In the poem “St. Sebastian,” the speaker ponders: “How many St. Sebastian statues/ can I give as coming out gifts?” As the complex figure representing homoerotic desire and emotional/ physical torture, St. Sebastian is well-situated at the center of Steve Fellner’s hard-edged second poetry collection, which doesn’t disguise or sugar-coat the more disturbing scenarios of gay men’s lives. Indeed, Fellner writes with disarming honesty, even acerbity, as he walks past the posturing of skinny pants and pretty boy poetics to infuse the idealized queer lifestyle, particularly in privileged urban settings, with a reality check: in some places being gay is still dangerous, sometimes fatal. The poem ends with the speaker visiting his friend, who has been gay-bashed, at the hospital:
He took my face in his hands.
“If God made you beautiful,
you’d be in the other bed.”
The tortured souls in The Weary World Rejoices are not attached to happy coming-out narratives, nor do they have the inclination to wax poetic with high-culture allusions about about their droll martini lounge encounters. The local watering-hole is The Fruit Loop, where the Catholic neighbor is caught “with two cocks in his mouth” and where an underpaid, overworked teacher runs into his student who awakens the teacher’s PTSD: “He will not look in my direction. It makes me want to hold him down and say: Don’t leave this bar./ You never know what could happen to you. This is what it means to be a homosexual: People want you dead. Maybe even a teacher/ at the other end of the bar.”
Class in an important consideration in the context of Fellner’s work. If coming out is not an option for those trapped in homophobic small-town America, then the expression of angst and desperation for pleasure are manifested through unhealthier practices, as illustrated by the book’s series of back-handed odes like “Ode to Agoraphobia,” “Ode to Promiscuity” (“how many men [do] I need to be with/ to claim I am a slut…there’s always one more/ even when you’ve drawn/ a limit”) and “Ode to Crystal Meth”:
I never thanked you
for taking away my sleep.
My dreams. I am so uncreative
my dreams are not worth
Perhaps the most frightening vehicle for exorcising the gay demons is the Internet. In the poem “I Am Known as Walt Whitman,” the speaker stalks the cruising sites, but with an unusual purpose:
I’m too busy online looking for the man who offered my
boyfriend his first taste of crystal meth. It got him so messed up he couldn’t stop
meeting men off the Internet, and then begging them to stay
after they had their release. Of course, they always left. Bored,
he did other risky things like having sex in the bathroom stall at Wal-Mart
where he was arrested for indecent exposure.
And in the poem “Ode to the Gay Man Who Claimed in His Online Personal That He Wasn’t ‘Into Mind Games,’ ” the speaker sends out photos of his more attractive dead boyfriend to get attention, only to receive that same photo by a third party, who is also passing himself off as the man with “the body other men would die for.” The layering of one deception atop another is less a critique of “cyber-sexual” head games than a testament to the pathos of men suffering of unfulfilled desires and unattainable fantasies. Is it any wonder one speaker (a self-professed “pig bottom” who subjects himself to humiliation and calls it affection) finds kinship in Miss Piggy’s character in the “Pigs in Space” Muppet skit?:
Don’t forgive me
for transforming into a sad
spacecraft that longs to leave
Earth to find something divine.
In the final section of the book, a series of odes dedicated to Matthew Shephard (the image of his body at the fence the clearest flesh-and-blood representation of St. Sebastian) calls for a more sophisticated exploration of Shephard’s death as (saintly) martyrdom, which has robbed Shephard of his human flaws and shortcomings, and of the legacy of equating homosexual with victim, particularly by the media, which reports this narrow narrative repeatedly.
The tones in the Shephard series are varied. “Shoelaces” asks readers to consider how the everyday gesture of tying a child’s shoelaces, “knowing that he will march/ into the world safe and protected,” resonates differently for gay men who know Shephard’s own shoelaces were used to bind him: your body can be used to hurt you. Other odes address the violence (physical and psychological) gay men inflict on other gay men, the fine line between pleasure and pain blurred in the conflicted territory of love and desire: “Beyond the field is a gay man/ who wants to be beaten to death// by someone’s bare hands/ so that someone will finally touch him.” And “Ode to My Lover” shatters the code of propriety when the speaker invokes Shephard when discussing fellatio, liberating Shephard from his sacred frieze: “Did you/ ever think of Matthew// when I was/ sucking your cock,// not being very careful/ with my teeth?”
Fellner’s irreverence and sometimes bitchiness (“I wrote the names of friends who I wanted to die before me./ I made a lot of friends back then”) is daring. His disconcerting work continues to challenge the expectation that contemporary gay poetry is dainty, polite and petite. Reading The Weary World Rejoices is a reminder that the growing visibility of queers in politics and pop culture is not going to save everybody, and that the queer community can’t become complacent in our victories, or erase the violence that still afflicts our lifestyle by not writing about it: “God and sunlight can only hit you so many times…you need something like a cloud to protect you.”