The Late Americans
In seminar, grad students on plastic folding chairs: seven women, two men. Naive enough to believe in poetry's transformative force, but cynical enough in their darker moments to consider poetry a pseudo-spiritual calling, something akin to the affliction of televangelists.
Outside, the last blue day in October. Snow in the forecast.
They discuss "Andromeda and Perseus," a poem submitted by Beth, who has reversed the title of the Titian painting in order to center Andromeda's suffering rather than the heroics of Perseus-rapist, killer, destroyer of women.
"The taking is as brutal as the captivity," says this squat girl from Montana.
The poem spans fifteen single-spaced pages, and contains, among other things, a graphic description of period sex in which menstrual blood congeals on a gray comforter. This is designated "the Gorgon's mark," in relation to "the iron stain" left on Medusa's robes following her decapitation by Perseus.
Around they go, taking in the poem's allusive system of images and its narrative density, the emotional heat of its subject matter, its increasing cultural salience re: women, re: trauma, re: bodies, re: life at the end of the world.
"I love the gestural improvisation of it all-so very Joan Mitchell," says Helen, who had once been some kind of Mormon child bride out in a suburb of Denver, and who now lives above a bar in downtown Iowa City, writing poems about dying children and pubic lice.
"I mean, like, so sharp, diamond sharp. Could cut a bitch, you know? God." Noli, nineteen, child prodigy. Disappointing her parents. Poetry instead of, what, medical school, curing cancer?
"Totally. So raw, though. So visceral."
"And heightened-" Mika, twenty-eight, Stevie Nicks impersonator in her bangles and boots and gauzy drapery.
"-charged-up, high-voltage shit-" Noli again, so talkative today. So chatty.
"Voice, voice, voice." Here, Linda, black from Tulsa. Braids. Glossy, perfect skin. She went to UT Austin, did a PhD in physics at MIT. Finished. Or dropped out. Either way, here in Iowa with the rest of them. In some kind of tension with Noli, also black, also brilliant. Not sisters. High-intensity mutual exclusion.
"Finally, something real," Noli says. Linda's gaze sharpens. "But totally rigorous. Like, not fake slam-poet shit. Just voice."
"I want this in my veins. Hard," Helen says.
The effluvia of praise washes over Beth, who receives their compliments with a placid glow. The instructor, never quite in contention for the Pulitzer but never quite out of it either, nods slowly as he presides over them like a fucking youth minister.
Or so Seamus imagined as he drowsed in half focus. Then, coming back to himself, to the room, becoming present, he really looked. Beth's lips were in a thin line, her eyebrows in deep grooves. Miserable despite the praise, when praise seemed so much the point of the poems they wrote. To be clapped on the back. Celebrated. Turned into modern saints and martyrs.
Curiouser and curiouser, thought Seamus, that a person, presented with what they wanted most, could seem so miserable about it.
Along the upper wall of the seminar room, trapezoidal panes of glass. The room was all sleek, dark-wood beams and soaring windows, barnlike in its effect. Early afternoon sunshine pooling on the scuffed floors. Locked cases of books by writing program alumni who had gone on to midlist glory.
The patina of prestige, so much like the corroded wax on the floorboards, had seen better days. That was the thing about prestige, though-the older and more moth eaten, the more valuable. There was a certain kind of poet for whom prestige was the point. The poetry was the prestige, and if no one saw you writing a poem, being a poet, then you were not a poet. For these poets, seminar was the zenith of their lives as artists. Never again would they have, on a weekly basis, such attention channeled upon their performance of poetry.
"This poem really troubles notions of reliability. Because, like, who is more an authority on an experience than the person doing the experiencing, right? But, like, the inconsistencies in the telling really make you wonder if the truth is really a palimpsest of falsehoods, and-" Helen again, though now interrupted by Garza, half Tunisian, half Quebecois, but raised in Toronto and Oakland.
"Totally. In this very Vicu–a way, like in Spit Temple-"
"I prefer Moraga's take on personal history, and how we bridge gaps in the archive with-" Noreen, West Virginian with a faint lilt that might have been faked-it was curiously absent when she was drunk-cutting across Garza's response.
"Hartman tells us that archives are constructed in the manner of-" Noli, cutting in, too.
