Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of "twentysix" by Jonathan Kemp

A great book (as fantasy author Kelly Link puts it) “[lights] up the readerly brain and the writerly nerves.” A great book (I say) kindles magic fire in the imagination and sets the heart and mind ablaze. A great book does what the best drugs are supposed to do; liberates consciousness from the conventional, opens up new worlds; flings wide the doors of perception (and, yes, the reference to Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison is intentional); sets an unapologetic match to everything you ever thought you knew about reading, about writing, about dreaming, about life itself.

British author Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is a great book.

The twenty-six very-short stories in this debut solo collection of m/m erotica are ostensibly arranged, as the title suggests, like a child’s alphabet, but with decidedly mature literary ambitions, and an undeniably grownup sexual sensibility. The language is beyond impressive, though Kemp consciously expends a great deal of it to lament the very inadequacies of language, the impotence of mere words confronting the sublime nexus of thought and sensation, as in this passage from S:

There are places only the night knows, places only shadows can show us. The city wears a different face when darkness falls, a face I prefer. I walk the occluded streets looking for something, looking for something, looking for something. A knowledge of the shadow that eats away at logic, creating patterns far brighter than I can bear; patterns that burn at the temperature of wanting. It traces its way through my veins, this wanting, finding solace only when I fall and feast . . . This map I draw with the tip of my tongue takes refuge in a book of dreams. Forgive me for not having the words to describe it, this place in which I dwell. I have tried, I have tried. I have drenched myself in words and sensations, seeking a way to make them speak to one another. This is all I have to offer.

The body wants what it wants. The chaos of the body’s wants—as we know— will never surrender itself to language, can never succumb to reason, even if, even if, even if it wanted to—which it never will.

Yet, Kemp is keenly aware of the limitations society itself imposes on language, and, by extension, on the expression of genuine emotion, muting the honest, full-throated cry of passion, love, lust, desire, joy:  

In this society I live in, everyone dreams of being able to speak like this. But it really isn’t possible to speak like this in our society. If sexuality has a voice, it has yet to find it.                                                       

Sex happens easily here. These pages teem with a deliciously explicit, celebratory sensuality, restless and unregretted. There’s a frank earthiness to Kemp’s descriptions. His characters are mostly urban, working class blokes, cruising dirty streets and cheap dives in search of connection, perpetually longing (as Freddy Mercury sang) to break free.

When he is naked I notice something I had not seen in the club. Now, in the grey daylight that breaks through the white sheet hung up against the window, I can see the letters standing out in legible scars across his hairless chest. D-E-N-I-A-L. For the briefest moment I love this wounded man/boy in whose eyes I see the recognisable burn of drugs and sex and hunger. He shines with a lost need, a lonely, greedy, fucked-up cock-sure need and we fall against each other and onto that grimy mattress. We lie head to toe, feeding on each other’s cocks. I occupy every last space available for this experience, I inhabit this feeling of pleasure, wanting it never to end. And that word, DENIAL, plays across the black expanse of my consciousness, repeats and repeats like a broken record, and I want to know what it means, why is it there, who did it to him, or did he do it to himself?

Though the narrator may at times seem to channel Bataille and Barthes as he reflects on broad and lofty themes, he does not look away from the seamier vision of life as actually lived, embracing it in all its pungant banality and deep fractal chaos. Sometimes it seems possible to choke on this wild surfeit of language, this sumptuous banquet of experience, as one might gag while joyously deep throating a magnificent cock.

I am giving birth to pleasure, to submission, to the destruction of my ‘self’; I am enabling the body to fragment, and the fragments to circle around the central column of a destabilised subjectivity, like gulls riding a thermal. I am coaxing that tricky little muscle to do something it doesn’t want to do. I am dominating myself, sodomising myself, raping my body’s own desire for unity, storming the citadel of my sovereignty with the battering ram of madness.

Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is emphatically, ardently, passionately recommended!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Lovely Boy--a short story by TAS

From The Moon-Haunted Heart, this m/m re-imagining of the Pygmalion myth draws inspiration from poetry, music, and painting. I first became familiar with Coleridge’s Lines on a Child through the gorgeous, sensitive setting by Benjamin Britten in his Nocture, Op. 60 where the words, sung by a tenor, are underscored by a shimmering accompaniment of harp and strings. The poem itself magically evokes a sense of child-like innocence steeped in subtle eroticism—an irresistibly delicious, world-evoking paradox. I imagine my artist working in a style close to that of the famous Scottish Victorian painter Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901) who may be best known for The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847).                                   TAS

A Lovely Boy

Encinctured with a twine of leaves,
That leafy twine his only dress!
A lovely Boy was plucking fruits
By moonlight in the wilderness.
The moon was bright, the air was free,
And fruits and flowers together grew,
On many a shrub, and many a tree:
And all put on a gentle hue,
Hanging in the shadowy air
Like a picture rich and rare.
It was a climate where, they say,
The night is more belov’d than day.
But who that beauteous Boy beguil’d
That beauteous Boy to linger here?
Alone, by night, a little child,
In place so silent and so wild—
Has he no friend, no loving mother near?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Lines on a Child (1798)

He steps into the scene, summoned by the artist’s longing, gracefully materializing  in the foreground, born from seething moonlit mist and the glassy shadow of sepia-washed cloud-peaks. The boy stands on the rippling edge of this aqueous, star-dappled world, a seraphic intruder, wading along a curving stretch of shell-strewn shore, grasping for invisible fruits on low-hanging branches beyond the frame.

He is “old enough”, yet still unsullied by shame, naïve in his nakedness, utterly free in the unselfconscious perfection of his beauty. The man-child wanders on, a glowing creature from a dream of Eden.

And oh! To be in that garden with him! The artist would will himself into the scene also, as if pure desire might be transmogrified, and lust itself made flesh, cool and substantial and undeniably alive, Pygmalion, a god incarnate, humbled and amazed before his own creation, worshipping what he himself has wrought.

He calls out to the lad, standing a short way along the silvery littoral, realizing too late that the boy is mute. Even so, he asks his name, and a hundred other things—“Why do you wander all alone in this place? Have you no friend? No home?” But the answers are not the boy’s to give, for they lie somewhere already within the yearning mind of his creator.


The boy nods, yet it is enough.

The older man approaches or is mystically drawn, standing suddenly before the object of his desire  as in a dream, without memory of distance traveled. He wrestles the angel by the hair, gently pulling him close, covetous fingers buried in a halo of golden ringlets, impatient to touch, and fondle, and kiss. He enthralls the man-child’s mouth, taking his upper lip between the both of his, sucking greedily, as a bee drawn to precious nectar.

“What’s this?”

Awakening below, the boy is half-erect, his fecund phallus coyly articulated, a stalk of wheat insouciantly bowing on the breeze. The older man closes his eyes, permitting himself, if only for a moment, the selfish luxury of uninterrogated bliss—the unalloyed delectation of Ariel’s caress, his penis gently bobbing and billowing against his master’s belly, whence the artist’s own arousal takes puissant form, rising up until the mirrored shafts seem to salute one another, unbuttoned foils crossed before a duel.

“I love you,” he sobs, though the boy only gazes at him, questioningly. “Do you know what that is, Ariel?” His trembling hand slips over the flat plain of the boy’s abdomen, to find the tangled nest of red-gold hair below, “Do you understand what it means to love someone with every atom of your physical self—with the whole completeness of your immortal soul—yet never to know—always to be forbidden—that singular moment of joy requited?”

Sighing, he cups his lover’s low, soft-hanging pouch, reverently weighing the delicate treasures within. “Do as I do,” he whispers, “touch me . . . like this . . .” He closes his fingers around the boy’s shaft and pulls, delicately upwards, stroking the taut velvet flesh of the glossy glans with loving care a dozen times or more, drawing forth its sweet, precious  essence, pressing it to himself just in time to bear the brunt of the explosion against his belly, the burst of pale, translucent sap that seems to reflect the color of the moonlight on the cloud-tops far above.

Keening softly now, the artist is powerless to deny the terrible and delicious welling within him, the quickening sweetness that surges through his loins. His cry of release a ragged benediction as the boy falls to his knees, eager to receive that graced outpouring—joy made manifest—like a holy chrism upon his upturned face, his forehead first, his cheeks, his lips, his tongue. The older man stoops to gather his love to himself, throwing his arms out wide with the desperation of the dying, clinging to life in an ecstasy of denial, embracing the boy as he would the entire world, annointing him again with kisses and with tears.

“I never want to leave you!” he cries, “Oh Ariel! I never want to feel anything but what I feel at this very moment—” he takes the boy’s face between his hands and looks into his eyes, “I’ve never held a memory that was not tinged with sadness or with anger, yet now, for the first time in my life, I feel something pure! At this moment, all I can feel, without question, without doubt, without a single second guess . . . is love! Please! Please, let me hold this memory! Please! Let me stay with you forever!”

