Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: Sybil Unrest by Larissa Lai and Rita Wong

Sybil Unrest
Larissa Lai
and Rita Wong

Published by Linebooks

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Sybil Unrest begins with “shrinkwrapped pushy / condemns on sale” and ends with a red dress that is redress for all the unnatural crimes of late capital, a flaunting of the “unnatural crimes” of “embodied love goddesses” engaged in “cell culture’s defiant drag.” Like Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, this is a book that says not just we’re here, we’re queer, but we’re everywhere. Queerness is not just culture but “miracle sapodilla, durian, lotus leaf, rambutan.” Fruits.

Such “miracle” fertility stands in sharp contrast to the “sadomarketism” that has capitalised gay culture and sold feminism back to young women as pole-dancing. It’s also the premise for this poem in the key of “we”: verbal fecundity cancels out the leaching of meaning that has poisoned poetics under Bush and the stuttering, sputtering neocons. It’s hard to play language games as postmodern as Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns.” But Larissa Lai and Rita Wong, friends, colleagues and collaborators, find in adulterated adspeak a ticker-tape, twitterpoetry that – because it’s more than 140 characters long – makes meaning out of the meaningless.

Its fragments are sibylline, harking back to the first cyberpunk novelist, Mary Shelley, whose (less famous) novel The Last Man ushered in utopian science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios. In that book, she imagines Byron as prime minister in an 18th century England overflown by airships and facing a terrible plague that wipes out everyone on earth but the one man who writes the fragmentary papers found by a traveller many millennia later by the Sibyl’s cave at Cumae (or the Sibyl’s prophecies voicing his story; Shelley plays games with time and gender that equal Kathy Acker). Contravening the cultural logic of the time in which disease came from the East comes from the American colonies; consumer culture, which leaves nothing in its wake but the ruins of Rome.

Sybil Unrest argues that consumerism doesn’t necessarily kill us. It doesn’t have to. It fragments us and puts us back together wrong, galvanised with electrical goods like Shelley’s monster. “the part never completes the hole / under investigation,” Lai and Wong tell us, undoing the logic of cause-and-effect exemplified by the obsession with detective shows where the discovery of a body part attests to women’s continued status as “the hole / under investigation” in Western culture. Several poems also bear witness to the globalisation of that culture in Hong Kong. The language of empire (which is also the language of commerce) erases “intimate vernaculars.”

And what then for poetry? At times, Sybil Unrest reads like a fit of glossolalia, a testifying against the state (of things) that “want[s] the labour without the body.” It asks how sex and love might be possible in a landscape where “fifteen famous porn stars stimulate / the economy” as “corporate cops regulate muscular flows.” Sex is more public than ever – Clinton’s “falacious [sic] fellatio” was nightly news – and therefore more imbricated in the money machine, “a nipple caught in the gears of longing.” Is there an erotic to be found wrapped up in all this cash? One fragment silkily evokes the “spiked mystery” of sm play, another argues that “the posture of packing / cracked patriarchy.”

This salute to the exciting “hailed wonder of being several” parallels the multivocal, polysemic perversity of the text, with its endless hall of echoes and registers and misrepetitions, with queer sexuality. This, in turn, is used to undo the machine as in Lai’s brilliant novel salt fish girl, where a what the Sybils call “a synthetic sister,” a queer cyborg and her clones become saboteurs in the sneaker factory, taking a reincarnated Chinese goddess along for the ride. In that novel, too, durian – that unlovely aphrodisiac fruit – plays a key role, as the carrier that impregnates the protagonist’s mother with the goddess Nu Wa. Lai and Wong fructify cyborg feminism, entwining it with the natural world.

Because, they show, the natural world is already caught in the cogs, almost to its destruction. Whether it’s the sybil reverse hacking spam to reclaim the “fire” in firewall, or the proliferating puns raging in “the bellicose lair of the bush,” they want it back. This punning is a riposte to Anne Carson’s question about Paul Celan’s work in Economy of the Unlost: what do we waste when we waste words? It’s a highly charged question in our contradictory moment of gross capitalist resource-stripping vs. a will to respect and renew a humility about the human niche in the ecology. Puns are words double-mortgaged in one reading; in another, they accrue additional value to themselves. Words, like genes, have become something that can be owned; everyone knows who ‘swoosh’ belongs to. They are traded on an exchange, but puns subvert their fixed value.

