Friday, October 31, 2008

Review: The Beautiful Tendons: Uncollected Queer Poems 1969 – 2007

The Beautiful Tendons
Jeffery Beam

Published by White Crane Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

This volume of previously uncollected poetry by Jeffery Beam brings together nearly four decades of poetry about the male body and homosexual love. Judging by this volume, Beam’s lifelong concern has been to construct a poetic that can affirm what he calls, in his prefatory essay, “the One-in-All, the Body as Temple”. What is explored here is sexuality as a path to the Divine, to the divinity that each of us is:
Loins be my oracle
Let the brown gleam be a bird
in a nest let
the mushroom feed us
I stand before God
[from ‘For Priapus’]

Beam’s poetry, most emphatically, is not a poetry of gay culture but of the communion between the gay man and nature, both his own nature and that more general Nature: “the Queer Spirit”, Beam affirms in his introduction, “sees All-in-All in every act of love”. More than that, his poetry dramatises a communion between a naturalised gay man and a spiritualised nature. Through the use of a poetic line that echoes both Whitman and Carlos Williams via Rumi, Beam combines the physical and the contemplative: sexuality and spirituality are fused in the perspective of the naturalist, in the observance of nature. In particular, naturalism allows Beam to achieve a use of sexual euphemism that avoids the bathos of clinical or colloquial vocabularies (the ‘brown gleam’ above, for example).

The overall effect is that of an idyll. Removed from daily urban life, untarnished by contemporary culture and clothing, Beam rediscovers the male body in the presence of itself. For this is what Beam renders brilliantly in his verse: the body at ease with itself. Magically, this ease is arrived at by an imperfection or, rather, an incompleteness of the verse, a fragmentation that registers as a quality of openness to the reader. Never the hard crystalline flawlessness of early imagist verse, we rather find here the leisurely listlessness of the body in repose. Appositely Beam keeps syntax to a minimum – the sense of a poem gathering via a paratactic constellation of words rather than through grammatical formalities (indeed, ‘Blue Winter Language’ was written “primarily with a magnetic poetry kit”). This technique, or seeming avoidance of technique, works to draw the reader into the sensuality of the image which is not described so much as evoked.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to wonder, what is the vocation of this poetry? There is a cost to naturalising (homo)sexuality and it is not only an inability to speak of human culture. Given that this volume spans thirty-eight years of work, it is surprisingly univocal: certainly there are differences in form but the overall style remains the same. It is as if Beam does not challenge himself: there is no straining after new accomplishments, new poetries. Instead, there is a sinking back into the lull of nature’s poetry, warm, sunny, naked – but then for Beam that is what poetry is; as he says in his essay: “Acceptance. Surrender.” For myself, I note a spiritual dissonance here and I want to part company with Beam despite the tenderness and the muscularity that he provides: his is a poetry that cannot change the world but must accept what it finds there. This neutralising of the creative passion is perhaps the true cost of a naturalising poetic (a good contrast might be Adrienne Rich). Whether it is a price the reader is willing to pay is something each of us must decide for ourselves when we read the work of Jeffrey Beam – that he allows us to do so remains the gift of his verse.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Oxford.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: Maloney’s Law by Anne Brooke

Anne Brooke
Maloney’s Law

Published by PD Publishing

Reviewed by Charlotte Evans

‘Boyfriend’ is a word entirely absent from this novel and for some reason that irritated me. Paul, the eponymous main character, constantly refers to his ‘ex-lover’, and other people’s ‘lovers’. Through overuse the word took on a cloying quality, perhaps intentional though possibly not.

Another slight annoyance was the first description of the main character – naked in front of a mirror, imagining he is someone else. I’m not sure of the right way to make your reader aware of how the protagonist looks, but this mirror technique has been done so many times before it’s almost lazy.

Moving on to more general points, this is a well-written and interesting book. The main character, Maloney, has an interesting and mysterious past that kept me reading, curious to discover the truth.

Paul’s past has left him with a deep obsession with time, reflected by the use of first person present tense (which is done extremely well) but the goings-on of the present are not particularly captivating when compared to Maloney’s history – both his childhood and the more recent relationship with Dominic are significantly more engaging.

