On Obscenely Yours by Angelo Nikolopoulos

Timothy Liu

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2013. 96 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

What a mouthful of syllables Nikolopoulos is, joyfully Greek, which is not incidental when considering the obscenities being staged herein page after page. Yet this is not the Fifties. We are not dealing with notorious debuts by Salinger (’51), Ginsberg (’55) or a desultory Lady Chatterly passing out in the bushes (’59). We do not imagine Alice James Books being hauled off to court to defend whether or not this latest volume of poems is “offensive to the senses/taste/refinement,” even in purview of the British Obscene Publishing Act of 1857. We are not dealing with the arrival of a book like John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1748; those times are past.

Certain questions remain to be begged in 2013: What pray tell is decency?, i.e., what is “proper to one’s station” especially if one is a Poet (never mind a Prize Winner)? And as ubiquitous as the internet is, what is pornography? (as opposed to, say, high-falutin’ literary erotica??). If we do the etymological math (Porno + Graphy = Prostitute + Writing), might we conclude that Nikolopoulos is nothing more than a lyrical whore run amok in a Republic Plato could not have quite imagined? I will say this: this book is obscenely and indecently conceived. If Wayne Koestenbaum, Sharon Olds, and D.A. Powell could have bedded down to make a thruple love-child, Nikolopoulos would be their little Devil masquerading as an Angel. For the record, let me say that our poet has fully digested his influences (including Roland Barthes) and has wheeled out a book whose verbal transgressions need to be reckoned with. School Boards of Topeka and Christian-Fundamentalist Summer Camps: Fasten Your Belts!

In 2013, there are many donnés that wouldn’t for a moment make us bat our drag-sized lashes: fisting, cyber cruising, campus tearooms, auto-fellatio. What makes my jaw drop on page after page are the voluptuous tropes that Nikolopoulos somehow manages to conjure and summon. Take fisting, for example: “Why else call the ass / the lumen— // the light snared / by fold and slit, luminous // flux of musculature // and valve, a star cluster / of  enclosure— // if not to become arm / deep in metaphor.” See how Nikolopoulos spells out the body with such musical syllables while remaining “arm-deep” in camp. Here, William Carlos Williams’s notion of “the thing itself” is morphed beyond “the sex act itself” into a “performance of the sex act itself,” the jouissance of a Barthesian striptease designed to keep us up all night (and glued to the page).

Consider Nikolopoulos’s copious excess that just pearls and pearls in his meditation on fellatio: “They blew, gave head and hummers, slobbed / on knobs, smoked poles, and deep-throated.” See how this initial catalog of the colloquial gives way to more complex pleasures: “And I’d imagine it literally: the lips siphoned / and wedged like a valve, the white-hot iron / of it, moiled cautery. The throat’s damming.” Witness in these few lines how nimbly Nikolopoulos skirts through diction’s high to low from “moiled cautery” to “smoked poles.” Even that “damming” throat is so adjectivally precise, physically and spiritually. This is the “fine-brush work” that James Merrill was so fond of compared to those “finger-painted passages” that the pornographic embodies.

Always one to stray, I ignored the tripartite structure of this book (like a three-act play of sorts: Director’s Cut, A Lover This Coarse, The Garden of Sweden). Throughout the book, Nikolopoulos splits up his nine-part title poem “Obscenely Yours” into eight scenes plus a “deleted scene”; I found myself putting them back together into one long sequence. Likewise with his fourteen untitled poems laced throughout. But make no mistake. This is not just a great first book but a great book. Period. Some of my personal favorite poems include: “Servicing Seniors: Auditions”; “Fisting: Treading the Walls”; “Str8 Gym Buddies”; “Rear Stable: Auditions”; “Daffodil”; “I wonder which is the more horrible”; “Dudes on Campus”; “www.daddyhunt.com”; “Self Suck.” Plenty of shock and awe to go around but coupled with a stylistic élan to soften the necessary blows.

By the end of the book, the dialectic gloves do come off a little, exposing deeper wounds, even a tenderness. Take, for example, “A Divine Spirit That Indwells in Nature and the Universe,” a moving elegy to his father that follows on the heels of all his other daddy hunts: “father’s catheter / shoehorned into his bladder and the collection bag / I carry, lukewarm and snuff-colored, / with both hands to the basin.” There’s a precision here that reminds me of Sharon Olds’s The Father; how fitting that the “collection bag” can suggest both sperm and alms as the poet exclaims: “how he harbored me there, / between prostate and bladder, inside himself, / and how he lets me now, unmoved as always, / return to my own beginning—as close as I’ll ever get.” Any last gestures toward obscenity have been worn away by a fresh sincerity.

The final poem of the volume, simply titled “Yours,” brings things to a quiet close with a catalog of prepositional phrases that reprise the lyrical tropes of this memorable debut into one incantatory benediction.

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