Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review: The Pure Lover

The Pure Lover
David Plante

Published by Beacon Press

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

In addition to many novels, David Plante has written compelling memoirs about his upbringing, development as a writer and his relationships with female friends. The Pure Lover is a very different kind of autobiographical piece which traces his longstanding relationship with the poet Nikos Stangos who died in 2004. He speaks directly to his lost lover addressing him as “you” throughout the book while recalling details of Stangos’ life to formulate an unsentimental portrait of the man he lost. Rather than presenting a straightforward narrative, details are presented in flashes with powerful short sections which simulate memories rushing forward. Something about this effect is so captivating and moving that I was enraptured from the beginning to the end of this short stunning book.

Plante’s moving tribute stands as a counterpoint to Andrew Holleran’s elegiac novel Grief which mourns for a generation of gay men, some of whom found their physical passion stymied by a fear of AIDS resulting in prolonged melancholy loneliness. The Pure Lover records a deep forty something year companionship between two men which weathered jealousy, depression, periods of separation through work and illness. The love, deep pleasure and joy in each other which Stangos and Plante shared withstood these trials just as any long term relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, must if it is to continue. However, we have precious few written tributes to lifelong homosexual relationships that were lived openly. This alone makes The Pure Lover a unique testament, but this deeply tender book also evokes feelings which are universal. Plante ponders the inevitable tragic consequence of two people who are so deeply romantically entwined – that ultimately they must be separated by death. And, though Stangos’ mental and physical deterioration put a considerable strain on both of them, the love they shared didn’t diminish. However, Plante stoically observes, “My love for you was not enough – you died.”

Plante exhumes memories of his lost lover by listing the details of his life in poignant lines and meditating on Stangos’ many accomplishments, particularly the striking and philosophically-engaged poetry he produced. (I previously reviewed Stangos’ posthumously published Pure Reason here) Details of Stangos childhood growing up in civil war-torn Greece are recalled chronologically leading up to their meeting. These succinct recollections painted with evocative details such as the family’s passionate communist maid and a visit to a brothel while Stangos was an adolescent expand voluminously to recreate a vanished era with magnificent force. Plante and Stangos’ relationship formed from a chance meeting and, like many encounters, could have easily never have happened. The details Plante divulges about their intimacy build to create a fully formed picture of a passionate, hard-won relationship. Through the supremely pared down style the author uses these specific details are elevated into something grander and more meaningful.

David Plante & Nikos Stangos

Alongside the personal reflections about his lover’s life and their relationship, Plante also speaks universally about what it’s like to lose a loved one. Each section is headed by short statements about the condition of grief and its effects. These are profound statements which are as striking as solemnly performed piano notes, much different from the prolonged deep inquiry into the numerous mechanisms of grief as presented by Joan Didion in her monumental book The Year of Magical Thinking. In Plante’s numerous observations about the condition of grief he states, “Grief demands a grand, timeless expression, and the bereaved tries, tries for that expression, and wonders if the expression is false.” As a testament to love, this book is finer than any other I can recall. The Pure Lover manages to achieve something which every writer strives so fervently to obtain in their prose; it struck me profoundly because it is so true.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: I'll be Back Before You Know it

I'll be Back Before You Know it
by Maria Jastrzebska

Published by Pighog Press

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

In a market awash with books from sub-standard prose writers masquerading as poets, Maria Jastrzebska’s stunning anthology shines out like the Star of Africa. Here is a rare collection not suffocated by propaganda, self-indulgence or plain bad writing – I’ll be Back Before you Know it doesn’t just make the grade, it holds up a challenge to other modern poets.

Before I began reading the book, I admit to dreading the complement described as ‘prose poems’, which, along with ‘experimental poem’, is usually a warning light that a literary abomination is thundering relentlessly in the direction of an unsuspecting reading. Instead, here we find mind-altering gems such as the truly innovative ‘Stripes and Polka Dots’ that will forever change the way you look at these enduring staples of design. This piece, with its anarchic anti-punctuation spacing and slithering rhythms, dances before your eyes and plunges into crevices of the imagination other poets have long since forgotten to explore. The lines of this poem are rather like the eponymous polka dots that “are/ self-contained yet vulnerable scattering what poise they have/ like teeth breaking out onto velvet shiny as sequins tiny/ as seeds drops in snow spotting blood they always bounce”.

