The Next Loves, by Stephane Bouquet; The Book of Daniel, by Aaron Smith. Review by Dale Boyer
Two remarkable new books of poems have just appeared by two poets with very different worldviews. Taken together, they show -- not only in their range and variety, but also in the depth of their frankness -- just how far gay poetry has come.
Stephane Bouquet's The Next Loves is the more traditionally literary of the two. With titles like Solitude Week 16, and lines like "I don't know how to pronounce the l of difference between/ word and world," or "He's in his study-library because: where else?", Bouquet (what a lovely last name for a poet!) writes poems of longing and the unattainability of love. It is highly literary poetry that proceeds by gaps and erasures. He is forever looking for that next face to be enraptured by, "the same one we've been telling ourselves/ forever in the metro someone raises/ his head." Constantly looking for a lasting love but never finding it, he instead ensconces himself in the classics, living a life of the mind while at the same time trying to hammer out concrete details about the actual world via his written words.
Several of the poems, rather quaintly and amusingly, actually name the person he's so rhapsodic about: "O Eric/ Ress French - / American swimmer scion of Indiana's campuses." I'm not certain what to make of that little idiosyncrasy, ultimately, but it's certainly specific. If there's a jewel in this collection, it is certainly Light of the Fig. A chronicle and homage to how difficult it is to be gay, as well as a memorial to all those young gay people who are no longer with us for one reason or another, it is a powerful elegy, and almost certain to be anthologized heavily in future collections of the best gay poetry.
Aaron Smith is not exactly at the other end of the spectrum, but his work is far more flip, colloquial, and funny. For example, the title poem, The Book of Daniel, refers not to the Bible but to the actor Daniel Craig, with whom the poet is apparently obsessed. Smith's poems can be very funny: "Buck Rogers made me gay when he was stripped/ to the waist and forced to walk a runway;" cheeky: "Elizabeth Bishop is like Meryl Streep -- / you have to say she's the best whether you believe it or not;" and funny/melancholy: "I've written three books few people read/ and wanted to kill myself." Sometimes -- often -- all of these qualities are present at the same time. His poems have a tossed-off feel that often (but not always) reveals a more complex interior. A prime example is Poetry Can Save the World! which reads, in its entirety: "and I knew/this bitch//didn’t live/in the same//world as me." Smith loves to eviscerate such lofty rhetoric and deal instead with the difficulties of being gay anywhere in the world. An even bigger difficulty, apparently, is being Smith himself, as when the poet reflects: "why was I so angry when I lived here?//Part of it was chemical, part of it was because/I'd rather go to the shame parade//than Pride."
On the evidence of this volume and the earlier, equally excellent Primer, we'll all be richer if Smith keeps showing up for any parade.