A scare-crow for lovers

I walked into my bodega some weeks ago — I didn’t say I wasn’t warned — and it was papered with red paper hearts with lacy edges. It’s the time appointed for love to seethe and burn at the edges. By the fifteenth the steam and grease rising from the griddle will’ve warped and spotted the red paper hearts with the lacy edges. The candy’ll cede its prominence to shamrocks and we’ll forget that we forgot to get flowers.

            Valentine’s Day has it right; professions of love should be acute; who could stand more? Propertius is as good a poet as any to take as our first warning: his love for his Cynthia is from the start confounded and oppressive:

tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus
et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus
donec me docuit castas odisse puellas (I.1.3-5)

then he cast my steady arrogant gaze down
and Love squashed my head with his feet
till he taught me to spurn chaste girls

Pound saw and seized this in his Homage to Sextus Propertius (London: Faber & Faber, 1934):

The harsh acts of your levity! Many and many.
I am hung here, a scare-crow for lovers. (XI.1.1-2)

Love-poems, love stories — the real fictitious ones, not these mythic letters from lovers — are catalogues of misery. My bitterness aside, this is a reality: the great majority of writing on love proffers failures of love, failures to love. Why, take our current president, who fell in line with his fascist forebear to boast of amorous failure: “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it… I did try and fuck her… I moved on her very heavily… I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there.”

            Even when we get there — when Salome’s seven veils rise and fall in front of us — there is misery. Wilde makes his Herod choke with gory lust (Salome. London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane; Boston: Copeland & Day, 1894):

Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet!  ’Tis well! ’Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees…. No, no, she is going to dance on blood! There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood. It were an evil omen… What is it to me? Ah! look at the moon! She had become red. She has become red as blood… (53)

The murderous king overlooks the monstrous menstruation before he is brought low to pay for his want.

            Blood seems to bubble up in the face of love. Take the tragic love of Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” (Annie Proulx. Close Range. London: Fourth Estate, 1999).

Proulx. Close Range. Title.jpg

No need to recount the spit and grunting in the tent, rather the reunion in

“the fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on”: “they seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again…” (294-5).

Jack dies changing a tire (no need to look for metaphor) and “by the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood” (311).

            From blood we come, naturally, to the end, to death. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (New York: Ecco, 2010) opens with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death: “I was asleep when he died” (xi). Smith promised Mapplethorpe on his death-bead she’d write the collection of memoirs. The whole thing is tinted grey. We learn about Mapplethorpe’s infected nipple. In the final chapter, “Holding Hands with God,” Smith tells us that when she heard on the telephone that Mapplethorpe had been hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, “I drew my hand instinctively to my belly and began to cry” (265). She was pregnant. Later she recalls a story told her by Mapplethorpe’s patron Sam Wagstaff, who also died with AIDS:

“‘Peggy Guggenheim once told me that when you made love with Brancusi, you absolutely were not allowed to touch his beard.’” (269)

These moments of levity in the face of hideous decline are all printed in violet ink. The book is studded with Mapplethorpe’s photos. Smith calls them “the corporeal body of the artist”(ix). His self-portraits are little moments of love that is, at last at least, requited.

Qu(e)er(y)ing the Book.

It’s pride month in New York, and there is as much to be proud of as there is to mourn. We look to fiction especially for the sensitive treatment of gay sadness; but can we move past Giovanni’s Room and Maurice? Amidst all the lists and listicles of best gay books, I seldom see anything beyond fiction — but there’s more to see. Here, offered with pride, are three queer books.

  1. Hockney, David. Hockney’s Alphabet. Edited by Stephen Spender. London, Faber and Faber for the Aids Crisis Trust, 1991. Numbered 223 of an edition of 250 of a total edition of 300, signed by (most of) the contributors.


Hockney and Spender assigned a letter of the alphabet (plus the ampersand, reserved for T.S. Eliot) to twenty-six notable writers; Spender edited the contributions and Hockney illustrated each letter. The concept is simple but the execution is exceedingly fine. The full list of contributors is stunning (in alphabetical order of subject; those with a † against their names had not signed the book before its issue): Stephen Spender, Joyce Carol Oates, Iris Murdoch, *†Paul Theroux, †Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, Erica Jong, Ian McEwan, Nigel Nicolson, Margaret Drabble, Craig Raine, William Boyd, V.S. Pritchett, Doris Lessing, William Golding, Arthur Miller, †Ted Hughes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, John Updike, Susan Sontag, †Anthony Burgess, Douglas Adams, Patrick Leigh Fermor; additionally: †T.S. Eliot (&), †C.C. Bombaugh (“Alphabetical Alliteration”) and John Julius Norwich (chose Bombaugh’s contribution). *Our copy is additionally signed by Paul Theroux.


Amis contributes a bluntly sensitive essay for “H,” which I reproduce in full:

H is for Homosexual by Martin Amis

When I was nine or ten, my brother and I obliged a slightly older boy – Billy – on a deserted beach in South Wales. It didn’t last very long, and my brother and I took turns, but our wrists ached all day. These few minutes – later totemized by a friend as ‘Martin’s afternoon of shame with Billy Bignall’ – represent my active homosexual career in its entirety. But the memory leads on to another memory: the nausea and despair I experienced when, at the age of thirteen, I saw my Best Friend walking from the games field with his arm over the shoulders of another boy.

I wish I understood homosexuality. I wish I could intuit more about it – the attraction to like, not to other. Is it nature or nurture, a predisposition, or is it written in the DNA? When I think about it in relation to myself, it is not the memory of Billy Bignall that predominates, but the other memory, somehow expanded, so that its isolation and disquiet become something lifelong. In my mind I call homosexuality not a ‘condition’ (and certainly not a ‘preference’). I call it a destiny. Because all I know for certain about homosexuality is that it asks for courage. It demands courage.

The other two are photography books, and need few words.


2. Goldin, Nan. The Other Side 1972-1992. NY: Scalo, 1993. First English-language edition.


3. 21st Editions. Journal of Contemporary Photography. Volume 3 (The Clandestine Mind). Photographs by John Dugdale. Trade edition. Numbered 76 of an edition of 110, 100 of which are for sale, of a total edition of 165. Signed by Dugdale, Robert Olen Butler (contributing poet), Morri Creech (contributing poet) and John Wood (editor) on limitations page.


Dugdale established the John Dugdale Studio of 19th C Photography and Aesthetics to explore the techniques and ethos of earlier photography. He lost nearly all of his eyesight as a symptom of HIV, and reverted to older methods of picture-making.


As we celebrate queerness this month and every month, let us consider queer aesthetics — what they are, whether they are, and how they came to be. Yes, there is the loud narrative of homoeroticism, to which Dugdale is keenly attuned, but there is more: Hockney’s playfulness, Goldin’s oiliness and her subjects’ various takes on beauty. Altogether these books fragment and refract the monolith of a queer aesthetic, proving that it is not unto itself but entwined with other aesthetics. Queer aesthetics do not fit into a ghetto; Dugdale and Goldin are essentially opposite. Let us take this into account as we celebrate and mourn.