I’ll be Back Before you Know it is full of surprises, each snapshot of life perfectly poised, lingering over the scene like a lover. The reader is taken on a journey exploring and celebrating who and what already is, and is about to be, lost, the intended and unexpected absences that kaleidoscope our lives. Memory is the dynamic force that unites and divides. For the narrator of “1”, it is the tape recording of an androgynous voice that carries the vocal ghost of “My mother… rough like the smoke in your throat, a caress of light from a long dead star.” This prose poem’s sequel recounts the “First Anniverary Of My Mother’s death,” the protracted and gory removal of a tooth presenting the dentist as a symbolic midwife to spiritual reincarnation.

Jastrzebska delights in dragging out the full beauty of language, kidnapping words from disparate cultures only to liberate them in a linguistic joie de vivre absent from much modern poetry. ‘Night Afore Monster Ceilidh’ paints a vivid picture of Scotland in vibrant carnivalesque mode, revelling in native dialect to force the poem into the reader’s own throat so we can taste it for ourselves. The “…enormous/ metallic birds and stooped/ in ragged cloaks – poking long/ noses in our armpits till we can’t help/ but laugh” beautifully encapsulates the ‘time warp from reality’ concept of the genre.

Maria Jastrzebska

The echoes of early spirituality in modern organised religion introduce and close the ‘Syngoga Wysoka’ “Two griffins/ in a bare wall/ remain/ after the clutter of churches,” and the sunlight still “falls across a fragment/ of faded Hebrew.” The poem draws heavily on the imagery of art to show how much of what has been perceived to be knowledge of biblical times and theology has historically been extrapolated from later fictitious depictions rather than unadulterated contemporary documents and representations.

‘My Beloved’s Shoes’ is a fascinating dissection of how a shoe collection can not only reveal a great deal about someone’s taste, but also how the assorted manifestations of footwear can become an interactive extension of the owner’s psyche, always awake and ready to liberate their wearer, submissive enough to be neatly contained, and yet disconcertingly active, as “Rows of them, her own small army, its generals at the top” are “Neatly stowed in Perspex boxes.” Yet the “red Choos, green sparkling Ginas, nude manolos for smooching [and] pleated silk Louboutins” have a secret double life: “when night falls they pirouette above us, glisse here, echappe there.”

As Jastrzebska’s collection is about human transience, the later poems inevitably turn to the consideration of the ultimate departure from life. ‘The Holidaying Dead’ is a curious narrative, pointing out that “Eternity needs to be filled.” The poem alternates between the poignant mischief of ghosts who “with a flick of their fingers[,] sprinkle water on the heads of their loved ones and leave”; they also “swap lovers, switch genders, falling helplessly in love.” But “they have, after all, their own journeys to make. To go where they can pick blue plumbago flowers under a waning moon, learn to skim empty ravines like shadows in undulating flight.”

It is easy to see why the Warsaw-born author has been translated into languages that intersect many apparently disparate cultures. Jastrzebska transcends time and space, ethnicity and the politicised religion to speak to our inherent spirituality, the poetry of shared and individual soul that converges in the collective ancestry from which we are all forged.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to complete his first full-length prose work.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: The Work of Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer, my vocabulary did this to me: the Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press

Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan University Press

Reviewed by Richard Canning

Some people are said to create their own good luck. Certainly fifties poet Jack Spicer (1925-65) created his own bad luck; so comprehensively that it is little surprise that his verse should scarcely be known today at all. It was confined even in his lifetime to small-scale publications, themselves limited by the author to distribution in the San Francisco Bay Area alone - excluding, naturally, any bookstores Spicer had taken against. This included the trailblazing hub, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights: ‘Ferlinghetti is a nonsense syllable invented by The Poet’, Spicer deadpanned in the ‘Explanatory Notes’ to a poem by that name.

In their first-rate group biography Poet, Be Like God, Ellingham - who becomes a key player in the ‘San Francisco [formerly Berkeley] Renaissance’ circle about halfway through - and Killian persuasively argue that Spicer’s pre-eminence in poetic performance, creativity and critical judgment in his day, not only marked him as a vital catalyst for others’ work – among them, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn, but above all his peer and gay poetic fellow traveler Robert Duncan, whom Spicer came to describe as a commercial ‘whore’ for seeking to be anthologized. It also stemmed from an especially unclassifiable poetic talent, which simply fell out of currency because it could not be fitted into the dominant collectives or fashions (neither the New York School of Frank O’Hara and followers, nor, for sure, the Beats).

