Category Archives: WC79 – Sanctuary

WC79 – Dan Vera’s The Space Between Our Danger & Delight

Rvu_VERA The Space Between
Our Danger and Delight

By Dan Vera

Beothuk Books $15.00
ISBN 97806152538

Reviewed by Collin Kelley

Dan Vera’s debut collection, The Space Between Our Danger and Delight is just like the cover image — full of sparks. And also like the sparkler, the 37 poems crackle and burn long after you close the covers on this slim volume. Vera embraces an economy of words, wasting none of his lines or fussing with complicated metaphors. This is a straightforward collection that reminded me of Ted Kooser, but also the whimsy often found in the work of our poetry grandfather, Walt Whitman.

Pop culture and Bush/Iraq-era politics are on display, and the Whitmanesque vibe clearly shows through as Vera writes about Washington D.C. with both exaltation for its beauty and despair for the president who has ruled as a despot for the last eight years behind the beautiful walls of the White House.

Perhaps the strongest section is the set of poems about growing up Gay and Latino in South Texas: Finding his emotions as a young barrio boy watching Disney’s Old Yeller, his family’s assimilation into American life, his brother’s reaction to his coming out as a Gay man. While those subjects might seem specific, these poems contain multitudes.

There is a folksiness in the opening poems, full of romping dogs, cuddling up to a loving partner and playful curiosities about the “chemical” and “elemental principles” of delight and how we as humans measure it. Perhaps the collection’s strongest piece — although it’s a tough call with all the delights on offer here — is Emily Dickinson at the Poetry Slam, a fantasia about the poet leaving her Amherst attic, catching a train to Boston and laying down three minutes so perfect that it cures illnesses, causes power outages and turns hair white on those who witness it. That one poem is worth the price of admission alone, but I decided to choose another piece that spoke to me just as strongly.

Father’s Day for Gay Boys by Dan Vera

One beside another – brothers

Seven diviners

of what lies beyond the truths we have uncovered.

One make three, then four, then more

until we move beyond mere numbers.

There is thunder over the city tonight

and of the million hearts we may never see

here in the circle we make commitments

we push the limits of earthly loving.

Electricity visits again

and the black skies pulse with light –

currents of power by some capillary action.

Sons kiss their fathers.

Sons kiss their fathers to sleep

and the rose-eyed boy remembers himself again.

We are not the sons they ordered

with their patriotic dreaming.

We are not the sons they expected to come down the line.

But we unfold

beyond such kind paternal ignorance.

We unfold within the measure of our time.

And we make peace with the fathers inside of us.

And we give birth to a hidden, long-carried joy within.

 

Collin Kelley is a poet, author, editor, community organizer and advocate for the arts. 
He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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WC79 – Matt Bernstein Sycamore’s So Many Ways to Sleep Badly

Rvu_sycamore So Many Ways
to Sleep Badly

By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Publishers $15.95
ISBN-10: 0872864685,  256 pages

Reviewed by Steve Susoyev

A number of popular artists have fashioned their personal brands of neurosis into lucrative art forms. No matter how fucked up you feel on a given day, you may derive a certain comfort from the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen rips up his driver’s license while explaining to a Los Angeles cop, “I have a terrific problem with authority, you know.”

In the realm of literary memoir, Anne Lamott’s agonizing descriptions of the drunken behavior with which she routinely alienated everyone in her early life who was worth caring about, and of her sometimes tortured relationship with her son Sam, now in his late teens, make me laugh so hard I have to pull off the road when I listen to her audio books in the car.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, who appears here for the first time without the now-familiar “aka Matt” designation in her name, has catapulted the whore’s memoir into the neurosis genre. No Moll Flanders-style stories of deprivation or exploitation introduce So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. The paternal incest that has been thoroughly explored in Pulling Taffy and Dangerous Families makes brief, oblique appearances here: “When my mother says you need to go to the root of your problems — get me a shovel! Lilie says: I like when you talk about incest because you can laugh about it.” And, “Why am I so fucking fragile? I’ll give you three choices: “(a) Incest. (b) Incest. (c) Incest.”

In what often feels like free-association but is in fact cleverly crafted narrative, this very savvy writer and social commentator manages, both in her novels and essay collections, to sound utterly clueless while skewering hypocrites and herself. We get earfuls about unsafe sex, sexual compulsion and meth addiction, Gay marriage and other symptoms of self-annihilating Gay assimilation, police brutality, and the outrageous prices of organic produce offered at designer supermarkets.

