MAY 11, 2017
I FIRST RAN ACROSS Alex Dimitrov in an odd New York Times profile by Patrick Huguenin published in November 2011. Titled “Rhyme or Reason: For Poetry or Maybe a Hot Date,” the piece was a sometimes fawning, sometimes condescending feature on the now-defunct Wilde Boys salon, which Dimitrov started in 2009 just after completing an MFA at Sarah Lawrence. A venue for young, queer poets to read their work and flirt over flutes of champagne, the salon’s appearance in the august pages of the Times signaled its cresting relevance in a certain corner of the US poetry world. It also helped secure Dimitrov’s status as a “rising young poet,” soon confirmed by the publication of his first collection, Begging for It, by Four Way Books in 2013.
What struck me about Huguenin’s profile when I first read it, and what still does as I look it over today, is the bemusement of the author at the mix of art and sex suggested by his account of the salon. The central hook for the piece is the idea that Dimitrov started the salon, at least partially, to cruise. “I invited the cute gay poets right away,” he reports Dimitrov saying. “I sort of had a list of gays that I wanted to come, and some of them that I wanted to sleep with.” For the Times, Dimitrov’s camp pose seems to be a titillating novelty, but to me, this statement proposes the familiar mix of art and flirtation to be expected from a poet who self-consciously places himself within the queer legacy of the New York School. For Frank O’Hara, one of the school’s so-called “first generation” members, poetry was often a medium for intimate exchange, part of the work of seduction. O’Hara lays this out in his tongue-in-cheek manifesto, “Personism,” in which he advocates for a poetry that eschews the idea of a general audience and addresses itself to one person instead. Such a method, O’Hara writes, “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” As O’Hara goes on to point out, “[t]he poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” We’ve come a long way from Wordsworth’s emotions recollected in tranquility; O’Hara’s perverse lyric is a sort of ménage à trois, capable of both giving and receiving pleasure.
O’Hara’s image is meant to be somewhat absurd — he was a poet that shied away from making self-serious, grand statements — but it gets at something important for his work, and for that of Dimitrov. Note that the poem, as Lucky Pierre, both joins and separates the poet and his addressee. It is a conduit for intimacy, and a powerful one, but it nonetheless keeps the two bodies separated from one another. If Dimitrov’s first book captured the ecstatic pleasure of literary frottage — the poet rubbing up against the poem — his new collection, Together and by Ourselves, is more keyed to a feeling of resignation: language may be intimate, even sexy, but it always interposes a distance between what it is meant to join.
This almost tragic awareness of poetry’s affordances and limits is no more evident than in Dimitrov’s multimedia project, Night Call, in which the poet solicited invitations online to give private readings in the bedrooms of strangers. Those interested sent a note via email to set up a time for Dimitrov either to drop by in person or, if geographical distance was an issue, through the mediated intimacy of Skype. Many of the poems from the project made it into the new collection, including one that shares its name, and which offers a kind of motto for the experiment as a whole: “You can watch me while I read you something. / You can have me while I’m here.” Presenting himself directly to his reader, Dimitrov aims to achieve O’Hara’s dreamed-of intimacy; the poem is ultimately between two people instead of two pages. As is the case throughout Together and by Ourselves, however, Dimitrov tempers this utopian impulse toward proximity with a counterweight of skepticism, even foreboding:
My voice had nothing to say after the beep.
Or let me show you: unlimited intimacy
is a kind of poison.
Highlighting the inevitable note of impersonality injected into any linguistic exchange — that note made literal here in the form of the tone that ends a voicemail greeting — Dimitrov works the edge between the felt closeness of direct address and the essential instability of the second-person pronoun. Any “you” can only remain you, dear reader, for so long. Like a faithless lover, it soon has its eye on someone new, a different addressee sitting in a different bed hearing the same poem. Hence the creeping toxicity of “unlimited intimacy”; like any narcotic, the intoxicating rush that contact offers is laced with the specter of dependency, the prospect of loss, and the onset of shuddering withdrawal.
