FEBRUARY 18, 2020
IN GOOD BOYS, Megan Fernandes’s second volume of poetry, Fernandes considers the many ways that one can be “good.” In poems that fizz with both irony and vulnerability, Fernandes points out that sometimes being “good” simply means being obedient, the way we say Good boy! to a well-trained and affectionate pet. Yet, the poems also remind us that it can be dangerous to consider submission a form of love.
Sometimes a “good boy” means the person who gets to say which desires are true and what violence is real:
Once in a car, a good boy
shook me hard. If you like it
that way in bed, then why are you…
the tiny bruises on my arms
where his prints pressed into my pink
sleeves rose to the surface like rattles.
The demureness of the bruises that appear “like requests” disturbingly evokes feminine goodness as docility. Here, Fernandes suggests, the “goodness” of a boy is what makes the harm he’s done to a girl seem unfathomable, or just unimportant.
Fernandes, who identifies as a member of the Indian Ocean diaspora, considers these questions of gender and sexuality from within an ongoing colonialism. Who is a “good boy” is often decided along the lines of property — of who or what belongs to whom. For instance, in “White People Always Want to Tell Me That They Grew Up Poor,” composed in short stanzas that drip down the page with acrid clarity, Fernandes writes:
You grew up rich, they say.
Your daddy is a doctor.
They want me
their whiteness, too.
to spread it
like the tentacles of
The suckered tentacles of whiteness recall the sea monsters which crawled out from the depths of European imaginations traversing the Indian Ocean during earlier colonial periods, linking the contemporary to a longer history of racial anxiety. It’s an image reminiscent of the famous 19th-century political cartoon where the British Empire is represented as an octopus with a human head (the satirical figure John Bull, a paunchy middle-aged character who stood for the United Kingdom), tentacles possessively resting on a reef of British colonies (Gibraltar, Malta, Jamaica, Australia, Ireland).
The poem catalogs racist stereotypes of white resentment, organized by the belief that wealth and power are the property of whiteness. They spit: “How dare you / have what was rightfully mine.” These are attempts to consolidate racist power by portraying South Asian subjects (and people of color more broadly) as burglars and interlopers. But the speaker of this poem is not without rebuttal, refusing the breath-stifling grip of the squid. The lived experiences of diaspora undermine the white person’s clear-cut racial hierarchies:
I want to say:
my daddy holds storms
from a world you’ve never seen.
Our household was not held by anything
you could name. If you swam in it,
you wouldn’t even know
it was water.
Like all of the best comebacks, this one smolders unspoken (“I want to say”). Good Boys often inhabits this unsatisfied relation to justice. These feelings of righteous understanding without resolution have to go somewhere, and they sometimes emerge in unexpected places: in a Filipino restaurant over a conversation about toxic queer dating app culture, at a senior’s coloring hour at the library, a friend’s wedding, and, inevitably, at the bar.
In the poem “Conversion,” we can see Fernandes exploring the ways that being a “good boy” often means managing the feelings that attend experiences of injustice. The titular “conversion” at the center of the poem’s narrative spiral is a gay conversion therapy session. The story of this conversion experience is told as its own kind of confession, leaking out in a moment of barroom over-share:
sam says you can’t name your book good boys without a dog
but sam doesn’t know that i am the dog
i am the ultimate mutt and i am telling him this story
at the bar called college hill tavern which looks like a front
for some operation where all the bar stools appear as if
they were staged in under ten minutes and
the girl with the fake lashes knows
i like a double gin and i am telling sam
that i am a dog who was converted
when i was seventeen and my mother found an essay
about how i was in love with a girl
and there was a portishead reference
in case you need me to date it
Fernandes pulls the reader into spontaneous intimacies brought on by drunkenness. The over-poured lines run in cascades: the humiliations of shamed desire, an adolescent taste for melancholy trip-hop, the bartender who knows your order. This is the way it is when pain is searching for the language to hold it. Although it feels like too much has been said, it isn’t actually enough.