And so much more.

Readers who have not encountered Mattilda at her readings or read her other work may be surprised to find her unique even among gender-bending writers, displaying none of the indignation with which many M‑F trannies approach the subject of other people’s confusion concerning their sexual identities. Mattilda prefers to be called “She,” but in this volume we find frequent references to her penis, one of the chief tools of her trade as a whore: “I like the way this trick’s whole body clenches then releases every time my dick goes in and out of his ass.” Scenes from Mattilda’s sex career appear and retreat mid-paragraph, leaving the reader with the impression that tricks go and come in the slapdash way that wrestling competitions and Brazilian soap operas appear on the television screens of the late-night channel-surfer, between bites from slices of stale pizza and calls to the phone-sex lines.

Mattilda’s essays, and her introductions to the essay collections that she has edited, are incisive and focused. Her Foreword to the 2007 Lammy-nominated Nobody Passes hisses with outrage at GUPPYS in Bermuda shorts whose greatest aspiration — whose only apparent aspiration — is to assimilate utterly with their straight neighbors, preferably through the patriarchal institution of marriage. No matter where you stand on the marriage issue, this glitter-eyed, gender-bent, metallic-mesh-encased kid with the feathers in his/her hair will make you think.

If you’ve ever paid for sex, and wondered what sex workers think of their clients, after reading one of Mattilda’s novels you’ll remind yourself to be careful what you ask for:

This trick could be fun, except he’s so nervous I can’t stay hard, and his crotch smells like rotten eggs…. He’s one of those tricks who thought I was shorter, from the one-column-inch photo in the paper…. He pays me one-forty-eight plus two dollars in quarters…. Funny how the guy won’t kiss me afterwards, honey it’s your come…. It’s a good thing this guy’s dick is beautiful, because he’s — well, you know….

And so a fan of Mattilda’s politically charged essays could think we’re in some unfamiliar territory here. But politics is never far under the surface:

On my way home, the 7th and Market 24-hour check-cashing place is jammed and the cops drive up and arrest two black guys who are just standing there. The cop car drives off and then this one white guy chases after the only other white guy there with a baseball bat — racial profiling is so effective!

Despite the free-associative impression, the book has a plot, a theme, and a message. Of course it would be easy to read So Many Ways… as pure autobiography, particularly because our fictional narrator calls herself “Mattilda,” works as a whore, and has strong opinions. But in the temporally disoriented, casino-like world in which our narrator meets and dismisses tricks, haunts sex clubs, cruises parks, falls in love, tosses in bed until daybreak, frets about her digestion and other health issues, suffers heartbreak and disses hypocrites, the one thing she does not do is write. Unlike this fictional narrator, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a prolific writer. And so, to whatever extent these vignettes from the fictional life of a neurotic, politically savvy whore are taken from the experience of the neurotic, politically savvy whore whose name appears on the title page, the thing the narrator does not share with us is her experiences as a writer and performance artist.

If City Lights Books ever releases Mattilda’s work in audio form, they surely will have the sense to make sure she reads it herself. In the meantime, catch her reading live whenever you can. She has learned much as a performer — with some tips, I think, from her friend the performance artist and whore Kirk Read. Her comic timing and the crackling intelligence of her ironic phrasing will bring you to your knees.

Steve Susoyev lives in San Francisco.

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WC79 – Spirit Dancing: Radical Faerie Ritual Chants

Spirit Dancing:
Radical Faerie Ritual Chants

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

Shane Hill and Heron Saline, two enterprising musicians in Santa Cruz, California, have done the Gay men’s spiritual community and audiophiles the world over an enormous favor by recording this collection of Radical Faerie songs and chants, Spirit Dancing: Radical Faerie Ritual Chants. Some of these fourteen tracks were originally composed and heard during early Faerie gatherings in the 1980s. Others in this lively compilation have been spiritual standards for years within previous pagan and earth-centered faith traditions.

According to lead vocalist Shane Hill, “the chants are sung to invoke specific openings into ourselves, to each other and to the realms beyond our everyday experience.” The chants are arranged to match the structure of a Radical Faerie gathering or large ritual, from the opening circle to the invocation of elements and deities. Adds Heron Saline, who supplies guitar, percussion instruments, and supporting vocals, making the album was “a love gift for our communities.” That nurturing spirit resonates throughout Spirit Dancing, which has been recorded with obvious professional care as well.

