Every year, when I visit the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, I'm lucky enough to be in the company of some of the finest GLBT poets for a few days. It's where I met Mark Doty, and Robert Walker. It's also where I met Jeff Mann, who - as I said yesterday - has an absolute lyrical finesse with his prose that I find astounding. I first fell in love with his prose through short fiction and then his novels. He has a facility with mixing dichotomies - pain and pleasure, tenderness and BDSM, poetry and the guttural - that it's no surprise he's a poet as well as a novelist, a short fiction author, and - oh, hey - a professor who is kind enough to translate that talent into the hands of others.
I am not a poet - I don't have the gift. But I do have appreciation, and I just finished Jeff Mann's latest poetry collection, A Romantic Mann, and I barely know where to begin. One recurrent theme of the collection is of course the south - and the food of the south - as well as the weight of history (especially that of Mann's heritage homeland of Scotland). A sip of scotch, the texture of particular meals, a lick of sweat - the evocation of the sense of taste is at the forefront of many of the poems, and artfully so.
A Romantic Mann is broken into four books, and though I couldn't stop myself from gobbling the whole over two days, I would say that the four divisions of the book are an important series of divides. I found the progression - and the arrangement within each book - to be purposeful and impactful; if I'm imagining progressions that weren't intentional, it's on my head, but each book held a different set of reactions for me as the reader.
Book One is a perfect introduction to the oppositions Mann spins so beautifully. Longing and brutality ("Gredel"), humour and wit (the "Failed Romantic" poems, of which there are three, and I adored them), and throughout all the mix of sweat, scent, and the interplay between men openly or otherwise lusting or loving each other ("Erotic Letter," "Relic," "Getting a Piece," "Romantic Weekend.")
Book Two sent me briefly to the internet to learn a bit more about musical modes, as each poem title - and tone - is crafted with a particular mode in mind. I adored the set in full, but the sheer anger and frustration of natural devastation in "Locrian" was stunning, and the beautiful sense of beginnings-that-never-were (but could-have-been) captured in "Ionian" was a kind of quiet joy.
Book Three had moments so powerful I quite literally had to stop for a moment a few times. "Sugar Maples in October" was a brilliant piece that honoured Mark Bingham. A single line from "4x4" - I seem to have borrowed every gesture I own. - threw me into a tailspin of memories of my own, paralleled by the tale of father-and-son in the piece. Another poem, "Three Crosses," brought tears to my eyes with the vivid heat of vengeance and fury that we so often feel in the face what feels like our own impotence. And - oh - "Alan Turing Memorial - Manchester" was just so damn perfect. My husband and I went to see the exhibit when we were in London, and again, the complex and complicated emotions seeing his artifacts are so masterfully summarized in this poem. I will speak again and again of what men like you could not.
Book four brings the whole collection to a close with pieces brought from times, places, and events that leave the reader closing on another pair of sometimes opposing feelings; that the love expressed in so many different ways will - of course - come to a close, but this is not necessarily something to fear. Monuments of loss, grand cathedrals built in the name of a religion that thought nothing of raping a sodomite with a burning poker - these are legacies of pain, but I felt a kind of scarred healing throughout the telling of their tales ("Homomonument," "Gloucester Cathedral.") We move. We move on. And all these loves - whether they were brutal or sad in their ending, or hopeful and joyful in whatever brief times they might have had in the light - are worth it.
I'm not a poet. I am, however, so glad I read these poems.