These sundry interruptions and redactions, all the skirmishes and misdirection. Like a dog finally catching its tail and chewing it down to the gristle. Seamus looked to his right at Oliver, who was listening intently with a pleased, receptive expression. How, Seamus wondered, could he take this all so seriously, as they wore on talking about the violence of the archive and Cherr’e Moraga and Cecilia Vicu–a, whose work was not even remotely on point for the poem at hand. This wasn't poetry. This was the aping of poetry in pursuit of validation. This was another kind of poetry theatric: If you just said enough names, people assumed you knew what you were talking about and tended to attribute the vagueness of the reference to their own ignorance. But Seamus had read both Moraga and Vicu–a. He had read the critical essays of Saidiya Hartman-avant the MacArthur, bien sžr-and the critical essays in response to Hartman's work. He knew America to be a war of contradicting archives. Different histories with their own particular turbulences.
It would have been easier for these poets to say that sometimes you lied and sometimes you were mistaken and sometimes the truth changed on you in the course of telling. That sometimes trauma reconfigured your relationship both to the truth and to the very apparatus of telling. But no, they went on signifying. Tethering their bad ideas to recognized names and hoping someone would call them smart, call them sharp, call them radical and right, call them a poet and a thinker and a mind, even if they were just children.
"And the part about the blood on the sheet! I mean!" Noli said. "Stunning. Irrefutable."
Seamus flipped back through the poem until he got to the line about the Gorgon's mark, which had surprised him in its venereal vividness. It had the vibe of a detail you might find in a good poem. As if out of O'Hara by way of Kooser.
But reading back over the line, Seamus felt tickled. What kind of person, what kind of poetic organizing intelligence, upon seeing menstrual blood on a bedsheet after not-great sex, thought of Medusa's decapitation? Too funny. Not the blood itself, but the pretentious linkage. There was the duress. The transubstantiation of the real thing into something so freighted with meaning that it collapsed in on itself. The whole poem became a joke. This variety of poem often surfaced in seminar: personal history transmuted into a system of vague gestures toward greater works that failed to register genuine understanding of or real feeling for those works. Self-deceptions disguised as confession.
Seamus giggled to himself.
The instructor, low troll of a man with a head of high white hair, looked at him. Paused.
"Something to add, Seamus?" Everyone looked at him then. This was, he knew, a way of marshaling attention to himself. It was the only charismatic trait he possessed, but he had no control over it. True, he could have tried harder. This too was a performance, but he considered it morally acceptable because he knew it was a performance. He didn't pretend it was poetry.
He shuffled the papers a moment, but then, breaking out into a little giggle, he said, "So, like, her pussy is a Gorgon head? Is that like a Trump thing?"
A little magic trick: silence, the rolling blackout of their anger. Then, gradually, the lights going back on. Annoyance. Irritation.
Ingrid Lundstrom said, "I think it's more saying that we live in a world that has turned women's bodies into objects of revulsion and pain-and, how our pleasure is not our own? I think we need to honor that."
Ingrid had been in his class at Brown. In their sophomore year, she got published in The New Yorker with a nakedly autobiographical poem about her father's conversion to evangelical Christianity and his subsequent self-immolation. She was the kind of poet whose work was chiefly about herself, as if all that had transpired in the existence of humankind was no more consequential than the slightly nervy account of her first use of a tampon. He thought her poems craven and beautiful and utterly dishonest.
"Yes, but, like, her cooter is full of Medusa blood. Am I being obtuse? Am I missing the allusion?"
Oliver tried to intercede, laughing. "Negative capability, right?" he said.
The instructor said, "We are here to witness the poem."
Seamus snorted. Ingrid replied dryly, "I just think it's important to remember that the speaker of the poem is clearly carrying a legacy of violence, and this ambivalence toward desire/body/love/want is valid."
Witness and legacy of violence and valid: such terms made poetry seminar feel less like a rigorous intellectual and creative exercise and more like a tribunal for war crimes. Seamus hated it very much-not because he believed that trauma was fake, but because he didn't think it necessarily had anything to do with poetry.
"Are you a poet or a caseworker?" Seamus asked.
"What the fuck did you just say to me?"
Such withering piety, such righteous fury. He delighted in Ingrid's façade cracking.