Not least, the book challenges the meaning of the word “corporate,” corrupted by capitalism to stand for a faceless entity that dehumanises, disempowers and demeans. For the Sybils of B.C., “uninvited guests on the unceded traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil Waututh peoples,” to be corporate is to be collaborative, collective, consensual, and corporeal. It’s to take the “vengeance / of the dispossessed / flash angry breasts … venous on the half shell,” and to recognise that “goddesses sign in triplicate / ‘the pleasures of being multiple.’ ” And in that pleasure is a queer lyric voice that enmeshes erotic and romantic love, (as well) as the love that spurs activism, without compromise:

“i” resurrect “oui”
because the heart
won’t stop
how plenitude
could shatter habit

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: The Torturer’s Wife by Thomas Glave

The Torturer’s Wife
Thomas Glave

Published by City Lights Publishing

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

The Torturer’s Wife brings together a collection of stories from acclaimed writer Thomas Glave. It seems fitting the book is dedicated to Nadine Gordimer who is also a fan of Glave’s work. Like much of Gordimer’s writing, Glave’s stories focus on characters who haven’t been allowed a voice or whose ability to speak has been silenced through death and the machinations of government and/or society. Though the subject matter is heavy, the author’s beautiful use of language gives meaning and substance to what are sometimes horrific events. More importantly, Glave bears witness to incidents often ignored just as he did in his collection of essays Words to Our Now. However, in this book a poetic voice is given to these characters so that their stories are transmuted into a mythic structure, giving resonance to their struggles which speaks beyond the limits of their time and location.

The title story focuses on a privileged wife who has discovered that her husband is involved with the torture and death of political prisoners. In the 1970s the Argentinian right-wing military cracked down on dissidents; thousands were tortured, drugged and flown out to be dumped into the ocean. In Glave’s story the voices of these victims rise out of the ocean to assail this woman’s ears and their body parts fall from the sky to litter her home and garden. More than the survivors of the violent political conflicts portrayed in heart-rending flashing glimpses, these stories are populated with the dead who have been swept aside, their tongues cut out and corpses annihilated. Glave manages to not only give a voice to these casualties of history, but a face and a body so that their physical bulk cannot be denied or ignored.

While many of the stories refer to specific struggles in time of war, others such as “Between” and “South Beach , 1992” speak about interpersonal conflicts between lovers, and specifically troubles which occur within gay relationships. The barriers of racial and class difference are explored just as sensual discoveries are made. Fear and disgust are revealed when it’s discovered a partner is HIV+. These intensely-felt intimate moments between men reveal darker truths about their feelings and often-ignored divisions within the gay community.

Glave’s narratives seamlessly interweave components of speech with descriptions of place and the internal thoughts of the characters. His olfactory-driven prose give an immediacy to the time, location and physicality of his characters, making his stories come vibrantly alive. Many of these stories explore what it means when the terms in which a person defines herself or himself are shattered, leaving them grasping for language with which to articulate who they are. Identity is divided in order for the individual to cope with the extremity of emotion and maintain aspects of themselves they don’t want to lose. Glave employs radically diverse styles and structures to describe this process making his writing some of the most exciting and spirited I’ve read for a long time.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthology From Boys to Men.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film Review: Milk

Directed by Gus Van Sant
With Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Only a year separates Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978 from Barack Obama’s arrival in California, as a freshman at Occidental College. Only three days separates the launch of the film based on Milk’s life from the inauguration of a president whose community organising skills, personal charisma, and status as “the first x to be y” echo, curiously, with the experience of “the mayor of Castro Street.” For me, the film is inextricably bound up with being in San Francisco this past autumn, with seeing the crowds whoop and cheer on Election Night, and with seeing the posters for the film at the Castro cinema whose lights appear in so many shots. Working in the San Fran headquarters of the Obama campaign, I met several volunteers who had also been extras in the film. The buzz for the election and for the film integrated and intertwined, given urgency by the campaign to vote down Proposition 8.

This film could only have happened now: not only because Obama, a politician committed to Milk’s grassroots organisation and his alliance-building in the corridors of power, won on 4 November, 2008, but because the advocates of Proposition 8 also won. As B. Ruby Rich writes in “Ghosts of a vanished world”:

In that moment, Milk was edited by history: it's no longer the same film that premiered in October. It has gathered a new layer of sadness, a renewed sense of loss and betrayal, and a fervid new audience. In San Francisco, weekday shows at 10am have been selling out and, at the Castro, lines stretch down the block and around. People need to see this film.

