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Five Prose Poems as Psychological and Therapeutic Objects

In Art, Freud, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Queer Theory on August 27, 2012 at 8:11 am

By Don Adams

Author’s Forward

When I look back on it, it seems to me that I have spent a significant part of my conscious adult life in the active and sometimes arduous process of being gay.  The prose poems below have been a part of that process.  From a personal and perhaps generational perspective, these poems, written over a period of years, seem to me as much historical documents as aesthetic objects.  For generations of the future, being gay may well seem, one hopes, a mere fact of life, like being American or Chinese, tall or short.  But for young men and women of my generation, and in many situations of course still today, being gay was and is a predicament.

Psychology can help.  In graduate school I pored through Freud and Jung and their disciples in an effort to explain to myself my inclinations and identity.  Modern psychology admittedly has a long and sad history of being used in the service of bigotry and oppression.  But at its best, psychology is an effort at understanding, and “to understand is to pity and forgive,” as Somerset Maugham, a once celebrated and now critically neglected gay writer, assures us in his nearly forgotten autobiography.

Maugham is a case in point in regards to the at times torturous evolution of gay identity in recent history.  When he was writing his drama and fiction in the first half of the 20th Century, Maugham was compelled by societal prejudice and indeed legal stricture to omit any direct reference to homosexuality.  But when we read him by today’s standards and assumptions regarding sexual identity and awareness, his work all too easily appears the product of a hopeless closet case.  To comprehend that work sympathetically, we have to recreate in some measure the assumptions and prejudices of the society in which it was appreciatively received, and which it in no small measure condemned and critiqued.  For in its broadest existential sense, to understand is not only to pity and forgive, but to accept that one has an ethical duty to challenge and attempt to change.

Maugham’s work takes up the challenge of changing a bigoted world in a courageous but necessarily coded way that requires some teasing out.  The poems below, written in a less dire time for sexual minorities, are correspondingly less circumspect, but they exhibit nevertheless many signs and symptoms of the cultural and psychological closet from which they were attempting to emerge.  When I read them now, some years after composition, and from the relative security of a less bigoted world, it seems to me that they were attempting to compel an ignorant, indifferent, or even hostile reader into sympathetic comprehension.  Perhaps they were addressed in some sort of unconscious way to my parents (who conspicuously appear in them but never to my knowledge read them), kind-hearted individuals who were compelled into psychological cruelty toward their gay son by religious stricture and societal prejudice.  But the crucial audience for the poems as psychological and therapeutic objects was even closer to home.  For it is true, as Maugham said as well, that there is no one in greater need of one’s sympathy, or for whom it is more efficacious, than oneself.

WHEN I WAS A CHILD

I thought like a child, a simple fact.  At the dime store once, my hippie cousin bought us hats.  I chose a floppy denim number with orange and yellow flowers embroidered on the crown.  When I got home with the prized purchase, my mother, glancing up from her recumbent position on the couch, pronounced a casual curse upon it, “Why are you wearing a girl’s hat son?”  Seeing my face tragically altered by the fact, she said to my cousin, “You know what he is going to do now, don’t you?”  And there were tears beneath the brim.

Some years later the young man’s mother, driven to distraction by repeated rebuffs, took the matter in hand one night while riding home with her son in the car, “You think you’re better than us now, don’t you?”  She got, as usual, no significant response.  His thoughts on the matter he was keeping well under the ubiquitous brim of his hat. Read the rest of this entry »

The Erotics of Melancholia: Natalie Clifford Barney’s “The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife”

In Feminism, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Transvestite Souls on June 8, 2012 at 10:18 am


by Chase Dimock

In the author’s note for her 1930 novel The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife, Natalie Clifford Barney writes: “For years I have been haunted by the idea that I should orchestrate those inner voices which sometimes speak to us in unison, and so compose a novel, not so much with the people about us, as with those within ourselves, for have we not several selves and cannot a story arise from their conflicts and harmonies?” Culminating in one of her few works in her native English tongue, this American ex-patriate’s “haunting” of multiple selves serves as a model to conceptualize an identity and lifestyle that had as of then not been granted an adequate discourse to describe it. As an unapologetic lesbian writer, Natalie Clifford Barney and her Parisian salon from the turn of the century well into the 60’s defied the heteronormative conventions of her era. She dared to write explicit love poems to women so as to ward off the “nuisance” of male admirers, she promiscuously romanced the great lesbian writers of her time from Liane de Pougy to Djuna Barnes, she created an alternative academie des femmes against the male dominated academie francaise to promote female authors, and she hosted theatricals based on Sapphic rituals in her own home garden.