The main story concerns Paul’s ‘ex-lover’, a rich businessman named Dominic, who is “better known than Beckham” and an investigation into an Egyptian company that he’s negotiating with. Paul pops to Egypt, finds some data and returns. This is all integral to the plot but not exactly exciting. What is both exciting and intriguing is the character of Dominic – the one man in Paul’s life he really fell for; he went crazy for – the man who, for some reason, has a wife and kids. I’d have loved to know more about Dominic – a truly dynamic character.

And then there is Jade – Paul’s “secretary” (perhaps an outdated word for such a modern book). Jade is a Baptist and the nearest thing Paul has to a friend. She warns him against taking on Dominic’s case; she doesn’t want him to “go stupid” again - a wonderfully simple phrase describing obsessive love quite perfectly. Jade, however, is a little bit dull. Paul loves her; she’s clearly supposed to be witty, charming, and just plain good yet somehow, I couldn’t care about her. There just wasn’t enough there to care about.

The sex scenes are fairly explicit and they work very well – they are suitably grimy which befits this sort of novel. And, for a crime novel, it was refreshing to have a PI who cried when tragedy occurred. Paul Maloney is as damaged and dysfunctional as any good detective; his obsessions – time, whisky, Dominic – make him the sort of character you’d expect from the genre.

So overall this book offers two great characters and a fairly nondescript one, an average plot and some truly brilliant back story. Fans of the author will surely enjoy the complexities of the novel – messed up love, broken families – but the uninitiated may find they’re halfway through the book before they find anything to entice them into the magnificent mind of Paul Maloney.

Charlotte Evans writes “I’m a twenty-three year old writer, currently working for my local library service. Lovely to be surrounded by books all day, depressing that they're all written by 'celebrities'. I'm interested in reading, TV, theatre, stand up comedy, film and music.”


Friday, October 24, 2008

Review: Netherhall Gardens by Carl Patrick

Netherhall Gardens
Carl Patrick

Published by Matador

Reviewed by Karl Barry

There are a string of young men being murdered in London and the police are scrambling to find out who is committing these bizarre sexual crimes. Much to their horror the inhabitants and friends of a neighbourhood called Netherhall Gardens find themselves unwittingly tangled up in the case. The most prominent character in this novel is a sexually-naïve 23 year old named Mark who is not sure if he’s gay or not. While choosing between a group of eager male suitors who want to help him down this road of discovery, Mark becomes the lynchpin of the entire investigation to catch the murderer(s). Along the way we meet a colourful cast of characters who include a sexually voracious Scotsman named Hugh, a glittering young barmaid named Stella, a lively social older lady named Laura and a police detective with a taste for leather named Steve.

The focus of the book moves back and forth following the stories of this eclectic group of characters in a way that is enjoyably fast-paced. Among the tumultuous and steamy encounters between them the author captures the inevitable confusion and messy emotional baggage which comes with people’s ever-evolving sexual identities. Mark’s speedy initiation into the erotic pleasures he’s been longing for is obviously just the beginning of a long journey which leaves the reader wondering what will happen to him next. Netherhall Gardens is an entertaining brisk read full of lively characters, darkly sexual encounters and lots of wild fun.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay / Lesbian Identity

edited by G Winston James and Lisa C. Moore.

Published by Redbone Press

Reviewed by Donald McKinney

Most gay men and women have a strained relationship with spirituality. In the UK few, if any, of the main churches are supportive; a few more will tolerate us with pursed lips and disapproving eyes.

It is not surprising then that most turn away from the churches and indeed spirituality all together. Perhaps that explains the bars, backrooms and causal sex that can so easily spiral into self-hate and depression.

And so, while this book is aimed primarily at the black community, it none the less speaks to all of us. Clearly the primary aim of this book is to help black men and women come to terms with their sexual identity. It does this through a fairly eclectic mix of up-lifting real-life stories. Written by the men and women themselves, the style, content and readability of the tales vary widely. And while there are specific references to the African-American community and Black churches, much of the problems, the hurdles and barriers that have to be overcome are common to all of us.

