LIT “Everywhere the gay narrative in this country is about freedom, but the reality doesn’t match up. I’m interested in exploring the corners that aren’t free — from bullied queer children killing themselves to the elaborate social prisons we concoct for ourselves online,” Randall Mann told me. “The landscape is definitely changing, but I’m not convinced that the most exciting, most pressing thing is to slap a smiley face over everything and post about ‘look how awesome my life is.’ I think it diminishes the present and the past.”
That may seem like a cynical take on the spurty arc of gay liberation. And a quick glance at Mann’s latest book Straight Razor (Persea Books), prickling with darkness, insecurity, suicide, longing, and Smear the Queer, probably bears that observation out. But the thrilling poems in Mann’s third volume are tenderly, uncannily, often hilariously on point when it comes to how we live our gay life now: the blundered hookups, halfhearted experiments, weird ghosts of old behaviors, buried childhoods, shady exchanges, unbelievable luck, the precarious balance of living at once in the glaring political spotlight and the throbbing shadows of history.
Or, as Mann exclaims with either surprise or sarcasm (or both) in “Teaser”:
Look at us — we’re smarter
Than our hair!
Mann and I met in the Castro near his house, at a posh wine bar in that increasingly upscale, mainstream neighborhood — a scrubbing that sometimes renders Mann’s gritty lines (As I skipped out this morning,/ skipping down Castro Street,/ the queens upon the asphalt/ were racks of hanging meat) into totems of nostalgia, no matter how recent they were written. But his electric language is so of the moment it carries the past into a timeless, shared present, as in one of my favorite poems from the collection, eerie AIDS-survivor ode “The Afterparty”:
I hover over the caviar, between
two spray-on queens, their asides –
eye cream, Pac Heights, microderm –
winningly vulgar. And when someone turns
the beat around, pure disco,
we’re dated, we’re done for…
“Our walls are crumbling, but that also means we’re losing our queer space,” said the soft-spoken but impassioned Mann, who spent his childhood in Florida before moving here in the late 1990s. “Gay people are shifting from a very defined identity to an unknown, and we’re performing this shift very much on a public stage. I’m fascinated by the way we construct and perform our identities — but at the same time we’re always undercutting ourselves. That moment or mode of undercutting, of self-effacement, is the poetic moment I always find myself seeking out.”
The pivotal moment of undercutting, when the straight razor is lifted, provides much of the humor in the book, as in the wonderful “Blind Date at the Blue Plate,” in which Mann, in “Striped shirt, skinny jeans, new-old Chucks/ I am sporting the usual bankruptcies” awaits a possible mate by reliving his entire sexual past — who doesn’t? — finally wishing he could redo it all, “much richer, cleaner,/ yet still dark, dark, dark./ A Michael Haneke shot-by-shot remake of my life.” One guesses the date won’t top that.
Mann’s poems are direct and structural — he was enthralled by formal-leaning Modernist icons Bishop, Moore, Auden, Lowell, and Stevens in college, rather than the shaggy Beats or the hyper-experimental Language Poets most young poets his age were obsessing over. His biggest influence is the great gay poet Thom Gunn, who died in the Haight 10 years ago next month. Gunn cheekily set strict forms and an Elizabethan wit against often-raunchy contemporary subject matter. (His Man With Night Sweats is an AIDS-era monument.)
Mann’s not after that kind of irony; for him, “Structure is something erotic to me, it leads me places that free verse doesn’t, it gives me a definition that I can surmount, a path to take and sometimes step off from.” His loose forms and half-rhymes become a metaphor for a community that’s redefining itself against its past even as it clings to its history. One shiver-inducing poem, the horror-porn-meets-Judy-Garland riff “Fantasy Suite,” is literally an invert — the first half of the poem is repeated in the second half in reverse order.
“Structure also gives me a sort of permission to speak about the unspeakable,” Mann told me, in context of the Straight Razor poem that’s getting the most attention, “September Elegies.” That poem, heartbreaking yet hardly mawkish, is dedicated to Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi, four young people who killed themselves after being bullied about their sexuality.
“I had to be very careful with that one, but I couldn’t be silent. I didn’t want to capitalize on or cheapen their deaths with useless sentiment, but I was driven to honor them in some way. I found that the repetition of their ages — 13, 15, 18 — and their final social media messages (“jumping off the gw bridge sorry”), those secondhand details, it became a kind of incantation, of bringing them back into our world,” Mann said.
“The words turn and turn on themselves,” Mann says in that poem — just like we turn on ourselves and each other, and the world still turns on us.
I’m a little punchy after all the lines
and torture-lite. And since this isn’t glitter underneath
my nails, pass me an emery board and the strip brush –
I’ll meet you out front, by the STD truck.
We’ll get Ray-Banned, and torch
a Castro twink, or three. And kee kee.
Enough with the ritual attachments. I prefer the steel
implication, the gash in the erstwhile
model’s face, the snip of the top chef’s tongue.
Your assignment is to lurk, but not
like that shower goblin at the gym. No. Like a cemetery
wildflower at Badlands. Like monogamy.
No use now for embarrassment,
The administration will exempt each one of us
with a bathwater apology, an errata list…
“Errata” by Randall Mann, from Straight Razor, copyright © 2013 by Randall Mann. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, New York.