My Father
Says Grace

Donald Platt
Donald Platt's father is in a nursing home in New England. He telephones his son, says, "I've got to get out of here / and start hitchhiking / now ... Wish me luck." He wants to be sure that someone "out there on the road" will tell him how to get home.

The nurse refers to these patients as "sundowners." "They're fine / in the morning. We in the field call it 'sundowning.'"

    with dementia
    often go bonkers in the late afternoon. No one knows why.

My Father Says Grace has several different stories to tell. There is a disquisition on Janis Joplin, how she sang "Ball and Chain" so powerfully only a day before she killed herself. There's another on a wind-up phonograph, playing Amelita Galli-Curci and Col pensier il mio desir and an aria by Henry Purcell. There is an episode where Elizabeth Bishop meets the poet de Andrade, and a not unclever take on Orpheus returning,

    after Eurydice disappeared
    for good
    in the subway crowded with shades and took the uptown local back
    to her pimp.

But the main emphasis here is Platt's "stroke-struck" father, trying to speak, not being able to, "gelid eyes / or a kind salmon / gutted and sold whole on crushed ice."

The tragedy of late 20th Century / early 21st Century doesn't seem to be wars eating up the young, diseases laying waste to whole cities and cultures, the populace dying of starvation, ignorance and superstition ... but, au contraire, our rapidly aging population ending up in places where they cannot feed themselves, cannot find their way to the bathroom, cannot find their words, can no longer feel joy in their dry memories, cannot escape the stink of urine and Pine-Sol, cannot even enjoy evenings getting blind drunk with old friends and falling down in the streets.

You and I will find ourselves installed by our children in a super-secure nursing home (claiming it is all a matter of love, respect, "caring") where we'll start our own sundowning. They'll keep us drugged up, bound in our wheelchairs, taken off with our sleeping pills to bed at five or six in the afternoon so we won't be a bother to the staff.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would come along and do a whole poem cycle on this bleak future awaiting us, but some of us might long for the good old days when they wrote lays about flowers in the dale and young milk-maidens in the fields and our first loves in the sweet-smelling haystacks with the cows going on there in the barn down somewhere below.

--- Candy MacNeil

The Gateway
T. M. McNally
Sleeping with priests, a boy with a charred penis, a felon masturbating in the prison visiting-room, a mugging with a heavy chain, a woman scarred with the "pox" making love in public in the park, sex and booze and pimps and junkies, and --- as garnish on the roast --- the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963.

This is the stuff of McNally's seven stories, and it is a bitter brew. He knows to make the words do their stuff, but after awhile, we wonder if we want to read of such feckless husbands, burned-out old men crawling out of their cars to have a tiff in the middle of a traffic jam, women required to chose between a husband and a child, a boy severely burned by his father because he thought him "a faggot," men (and women) thinking of endlessly useless circular dangerous lives,

    Susie understood that someday the girl would know a little bit more. She would have a husband, and a family. Someday she might become a nurse, assuming her bus didn't crash, or she wasn't seduced by her pastor. Assuming there were no surprises, which there would be.

We can't figure out the value of stories whose main purpose seems to be to plunge the reader into despair. T. M. McNally's writings are sullen (sometimes engrossingly so), so much so that his best lines may go right past you.

"I was named after a poet raised in St. Louis who once wrote, In my beginning is my end," one character (Thomas Sellers) tells us. He complains about being a real estate agent in the dying city, and like the others here, mounts a round-about narrative that might lead the reader to reach for the old .38 (or the trash can), at least until we reach the one funny line in the book, there on page 191: Thomas' father has had a heart attack backing out of his garage, the car keeps going, up onto the neighbor's lawn. Mr. Dubinkerr, father of two girls, reaches in, shuts off the motor, pulls Mr. Sellers from the drivers' seat, gives him mouth-to-mouth but, surprise, he's already a goner. The girls run inside, one of them calls out: "Mommy, Kaitlin exclaimed, Daddy's kissing Mr. Sellers!"

--- Irving Spivack

Sex & Isolation
Bruce Benderson
(University of Wisconsin Press)
This Benderson seems willing to take on anything: hairy internet sex, Times Square hustlers, really awful movies, something (don't ask me) called "transgenerational gender-fuck." Since he is a word-man (he reads, writes, sends and receives lurid e-mail) he has the ability to feel he can be violated by words. (We almost said "mere words.")

He gets entangled with a possible sex partner on the internet, one who goes by the handle of UNOUWANIT, but after the exchange of a few fairly gross insults, he ended up with a virus, and we ain't talking gonorrhea. After Benderson finds that he hasn't, luckily, lost any of his computer memory ... "my anger was replaced by fascination: my imagination obsessively replayed UNOUWANIT's violation of me. Now I was full of a dreadful urge to reexperience a part of UNOUWANIT's power, but with my increased sophistication about the virtual world.

    I wanted to engage in a deadly virtual tango with him, within the wild fantasy of what it could be like in the flesh, and perhaps, in the end, prove myself the master and even the intimate of this criminal.

The power of Benderson's writing means that he can take us along with him in what he calls a "dreadful urge;" and, as well, go along on various other journeys, some of which are equally hair-raising. He is, apparently, a "John," a man who enjoys an occasional roll in the sack with a male prostitute ... indeed, claims that his life only began after reading John Rechy's City of Night. At fourteen, he hitch-hiked west so he could find men who would pay him for his services. Now the rôles are reversed; one such nighttime encounter is described in gruesome detail in Sex & Isolation:

    I wasn't prepared for the emaciated body that snaked from the baggy clothes. Was it crack, AIDS? He was lean beyond imagining. It wasn't repulsive but bordered instead on something majestic, appalling. In the beige light coming from the lampshade, his hairless body was a steel cage covered by a thin layer of butter.

"A steel cage." "A thin layer of butter." This is original --- and not unpowerful --- writing. Benderson likes bending all the rules of love, sex, and morality in general. He bemoans the loss of the old Times Square with its hustlers, junkies, runaways, and drunks. He considers most American children, after a certain age, to be held hostage by their families and the current rage for "American Values." He seems to be overly-fond of criminals, and volunteers his rule-of-thumb,

    worthwhile entertainment is an assault on identity; the pleasure it provides is in direct proportion to its transformative powers, to its threat.

His generalities can drive the critical reader somewhat potty, viz, "The hippies wanted their lives to be a sensory bath that would make up for the monotony of the suburbs without sacrificing some of its conveniences, but their vision of the sensory was a living-color spectacle inspired by television and film." Nonetheless, some of his writing can be inspired. Witness this lovely portrait of Manuel Puig:

    His life was an object lesson for all of us who are sure we know the difference between the trivial and the relevant. On the surface, he seemed to be a ridiculous, nearly half-mad, superficial person, drifting sighingly into vapid fantasies inspired by Garbo or Hedy Lamarr... In fact, he imitated Garbo with such accuracy that today I can't watch her films without seeing him. When I do, it seems as if it is she who is doing the imitation of Manuel.

"Underneath this parodic surface, however, was an individual of deep ambition and ingenuity, a linguistic genius, an extremely calculating businessman and a shrewd observer of the human soul. He was the most effeminate man I've ever met, but his pretensions of being a woman, which he often comically claimed to be, were really evocations of the cultural nature of all sex rôles. Manuel's woman was a cultural construction, and it defied us to find any evidence for gender beyond this category."

--- Mario Calzone
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