Jeffrey Jullich

Aaron Shurin
The Paradise of Forms: Selected Poems
Talisman House Publishers, 1999, 144 pp., $14.95. [Order from SPD]

In his introduction to the ground-breaking Language Poetry anthology In the American Tree, editor Ron Silliman names the names of the many excluded from the anthology ("A volume of absolutely comparable worth could be constructed"), a long list of those omitted which includes: Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Gerrit Lansing, Douglas Messerli, Leland Hickman, Dennis Cooper, Tim Dlugos, and Aaron Shurin. All gay men.

In accordance with the "hermeneutic of suspicion", and in the spirit of gay paranoia (my own), it might be worth asking, these thirteen years after that defining "moment in writing", whether the exclusion of gay males was only seemingly systematic, or if there was some intrinsic feature to their writing, if not their life styles, that warranted exclusion. Characteristic features of the then new "Language Poetry" which Silliman identifies were: a preference for text over speech; non-referentiality, or an abjurance of normative syntax; and a non-ego/persona-based psychology. One might ask whether an innovative poetry that is also gay poetry could be written absent of ego psychology, since so-called identity politics, rooted in the ego of real self, is a necessary determinant of being gay; and, similarly, whether a (gay) community with only the rudiments of an indigenous literature (however prolific those titles may or may not have been by 1986) has an identifying corpus to call upon besides speech or the "oral tradition" of its street life, even by way of resistance.

Aaron Shurin, whose career since 1980 is revisited in a Selected Poems, The Paradise of Forms, has spent those two decades in part negotiating between the possibilities of a gay "experimental" poetry and the strictures of a sort of "Language Poetry", inasmuch as he, more than some of the other poets mentioned, maintained a stronger allegiance to the aesthetic of a non-normative or disjunctive syntax. That dialectic has both motivated his writing, and incidentally converted it into a critique of "Language poetries", malgre lui. The tension at times has taken his poetry into an outer fringe where the asyntactical meets convention (love poetry), and at other moments surrendered it to a now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t erotica.

Leonard Schwarz’s introduction to his own as it were "anti"-Language Poetry anthology, Primary Trouble, has identified pleasure as a theme omitted by the occasionally Spartan agitprop of that indispensably significant movement: "To call it a new eroticism would also be reductive, but surely this poetry has an ample category for pleasure, a category absent . . . in language poetry: this poetry sees sexuality as a crucial nexus between the body and the world" (p. 3). And Shurin rarely scrimps on an unashamed indulgence in pleasure — "submission, the rapture of falling", "the mouth makes me fainting from exultation and relief", "from the birth of deliciousness, plant of you", "I marveled about the ecstasy music could create in me" — a sense of excess that often runs overboard (saccharine?) onto the palate — "yet sweet and deep, figures of delight drawn after you", "the sweet smell of psyche", "many other ferocious sweet things". He is compelled by this sub-plot of his to keep the verse open to beauty, if only a fleeting glance of beauty inter-cut with a montage of other elements. And sometimes, since modernism is too expressionistic and post-modernism too ironic to look on beauty bare, that means recourse to a hothouse language of florid sentimentality ("shower of petals", "they rain down their multi-foliate petals"). He dares, for example, to re-admit into his mix of tropes that quintessentially poetical of symbols, the rose itself — "and for a rose a picture of the smell of a rose", "the itchy green that hugs the yellow rose petal", "the cattle are feeding off drowned roses", "her open mouth released her beside the malodorous roses" — but none of them are red.

The construction of a language suited to desire and eros forces a motion one step forward, three steps backward, in the age of Desiring Machines, since our contemporary scene runs short on any authentic canzone d’amore: with love poetry, there is a continual, necessary retrieval and rehabilitation of earlier poetries; and Shurin carries out that transhistorical pillage-work not by anachronism, but through occasional echoes, allusion or parody, and by mining the dominant genres that now legislate desire. As early as his second book, he calls up a Shakespeare whom he has more recently returned to in his Involuntary Lyrics, with innuendo. Shurin: "there the tantrum throws go I"; Shakespeare: "Where the bee sucks, there suck I". Elsewhere in the same book, The Graces, it is "The Jabberwocky": "the jaws that ache, the ache that claws, the claws that grab", as if struggling to retrieve from faulty memory how the poem actually goes ("the jaws that bite, the claws that catch"). And sometimes it is the simpler form of pun, as in his "rasp of medusa", from the title of Gericault’s painting, "The Raft of the Medusa" (a painting, to be sure, with more than its share of bare male back muscle and frontal nudity, doubly meaningful in its masses condemned to shipwreck during our age of AIDS). This device, one that Shurin soon enough abandons with a healthy nonchalance, nonetheless underscores an earlier mode of gay literariness that engineers so much writing, a "closet" trope, as it were, where one text (the original) is partially concealed/partially revealed beneath the screen of another (the allusion), just as the reality of a gay identity must often be suspected, suggested, and glimpsed through layers.