Ginsberg, though almost entirely absent from the San Francisco scene, proved pivotal to the eclipsing of Spicer. His briefish residency in the city in the mid-1950s saw him both pen Howl and, notoriously, give it its first, immediately scandalous and sensational public reading. Spicer, meanwhile, illustrated his knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by being on an unhappy one-year secondment to the East Coast. (He argued that New York was a ‘primitive’ place with ‘no feeling for nonsense’: ‘Wit is as far as they can go… no one screams in the elevator.’)
Still, they were scarcely fellow travelers anyway. Spicer thought his poems were dictated to him, more or less, by Martian forces, or the guile of the poetical dead. Despite the poems’ intimacy and personal honesty, it reassured him, doubtless, to think of their stemming from beyond himself. He excoriated in verse ‘the big lie of the personal.’ Ginsberg’s embrace of prophetic bombast in particular struck Spicer as unbecoming. Yet, as Ellingham and Killian argue, Howl in a stroke both summarized the San Francisco Renaissance’s countercultural or non-materialist tendencies, and betrayed them. For one thing, Spicer’s fundamentally rational temperament could accept neither the chop-logic of the Beats’ Whitman-inspired all-inclusiveness, nor their celebration of drug use, free love and altered states. Spicer’s ‘Some Notes on Whitman for Allen Joyce’ (1955) is effectively a series of reproaches to the deceased poet for all he lacked or missed: ‘Forgive me Walt Whitman, you whose fine mouth has sucked the cock of the heart of the country for fifty years. You did not ever understand cruelty.’ Himself progressively dependent on brandy to ward off depression, Spicer experienced the loss of one friend and lover after the other to drugs, which he saw as the antithesis of poetry. Howl, meanwhile, he dismissed as ‘crap.’

Ellingham and Killian tease out the ingenuity and originality of Spicer’s verse, as well as the complex nature of his circle’s group dynamics and his – for want of a better term – political manoeuvres (there was rarely anything very ‘politically’ expedient about them). Poet, Be Like God is far from hagiographical. Spicer was capable of terrible anti-Semitism for instance. When reproached for casual remarks of this kind in public, he retorted: ‘Don’t feel bad – this isn’t Auschwitz, you know.’ His bile was at least broadly distributed. To Bob Kaufman, Spicer argued: ‘I’ve heard of professional niggers - but you’re the first amateur.’ Against such moments stand acts of conspicuous principle. Unlike many peers, Spicer refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the American constitution at Berkeley (which included personal renunciations of Communism, amongst other things), effectively exiling himself for a while to the University of Minnesota. Both he and Duncan were brave too in the open, non-idealized expression of gay sexual feeling in their poems (‘Homosexuality is essentially being alone.’ [‘Three Marxist Essays’, 1962])

What of the work? my vocabulary did this to me, impeccably presented and furnished with notes detailing textual variants and original sources, collects all volumes published by Spicer in his lifetime plus a good number of early, freestanding poems. These Spicer would disown as ‘one night stands’; he stressed the need for verse collections to speak within and among themselves: ‘Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.’ (A telling comment, this, given his frequent solitude.) It isn’t complete; Gizzi and Killian plan a further, uncollected volume, taking in the remaining, early poetry and some play-scripts.

But as well as the verse, it includes Spicer’s workshop questionnaire for a poetry course he taught at San Francisco State College, ‘Poetry as Magic’, which hints at the revolutionary teacher he was acclaimed to be by many devotees (though Spicer professed to distrust academic teaching entirely, and claimed not to enjoy participating in it): ‘Write a paragraph about how the fall of Rome affected modern poetry… Invent a dream in which you appear as a poet.’

my vocabulary did this to me – the title may or may not constitute Spicer’s ultimate or penultimate words, as he acknowledged the fact that he was dying in hospital - contains plenty to persuade us of Spicer’s significance. Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Cocteau and Hart Crane are early lodestars, though the example of W. H. Auden perhaps looms largest, in some cadences (‘Poetry, almost blind like a camera/ Is alive in sight only for a second’ [‘Imaginary Elegies I’]), themes (‘Psychoanalysis: an Elegy’) and conceits (‘But when he turned to face me with a kiss/I closed my lying heart against his lips’ [‘Orpheus in Athens’]).