Not just queer people: “all the uses” as Milk describes the movement he has built, all those who have been excluded and unrepresented. And all those who could recognize themselves in us; the film is not without its sympathy for Dan White, the working-class Irish Catholic city supervisor who shot Milk and Mayor Moscone shortly after resigning his position. Like Obama in his “race” speech in March 2008, Milk reaches out to White, hearing his confusion and sense of deprivation as the city neglects his working-class neighbourhood and its own Irish history. He extends an open hand and is met by a clenched fist, clenched dramatically around a gun in the final encounter.

That loss is literally dread-ful. Even though most viewers will go into the film knowing Milk and Moscone were assassinated – and those that don’t know will find out from news footage in the first minutes – the film creates a slow build that retains suspense as well as sorrow. The Hitchcock fetishist he is, Gus van Sant knows noir as the genre that wreathed San Fran in smoke, and inspired a thousand queer dreams of fedoras and silk stockings. Redolent of its late 70s setting, the film echoes not only Double Indemnity (the film opens with Milk dictating his story into a tape recorder) but also Chinatown, in a superbly fraught showdown on waste ground between Milk and homophobic senator John Briggs.

And there’s a terrifying sequence that will be familiar to anyone who has put their head above the parapet and then walked through hostile territory, as Milk walks down the Castro late at night shortly after receiving a death threat. We all know the story, but the potential horror of this moment is palpable in the nervy tracking shot, velvety with light in Harris Savides’ neo-noir homage. This is, after all, a film from Gus van Sant, who gave us To Die For, Psycho ’98 and elephant, all studies of psychotic killers whose sexuality and homicidal instincts were in some way entwined. Showing Tom Kalin how it’s done, van Sant doesn’t just ‘queer’ noir, but creates a New Queer Noir, by working to disentangle homosexuality and homicidality, not by undoing the queerness of Norman Bates but by revealing repression as the source of psychosis.

Milk even speculates that White is a deeply closeted queer, recognising something of his pre-San Francisco existence in White’s shuttered gaze. Josh Brolin plays White as a dead-eyed matinee idol, finally slumped on the sofa in his pants like the killers in elephant, his all-American looks soured by his solitude. Brolin of course recently played another fratboy looker gone to seed in willed isolation, George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s biopic. Stone was initially involved in a film about Milk in the early 90s, and this unlikely coincidence – Bush assassinating Milk – gives me pause (as does the original casting of Robin Williams, differently so).

van Sant, the quirkiest and most commercial auteur of the New Queer Cinema always felt that the film was his to make, and he was right. For all its big-budget, Oscar-nominated film-flam, this is a van Sant movie. His signature appears in the group of denim-clad young men who gather in Milk’s Castro Camera store, like politicised incarnations of the troupes of angelheaded hipsters in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. When that group of youngsters morphs into serious campaigners, there’s a 360º circling shot that’s identical to the slow circle around the Gay/Straight Alliance in elephant.

That’s an alliance that is barely sketched in this film, however, and viewers hoping for a Rainbow Nation representation will be frustrated. Milk’s circle were almost exclusively white men, with the exception of Michael Wong (Kelvin Yu). When Anne Kronenberg (the luminous Alison Pill) joins the team after Milk’s just lost his third campaign, van Sant sets out his stall: “Are you guys scared of women?” is her first question. Short answer: yes. And though Milk builds bridges with the Teamsters, with seniors, and with African-Americans in his speeches and meetings, all the main characters are male, and overwhelmingly young and white. And pretty – Lucas Grabeel is a star in the making, and James Franco is unrecognisably good as Scott Smith, Milk’s first longterm boyfriend and his pre-Kronenberg campaign manager.

That intertwining of politics and passion is hardly incidental to the film. Every campaigning scene is followed by one of kissing or cooking (or christening, in White’s case). The complex ways in which our personal lives inform our politics, whether our radicalisation or our conservatism, drive the narrative – although the film makes the point that the personal became political not by choice, but because the state always-already legislates the personal. While in Canada the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau commented that “the government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” the US government peered and pried and punished both domestic and public activities.