A few of my favorite tracks are “Wearing Our Long Green Feathers,” adapted from an Arapaho song, “We Are an Old People,” composed by Will Shepardson,” and the tender tribal hymn, “Dear Friends,” adapted from a traditional English round. But anyone who has stood in a Radical Faerie circle, whether thirty years ago or today, will be sure to have treasured personal memories stirred and confirmed — as did I — by Spirit Dancing. Students, in general, of alternative spirituality and culture will also find this album equally valuable.

My only complaint in an otherwise wholesale praise of this project is that nowhere on the CD or its packaging is an address or other contact information given. Spirit Dancing would make a beautiful gift to a friend and useful addition to any Faerie library. But I guess prospective listeners will just have to rely on community word of mouth or on those spirits who come via the wind — as welcomed and entrancing as the songs thankfully recorded for posterity here.

To obtain the Spirit Dancing CD, please contact Shaynala or Heron. Heron Saline: 415-706-9740 heron3@mindspring.com with“chant cd” in the subject line) Shane Hill (Shaynala): 831-345-2412 foresthill77@yahoo.com

Mark Thompson lives in Los Angeles.

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WC79 – Paul Murray’s Life in Paradox

Rvu_murray Life in Paradox:  The Story of a Gay Catholic Priest  By Fr. Paul Murray
O Books 231 pages, paperback; $24.95
ISBN 978-1-84694-112-2

Reviewed by Toby Johnson

Paul Murray was the first openly Gay priest in the Washington, D.C. Roman Catholic Archdiocese; he worked in a ministry to troubled homosexuals called Among Friends. He is now Catholic Chaplain and teacher at Bard College, Annadale-on-the-Hudson, in the Catskills north of New York City, still a priest, still openly Gay.

The autobiography, Life in Paradox, recounts the long journey he took from a conservative Episcopalian youth to the Catholic Church to the priesthood to Gay identity to battles with several layers of the Church hierarchy over his personal life, but more particularly over his ministry to Gay people, to final resolution—and success.

The book reads more like a novel than an autobiography; there is a kind of plot structure in it that most lives don’t contain. He set out on a quest — to be a good, religious human being; encountered obstacles, trials, and ordeals along the way; finally came to confront his religious superiors directly and did not back down or recant — even when threatened with trial for heresy; achieved his goal of personal integrity — as a Gay man and as a priest; and now bestows boons to his students.

And the story is amazingly detailed. Murray presents whole swathes of his life verbatim. This assists with the novelistic read of the book, though it is also a weakness because a lot of the details are more annoying to the reader than germane to the plot. He lived for a while as a resident in a small parish, for example, run by a pastor who did not like him and acted rude and insensitively toward him. As a reader and outside observer of his life, I kept wondering how he could put up with it. Why didn’t he leave?

Of course, THAT is precisely the message of the book: he didn’t leave because he really was a good priest and wanted to practice Catholic priesthood the right way. And it resulted in one ordeal after another.

Murray deals with his homosexuality rather matter-of-factly; it is simply part of who he is as a priest who is a homosexual. He does not tell much about his interior life. This book is about the Church, not about the spiritual struggle — or victory — in finding spiritual meaning in Gay identity.

The book ends wonderfully with a kind of priestly spiritual experience. As a priest ministering to the dying, he is called to give Last Rites to a young man dying of AIDS. There is such a sweetness in the way this story is told — and gentle humor. It is in the words of the young PWA questioning what he believes and what he has come to understand about faith that Paul Murray seems to present what he has learned. They joke together about reincarnation and afterlife and about the meaning of the sacraments. It’s the PWA, speaking almost with the voice of Christ, who affirms Paul Murray’s priesthood, inviting him as minister to join in the celebration of his life in the form of the consecrated wafer, washed down with a sip of lemonade. The episode offers a glimpse into the power that priesthood can muster, even without all the issues about Truth and Dogma and Church authority. It comes down to being a good human being with another good human being.

The book’s an easy, entertaining, interesting read — especially for Catholics, priests and former priests/seminarians who can appreciate the Byzantine ways of the Church hierarchy. It doesn’t give an answer to troubled souls about the meaning of life, though to Gay Catholics and Gay priests struggling to remain in the Church with their integrity intact, it offers a good role model in the life of a man who has achieved just that.

Toby Johnson is the former publisher of White Crane (White Crane Journal).  He is a frequent contributor to White Crane.  For more information visit www.tobyjohnson.com

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