J.W. Bonner

“A Thicket of Potentialities”:

Gay Poetry and the Queer Poetics of Jeffery Beam’s
The Beautiful Tendons

          This theme…of what the sexual reality is, of what the Self is, arises
          from an urgency in the conception of the Universe itself, not a blueprint
          but an evolution of spirit in terms of variety and a thicket of

          — Robert Duncan, Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman

In Canto XV of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim traveling through Hell
with his guide, Virgil, encounters a man with, in Robert Pinsky’s
translation, a “scorched face,” “baked features.” Despite the disfiguration
from heat and flame, Dante recognizes his mentor, his former
teacher and translator of Cicero, with a faltering question
whose point of inflected emphasis has kept many Dante scholars
and graduate students busy with scholarly papers: “Are you here,
Ser Brunetto?” The sinners in the third round of the Seventh Circle
sin against God, nature, and art; Brunetto Latini’s sin, the sin for
which his former student condemns him to Hell, is the specific sin
of sodomy: a sin against God and nature, according to Church
teaching, because no offspring or fruit is produced. Dante uses the
polite and respectful form of voi to address Latini; twice, in Latini’s
first two responses to Dante’s words, Latini calls Dante “son” (O
figliuol mio and O figliuol). The two discourse about the politics of
Florence; then, Dante responds that he wishes that Latini “had not
yet been banished from humanity” since Latini “taught [Dante]
how man makes himself immortal.”

The immortality is achieved through art, through poetry. Latini
lives through his writing, yet he is also condemned to Hell for his
alleged sin of sodomy. He is condemned for all eternity to a rain of
fire and to constant movement on the burning sands (the concrete
image of eternal consequence for the inner sin); Latini’s scholarly
life of solitude and reflection is lost to him. Sappho had, in a much
earlier era, written or declaimed celebrated poems of same gendered 
love: poems that capture the almost physical agony that can
befall the one who desires (“Percussion, salt and honey, / A quivering
in the thighs; / He shakes me all over”—translated by Guy
Davenport). Dante condemns Latini not for his teachings or for his
work, but for the desire that Sappho celebrated and agonized over
(“you burn me…”—translated by Kenneth Rexroth: think of the
irony that Dante recognizes: Sappho’s fire is internal heart and soul
heat externally realized in Latini’s fire-baked flesh).

The gay poet is a long tradition and lineage, spanning the Greeks
to the present. Depending on the era—classical Greece, 14th century
Europe—society has treated the gay poet merely as an artist
or as a moral outlaw. Even into the 20th century, gay poets often
felt marginalized because of their sexuality: think of the exuberance
of Hart Crane’s verse—perhaps the RuPaul of 20th century poetry
(because of the blowzy, occasionally overwritten, and imprecise
amplitude of language)—bridge between Whitman and the
Roaring Twenties, as Robert Creeley noted, and the way his work
often finds itself dismissed by way of a focus on his life; or think of
the way Auden’s work pulled back from its erotic expression once
he left England for America at the age of thirty-one, a point
explored in expansive detail in a November 20, 2008 New York
Review of Books essay by Charles Rosen (“What Happened to
Wystan Auden?”). In that same issue of New York Review of
Books, Daniel Mendelsohn writes about Cavafy, whose best poems
are, as Mendelsohn’s essay title proclaims, “As Good as Great
Poetry Gets.” Here is the reluctant yearning of Cavafy’s “Sunset”:
“He swears every now and then to begin a / better life. / But when
night comes with its own counsel, / its own compromises and
prospects— / when night comes with its own power / of a body
that needs and demands, / he goes back, lost, to the same fatal
pleasure.” As problematic as gay poetry has been viewed in prior
times, today, on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, gay culture
appears mainstreamed. I remember a reading at Duke University to
a packed auditorium audience in the late 1970s as Allen Ginsberg
chanted, near the close of the reading, his hotel and room information
for any young man eager to meet him later in the evening. Gay
or queer poetry has become a cottage industry.

The grandfather, of course, has been Whitman, for whom Eros was
another form of country to embrace: comrade as country, country
as comrade. In her moving essay titled “‘Candidates for My Love’:
Three Gay and Lesbian Poets,” Adrienne Rich writes about the
progenitors of queer studies (among them, Martin Duberman,
Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Paul Goodman) and defines the
larger issue as one of “inclusive justice,” “of which art and literature
are…tributaries.” Walt Whitman is the fountain of queer poetics.
Rich writes a succinct gloss of Whitman’s “Whoever You Are
Holding Me Now in Hand,” noting that the poem’s “sensuality is
heightened by its tone of warning, as it both lures and wards off
the ‘you’ it addresses.” She moves then to Whitman’s own words
about Leaves of Grass (“the song of Sex and Amativeness, and
even Animality”), and then to Duncan’s essay on Whitman, from
which this review’s epigraph is taken. Later, comparing Whitman’s
affirmation of gay love with Duncan’s more somber post-WW II
poem “Among My Friends Love Is a Great Sorrow,” Rich speculates
that the Cold War hysteria dampened the spirit of American
society. The expansive love and wide-open spaces of Whitman’s
world were constricted by the political and cultural suspiciousness
in the aftermath of World War Two’s atomic explosiveness.

Jeffery Beam’s The Beautiful Tendons is a collection of “uncollected
queer poems” spanning almost 40 years, from the time of Stonewall
to 2007. In an opening essay, titled “The Visionary Company of
Love” (from the Hart Crane lines “And so it was I entered the broken
world / To trace the visionary company of love”), Beam claims
that he uses “the word ‘Queer’ because of its ritual connotations.
Making something sacred from something intended to oppress and
shame.” These poems intend to evoke “the body’s divinity”: a divinity
Beam finds in his own flesh and in the flesh of men (“When I
make love with a man, I make love with the Divine.”). At their best,
these poems are not merely about the oppressions suffered as a gay
man or as someone queer; rather, the most moving poems depict the
joys and pains of what it means to be fully human.