What the film avoids making from that entwining is the claim that (trailer voice here): “In a world divided by hate, one man sought to be free to love.” Milk constantly reminds his supporters – and viewers – that the civil rights movement is bigger than any individual figurehead, that his policies may have come from personal experience, but were also embedded in social observation and community needs, from housing to dog shit-free streets. As Milk steps from soapbox to City Hall, his ideas about coalition-building and community needs get wider, more inclusive, not smaller.

That transition to power is one of the most fascinating elements of the film, not least for the slow build of Penn’s performance as he moves from salaryman to hippy to business man to political operator, retaining his openness but maturing almost indefinably. The career path could be said to mirror van Sant’s own, from Super-8 superindie filmmaker to player in the Hollywood corridors of power, and the film analogically suggests that he has proceeded – like Milk – by building a team of collaborators who he carried with him. Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, Jim Rivaldo and Danny Nicoletta, Milk’s strategists and speechwriters, all went on to become political forces in San Francisco, and the film documents the process by which community organisations draw on the strengths of each member.

Milk’s discovery of Cleve, played stratospherically by Emile Hirsch, is a case in point, from the caustic conversation when Cleve turns down involvement in Milk’s campaign in favour of tricking on Haight to his brilliantly shuddery account of seeing a march by transvestites in Barcelona in memory of gay people murdered by Franco. His comment of one of the drag queens, that “a rubber bullet tore through her scalp, but she kept marching,” has stayed with me as one of the film’s most vivid images, even though it’s only offered in words.

It’s more than that, of course, it’s a presentiment of what’s to come. As the strains of Puccini signal, it’s a film that’s built on an operatic scale, unafraid of broad emotions and sweeping statements (although it would have been immeasurably better if Puccini were the only music on the score; Danny Elfmann’s compositions are unbearable). On his last night, he sees a performance of Tosca; the camera dwells on Tosca’s suicidal leap, which recalls the suicide of Milk’s lover Jack Lira (a very odd performance from Diego Luna in a thankless role) but reverberates in the moment that Milk is shot, as a rack pulls the Tosca banners on the opera house opposite City Hall into focus. van Sant suggests that Milk conceived of himself as a martyr to some extent, a necessary martyr to shock people into awareness.

But, in one of those contradictions on which great narratives are built, Milk is not a martyr, but a murder victim. He doesn’t leave Tosca and throw himself at White. He goes home and – in a scene that cross-cuts contrastingly with White alone on the sofa (no junk food visible, despite the infamous “Twinkie defence”) – calls Scott and watches dawn with him. Watching the film, I thought the contrast was overdone, an over-simplification and an unnecessarily broad stroke. We didn’t need to see Milk apologising to the lover who left him because he was so focused on his political ambitions that the relationship had disintegrated. We didn’t need to have the operatic reversals of the narrative made clearer: Prop 6 passes, Lira kills himself; Milk reconnects to Scott, he gets shot. And the contrast between the supposed family man White and the stereotype of the lonely gay Milk…

That’s why, hours after I’d left the cinema, I found myself gasping with tears in memory of those dawn shots. Because bound up in the project of dequeering the killer, and in the project of glamorising community organisation, and in the project of celebrating a very real moment of euphoria in the face of fear and in the shadow of AIDS, is the film’s rejection of loneliness. That’s why any trailer that positions Milk as “one man” is a lie. Milk becomes who he does through relationships, beginning with individuals that he charms and coaxes, and stretching to crowds of hundreds of thousands. His charisma and sense of purpose are undoubtedly unique in their moment, making him a striking biopic subject as well as a good leader, but they are not accompanied by the arrogance of the “rugged individualist” on whom the American Myth has been built. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect letter to the new President.

Read the Guardian interview with Gus van Sant here.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels through Syria

Cleopatra's Wedding Present
Robert Tewdwr Moss

Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd

Reviewed by Michael Gellings

In Cleopatra's Wedding Present, journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss charts his travel through, among others, the rival cities of Aleppo and Damascus in Syria. There is a bit of sightseeing every couple of pages, but mainly adventurers, big and small, with people he meets along the way. His adventures are those of a European, who is admired by some and despised by others of the local population for being the exotic one in their midst. Of course, there are the usual travelers' tales of struggling with language, customs, and bureaucracy in a foreign country. But what makes this book stand out from the mass of travelogues is the author's talent for getting to know strangers without being blinded by prejudices and preconceptions. Dangerous sexual adventures in a police state can be inferred from Tewdwr Moss's account, and his romantic affair with a broken former terrorist shows that there simply are no rules for attraction.

