Friday, December 26, 2008

Poetry Friday - Quark in the Desert

His eyes fixed unwavering on the wavering horizon,
his jaw stoically set,
his bulletproof Bible over his heart,
Quark marches through the desert with the Foreign Legion.
The sun blazes down on his head like a merciless God,
hot enough to render the meager flesh from his bones
till they saw through his skin like guilt through his heart,
and the parched air sears his throat,
but Quark is here to bury his past in the shifting sands of the Sahara,
to mortify his flesh and purify his spirit with fire.
He cannot punish her, so he punishes himself
to punish her. If only she could see him now,
gaunt and ravaged by sin and aridity;
perhaps he will send her a photograph.

Quark, is this the fire foretold and promised?
Is this trip really necessary?
Is it your God's will or your own?
You say the woman tempted you,
but she is not a magnet and you are not iron.
She is no receptacle,
not for your seed, not for your guilt.
Your own feet carried you to her
as surely as now they carry you away.
Hanging from your neck there is a cross,
or is it an albatross?

29 January 1977
To my surprise, much as I loved Bloomington, I stopped writing poetry after my first year there. What I did write during that first year was mainly for the writing course I took. Was it because I had less to sublimate after I came out? Or was it because, in order to get anywhere in a poetry scene, you have to hang around with other poets, and there didn't seem to be any I wanted to hang out with. (That hadn't been true back in South Bend.)

I didn't much miss writing poetry -- or at least I didn't think I did. I remember a weird encounter I had with a graduate student, probably in 1974 or 1975, to whom a friend had introduced me as a poet. He began grilling me aggressively about what I'd written, what I was writing at the moment, where had I published, and he wouldn't lay off. I was defensive, understandably enough I thought (and think); what is a poet anyway? Are you a poet if you have written poetry in the past but haven't written any in a couple of years? I still have no answer to the question. I tried to fend the guy off, which led the friend who'd introduced us to take me aside and ask, "What's going on? I've never seen you like this before. It's ... ugly." No shit.

Sometime later, when I had begun writing again, I read some of my new work at an English Department reading, in the open mic segment after the grad students had read theirs. Guess who one of the scheduled readers was? I was relieved to find that he wrote rather standard misogynist-straight-guy neo-beat open-form verse of no interest whatsoever, at least not to me. Was mine any better? I have no idea, but it was a relief to find that I didn't have to respect his work any more than I did his personality.

Whatever. In 1976 I became fascinated with another one of the ambivalent men I've always had a thing for, and out of the turmoil I began writing again. The turmoil extended to the writing itself: I wasn't sure I wanted to be writing poetry again, but I kept doing it anyhow. Even though I recognized that I'd found a muse in this man, I didn't write about him for quite a long time. The poem above was inspired by the travails (not very different from my own, as I recognized when I wrote it) of another straight friend, but though I tried I didn't come up with anything else good for several months.