For Barney, these “multiple selves” stand in for an identity that blurs the lines between masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual and penetrates to the depths of the human psyche and soul where desire is multi-form and multi-directional. As a literary project, The One Who is Legion embodies Barney’s vision of the erotic possibilities of a psyche and society unmoored from the constraints of binary categories and stable, self-same identities. In the aforementioned author’s note, Barney outlines the basic plot of the symbolist novel: “A.D., a being having committed suicide, is replaced by a sponsor, who carries on the broken life, with all the human feelings assumed with the flesh, until, having endured to the end in A.D.’s stead, the composite or legion is disbanded by the One, who remains supreme”. Barney’s summary of her novel is as confusing as the novel itself. The novel not only evades a sense of a stable plot or characterization, but it purposefully leaves the genders, sexualities, and even the number of individuals inhabiting singular bodies ambiguous. The “One”, the name Barney gives the spirit that resurrects and relives AD’s life on earth is in fact a legion of selves inhabiting a single body that refer to the body as “we”. The novel reads more like an extended prose poem, choosing to explore detours of philosophical musings and poetic contemplations rather than telling a linear or consistent narrative.

Natalie Clifford Barney with Renée Vivien

Yet, the novel is somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal. The suicided poet A.D. bears resemblance to one of Barney’s greatest loves, the poet Renee Vivien, whose self-destructive behavior, anorexia and drug and alcohol abuse caused her early death in 1909. Informed by this tragedy, Barney’snovel reads as a meditation on grieving the loss of a lover whose voice and presence remained fixed in her psyche 20 years later. Thus, I argue that Barney’s experience of grief is not aimed at successfully getting over loss, but instead she willfully submerges herself in the state of loss itself and perpetuates the existence and memory of her lover through exploring the dynamics of melancholia. Barney’s novel re-imagines melancholia as an erotic experience through which death does not diminish the memory of the lost love, but in fact amplifies the impact of its presence as it echoes in her unconscious and comes to inform and guide her desires.

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A Brief Chronicle of the Long Life of a Nobody

In Art, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Mythology, Poetry, Uncategorized on May 29, 2012 at 11:30 am

by Jim Elledge

Internationally-recognized, self-taught artist Henry Darger lived in utter poverty his entire life. Not long after he was born in Chicago (April 12, 1892), his impoverished parents moved out of the respectable, blue-collar neighborhood in which they had lived for several years into a coach-house apartment behind 165 West Adams just west of the Loop. That address was at the threshold of Chicago’s most notorious vice district, called West Madison Street after its chief thoroughfare.

Henry’s father went into a tailspin after a string of tragedies blind-sided him. His second son, Arthur, born a year and a half after Henry, died when he was only five months old, and then his wife Rosa died giving birth to their third child, a daughter. Almost sixty years old, too old (he felt) to be taking care of both an infant and a toddler, he immediately put his daughter up for adoption. The loss of his wife and children was too much for him, and he abandoned himself to drink and Henry to the dark streets—and even darker denizens—of West Madison Street.

Henry’s experiences during his earliest days in the vice district were, in a word, horrific as his autobiography, The History of My Life, reveals. He purposely knocked down children younger than he; sliced his teacher’s face and arms with a knife he carried when she punished him for an infraction; flung ashes into the eyes of a little neighborhood girl; committed arson to get even with a neighbor man; was nearly kidnapped by a homeless man; had a relationship with a night watchman; and was removed from his father’s house by authorities who institutionalized him in Dunning among the insane, indigent, and mentally ill—all before he was eight years old. Henry’s anger, violent behavior, and early sexual activities are symptomatic of child sexual abuse. Small for his age, Henry was an easy target.

In 1900, embarrassed by his eight-year-old son’s conduct and unable to cope with him, Henry’s father pawned the boy off on the priests who ran the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, where he would live for the next four years. After more behavioral problems, which included being involved sexually with at least three other boys at the Mission, the priests told Henry’s father that Henry had to go. By then, his father was living in St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, had no money with which to help his son, and had no room to take him in. Instead, he contacted a doctor, told him that Henry had been masturbating since he was six years old (another symptom of sexual abuse), and asked him to examine the boy. After meeting with Henry on two separate occasions, Dr. Otto Schmidt helped Henry’s father to fill out the form that would allow them to exile the now twelve-year-old to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. On Thanksgiving Day 1904, Tim Rooney took Henry by train to the Asylum.

