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Three Poets (Review)

Note - a slightly altered version of this piece appeared previously in The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide

Poetry Roundup, by Dale Boyer

Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems 1971-2021, by Irena Klepfisz. Wesleyan Poetry Series, 296 pages, $28.00; Common Life, by Stephane Bouquet, Nightboat Books, 128 pages, $14.99; gusher, by Christopher Stephen Soden, Queermojo, 120 pages, $14.95.

One could hardly find a more diverse group of books than this: one by a pioneering Jewish Lesbian poet originally from Poland; another by a French surrealist; and the last by a gay man living in Dallas. All have completely different impulses, and all have something wonderful to offer.

Collecting over 50 years worth of work, the poetry of Irena Klepfisz reflects her experience as a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, of forced emigration, and as a Jewish lesbian. Her work can at first seem overly prosaic and mundane, but her style gathers its power slowly and steadily, sneaking up on one perhaps even more strongly due to the power of its apparent flatness. As might be expected, her poems recounting the holocaust are harrowing: “when they dragged my body into the oven I burned/ slowly at first I could smell my own flesh…when I pressed through the chimney/ it was sunny and clear.” Her poetry is a testimony not only to survival as a Jew, but also as a lesbian, as she gradually begins to track “longings that one day must flower.” The poems reflecting the loss of her partner of 38 years, Judith Waterman, are especially poignant, as are her “old poet” poems, in which she remarks ruefully: “the sword is mightier than the pen./ Read the paper.” Klepfisz is a poet who has seen much and whose work, in return, offers us much.

I reviewed Stephane Bouquet’s previous work, Other Loves, in an earlier issue of this magazine (May/June 2020). Other Loves is only partially poetry (four poems, a play, and three short stories). Actually, I’m not entirely sure whether the play is really a play or just a poem with very poetic lines impersonating a play, but either way, it’s dazzling, especially if you’re on Bouquet’s wavelength. In the same manner, Bouquet’s short stories are so poetic they might be poems as well. The play (Monsters, which occupies the bulk of the volume) has many echoes of Waiting for Godot: similarly bleak and funny at the same time. It’s one of the more unusual works of art I’ve ever reviewed, and is definitely not for everyone. Bouquet can be hilariously irreverent, then turn right around and stab you in the heart with something so beautifully expressed it takes your breath away. He can write lines like: “these days / the Marie Antoinettes/ of the financial aristocracy/ stuff themselves with gluten-free/ brioche.” And this: “He’s sitting/ so close oh I’d love/ to write one more sadness on the inaccessible shelter/ of his shoulders.” As a whole, Common Life looks at life and the interactions of people in all their shallowness, absurdity and pathos. His work is hip, fun, smart, perceptive and – unexpectedly – quite moving.

Christopher Soden’s gusher, a slight reworking of his earlier work closer, is the poetry of an older gay man lamenting (and ultimately triumphing) over the internalized homophobia endured by his generation of gay men. The poems are of lust and desire afraid to articulate itself, finally yielding at moments to gushers of emotion and regret. If Soden’s work doesn’t perhaps display the brilliance and playfulness of Bouquet’s or the gravitas of Klepfisz’s, he makes up for it with the earnestness and identifiability of his experience. Lamenting the vestiges of shame brought about by his biblical upbringing, the general hostility of American society towards any impulse thought to be “unmanly,” and the all-too-common lack of support of this or that parent, he can still find the courage to write of an abusive father: “I cannot believe it/ has taken me so, so many/ years to stumble upon this/ epiphany. I cannot believe/ I’m telling you I love him.” It is that kind of emotion that makes gusher resonate as deeply as it does.

Dale Boyer’s latest collection is Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems.


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