But the boy shakes his head. It is too late. The moment cannot last, for innocence is already lost, destroyed in the very act of its creation. In his hubris, Pygmalion has gone too far, imagined too completely, and so, in selfishly interacting with his creature, has inexorably changed him.

The old man weeps, and cannot be consoled. His tears stain the canvas, blur and streak the image whose glorious like shall never be conjured again. For a moment he entertains a frantic thought, but cannot bring himself to follow through. In the end,  for all his lavish longings, his aching emptiness, the bitter pangs of solitude, loneliness like the shallow shore before the sharp drop-off into the abyss of despair, and all his fierce devouring love, the artist dares not paint himself into the picture. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Review of "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer

Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

Midwestern authors have a problem. Writing for The Daily Beast, Anna Clark puts it politely:

The fact is, while writers from other areas of the U.S. are typically discussed in context of their native landscape, writers from the Midwest, strangely, are not—even when their fiction spotlights the region . . . There are Southern Gothic tales, Westerns, New York stories, and plenty of novels about Boston, California, and even Washington, D.C. But what of the fiction native to the center of America? 

Even when the native-Midwest author is successful and celebrated (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury), his or her birthplace is downplayed, or conveniently never mentioned at all, because “as everyone knows” nothing good can ever come out of the fly-over states; nothing real or relevant ever happens there. George Will, once writing about my home state of Iowa, sunned up the ultimate smugly parochial fly-over mentality when he referred to it as “a dark, brooding, insular, medieval sort of place.” And one or two rather well-known eroticists from the urban east coast have made comments to the effect that “nobody ever wrote a good story set in a small town”. They should all read William Maxwell’s brilliant little gem of a novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow and summarily shut the fuck up.

Sometimes the problem is of our own making. It doesn’t help that many writers from the region internalize these prejudices growing up, a mentality often manifested later in life in diffidence, self-loathing, or downright denial of one’s origins. We tend to have a certain ambivalence about our native region because we are constantly haunted by the notion that we are somehow not good enough; that a “real” writer has to be from someplace else in order to be taken seriously. (Garrison Keillor has successfully employed this attitude as a comedic shtick for nearly a half century.)

Within every literate Midwesterner is the fear that he will be fond out—exposed for the poseur he is; the up-jumped hayseed, the bumpkin, the hick, the pretentious peasant, the farm boy with feet of hay. Midwestern writers are sensitive soft-shelled creatures who must migrate to the coasts in order to become real; to New York or Los Angeles to be taken seriously, to become hard-boiled and cynical. In the meantime, we look out at the rest of the country with stubborn defiance or with envy, perpetually apologizing, like the characters in Peter Hedges’ What’ Eating Gilbert Grape, for not being from somewhere else—“someplace cool”, because, surely, anywhere else must be cooler than where we came from. Like the residents of Lake Woebegone or of the Cohen Brothers’ fictionalized Fargo we are sorry—

–sorry we don’t have mountains or oceans to inspire us.
–sorry we are so easily impressed.
–sorry we do not belong to a “tribe”.
–sorry our lives aren’t as colorful or inherently dramatic as in the South or the West.
–sorry we did not grow up enjoying  all the advantages of toney prep schools and trendy restaurants.
–sorry we are so practical and down to earth—that we did not grow up with servants to wipe our asses for us.
–sorry we do not have refined tastes.
–sorry we do not have a “real culture” of our own.

Popular media perpetuates these stereotypes. The naïve, fresh-faced, starry-eyed dreamer just fallen off the turnip truck in the big city nine times out of ten hails from Iowa or Indiana, whether it’s squeaky clean Riley Finn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “from a little farm just outside Huxley (Iowa)”, or the wide-eyed orphans from Des Moines in Mame. And who could blame them for wanting to get the hell out, when what’s left behind are the soporific neo-puritans in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, or the inauthentic, shallow, weirdly soulless Minnesota yuppies in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.   

