November 21, 2011KR BlogBlogInterviewReview

Desire into language: Christopher Hennessy on James L. White

In the current edition of KROnline, David Bartone reviews James L. White’s influential The Salt Ecstasies (1982), recently reissued by Graywolf Press. The poems “breathe so lonesome,” writes Bartone, offering an “orientation to the burdensome world of Eros and loss” with “graphic candor.” As James Crews notes elsewhere, White’s book is “more than just a gay classic”: its “sad yet ecstatic tone” resounds throughout contemporary poetry. “More than anything I had read up to that point,” Crews writes, “[The Salt Ecstasies] made me want to be a poet.”

Christopher Hennessy, whose first book of poems, Love-In-Idleness, was just released from Brooklyn Arts Press, also cites White as a gateway poet. I recently asked Hennessey about this influence. Below, he discusses language at its limits, “desire (and sex even),” and how a reader can find an essential poet at the right time. If you attend the upcoming AWP Conference, you can find Hennessy discussing this topic further—along with Mark Doty, Kevin Killian, Stephen Motika, and David Trinidad—at the panel Recovery/Discovery: The Art of Bringing Queer Literary Heroes Back into Print. (I also encourage you to check out Hennessy’s poem Gethsemane for an example of the “alert and direct” restating that Bartone sees in White.)

Christopher Hennessy: Well, I’ve got my slim 1982 Graywolf Press edition here, which I bought from Tim’s Books in Provincetown for (apparently, according to the inside cover, $4.75.). It’s, unlike most of my books, not marked up at all. I think that’s because many of these poems seem perfect to, but also very contained in time, and I don’t want to alter that.

The story of White’s influence goes back to an interview I did with Mark Doty several years ago. Mark says:

I admire enormously poems in which language arrives at a limit, something can’t be completed or grasped, and the poem in some way acknowledges that and points to its own inability to hold. … For instance, a poet I love, James L. White, has a poem called “Making Love to Myself” from The Salt Ecstasies …. White writes so directly from his experience as a gay man, the kind of ecstatic rhetoric we’re used to meeting in those poems has a different grounding. This particular poem is an elegy to a lover who’s not died but has simply gone away. After a sorrowful description of the autoerotic act and of recalling his companion, White says at the end of the poem: “I just have to stop here, Jess. / I just have to stop.”  Stop what?– writing this poem, because I can’t bear what I have to say. Stop wounding myself by remembering you. Stop masturbating because I’m coming, or because I can’t finish because of these torturous memories. Or even, perhaps, that I have to stop my life because I can’t continue with this absence. It’s an extraordinary example of a poem that incorporates its own limits.

I love that. So, as I said, Mark tells me this, and I immediately go out and find this book. I read the poems all in one sitting and was so moved—and so punished by the book. Punished emotionally by its sadness, its aloneness, but also punished and moved by its ability to speak authentically, raw-heartedly but with a language that could veer from simplicity to vibrancy to stony marble…(perhaps mirroring the experience of the speaker apprehending some emotion—desire, or its loss?). I say “punished” because the revelation I’m trying so poorly to articulate was one in which I realized the utter bankruptcy of how I was approaching poetry.

I had been under the soul-killing assumption that you shouldn’t talk about desire; this was due in great part, I’m sure, to being young, gay and fearing disclosure in a group of relative strangers, the workshop. I also wrongly believed desire was dreadfully complex. (It’s also very, very simple.) So, a few years before I’d come to this book, I’d been writing a stilted, overwrought, overdetermined kind of poem that studiously and assiduously avoided desire, love, relationships and focused almost wholly on taking memory and over-thinking it to death, pounding it into flatness with over-baked language, ridiculously complicated figures, you know the thing. I knew I couldn’t do that anymore, but I was having trouble finding a poet I wanted to emulate, who could usher me from what I’d been writing into a more authentic kind of utterance, one in which I could feel guided by the poem’s needs and not some linguistic straightjacket’s neurotic impulse to control so much no possible feeling could be perceived. And I needed someone who was new to me, whose poems I could interpret for myself without the idea of poetic schools, canonical readings, or previous professors’ idea impinging on my own reading. (This is why I think it was essential in a weird way that White was an unknown.)

White’s writing not only gave me a kind of permission, it gave me one model of how to talk about desire (and sex even), both in a visceral way but also engaging deeper levels of associative power. For example, in one poem he dreams of a lover “going through me like winter bone.” Here’s that moment.

Some farm kid presses again my leg.
I look at the long backs of men in the field
and doze to dream you’re going through me
like winter bone, your logs of arms pushing
me down into some stifling contract with flesh
until I break free for air.

You know those moments when you read a poem and the poem has a somatic response in you? This poem does that for me, still. I take a big gulp of air at the end. I think that’s because my body is remembering how to turn desire into language again, like it learned the first time I read the poem.