On the Tongue
Poems by Jeff Mann
Gival Press, 94 pages, $15.00
Reviewed by Dan Vera
Readers of Jeff Mann’s last book, his part memoir/part poetry book Loving Mountains, Loving Men have cause for great celebration. If you were enraptured by his prose writing, with the way it revealed Mann’s generous heart, yet felt you wanted more of his distilled poetic voice, his new book will put a huge grin on your face.
Mann, who teaches at Virginia Tech and won the 2007 Lambda Literary Award for his History of Barbed Wire, has here produced a work of such open-hearted capability. Many of these poems are just staggeringly good. In his capable and goodly hands, the scarred arm of a bartender becomes a thing of beauty and the act of loving becomes the union of tree and earth.
One of the assuring blurbs in this book calls Mann the “Sappho of Appalachia.” High praise indeed, but with Sappho we are left with small fragments. Mann’s work is fully, pleasurably revealed on the page. There is no guessing left to the eye or mind and the reader is allowed to join him in celebrating the enduring beauty of the male form. Reading Mann’s naturalistic evocations of the body of the beloved put me to mind of Pablo Neruda’s swelling love poetry in his Captain’s Verses or Audre Lorde’s sultry lover poems. These are clear, direct gazes at the lover that become meditations on the merging of human bodies as elemental, geological, and seismic encounters.
This book is nothing less than a breakthrough. I found myself feeling pride at reading such a masterful collection of gay poems, at the sense that we’d finally reached a moment where our poets could write the truth that has so long been withheld. Two centuries ago, one of our proto-gay forebears, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, argued that gay love is natural because it exists in nature. For Mann, it is nature itself.
Sup these poems.
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Dan Vera is managing editor of White Crane. A poet and writer in Washington, DC, he can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.danvera.com