H.A.G.S. #3: All the Rage by sam sax and Nostalgia for Death by Xavier Villaurrutia
I’ve been thinking of that speculative poem by Jeffrey McDaniel called “The Quiet World” in which the government allots each person a limited number of words they can use per day. This week, with the shooting at Pulse, the 49 dead—I have used up nearly all my allotted words. Most of the victims were queer. Most of the victims were latinx. We all know this already, but it should be said again. All of the victims were in the spaces I grew up in, the Florida nightlife I attended like church. I can’t not feel a closeness to this, even if there is a finiteness to my connection to this tragedy. All of my energy has gone into mourning, into text messages and backchannel chats with old Florida friends who are also trying to make sense of what happened in Orlando. Needless to say, when I committed to doing this weekly book talk residency for the summer, I could have never predicted something like this. I’m in a place of despair and anger and sadness and hurt and loneliness, and honestly the last thing I’ve wanted to do these past few days is read books. By the same measure, reading poetry has always provided me a space away from the world, a salve from staring into news streams and the moiré pattern of social media for too long. This week, I’ve found some sanctuary in the words of others. I wholeheartedly recommend the following two books by queer writers for those searching for a moment of repose in all of this sorrow.
All the Rage by sam sax
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016
sam sax is the author of a number of chapbooks, including this new chap fresh out of Sibling Rivalry Press. All the Rage is rhizomatic in its narrative—it is an account of personal histories. We blink through the nodes of sax narrating a family of origin beside families of choice, and the lights that pop off as these personal histories intersect. We move through mothers, fathers, brothers, lovers—even turbulent interactions with police—as the reader’s expectations are altered poem to poem. Recalling the refutation inside W.S. Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” sax counters the ugly interrogation of the law inside “Description for Police”:
what was the suspect’s gender?
something like a brick buried in the walls of a library.
or maybe just the word—brick—buried in books: demolished
tower scattered amidst babel; a building hidden in a building.
what was the suspect’s race?
a beam of light
throws up its hands
+ is skinned alive
One thing I love that sax does well is the transmutations that occur inside these poems, both at the language level and the shifts inside recounts. In “Wanting a Dead Man,” the speaker stumbles upon his roommate watching an old Paul Newman movie on TV and asks, “Would you do Paul Newman?” This is as light-hearted as it is haunting, the speaker reflecting on how everyone—including the cattle—in the Western film, are all deceased now. The poem’s speaker shifts into personal history, recalling his first lover, who has also departed, giving the title of the poem its duplicity. This desire for reclaiming the buried moves into the end of the poem:
give me back my young lover, hard + furious + living
with a curse for god, with a god on his tongue
Another transformation occurs in “Synonyms for Raw” where the plus symbol—being used up until now as a logogram to connect—evolves to become a double for the HIV virus, a repeating icon for positive status:
…the texture of the carrot skinned with the back of a knife [+] spoiled egg dropped + lapped up by the family dog [+] a statue of a winged child beaten into a new shape by rain [+] the inflammation of the throat that follows swallowing [+] honey + cocaine [+] to take a man how you bard a fowl [+] to take a man + make his blood your blood…
sax also utilizes sleight-of-hand in the form of sonic play, sound as rubber being stretched between “polemic” “polytechnic” and “speech impediment” inside the equally titularly playful “National Anathema.” There is a pleasure to how the word “app” becomes “aperture,” or “lecherous” moves from “leper” to “leathered” to “leopard,” or the assonance between “canned pears” and “marinara.”
The grace that comes with play—the agility—should not be mistaken for lightness—there are rubbed-raw worlds inside these poems. These poems are not clean, airy boxed houses, but deserts, butchered meat, grain alcohol, dirt under the fingernails. The doubleness of these poems also lives in the title: all the rage, both a tongue-in-cheek campy phrase, but also a symbol of all the frenzy, all the madness, all the hot-blooded sex, all the violence, the passion, the mania that lives inside these personal histories.
Nostalgia for Death by Xavier Villaurrutia (Translated by Eliot Weinberger)
Copper Canyon Press, 1993
Xavier Villaurrutia, born 1903 in Mexico City, where he would also die in 1950, wrote, essentially, one book in his lifetime. I was recommended Nostalgia for Death after reading Wieners’ poetry for the first time recently. There are some congruencies. Both were men who lived in the 20th century who were candid about their queer desires inside their poetry in a time when most of their peers were closeted. The emphasis should be placed on that word—desire—as Villaurrutia was similarly a poet of desire, was also someone who ritualized and created a beauty and loneliness out of the night. Although I’d say Wieners asks the reader to spend the night, while Villaurrutia asks the reader for full submergence—as his opus are compositions of nocturnes—he asks us to enter an imaginative world where there is nothing that is not night.
The way Villaurrutia kneads abstract imagery inside his nocturnes allows for the reader to meet him somewhere in the middle—to place oneself in the poem. When the translator, Eliot Weinberger, began translating these poems into English in the early nineties, he found the poetry speaking to the NEA censorship of that era: recalling the transgressiveness of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” or Mapplethorpe’s gay S&M photos—both artists condemned by Jesse Helms. For me, reading verse like this in our current moment, it’s hard not to connect it to the tragedy in Orlando:
Todo lo que la noche
dibuja con su mano
el placer que revela,
el vicio que desnuda.
Everything the night sketches
with its shadowy hand:
the pleasures it reveals,
the vices it undresses.
It’s impossible for me not to think of the 49 dead and think of the pleasures the shadows of the night offered up—the safety given to these primarily queer latinx in spaces like Pulse. The way Villaurrutia constructs his nocturnes is a musicality—it has a rhythm. Silences, echoes, sleep, secrets, shadows, dreams, mirrors, blood, statues, lips, voices, loneliness—these all pulse through the nocturnes in their lush beats. Villaurrutia writes of sailors meeting secretly in the darkness: “the six letters of DESIRE would form an enormous luminous scar, a constellation more ancient, more dazzling than any other.” When they go to bed at night, “…they close their eyes to surrender to the pleasures/of their mysterious incarnation,/and when they sleep, they dream not of angels but of men.”
I’ll leave this week’s HAGS with a poorly scanned image of one of my favorite poems from the book, “Nocturno Eterno”:
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- H.A.G.S. #3: All the Rage by sam sax and Nostalgia for Death by Xavier Villaurrutia - June 15, 2016