“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.

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