Benjamin Grossberg’s second collection of poems is a book about writing—about writing’s processes and demands and possibilities. The volume tends towards contemplations of contemplation, and its best, it’s riveting. The book opens “Always the script, the dramatic comma,/ the pointed ellipsis, half turn, beat, the exit/ itself as punctuation. Let’s say the back wall/ of the house fell away” (3). And how many books open with such a deft sequence of dactyls?
In those lines, and throughout the book, Grossberg requests the reader’s permission to explore what can happen if author and reader conspire. “Let’s say” tells the reader that if you’re going to keep reading, you have to take part. But that degree of remove, that meta-layer of readerly participation, is also the weakness of the book. It’s an ambitious move to call attention to what happens in the act of reading, but it also surrenders the economy and efficiency by which most poetry happens. The problem with the writer calling attention to the reader’s reading process in an explicit or narrative way is that it becomes clunky, like a you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know joke that gets increasingly recursive.
Grossberg’s strength is a kind of lyrical discursiveness that can sustain itself for pages as it turns over the subject at hand or patiently tells a lengthy story. Grossberg is particularly witty and engaged when dealing with biblical or mythological stories that he finds simultaneously absurd and compelling. In playing with the sound of the name of Onan’s brother Er, Grossberg contemplates “Er’s error” and tells of how “God’s ire/ fell over Er” (20). Grossberg’s worldview is most satisfyingly on display in “Adwaitya and the Fruit Fly,” when he explores how the meeting of the ancient turtle and the ephemeral insect could be dictated by a variety of genre conventions. Grossberg’s collegial approach to the reader is consistently accessible and friendly. But many of the meditations never quite arrive anywhere. Either they fail to understand what they set out to understand, or they never get much further than where they started from. In some ways, Grossberg seems to be working out an aesthetic of nostalgia, trying to find ways to recover and understand the moments that he found thrilling and baffling.
At times, I found the sexual politics of the book frustrating. In a long poem about a bareback (no condoms) orgy for HIV-positive men, the orgy’s host tells the uninvited, HIV-negative speaker about the joys of the experience, the “rapture, men more than brothers… freed of individuation” (15). Grossberg wills himself to find the transcendence that the host of the party insists on. “I looked around the spare bedroom, attempting to see it terms other than lust” (15)—but why can’t lust be transcendent? Grossberg does finally embrace the beauty of the orgy. He finds his objective correlative in a mass mating of beetles. In the poem’s finale, God comes down to stroke the backs of the poz orgiasts, while Grossberg strokes the backs of the Bacchic beetles. But in the next poem, “Terro Ant Killer,” the speaker puts out a syrupy ant poison that the ants eat and then feed to the members of their nest. “They infect each other/ in a chain of contact” (19). Then we return to the image of the orgy in the last poem:
But the package
does not describe this: rapture, how they
come and come and draw others to come,
how it is an hour, hours later
and their bodies continue to take
and take, how they climb over each other,
bodies intent, focused with a physical
longing I’m sure I’ve seen
somewhere before…. (19).
The description of the ant feeding frenzy is brilliant, but the coyness of “I’m sure I’ve seen/ somewhere before” is disingenuous. Grossberg turns away from explicitly linking the ants to the orgy. He ends the poem, “Oh God, / God, tell me it’s not really like this” (19). But it is like that—at least in this sequence of representations. The parallel between the ants spreading an ecstatic form of death and gay men infecting each other through sex at orgies and bathhouses and social networking website hook ups is precisely like that. My point here is not to determine where on the Larry Kramer/Thom Gunn spectrum of sexual ethics one ought to lie, but rather to point out Grossberg’s refusal to address the parallels that he creates. Grossberg avoids the analogy as too terrible to be faced, and so ends up reproducing the rather conservative notion that sex = AIDS= death, when the truth is more complicated, subtle, and difficult. What I found myself resisting in Grossberg’s work is precisely this impulse to bring us to the edge of what we already know, believe and suspect, without ever really posing a challenge.