Institutionalizing children for “self-abuse” (the term that was most often used for masturbation) was entirely legal and ubiquitous at the time. Physicians across the country supported institutionalization, and some even went so far as to recommend castration. Henry wasn’t the only boy sent to the Asylum for self-abuse. In fact, four other boys—three, twelve, thirteen, and nineteen years old—were admitted within of a month of the day when Henry arrived, each because of self-abuse.

As it turned out, the Asylum was a hellhole. While attendants had many techniques that they used to control the boys in their care, they were fond of strangling boys until they were close to blacking out, their tongues protruding and their faces turning blue. In such a condition, the boys were unable or unwilling to resist whatever the adult had in mind for them. At the same time, the prisons in Illinois had been filled to capacity, and the courts decided to send the overflow of male criminals to live—and sleep—among the boys at the Asylum. The smaller, weaker boys were at the mercy of the larger, stronger boys and men in the beds beside them.

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From the Same Source as Her Power: A Threnody for Adrienne Rich

In Foucault, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Queer Theory on April 23, 2012 at 10:57 am

by Chase Dimock

(This article originally appeared on As It Ought To Be)

How do we account for and preserve a writer’s power after she dies? At the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, any researcher who wants to access the lab books and notes of the legendary scientist Marie Curie must first sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of leafing through her papers. Over a hundred years after Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, her lab book is still radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter. Perhaps this is why when I heard of Adrienne Rich’s passing last month, I immediately thought of her 1974 poem “Power” about Marie Curie. Just as Curie’s words literally radiate from her pages with the physical properties of the power that she discovered, so too does Rich’s six decades of poetry continue to empower the reader with her social critique and introspection.

The Poetical is the Political

In the past few weeks, several obituaries and memorials have been written to commemorate the life of Adrienne Rich after she passed away from rheumatoid arthritis at age 82. In every remembrance, Rich’s status as a “feminist poet” comes to the forefront and in the process of assembling a biography, the age-old rift between politics and poetics, art for art’s sake versus art for raising social consciousness, is still being waged over Rich’s death. Most of Rich’s critics and detractors over the course of her career dismissed her work as overly polemical, accusing her of sacrificing poetics for politics, as if these are somehow mutually exclusive entities. As Rich herself once said, “One man said my politics trivialized my poetry…. I don’t think politics is trivial — it’s not trivial for me. And what is this thing called literature? It’s writing. It’s writing by all kinds of people. Including me.” For Rich and other feminists who came of age under the belief that “the personal is the political”, it was impossible for the deep introspection of poetry to not find the political oppression of gender and sexual non-conformists as inextricably determinative of one’s psyche and soul.  Rather, Rich would contend that to believe poetry could be written outside of the political is to naturalize one’s worldview and political privilege. Being “apolitical” is the privilege of those who have power.

The poetical is the political, but according to Rich, the poetical needed protection from the political. In 1997, Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts as a protest against the House of Representatives’ vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She argued that ”the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” adding that art ”means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” While Rich believed in poetry’s ability to illuminate the political, she was unwilling to allow politics to use her poetry as a token gesture to feign interest in women’s issues while camouflaging the growing disparity of power in the nation and the fact that, as Rich put it, “democracy in this country has been in decline”.

Rich did write political essays as well, including the seminal “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” in 1980, which predicted the anti-normative analysis of queer theory that would be pioneered by Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick a decade later. Her essay identified the power of heterosexuality in our culture to define and naturalize standards for acceptable social and sexual practices and to marginalize and pathologize those who did not comply. She contended that this power not only harmed lesbians, but all women because it reinforced a sex-segregated delegation of social obligations that denigrated the power of women to pursue their own desires. Rich declared that all women should think of themselves as part of a “lesbian continuum”, which valorizes all same-sex bonds from the platonic to the erotic in order to create new practices and knowledges outside the constraints of patriarchy. It is in this respect that I understand Adrienne Rich’s power to be more than being a poet: she was a theorist on the very nature of power itself, scribing in verse and lyric what Michel Foucault wrote in volumes of philosophy.

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