The work not renounced by Spicer opens with After Lorca (1957) - a collection of translations, part-translations and pseudo-translations (in fact, original poems by Spicer) of the Granadan author’s writings, then much less familiar to English readers than now. Federico Garcia Lorca himself finds himself surprised to be introducing Spicer from beyond the grave. ‘The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy,’ “Lorca” writes. In a sense, though, Spicer considered all poetry to constitute, in its deployment of language and thus inevitable compromise with literary and lexical traditions and forerunners, ‘an argument between the dead and the living,’ as he would later term it.

Admonitions (1957) features a set of poems dedicated to acquaintances. The intensity and frustration of one blighted love affair – with aspiring painter Russell FitzGerald – is beautifully transposed into a brief, enigmatic lyric:

For Russ

You’d think it would all be
Pretty simple
This tree will never grow. This bush
Has no branches. No
I love you. Yet.
I wonder how our mouths will look in twenty five years
When we saw yet.

Others can feel almost retributive. One, to an ex- who spurned Spicer, ‘For Mac’, begins: ‘A dead starfish on a beach/ He has five branches/ Representing the five senses/ Representing the jokes we did not tell each other…’ and closes: ‘And love/ Is like nothing I can imagine.’

As Poet, Be Like God argues, 1960’s The Heads of the Two Up to the Aether is Spicer’s most substantial volume, though for some the startling contemporary rewrites of the Gawain myth and others in The Holy Grail (1962) may most deserve study: ‘Lancelot fucked Gwenivere only four times. /He fucked Elaine twenty times/ At least. She had a child and died from it.’ (‘The Book of Lancelot’)

The Heads… was inspired by an aspiring poet, James Alexander, who pitched himself to his senior as a Rimbaud to Spicer’s Verlaine. This collection innovates by splitting Spicer’s poetical ‘I’ from himself as author, editor or literary “self”. At the outset, the latter announces, as part of an ongoing set of ‘Explanatory Notes’ to the poems: ‘To begin with, I could have slept with all of the people in the poems. It is not as difficult as the poet makes it.’ Spicer could be very funny. Inspiration for this bifurcation may have come from Rimbaud’s infamous line ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is another’). The effect is tantalizingly self-dramatizing and self-aware. One fine poem, ‘Several Years’ Love’, invokes both Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 (‘Two loves I have of comfort and despair’) and – surely? - Alfred Douglas’s queer apologia ‘Two Loves’ (1892), with its famous summative quotation: ‘I am the love that dares not speak its name’:

Two loves I had. One rang a bell
Connected on both sides with hell

The other’d written me a letter
In which he said I’d written better

They pushed their cocks in many places
And I’m not certain of their faces
Or which I kissed or which I didn’t
Or which of both of them I hadn’t.

Spicer’s notes to this poem mischievously read:

‘The two loves are the pain The Poet had. I do not think a doorbell could be extended from one of them to the other. The letter, naturally (as will become more apparent in the conquest of Algeria or outer space) was written to somebody else.

The cocks want to be sure of themselves.’

The figure of Orpheus, poetic prototype, parades through all Spicer’s work. He is displaced, however, in the second section of The Heads of the Two Up to the Aether – entitled ‘A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud’ – by the teenage French prodigy himself, as caught, perhaps, in that famously haughty photograph:

They said he was nineteen; he had been kissed
So many times his face was frozen closed.
His eyes would watch the lovers walking past
His lips would sing and nothing else would move.

(‘Chapter IV: Rimbaud’)

‘Love’, found in 1962’s A Red Wheelbarrow, once again circumnavigates this essential theme, but from Spicer’s own perspective. Just as he could complain of being ‘trapped inside my own vocabulary’, he here figures love, apparently well-meaning, descending to the helpless and vulnerable, and inflicting further helplessness and vulnerability: as in the myth of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten out nightly by Zeus, in the form of an eagle:

Tender as an eagle it swoops down
Washing all our faces with its rough tongue.
Chained to a rock and in that rock, naked,
All of the faces.