For those of us seeking a spiritual support, one option is to turn to other non-traditional religions. In the 1960’s for Malcolm X and the Black Panthers the solution was to convert to Islam, whom they saw as being non-white, non-western. But for the gay man or lesbian Islam is no better. Some turn to older religions: Buddhism and Shamanism where being gay is at least tolerated.

Here in the UK the problem for the gay man and woman is perhaps less than for the black gay men and women in America where their churches are so much a part of their community. Nonetheless as you read this book you begin to see that there is a journey that has to be travelled: awareness of self; recognition of spiritual desires and ultimately satisfaction of those needs.

It is a powerful, heady even, realisation that we can do this. We can be who we want to be and no-one can stop us. And it does require change. Some would say sacrifice and loss but that language is un-helpful. What we require is determination and self-worth. And surely that is something all of us can aspire to.

This book then is a wake-up call to all of us. It is so easy to be beguiled and distracted by the glitter of the day-to-day world. Only in rare moments of silence do we hear the echo of our soul. Yet there lies our destiny. Read this book, be inspired and begin to write your own story!


Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Murder in the Rue Chartres by Greg Herren

Murder in the Rue Chartres
Greg Herren

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Erastes

This is the third in the series of books featuring Herren's gay security adviser and part-time detective Chanse MacLoed who lives in New Orleans. The book is set a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina and Chanse returns to his "broken city" to try and pick up the pieces of his interrupted life. He finds that the last client he met with before the Hurricane forced most of the city to flee, had been murdered the very same day he had his meeting with her.

I'm a sucker for an absorbing murder mystery and this didn't disappoint in any shape or form; Herren spins a web of intrigue in a masterful fashion, worthy of comparison to any of the "great" crime writers, spreading red herrings with glee and unwrapping the mystery at a perfect pace, leaving the reader a step behind MacLoed for the whole ride.

There is a major character in this book, one who never says a word but colours every word Herren writes: the city of New Orleans herself. Herren's love for his city shines through on the pages and his bitterness about the way the disaster was handled is very clear and quite touching.

The development of Chanse's personality, and the way he comes to terms with the death of his lover, the before and after of the hurricane, his friendships and the possibilities of his life moving along "after" are deftly handled too. I admit to not liking him a great deal, but that's all right—Herren made me care about what happened to him despite that.

If I had any quibble about the book it was the fact that Chanse didn't bother to interview a prime suspect at all, which seemed inconsistent when he'd been so through throughout, but the tale was so well told – and more intriguingly multi-layered and multi-themed, that it didn't spoil my general enjoyment of the book.

Erastes is the penname of a female author who lives in Norfolk. She specialises in gay historical fiction novels and homoerotic short stories. Her works have featured in many anthologies such as Best Gay Short Stories, Crusing, Ultimate Gay Erotica and many more, as well as in MEN magazine and Clean Sheets. Her first novel "Standish" - a gay Regency – was published in 2006 and her second novel "Transgressions" – English Civil War - will be published in April 2009 by Running Press. Her website can be found here.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Review: Reason & Rhyme by Dean Atta

Reason & Rhyme
Dean Atta

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory
It has to be said that Dean Atta’s credentials as a poet are impeccable: he has won several awards, being especially prolific in slam competitions. Unlike most published poets, his work has also reached a television audience, including Channel 4’s primetime Generation Next season. Already an experienced performance poet, Atta is now embarking on a path few of his fellow wordsmiths even attempt: music.
With Reason & Rhyme, Atta succeeds in making his poetry work with the specially composed music, his literal and poetical voices forging a haunting and insistent harmony, particularly on the opening track, New Year. It is, as you would expect, about reflecting on the last twelve months, broken resolutions, and hoping to realise a “new you” this time around. Dean Atta expertly harries the words through the verses, an anonymous, siren-like female voice ghosting effortlessly for the chorus, providing a gratifying aural companion.

The second track, Fatherless Nation, combines emotional personal narrative with cynical social commentary, but poignantly observes that these absent fathers have at least generated their offspring’s lives, even if it is blighted by resentment at being abandoned. This song carries the most profound lyric of the entire collection, as Atta poetry-raps about “watching the space where he [his father] never sleeps.”