Likewise, it is in this Selected Poems’ earliest examples that Shurin resorts to a "symbolic" apparatus of phallicisms, snakes, and so on: "Taking the snake between your teeth and / biting through / into the fleshmeat of desire", "A snake bites his tail, the venom circuits" (note the static-y interference of other, more troubling sexualites which this repression of symbolism hatches: the sadistic twinge of biting), "a rocket rammed with a personal hand", "every usher is a heirophant with a big wand" (sic, with the tellingly Freudian slip-of-the-typewriter-key misspelling). Or, desire could be transferred onto a symbolic agency of other mammals and elements in the landscape: "dolphins kiss under the nippled wave", "The pink sun undressed over your eyes". (This eroticized herpetology can still recur, in spite of himself, four and five books into the volume: "‘. . . never sleeps’ awake to tempt the serpent", "tongue in the mud is a lover screaming for a serpent".) All the same, when the circuitry is working — this book is more psychologically oral than phallic — he can strike an almost Biblical poetry: "I gulped coal and raised the hall to ferment" (an angel laid a live coal on the mouth of the prophet Isaiah). This shift of energy off of the phallic and onto the oral or elsewhere may be a conscientiousness on his part to avoid the patriarchal implications of the phallus, as an instance of unguardedly plain prosaicism makes clear: "What are your parents like?" "I don’t know. My father has a prick." That hierarchy (or heirarchy) which would, in the hands of another writer, in the hands of most, give way to the undertow of the patriarchal, he makes a point of crowning the wrong head with: "an old woman with red cheeks drinking soup repeated the words ‘I’m the king.’"

At the other end of the spectrum, where Aaron early on struggled to throw off a dissonant symbolism, likewise the total lack of repression (one might still call it a de-sublimated repression) which the explicitly graphic might seem to offer can run aground into the facile: "The tree is a dick". Still, even then, he has the artistry to salvage bluntness by fudging a slightly askew syntax or endearing clumsiness in the deployment of a preposition: "Come --- this’ll serve as a bed --- fuck my ass into my mouth". That register, the timbre of the obviously four-lettered, Shurin has the good sense to confine mainly to a single parody of gay pornography which, in "The Third Floor", can be quite entertaining:

The instrument pulled, sipped it slow, he said "Are we a couple of guys?" He jammed a thick one into his whole face. // . . . "Take it." With a sidelong look thick sobs . . . He formed a wadded mass, flared, almost nodded . . . a husky voice got him at last. "Don’t take it too big." // . . . Dave bent down and touched the sticky place shocked and stiff . . . "Yeah," he said softly, foamy against the corner. . . .

A poetry of desire must find its grounding in some matrix of the body (duh), and that body must be delineated in terms of organs, some organs and not others. If Talisman House, the publishers had not used an antiquarian etching of a wreathed architectual filigree as the cover illustration, it might have appropriately used A L’Heure de l’Observatoire, the well-known Man Ray painting of a cloudy sky filled with an enormous pair of surreal, red lips. The Shurin body is so much a nexus of mouth that at times there seems little else but: "Am I a moist lip", "with moist lips filling the screen / & that is all", "a moody business of thick lips and moans take place", "HIS SONG, FEED IT BACK TO HIS LIPS", "to make the taker have bliss, all the world are nothing like lips", --- until it seems as if every poem --- "put your lips back, new husband, . . . upon mine, lips, I permit your throbs", "I hung on his lips, I was the speaker", "His gaze softened his lips into flourishes", "white teeth over his lips, alone in the house", "He glued his lips to an air of resignation", "35 millimeter lips". But lips, after all, are not only the organ of the kiss and the gateway to fellatio; they are the instruments of speech, and the poem read aloud.

This reiterated imagery of the bodily serves a second purpose of textuality in addition to sexuality. Once a literature like Language Poetry has moved off into the realm of broken syntax, shards of sentences, discontinuous phrases, and shattered grammar, the fragmentary threatens to overtake the reading with a risk of the cubisticly inhuman; where some skeptical readers put all the disjunction aside with a shrug as "boring," there is a deeper danger they escape: despite our Modernism, it is only natural to long after a feeling of wholeness. In the absence of a syntactical wholeness, it may be psychologically necessary for the author (and reader) to displace that superstitious wholeness somewhere: some Language Poetry may relocate it to the peripheral, imagined insurrectionist consequences of the writing, in the spectre of its implied heroic revolutionary. And Shurin repositions that anxiety against its antipode, in the traditional site of that classical longing for wholeness: the body. The body, and its business of desire, here supply a stable touchstone as haven from the discomfiting stylistics of the fragment. These parameters, the body as both end-all and starting point which can lie outside the silent movie flicker of poetic discontinuity, are, I think, Shurin’s discovery and contribution to the genre. He has found that the printed page has two inescapable margins, one in the white space around the edge of the text, and one in the pair of hands that hold the book and inevitably get in the way of a detached or intellectualizing reading, the body that he calls "opaque body."

There are indications that Shurin might have liked it better — "prematurely hiding under unrelated events", "Something has spoken to me that cannot be deciphered", "I thought of her dance without meaning" — if his poetry were more difficult to understand. Certainly, obscurity has become a substitute for beauty in most sophisticated poetry. But his keen intuition has outwitted his post-modernity, and the poet in him has found a way of outdistancing the "experimentalist." He has slipped through his own fingers, as it were, in a way that is more convincing than some dogmatic "The subject does not exist" ideology: "beneath your clothing I have escaped from me." In the end, even the homosexuality dissolves passionately away from self-expression or any trace of confessionalism, and it all, his great theme, his idee fixe, might as well have been myth or legend or parable: "I walk in the fable of a man" (my emphasis). Simply fabulous. He could have been using talking animals, not men, to bring off his Aesopian moral.

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