by Perry Brass
Reviewed by Bo Young
"If you don't find poetry loathsome, then you are already on the way to The Lover of My Soul" may not seem like the kind of bookjacket blurb an author might want to feature, but that is the last, and most memorable line for me on The Lover of My Soul's back cover. Back-handed or not, it is an apt appraisal of this collection of fine writing, some of which stretches the standard understanding of what poetry is or is not.
My personal bias is against wild abstractions and over-reaching obscurity. What draws me to poetry -- and I have come to it reluctantly in some regards -- is the absolute beauty of the language on one hand, but the accessibility of language to everyone. I have often expressed the belief that it isn't difficult to be obscure or esoteric. What is difficult is to make language, music -- art in general -- accessible, not elitist.
Language should inspire, but first it must communicate. Brass does this. And he does it in a most inviting, ingratiating and conversational way; as though a man was speaking to you from the heart using the language of the heart in all its facets, and in words anyone with a heart can understand. This is not to say that Brass' language doesn't rise to soaring, anthemic levels. He erects towering images of love and passion for the lover of his soul in page after page of just the kind of romantic longings I crave when trying to express the depths of my heart to a lover.
Lovers are idealists at heart and Brass is no exception. Poets have always been memorialists, creating monuments of language so we never forget. Brass makes us remember Susan Smith in South Carolina (For Susan Smith), killing her young sons and musing about the small deaths every gay boy survives in youth. His heartfelt offense at the injustices and banalities of the world are epitomized with witty and passionate screeds against fag bashers ("A Warning To Fag Bashers") in which he says what every one of us has thought, but could never act on, whenever we read of another attack against a brother or a sister for their sexuality or their race, for that matter. Brass' language and soul encompass biting irony (and skate perilously over sarcasm) in "How To Survive (And Even Overcome) The Stupidities of What Passes As The Wisdom Of Modern Life" that should be rendered in needlepoint, always returning, as the lover he is, to the sensual, erotic paeans to the beauty of men, singularly and universally.
What Brass does best, for this reader, is to remind us that the most exciting sex organ any man has remains the one between his ears. The subtitle of the book, which should be read by lovers over pillows at night is A Search for Ecstacy and Wisdom. And Brass finds both. "What If?" calls us all to task for the consumerist, assimilationist lemming march we all seem to struggle against, and does so in the most approachable of terms: What if I don't just want to be entertained? What if I'm sick of junk canned music being imposed on me? What if I believe my time alone is more important than your time selling me crap; more important than your time bothering me, being stupid, inconsiderate and rude to me? What if I like dead white makes? What if I like dead white females, too? What if I'm an unrepentant elitist because I don't believe everyone will be doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way? What if I don't like "hip" music? What if I am not hip at all?. What if I told you that? What if I said you are no longer welcome in the unusual, difficult place I have made for myself, and I am no longer interested in just being comfortable? "What If" But Brass is not only cerebral. The keen connection between sexuality and spirituality is not easy to convey in the most direct of prose, much less in poetry. Like muted pronouns in popular music, too often, for my tastes, poetry can be indeterminately sexual. Like that music, I want poetry to sing the specific praises of the love of men, erotic and spiritual. Perry Brass does it in the most direct and familiar kind of language, as in "Sucking Dick Instead of Kissing": "...and we hold on to each other, hardly able to stay on the couch facing each other; and I hold on to your big thighs and you stretch your long legs around me and I feel suddenly weak with happiness, now kissing you, until each good thing inside me dissolves into some revealed knowledge: of you leading me out on a glistening path into darkness when we're alone on moist grass, now sucking dick instead of kissing; and the path finally reaches a shadowed mountain veined with glass that erupts into lava, into silver as you take me many years away from where I'd started: then it's over too soon."
We've all been to that mountain. We've all been on that couch. It seems to be fashionable now, if not just simple zeitgeist, to imagine Jesus as a gay man. I have yet to see Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi on Broadway, but Brass' "What A Best Friend I Have In Jesus" will suffice to enrage the fundamentalists (thank you very much) quite well thank you until we see that. It is, perhaps, unwise and a little difficult to admit, as a poetry editor, that I find a great deal of poetry to be pretentious, esoteric and deserving of the effete reputation that the form has achieved. I haven't quite reached the level of thinking it to be "loathesome" as suggested on Brass' bookjacket, but I cringe when I am offered new poems to read, or books to review as people delve into the very private parts of their own secret language and leave the rest of us scratching our heads. I include myself in this appraisal all too often.
Achieving authentic language that speaks in an uncommon, but shared tongue is difficult, which is why good poetry is as rare as it is radical. Recent poets that achieve this in my opinion are Allen Ginsberg, James Broughton and W.H. Auden. When it happens, poetry takes its promising place among the pantheon of arts: it expresses our minds, it moves our hearts, and it contains all of life -- or one precious moment of it -- in a most economical and discreet way. Brass joins this rank with this book that tempts you to read it cover to cover at first, all the while wanting to save and savor to extend the pleasure. In his own words from Five "Russian" Lyrics: When I'm Gone: And this I know you'll miss when I am gone: and move eternity inside to hold my warmth next to your empty heart.
Bo Young is WCJ Poetry Editor.