there is nothing new under the sun” is only temporary especially when we realize that the germ for something new comes from the old and what is new is only temporarily so.  There were times that I read that I felt that I was actually conversing with Schneidermann (and maybe one day I will get that opportunity). Everything he says is grounded in the reality in which we live. There are surprises here in that we are surprised to see how we feel in words. It takes a brave man to do that.  

I must admit that I did not arrive at what I say here after a singular reading. I kept returning to the poems hoping that the conversation between the poet and myself was still in progress. We can chat about every line of verse and every completed poem and to me, that is what great literature is. Schneidermann’s poems will stay with me for a very long time and the fact that I am having flashbacks as I write this is proof of that. I love “Hold Me Tight”.