Gay poet Jeff Oaks' unrhymed sonnet "Little What" combines the deranged syntactical variations in Karen Volkman's early prose poems and the eerie, terse imagery of Henri Cole's work. In a great, brand new issue of Bloom, a magazine focusing on queer writers, Oaks' work stands out, eclipsing a number of his more established contemporaries. I've never heard of Oaks before, but I have no doubt I'll see more, hopefully in a full-length book. His poem is one of the best I've seen this year.
Here's the opening, the octave:
In the darkness. What a sonnet. When muscle
grunts, gives, accepts, resists, suck on breath,
even aches. But is not broken. What is going up.
Not a wrong way. What is going in. What is darkness
but unseen. Where are those nerves? There. What
a sonnet. Like a bed with a penis. Growing harder.
Like a hallway after grief. A curse and a whisper,
an awe, out of which the wolf arose. On your lap.
So often I've heard people have a knee-jerk response to poems that call attention to their own making, as if such conceits don't have a history in and of themselves. It's the same sort of feeling I get when someone describes Billy Collins as a bad poet. Their so-called criticism stems from a fear of actually thinking through other aspect of their ideas. The title of the sonnet can be read in a number of fun ways: is the speaker shocked that his trick would even insinuate that his endowment is "little"? Or is the endowment so little, that it feels like nothing, is nothing, is a what.
This ambiguity moves throughout the poem: Why exactly is the speaker's mind drifting (racing?) to the making of a poem during the sexual act? Is he bored? Is it a result of the sublime moment, an eagerness to contain the pleasure? In the fifth line, this masterful, deliberate ambiguity spotlights itself through the line break: "....Where are those nerves? There. What/a sonnet. Like a bed with a penis." I have rarely seen a gay poem that deals with the comedic awkwardness of sex with such odd grace.
The poem takes a darker turn in the sestet, conjuring up Cole's poetry in a number of ways, such as the evocation of the wolf, (and even later his flower imagery), as well the thematic of desperate sexual activity and the ecstasy in such dumb need. I've always thought of Cole as one of our best poets, gay and otherwise. His poems contain an honorable sadness; honorable is the key word. It would be wrong even if tempting to describe them as lacking self-pity or being about self-pity--they're more complex than that.
Perhaps Oaks' poem is most reminiscent of Cole's poem "Homosexuality". I'll quote that sonnet in its entirety:
First I saw the round bill, like a bud;
then the sooty crested head, with avernal eyes
flickering, distressed, then the peculiar
long neck wrapping and unwrapping itself,
like pity or love, when I removed the stovepipe
cover of the bedroom chimney to free
what was there and a duck crashed into the room
(I am here in this fallen state), hitting her face,
bending her throat back (my love, my inborn
turbid wanting, at large, all night), backing away,
gnawing at her own wing linings (the poison of my life,
the beast, the wolf), leaping out the window,
which I held open (now clear, same, serene),
before climbing naked into bed with you.
I think it's a near perfect sonnet. How many other poems have used the parenthetical expression to greater effect? I could see a gay critic using the word internalized homophobia to describe Cole's ambivalence towards sex and love in the poem. But I think that would undermine the self-awareness of the narrator, his own employment of the self-created melodrama "(I am here in this fallen state.)" not for its own sake, but as a vehicle to intensify the inquiry of what and how we use sex. What is also remarkable is that final couplet: love does triumph without anything less than equanimity: the conjoining of the I and the you, the last word in the poem. Sentimentality isn't a bad thing; sometimes it's what is necessary.
Oaks' sestet possesses a similar trajectory though instead of using the duck, he uses the construction of the sonnet itself:
Clicking behind, on the finally down the dark purple
each man sits on quietly, secretly. A hyacinth. That
strange boy dead, transformed into petals. My
God. What a sonnet, what a little song of nails.
Slap it. Wolf it down. Slip it in, sing on. The mouth
shivers and opens to be a moan, that moon.
Whether or not you might think that this poem invokes baldfaced tactics that obviously reveals a less mature poet: the obvious play on the word wolf, for instance--you've got to be envious of Oaks' description of the sonnet as a "little song of nails." In fact, when comparing the two poems, you could make the claim that the Oaks' less subtle and subsequently less dramatic comparison is ultimately what makes it a deft companion piece to Cole's poem.
(And it can't go without saying that when asked, What do you prefer ultimately a bed with a penis or a duck?," always choose the duck.) This is less a criticism than a statement of fact that these two poets are at different points in their career. For some reason, the speaker in Oaks' poem feels younger. In the gay community, where youth is often prized above all else, it is commendable that Oaks' narrator poem talks to Cole's. Not to also mention that in youth, you're still reaching for that "moon," but as you grow older, the earth-bound act of lying in bed with your lover is equally stimulating, significant.
It is crucial for me to emphasize that Oaks' poem "Little What" did appear in Bloom. Having disappeared for three years after its initial appearance, it has been resurrected. Please buy a subscription. It really matters that you do in order to keep gay and lesbian publishing alive and well. Here's the link: www.artsinbloom.com