"It's not a gendered term-unless you think it is. Now that would be sexist."
Ingrid stood and gave Seamus a bored, dismissive glance. Then she went to the sink in the back of the room to fill an electric kettle.
"You're being a child," Helen said, sotto voce.
Seamus made a show of screwing up his face and rubbing his eyes. He pouted.
"We are getting far afield here," the instructor said. He was looking straight up into the exposed beams, as though waiting for a signal from the divine.
"They're the ones calling names. My comments were textual," Seamus said. Through all of this, Beth stared into her notebook and scribbled furiously until she had soaked the corner of a page black with ink. Seamus leaned forward, elbows on his knees, watching her wrist wrench back and forth.
Such a chorus of opprobrium. Like the witches in Macbeth, but less fun. Less ridiculous glee.
"I'm triggered by your insults," Seamus said. "They remind me of my torturous childhood. Please stop."
Ingrid set the kettle on its stand and flicked the switch. It screeched as it came to life.
"The poem," the instructor said. "The poem is everything."
"Maybe you should take a breather, champ," Oliver said. He brought his hand to the back of Seamus's neck.
"You betcha, pal," Seamus said. He showed his teeth. Oliver just shook his head. But Seamus couldn't stop. He tasted the glut of their attention. The sweet iron tang of it. He was thirsty for more. The looks on their faces, the anger, the annoyance. So sure of themselves. Of their positions.
"I think we could all do with some fresh air," the instructor said. "Maybe we table for this week. You are free to go."
Oh, no fun. No fun at all. How unfair. Seamus grunted as he stood. Oliver followed. The rest of them remained in place, composed in various tableaux of waiting. Whispering to one another, exchanging notebooks and pointed looks. Seamus wondered if he and Oliver alone were being dismissed like disruptive children, while the others were all waiting for a second, secret seminar-the real class-to begin. He stood there a few seconds more, but then felt Oliver's hand at the crook of his arm, pulling at him.
Well, fine, he thought. All right.
"Enjoy your yoga," Seamus called over his shoulder, and Noli replied, "Enjoy your bowel impaction."
Them on the bridge, Seamus and Oliver.
Seamus hated, but couldn't resist, the compulsion to relive the harrowing of seminar. Same story, every week, really: so and so said this, so and so said that, can you believe? A silly question. Belief had died with the rise of the contemporary, the instant. Belief being one of those hangovers from some other era, a mere shading of history. But then again, they were fags for belief. They were poets, after all.
"I hate when people title their poems after paintings. Ekphrasis is so dead, man. Bleak and needy shit."
"Yeah, I guess that's right. Fatuous intellectual cachet and all."
"It's what you do when you know your art is bad. Is explicitness supposed to be a substitute for depth? I don't know."
Underfoot the swaying bridge, sluggish green water. The bramble and dark mud of the riverbanks, the golden grass. Oliver's ruddy cheeks and the scent of his loose-leaf tobacco. Almost unbearably tender, the look in his eyes.
Not for the first time, Seamus imagined Oliver's face going grotesque with pain. Imagined the slant of his mouth in suffering, beautiful in the way of those early, crude carvings of Christ, the suffering and the beauty one and the same. Seamus turned away from Oliver, took in the industrial park and its long tusks of steam. The cars on the bridge near the library ambling along.
"It's nice we got out early, though," Oliver said.
Seamus nodded, though for him the timing was kind of annoying. Seminar could go until six or end at four. The variability prevented him from working on seminar days. It would have been too embarrassing trying to explain to the shift lead why he needed the flexibility on his start time, so he just kept the day free. Yet now, with class lasting barely an hour, he had almost the whole afternoon free.
"Nice is a word for it. If you don't work for a living."
"What's so funny?"
"Just the way you say that. Work for a living. It's almost pretentious. Weren't you just skewering fake piety?"
"It's fake piety to support yourself?" Seamus asked, somewhere between irony and earnestness. Oliver just laughed again. "What's so fucking funny about it? Not all of us have money. Or parents. Some of us really do have to support ourselves."
"The unshackled rage of the working-class white male, how terrifying," Oliver said. He was really cracking up now, and Seamus felt a hard knot at the base of his throat. He wanted to shove Oliver into the river.
Copyright © 2023 by Brandon Taylor. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.