Atta then moves on to a poem where the narrator is a bad boy/loser with a conscience, urging his lover to take the track’s eponymous advice: Quit Me. The track shows some brief insight into the dynamics of why people stay in damaging relationships: “You say you can relax with me, because I put the haze over reality,” and “you take this risk because you think I’m worth it.” Musically, it is the weakest track on the compilation, and fails to fully hit the mark with its message.

Postcard from Paradise is about the mutual trauma caused when someone leaves a relationship without “reason or rhyme”. It is the mellowest title on the EP, steeped in resignation and regret, listing the various ways the protagonist could have communicated his departure, and lamenting his rashness. This song also lacks the musical quality of the EP’s promising beginning.

The CD ends with a very modern romance: one that was sought, found and ended online, inventively drawing out a metaphor from the song’s title, likening the estranged partner to a deadly computer virus. Delete my Account, which features Dionne Reid on vocals, is driven by vitriol. It has the potential to sell on its own merit, being well-crafted for the commercial market.

There is no doubt that Dean Atta has successfully transferred his talent from poetry to music, and I suspect that there is a huge potential audience for Reason & Rhyme. This EP is mostly measured and assured, melding rap with influences from electro, trance, and pop, to generate a distinctive and individual sound.

Overall, the Reason & Rhyme works well as a musical vehicle. Atta has worked hard at creating original and meaningful stories about real issues, and hasn’t fallen into the almost ubiquitous trap of easy endings. However, it constantly disappoints because the lyrics are almost exclusively comprised of clichés and lazy dialogue, something one does not expect from an award-winning poet. This is unlikely to affect the proposed full album’s marketability because, as a musical listening experience, most of the tracks achieve their aim.

Dean Atta performs widely. For details, see

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudonym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to pull in a little PhD research at Loughborough University.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: Out Plays: Landmark Gay and Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century

Edited by Ben Hodges

Out Plays

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

From the outset, this anthology is as troubled as it is fascinating. In a spurious attempt to seduce a wide readership, the blurb on the back declares its themes to be ‘universally human, not just gay or lesbian’, while the editor reveals one of the main criteria for inclusion to be works which ‘explored gay or lesbian themes in a landmark way’. This means the omission of pre-liberation playwrights and their ‘euphemistic and ambiguous themes’ in favour of realism-driven exposés which are always intriguing, at least from social-historical stances.

That said, the scope of this collection is smaller than might be expected. All its inclusions bar one belong to what Naomi Wolf calls ‘that anomalous era between the Pill and the Plague’, and the only AIDS play – Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz (1992) – is an allegorical, rather than naturalistic, exploration. John Hopkins’s Find Your Way Home (1974) aside, the bias is wholeheartedly American and the sole lesbian inclusion is Jane Chambers’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), which starts from the same premise as Mart Crowley’s seminal The Boys in the Band did over a decade earlier: the unsuspecting straight crash-landing in the middle of a big gay party. The ensuing gossip about perceptibly heterosexual characters crops up across the collection – is he or isn’t he? (The Boys in the Band); is she or isn’t she? (Last Summer); is she a he or isn’t she? (The Ritz) – and there are many reminders of how little the everyday concerns of our lives have changed. Even in a pre-HIV world, issues of sexual health linger in the subtexts of gay men’s lives; same-sex marriage is already an issue by 1968; and both Chambers and Harvey Fierstein raise the idea of lesbians and gay men seeking posterity through raising children.

There is also a considerable amount of genetic stereotyping. In four of the eight plays – and that’s all the ones with in-depth portrayals of male desire – the dark-haired and/or ethnic characters chase and drool over blond and/or WASPish boys. Is this an accurate presentation of how gay men seek to organise their sex lives? Or is it an attempt by their authors to wipe out the myth of gay Narcissistic attraction with the rival, and more normatising, cliché that opposites attract? Certainly Terence McNally touches on the former theory in The Ritz (1975), where the constituent parts of a couple look identical to one other, even down to their wiry curly hair.