Although Tewdwr (pronounce: Tudor) Moss traveled in Syria less than 15 years ago, his account is testimony to a bygone world. For instance, the author didn’t once check his emails in an internet cafe, as present-day travelers would. Instead he and his friends stayed in contact by handwritten letters.

Tewdwr Moss's book is a vivid and memorable account of an area that previously had been a blank spot on my mental map of the world. Syria is a country rich in history, more than 3000 years of it. Crusaders, Mongols, Arabs – the invaders came from every direction. The title of the book has been taken from the fact that Syria was once part of Marc Anthony's wedding present to Cleopatra. Today, the population is still only a pawn in the power games of the mighty. More than once, Tewdwr Moss's curious questions are met by prudent silence. The Mukhabarat secret police has its spies everywhere.

Cleopatra's Wedding Present had been out of print for nearly a decade. It is a shame that the new British edition does not include Lucretia Stewart's excellent introduction from the American edition. Stewart charts Tewdwr Moss's career as a rising star on the London literary scene. Unfortunately, his first book was also to be his last. The night after completing the book, he was murdered, the final revisions of his book lost on the stolen laptop. But even so the text shows Tewdwr Moss's talent for making sense out of myriad impressions in a foreign country. Maybe owing to the not-quite-finished state of the manuscript, the beginning is somewhat abrupt but otherwise it's a fine piece of writing that fully deserved the press hype surroundig its first publication a decade ago.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Rid England of this Plague by Rex Batten

Rid England of this Plague
Rex Batten

Published by Paradise Press

Reviewed by John Dixon

‘Rid England of this Plague’ declared the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, and Mr Justice Goodfellow, among other legal worthies, set about the task, taking it into the remotest corners of the land, right down to the Dorset village of Lower Budleigh.

That was the early 1950’s, but as Rex Batten reminds us in his enjoyable and salutary novel ‘The past is only just over your shoulder.’

The plot is briefly told. On the outskirts of a small village Ashley Ashley-Jones holds discreet court. Tom, the novel’s hero, meets up and for a time lives with him, but later pairs off and moves to London with another house guest, Michael. They lose contact with Ashley-Jones, who a few years later is arrested for gross indecency. Tom’s address is found by the detectives; he and Michael are ‘visited’ in London, questioned separately, and kept in a state of inanimate suspension, the doubt and uncertainty affecting their careers and relationship.

Batten doesn’t relate the story chronologically. He starts with the dramatic appearance in the Dorset village of two police cars, and goes back and forth in time and place, comparing and contrasting different attitudes and practices in town and country, both before, during and after this Plague Purge. What he reveals is that for the most part a live-and-let-live attitude existed. Things went on unspoken in the country, a great deal went on during the war. The Purge, in fact, appears as a futile attempt to restore a ‘Manliness’ that certainly never existed during war-time. The people who knew Tom and Michael well – relatives, neighbours, landlady – had few concerns. And only when the Purge started did transient, peripheral characters – train passengers, etc – begin to make disparaging comments. Tom and Michael’s relationship did not falter because of the people around them, but because of an atmosphere of intimidation, the fear of being accused, on the most tenuous of evidence, of having done something pretty innocuous, years ago, and at the other end of the country.

Batten, as a former actor, has a good eye for the borderline between farce and melodrama. Several choice vignettes and anecdotes show that what now seems as teetering on the brink was once held as gospel. He also evokes the period extremely well. He doesn’t flinch from an aside, a comparison, nor a set piece on such venues as the White Bear and the Salisbury. He includes little-known facts; for example, that in the Yank army camps, the whites lived in huts, but the blacks had to make do with tents. There are also handy tips, such as the army cure for crabs was boot polish.

Despite all the stress undergone a positive outlook is maintained throughout. Not for Batten the stale old attitude that it was better in the Old Days, when it was discreet, exclusive, cliquey, with furtiveness making it more exciting. Yet Batten now fears the younger generation are unaware both of previous persecution and of the struggle to get to the present level of acceptance. He emphasises that freedom isn’t just won and automatically kept; it is often ‘granted’ on sufferance, with many opponents ready to exploit loopholes in the law.

The novel was published in 2006. It is an essential plank in the growing study of a particularly nasty era in gay history. It pre-dates the launch of the Proud Heritage Online Museum, and other works on the same theme such as Nicholas de Jongh’s play ‘Plague over England’ and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ‘The Pride.’

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.