Even when Dimitrov isn’t explicitly playing a game of hide-and-seek with the anonymous reader, his poems are sharply aware of the boundaries they approach but cannot quite overcome. He has a particular knack for staging the scene of his poetry’s writing as it unfolds — another tactic borrowed from the New York School, first developed by O’Hara and later perfected by James Schuyler. While acknowledging that “every poem with people is for them,” Dimitrov rarely misses an opportunity to point out the interruption introduced by the act of writing, the distance between writing for and writing to:
This is the nineteenth line of the poem.
I am waiting for you to look at me.
Sun bleaches the paper.
Time slides through the flesh.
Someone on the corner is imprinting the building
with a kind of humanity
just by touching it.
We are often in mirrors and small in this suffering.
This is never enough. And of course I’m still here
waiting for you to look at me.
As the reader waits expectantly for the poet’s eye to alight on his or her own, Dimitrov presents himself in process as hungering for, and failing to get, someone’s attention. As he writes in “You Were Blond Once,” the collection’s first poem: “Every book is a book, a thing you feel by yourself. / You are here. I am alone in this poem.” We, by implication, are alone there as well.
Given that this is a book about the distances between people and the means we have for traversing them, it is unsurprising that travel figures largely throughout the collection. In part, this attention to motion chronicles Dimitrov’s itinerant lifestyle, shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, stopping at various cities in between for readings and talks. It is also an occasion for Dimitrov to register the personal dislocations of travel, the way it can separate one not only from others, but from oneself as well. At times this can feel a bit maudlin, as when Dimitrov, in answer to a stranger’s question about where he lives, replies, “I don’t know what you mean’s what I told him. / It’s more simple than that. I’m just passing through.” Elsewhere, however, Dimitrov more closely gets at what is at stake in all this wandering:
I need you to check your eyes
and make sure you’re seeing this clearly
when you’re seeing me often
in stairwells, hotel rooms, the car or these bars.
To be in constant motion is to risk failing to be seen, or, more precisely, to be seen clearly, as more than a blur of travel and cross-country commitments. In these moments, Dimitrov keenly highlights the double bind of an experience of self grounded, ultimately, in relation to others. He needs your eyes in order to see himself, even as he flees over the horizon. The understated polysemy of the verb “to check” — to send along, as with luggage; to halt another’s advances, as in a body check — underscores his point: Dimitrov both invites those eyes along with him on his travels, and insists they stay behind.
It is in this ambivalent disappearing act that Dimitrov’s work is at its strongest. The mixture of need and resignation signaled by the “now you see me, now you don’t” effect of the poems is reflected even in his prosody, which avoids enjambment in favor of end-stopped lines, the poems often taking the form of a series of apparently disconnected, aphoristic asides. In this respect, he has shed some of the markers of O’Hara’s influence so present in his first book. In place of O’Hara’s “corrupt / concrete Rimbaud obscurity of emotion” — a memorable phrase from the poet’s fabulous love poem, “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” — Together and by Ourselves pursues a poetics more in line with the knottier, opaque work of John Ashbery or Barbara Guest. While I hate to use this word, particularly in relation to a queer poet (for how long have people been telling both queers and poets to “grow up”?), I’m tempted to call this new collection “mature”: thoughtful, focused, and confident in its voice. My only caveat is that, while maturation suggests a line of development with an implied destination, a working toward self-realization and adulthood, Dimitrov’s poems don’t seem terribly concerned about arriving anywhere in particular. Like their peripatetic speaker, they are most themselves in flux and on the move, intimate and strange like a one night stand. Dimitrov’s queer tact is in his choice neither to celebrate nor to condemn this state of affairs, for both himself and his poems. Instead, he presents his various corridors as rooms, and invites us to linger there as he tests the knob of yet another door.