A poem in Golem (1962) concerning the death of an unnamed poet, foreshadowed not only Spicer’s own demise three years on, but, bathetically, the sense of diminishing returns surrounding his poetic oeuvre, its influence, circulation and recognition:

He died from killing himself.
His public mask was broken
He no longer had a public mask.
People retrieved his poems
from wastebaskets. They had
Long hearts.
Oh, what a pain and shame was
his passing.
People returned to their
Business somewhat saddened.

Gizzi, Killian and the tiny Wesleyan University Press are to be thanked for the substantial and vital act of retrieval evidenced in my vocabulary did this to me, a book which could, and should, reshape everyone’s conception of the pinnacles of post-war American poetry for good.

Richard Canning teaches at Sheffield University, where he can be contacted. He most recently edited Between Men 2: Original Fiction by Today’s Best Gay Writers (New York: Alyson, 2009). Canning’s brief life of E.M. Forster (London: Hesperus Press) and edited collection 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (New York: Alyson) are forthcoming later this year. A brief life of Walt Whitman (London: Hesperus Press) follows in 2010.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Review: Blue Sky Adam

Blue Sky Adam
By Anthony McDonald

Published by BIGfib

Reviewed by Liam Tullberg

Blue Sky Adam is Anthony McDonald’s long-awaited follow up to 2004’s poignant coming of age tale, Adam, the story of the sixteen year-old title character.

Set six years later, the opening chapters of Blue Sky Adam see the now 22 year-old protagonist named in the will of Georges Pincemin, an elderly gentleman with whom Adam formed a brief and seemingly inconsequential friendship. Understandably, it’s with surprise that Adam discovers he’s been bequeathed Le Grand Moulin de Pressac and Château L’Orangerie vineyard in Gironde, southern France. The news comes at a pivotal point in Adam’s life having recently completed his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and beginning to question the longevity of the sexual relationships he has with friends, Michael and Sean.

It’s in France that Adam’s journey truly begin as it is here that he met his first and only true love, Sylvain Maury, when he was considerably younger. Given Sylvain’s personal demons, the relationship had been tempestuous at best and impossible at worst, ending with a court order for the two never to be in touch again. When Adam’s last letter to Sylvain went unanswered, he reluctantly gave up the hope that he would ever again meet his lover. Until now.

And perhaps things would run smoothly were it not for the appearance of Stéphane, Adam’s handsome neighbour. Stéphane is welcomingly adept in wine production and his gentle nature and kindness prove irresistible to Adam. In contrast to the troubled Sylvain, Stéphane is portrayed almost as a breath of fresh air. That’s not to say he’s without his own complexities, of course, which make his relationship with Adam all the more engaging.

Each of the central characters in Blue Sky Adam is intricate and plausible. The males are clearly the dominant force – though Stéphane’s sister Françoise is well-drawn and given an intriguing edge – and each faces personal conflicts that echo those of Adam’s: who, and what, does he truly want? Though secondary characters, Michael and Sean each develop substantially throughout the narrative with their tentative experiences in relationships highlighting one of the novel’s themes: that sexuality isn’t as black or white as it is often perceived to be, and that this in itself need not be an issue.

Adam is an empathetic central character with the universal need to love and be loved. What’s interesting about a character his age is his maturity and determination to succeed in a field in which he’s little experience. Taking on the daunting task of wine production, he’s reluctant to let any obstacle he faces thwart his achievements and the same can be said for his want of Sylvain.
Another theme that McDonald investigates is the duality of love and lust. Unlike the many narratives in which X loves Y, X loses Y and X eventually gets Y back, Blue Sky Adam explores the concept of being attracted to and loving more than one person –even more than one gender –but the matter is never sensationalised. There are some particularly touching scenes in which Adam, Sylvain and Stéphane attempt to exist together as one, but ultimately Adam must choose between the two. Though it’s interesting to note that this choice is one he feels he has to make, rather than one which he chooses.

The prose in Blue Sky Adam is apposite and evocative and McDonald creates a world in Adam and his friends truly exist. The southern France he creates is beautiful, not least his descriptions of La Grand Moulin, Chateau L’Orangerie and the rural France in which they stand.
Blue Sky Adam is gay fiction at its best and explores contemporary sexuality through characters who live on after the last page is turned.

Liam Tullberg is a Bristol-based author currently working on his novel, From the Darkness, and can be contacted through