More worrying is the representation of Jewish characters. ‘What I am, Michael, is a thirty-two-year old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy’ spits an embittered Harold in The Boys in the Band. The figure of the physically unattractive Jew mutates into an overweight, clumsy asthmatic in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1976) and is finally challenged by Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1978-79; 1982), in which a defiant Jewish drag queen pulls off a brace of handsome tricks. But even here Arnold is presented as attractive in spite of his Jewishness. (‘Are you Italian?’... ‘Spanish?’... ‘Jewish!? I never would have guessed it. Not with those dark romantic eyes.’) If you’re told something often enough, you might even start to believe it.

The editor imagines that these plays ‘collectively serve as a tool to inform and instruct a contemporary audience’. But Fierstein probably gets closer to the truth in his far feistier preface by acknowledging their ‘small, well-educated, discriminating base audience’. Herein lies the blessing and the curse of gay and lesbian theatre, indeed of any issue-driven modern theatre. Is it really likely to alter anyone’s attitudes, when those it draws are already sympathetic to the cause?

Giuseppe Albano has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University and is a former fellow of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He lives in Edinburgh and works at Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Midlothian.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Review: Flights of Angels: My Life with the Angels of Light

Adrian Brooks with photographs by Daniel Nicoletta
Flights of Angels

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

The playwright Edward Bond once wrote that ‘freedom means being able to destroy oneself’. The helter-skelter life of the Angels of Light – revolutionary theatre troupe, queer anarchist commune, queens of the genderfuck – is perhaps an illumination of this principle, both its dark side and its gloriously outrageous sparkly neon side (with sequins).

The Angels of Light were a splinter group broken off from the more famous drag troupe, the Cockettes. Based in San Francisco during the 1970s they were at the centre of gay liberation during its most radical period. Flights of Angels is the personal memoir of Adrian Brooks, poet, performer, playwright and one-time member of the Angels. There is little about his story that is not extreme.

The shows staged by the Angels, which were free to attend, can only be described as being somewhere between political pantomime and transcendentalist drag: ‘the Angels did not so much appear on stage as descend from above like wraiths, harpies, and ancient furies, awe-inspiring and totemic, sweeping aside all non-essentials with a spirit that was both unstoppable and uniquely gay’. These shows, with titles like Paris Sites Under the Bourgeois Sea (the playtext of which is included as a chapter of the memoir) and Holy Cow!, may never have been ‘great plays’ in any conventional sense but they were certainly ‘stupendous events’. And Brooks recalls those events along with the stressful domestic life of the Angels in a prose that is both evocative and affective (gainfully accompanied by Dan Nicoletta’s photographs). He has a poet’s eye for detail and a political militant’s sense of what art can accomplish when its creators are passionate.

Brooks’ concern seems to be to convey both the sheer wonder and the spiralling trauma of his life with the Angels, often supported by extracts from his journal. In so doing he captures the strange bipolarity that the work of liberation encounters, at once ecstatic and mystical, destructive and even psychotic. Indeed, a remarkable quality of this memoir is Brooks’ capacity to look at his past without judgement, with a serenity and an unflinching desire to confront both the grotesque and the glorious.

As such, this memoir is a powerful reminder that the intensities and the extremities of that time still promise us something: ‘how can we expect future generations to embrace their own uniqueness or avoid repeating our mistakes if we withhold authentic touchstones?’. For ‘to lose our own history,’ Brooks warns us, ‘is crazy’ – even, perhaps especially, if that history itself is crazy. That at least is why Brooks himself dedicates the memoir to the Angels’ founder, Hibiscus: ‘deranged by his own audacity, he plunged into a dark sea, / leaving indelible golden wings freely available to all’.

Flights of Angels is by no means the whole story, but it is a valuable personal contribution to our understanding of what gay culture was doing in that first decade post-Stonewall. If today it seems to some of us that a politics of liberation has been replaced by one of assimilation then this memoir at least encourages us to dream of a political aesthetic that might allow others to feel as Brooks once felt when he joined the Angels of Light: ‘this was the actual dynamic of gay revolution: its irreducible heart and soul. At last I understood who I was’. And perhaps by such means, we may at last come into a ‘passion beyond possession’, which I cannot but think would be a deeper love and so a fuller, freer sexuality.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.