I particularly despise the work of authors like Franzen and Robinson. The latter gleefully perpetuates the stereotypes of the Midwest as an idealized realm of fossilized quaintness and “nice” old-fashioned purity. Her portrayal of clerical culture in small-town Iowa is purely the figment of a priggish imagination, a fabulist conjuring an idyll that never existed—of course, dupes from the effete centers of “literary respectability” lap it up and call it “wise”. Franzen, beyond consideration of his baroque excess and cloying nebulosity—a kind of literary attention deficit disorder—falls in with that pretentious clique of erotic denialists, those self-congratulating “serious” authors who regard sex as something beneath them, a chore to be endured like a Victorian bride on her wedding night, an undignified intrusion into the realm of “what really matters” thus often treating it as something comic or absurd to be brushed aside with an outlandish metaphor or two.  

Let me state this bluntly and as clearly as I can: A writer who cannot or, worse, will not write honestly, forthrightly, explicitly, uncondescendingly, and unashamedly about the sexual components of real life, regardless of where he or she hails from, is as toneless and hollow as a stringless fiddle. Spare us all from these feckless buffoons! The most celebrated literary authors in the country have nothing whatsoever over the finest writers of erotic fiction—nothing!—neither in terms of imagination, relevance, or craft, to say little of the richness of language—effective sentence structure and puissant metaphor— or the keenly empathetic understanding of the human condition.    

This brings us to a consideration of Paula Bomer’s very fine 2014 collection of quintessentially Midwestern erotic short fiction, Inside Madeleine. The title story is an insightful. sometimes harrowing character study elucidating a tragic circle of life, which becomes in itself a kind of structural microcosm of the whole book. These nine masterfully-crafted stories reveal a loosely cyclic form in which we would seem to perceive the transmigration of a woman’s soul through a series of closely-resemblant avatars, constantly revisiting, not only the same places—South Bend Indiana, certain neighborhoods of New York and Boston—but endeavoring repeatedly to overcome the same obstacles, the awkwardness of puberty with its bewildering “grossness”, spirit-crushing humiliations,  and all-too-real growing pains, the fear of imminent adulthood as the fear of the unknown, the search for a mentor who might give this vexed and chaotic life a sense of centeredness and meaning. 

Bomer’s language is by turns fierce and abrasive, introspective and disconcertingly explicit; unnerving in its frank intimacy, fearlessly personal, unabashed, trenchant. Here, for example, in the aptly-enough titled breasts, the author brilliantly reveals something of her character’s turbulent inner life through a description of her physical form:

Lola Spencer had the sort of breasts that define a woman. They were gorgeous perfect things, pinked-nippled, sized like cantaloupes, firm and white. They were big and she was small. The rest of her existed to accentuate her breasts; her hips were narrow, her waist a tiny circle, her little pale legs ended in child’s feet. Her head was small and heart shaped, her features pale and slightly receding. Indeed, it was as if every other part of her got out of the way to make way for her breasts. Yes. Lola’s breasts were the sort of breasts that made a girl feel special, feel as if she were not destined for an ordinary life . . .

Or, from pussies, where we can practically feel a character’s dread and disappointment at the understanding of her destined place in the scheme of things, the very mortal terror that is the price of self-awareness:

This was before I knew that we all live on this planet, driving in the cars of our own little minds, our own self-contained worlds. Yes, this was before I knew that, when I thought I mattered, when I thought that people saw me, deep into me, saw all my love and excitement at being alive, saw the very glistening running-overness of my aliveness. But we only matter when we do something awful. Then, someone sees us and only then.

In outsiders, another character draws similar conclusions, though perhaps after taking a more colorfully circuitous route:  

On the train ride home for Thanksgiving break, Ruthie sat by the window looking out at the world passing by her. It was dark but she could make out shapes of houses, with their endless people in them, and a parade of scarily tall trees devoid of any leaves. She hadn’t slept, her mind a storm of thoughts. The conductor had been kind enough, like the waiters at the Plaza to serve her even though she was clearly underage. She had been slowly polishing off a bottle of red wine and she felt warm and woozy. Her thoughts, drunkenly floating through her mind, were of deep significance. It was a twenty-four hour ride to South Bend, and she was more than halfway there, the Midwestern land flat and straight around her. Her once perfectly curled bangs hung limply over her eyes. White trash. She would never have a mane of hair to toss over her shoulder. She would never have a lot of things, she would never be many things—but she wasn’t the same person she was a few months ago, no matter what anyone said.

This is an important book, whether considered as an example of erotically frank coming-of-age fiction, or an exciting example of an emerging “mature literary” approach to story-telling. It will, I suspect, open eyes to realms of possibility, even as it inspires and empowers generations of writers—no matter where they come from.