Nonetheless, the desire of men is prevalent. A poem titled “The
Man Poem” opens the collection as a preface. The next section of
the book takes its title, “The New Husband,” from the Whitman
poem analyzed by Rich in “‘Candidates for My Love.’” What
Whitman would define through comrade, Beam defines as queer.
But both invoke the idea of lover as “husband.” The opening poem
of this section, “Variation on a Malay Theme: The Changes,” highlights
the strengths of Beam’s best work: concrete imagery and
plain diction. The poem opens, “Cotton changes into thread. /
Thread into pants and jacket.” Labor, commerce, and fashion are
encapsulated in two lines. The poem titled “The Son” also provides
a clear image: “the moon / whitens the deer”; a camp fire throws a
“circular / light.” These straightforward images work more successfully
than the full-scale erotics of a poem like “The Tissue.”
Although the poem contains a strong internal rhyme and fine image
(“Trying to feel what we knew / but kneeling”), “The Tissue” also
raises a series of (problematic) possibilities: is the tissue to sop up
after sex? Does the poet intend to suggest the tissue of creation—
the “word-rhythm” conceived between writers?

The erotic poems or poems of desire that read as most successful
are those grounded in correspondences with the natural world.
Three such poems come immediately to mind: “A Wedding Song
for Men,” “The Spirit of Forms: A Song,” and “Love Comes.”
“Wedding Song” opens with a simple but poignant image: “After
the storm, silence. / After love’s bath, / the toweling.” “Spirit of
Forms” ends strongly, and remains open to all that might follow as
there is no end punctuation to bring the action or activity full stop:

          I candle love
          From two ends I do light
          It burns with fleshy fumes and moth
          A humming rouses us from bed
          Light through the window
          Whiteness on your hands

“Love Comes” is grounded (pun intended) in the material or natural
world of “burrowing insects, happy worms” or “musty earth”:
“earth being the one coolness / other than water / to be enjoyed.”
Am I, then, a prude that “DickEssence” (an indulgent
Whitmanesque chant) moves me not? I hope not. A poem like “The
Tissue” is about sex but remains abstracted rather than brought to
the earthiness of carnal pleasures: body and world. Part of the
abstraction may be connected to Beam’s desire to make of desire a
spiritual quest and fulfillment. Yet, to take an influence, Whitman’s
cosmic imagery is always grounded in the concrete. It’s the
Whitman who writes, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the
journey-work of the stars, / …And the narrowest hinge in my hand
puts to scorn all machinery, / And the cow crunching with
depress’d head surpasses any statue, / And a mouse is miracle
enough to stagger sextillions of infidels”—this Whitman grounds
spirit and philosophy in the particulars (and the aspiration of these
lines moves me more than the catalogues).

Beam has poems that invoke Dante and Brunetto Latini (“Instinct”)
and one titled “Cavafy.” An interesting sequence makes use of
Baron Von Gloeden’s 19th century photographs of (mostly) nude
young Sicilian men in various (obvious) poses. The opening poem
addresses the ironies Beam hopes to uncover in these photographic
images: “Greeks made you, / Romans took you, Normans, / Arabs
desired, ‘spoiled,’ / embraced you. / Von Gloeden undressed you.”

There are moving love poems evidenced in these pages.
“Entomology” addresses love’s gravity and the insignificance of
even the cosmos against love’s need: “All I want: // your affection //
The rest: // the earth / mankind: // atoms / of dust / Little insects.”
In the collection’s final poem, “Diversion on a Birthday,” images of
nature—blackbird, bees, grasshoppers, owl—are woven into a
complex tapestry of fresh, enduring love: a love that is “dizzying //
The kiss / extremely always.”

Beam does not set up his poems in the collection as love poems,
though there are many, or as erotic poems or poems of Eros,
though there are several; rather, these poems are offered as “queer
poems,” specifically posited in the context of a particular sexuality
or gender love. The poems that focus on the priapic member prove
least successful or, perhaps, most mundane and adolescent. The
poems least specifically focused on queer content sing more fully to
this reviewer’s (admittedly heterosexual) ear. (But Beauty’s attraction
transcends gender, of course. Beam quotes an apt line from
Camille Paglia as an epigraph: “Beauty has its own laws…is the
first step of a ladder leading to God.” Beauty exerts its gravitational
pull across gender: the eyes’ perpetual aye.) In addition,
though there appear to be elegies for those who have died young,
perhaps of AIDS, the AIDS epidemic doesn’t get much explicit play
in the collection. The spiritual and transcendent trump the political
in Tendons.

That omission proves even more striking after a reading of the earlier
mentioned Adrienne Rich essay. After the analysis of the poems
by Whitman and Duncan, she moves to her third candidate for her
love: a poem from the early 1970s by Judy Grahn. In Grahn’s
poem, “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” there is a moving
sequence: when confronted with the question “Have you ever committed
any indecent acts with women?” (a question intended to
arrive at a guilty sexual admission), the poem turns the question
from the personal to the political (through the personal). The
response to the question is a laundry list of “acts of omission”
(people dying under the persona’s hands “because / I thought I
could do nothing” or “of not / loving her who needed me” or “the
women I have not / slept with or comforted”). The list moves the
reader emotionally through its reminder that daily we have the
opportunity to love others. And the list moves toward a larger definition
of human community and human empathy, the “thicket of
potentialities;” this is what it means to be fully human.