Amidst the strident push for gay marriage, Paul Lisicky’s prose poem “The Little Songs” admirably dares to be about gay male relaxation; his rhetorical effects are more than a little reminiscent of James Schuyler, arguably the most important New York School writer. The deliberately slight poem even evokes the momentary, yet ultimately insignificant doubt that queer men may actually have towards tying the knot. This James Schuyler impacted poem feels genuine, partly because-- not in spite of-- its willingness to explore the banality of gay male life.
From the title alone, "The Little Songs," you see that Lisicky avoids a convention in gay male poetry-- the loud, flashy, even campy title. The sentimental title seems unconcerned with announcing its self-importance; it doesn’t feel the need to overachieve and create something over-determinedly memorable. Strategically flat, the opening sentence reifies the rhetorical effect of that title: “Three notes into the song, and I’m cooked.” The next sentence, though, creates an image James Schuyler would be proud of: “And I know myself as well as I know the inner life of a sunflower stalk.”
The poem's plot is as simple as can be. Paul has pleasant thought about the interconnectedness between him and his partner. It consists of a remembered pastoral setting, "yesterday, in the woods" --another Schuyler trademark-- and traces Paul's internalized thoughts.
Almost immediately after the sunflower line, Lisicky deftly provides another Schuyler moment: “...just like I never knew until now that you sing to keep yourself lifted when the light in you wants to go down, down. Should I tell you that? Oops.” For a poem to not sound kitschy after an "Oops" you know you've got something special.
Later, Lisicky writes: “But I completely get it why any of us might need to say those are your fingers, your shins, and your habits, given the mighty temptation to merge.” This broad claim undoubtedly gives voice to the ephemeral yet very occasional doubt gay men have to the opening up of the institution of marriage. Will it simply cause gay men to lose their distinctiveness, their own self-identities?
Like Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem” the subject here doesn’t pretend that it is of vital interest. This creates a challenge and reward for the writer: How do you create even the slightest tension in a poem that admits that on some level it can be disposed of? The reward is that the poet, such a Lisicky, offers a fairly rare generosity: the poem allows the reader to relax, and enjoy the comic sublime without guilt or demand.
In the sentence, "And how many times a month do we hear; Are you guys related? No, we're from Fire Island, though I never find the sass in my to say so." This provides an intriguing ambiguity: are we to think that the people-- perhaps unknowingly-- conflate the lovers as a result of their own unconscious homophobia (they're blurred together, indistinctive as anything other than homosexuals)? Or is it a way of complimenting them, implying they look complementary, like a perfect couple? Obviously, it must be one of these--in real life, Lisicky and his lover look nothing alike. Whatever possibility it is, or perhaps it is both, Lisicky punctuates the thought with typical unobtrusive humor: "Damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Never self-aggrandizing, polite, yet calm and assured, Lisicky's "The Little Songs" is one of the most generous tributes to Schulyer I've read in some time.
A writing update
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