New York, NY: Persea Books, 2017. 77 pages. $15.95.
Earlier this year, Dora Malech completed her astute series on innovative formal practice in contemporary poetry by engaging four of her examined poets in conversation about their work. As all four are queer, the conversation crescendoed on what “queering form” might describe: what can be accomplished when queerness and lyric structures reflect one another.
One of those poets is the leonine formalist Randall Mann; his fourth and newest collection is Proprietary. Mann’s oeuvre has always placed on display a narrow selection of scenes from gay male urban life, at once boisterous and lubed, anxious and ambivalent. Since the publication of 2004’s Fabergé-like Complaint in the Garden, his obsessions have recurred but in different forms—this time, in Proprietary, they’re at their most precise barbering.
Mann’s new book opens not with his prior mise-en-scènes of Nob Hill or Floridian adolescence but in a realm previously unvisited: the corporate one. From the book’s outset, Mann’s language annexes that late capitalist argot, its “white / noise,” capturing its stirring encounters with the queerer world outside its windows:
Little by little, I have become
so careful, no talk
of politics or orientation:
I let them say, he’s a homosexual,
without an arch correction.
At a fondue buffet
in Zurich, our dumb-
founded senior group
director—when I let slip,
damn it, my trip
with a twenty-year-old—inquired,
They’re always over seventeen,
right? I told her of course,
God yes, and, seething, smiled,
which I’m famous for.
I didn’t want to scare
her. But I tell you,
I’m keeping score.
The loose slant rhymes here—just one variant of Mann’s ever-present inclination toward form—describe a failing of otherwise discrete publics and privates. Mann’s critics so far have often insisted upon the dissonance between his poems’ received forms and their quote-unquote informal subject matter—something like the little “Song” from his second collection, 2009’s Breakfast with Thom Gunn:
I lure him to the house,
online, with crystal meth.
I say to bring his friends.
I say I’ll fuck his mouth.
(One time, I swear to God,
I fucked for weeks and weeks.)
These queens arrive, all prim,
and talk about antiques
and art, boring stuff.
But when they snort the best
crystal money can buy?
They beg to sit on my fist.
That closing slant rhyme of “best” and “fist” embodies the experience of engaging Mann’s work—an elegant shock. But why argue form and content as discrete entities? To view Mann’s formalism as something in spite of, or extricable from, his subject matter, an idea some critics have seemed avid to suggest, is to view his forms as purely decorous middle fingers—and dismissive of the intellectual power of bringing things into relation.
In Proprietary, the sestina “Flagging” records an otherwise ordinary night: “A few queens lean on the bar, in a file / and in leather, / the requisite drag.” The speaker’s asides are quick and parenthetical: “(Damn I wish I’d worn some leather).” The poem climaxes, quite literally, with the speaker absently attending to some bear’s “prostate gland / in the can: it, too, is leather.” The poem’s denouement is whispered:
Man to man,
the ones in leather-drag
rarely call their leather “drag”—
it doesn’t fit the profile.
As “man,” “leather,” and “drag” repeat down the sestina’s line endings, their context readjusts. The movement of “the ones in leather-drag / rarely call their leather ‘drag,’” registered by “drag” rearticulated in playful quotation, cites precisely the theatrics of desire for the masculine, of being desired masculinely.
Proprietary shows Mann at his most incisive. The initial austerity of the book, the alienation between things, unlocks into the material Mann always engages, like his self-mappings against the state of Florida. They are evoked most gratifyingly here, with a restraint that is the consequence of lived wisdom. “Like eelgrass through a glass- / bottom boat on the Silver River, / I see the state, obscured yet pure,” the speaker says, later ending, or reckoning, with a most distilled, Coleian simile: “The end unknowable, blue, inmost, and cold, / like the consolation of a diplomatic war.”
In the sunlit “Dolores Park,” rhyming couplets (“The palms / are psalms”) navigate a more latent knowledge. Beneath its surfaces, its “manicured lawn,” its speaker’s disquiet about aging, there is something vaster, historical: the knowledge this was once a cemetery.
disinterred. . . . […]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They thought this was all right:
the dead have nothing to lose;
the dead were Jews.
Hills of Eternity, Home of Peace:
the dead were put in their place.
The effect of these clipped, supple rhymes is a clarity that at its most linguistically jocular, Mann’s work sometimes does defer. But his rhymes here suggestively and successfully harness the fact that we are all merely “some phase.” We are put in our place.
For many years there has been rightful comparison of Mann to the late poet Thom Gunn—they share similar voices and concerns—but to me, especially with Proprietary, Mann is even more so an heir of Auden. One thinks of the latter’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
What has always haunted me about this short lyric of Auden’s is how the rhyme of the first line goes unechoed until the poem’s penultimate line, the delay hinting at the poem’s concern with an unrealized, latent fascism. More than ever, I see Auden’s sense of sublimation in Mann’s newest constructions. Mann will always be a poet of ambivalence, of realizations reached with a cool, and queer, signature of departure. Comme Auden, with the fashion of “[turning] around,” Mann has realized our sicknesses. He knows that—and always has. “I arrive,” he closes this new book, “only when I leave.”