Fernandes’s self-comparison to an obedient dog is discomfiting, especially as this comparison carries with it histories of racial and sexual abjection. Yet in this move Fernandes importantly recalls how sexuality, gender, and race are categories used to sort out the human from non. Thus, “Conversion” explores one of Good Boys most important subjects — what is the shape of the category of human? And how does one fit the inconveniences of feelings, sex, or love into this improbable shape?
At the end of “Conversion,” Fernandes wonders if writing a good poem is yet another way of being a good boy. One definition of a good poem might be that it controls feeling in just the right way. For some, that might mean a depersonalization of feeling, a stripping of identity or politics from the poem, in interest of more “universal” aesthetic concerns. Good Boys does not do that:
but you see, i was seventeen and alone
and nobody gave me anything except one book by dickinson
and she was so neat, so precise, so human
and i wasn’t. i just wasn’t.
i was just a dog. i wasn’t even that good.
On the gay conversion couch or the lyric page, the ability to be human is linked to a “precise” kind of feeling, the right kind of desire. “Conversion” is a poem that rejects “goodness” and embraces messiness, even when this means revealing an unbearable vulnerability.
We can see this in the book’s final poem, “Baudelaire Says: Write a Poem to Your Creditors,” which is almost a prose poem — a form which Baudelaire is sometimes credited with inventing. The prose poem is a form that has always flirted with its own unfitness as a poem. It feels right, then, that a book so concerned with the contradictions of improper desire would end with a poem that wants to be a paragraph. Here again, colonial history seeps out unexpectedly. While Baudelaire is perhaps best known as a poet of modern urban Paris, the city was not the only environment that shaped his work. As a young man, he was sent on a sea voyage by his parents in hopes that the journey would reform the wayward dandy into a respectable member of the bourgeoisie. They crossed their fingers that a maritime adventure and some colonial entrepreneurialism would convince Baudelaire to give up his embarrassing interest in writing and wean him from his expensive Parisian libertinism. His parents were disappointed. Baudelaire took an abbreviated tour of 19th-century European colonialism in the Indian Ocean, spending time on the islands of Bourbon (now Réunion) and Mauritius before jumping ship and heading back to Paris well before the intended destination of India. His experiences served as inspiration for many of his poems, including “L’Albatros,” “À une dame créole,” and “À une Malabaraise.” Baudelaire, of course, did not amend his decadent habits and went on to incur notorious debts. In short, Baudelaire was not a very good boy.
In “Baudelaire Says: Write a Poem to Your Creditors,” Fernandes draws ambivalently from Baudelaire as a poet who rejected bourgeois sexual mores while also profiting from colonialism as a white French citizen and as an artist. Reminiscent of the creditors that hounded Baudelaire his entire adult life, the poem attempts to stave off the inevitability of collapse through a breathless litany of images that recalls French symbolism:
Each fragment runs right up to a precipice, creating a collage of edges. In a series of broken images, the poem assembles an atmosphere of imminent disaster while occasionally resting on objects of tender beauty: “fungal hearts,” “The belief in light,” or “Chandeliers like Madonnas.”
The poem captures the crushing accumulation of emergencies small enough to be managed in the moment, but collecting into a mass that will inevitably collapse the flimsy protections keeping disaster at bay. Financial debt, such as the thousand dollars owed to the hospital, is one of the many ways that such structural violence gets normalized through its mischaracterization as personal failure or bad luck. But the poem is also a fitting ending to the diffuse energy of threat navigated throughout Good Boys. “Baudelaire Says” is a poem for our climate of crisis (which includes the climate crisis). As in poems like “Nukemap.com,” “Why We Drink,” or “The New Fragile,” Good Boys speaks to our shared knowledge that things cannot go on as they are and yet, day by day, we are going on. Fernandes explores what it feels like to live a life organized by risk, the ordinary wagers and debts we make in our attachments to the people, places, and ideas that we love, our promises to ourselves and others: “The way we bet. What we gamble with.”
Being good is one way of managing risk. But it also allows us to ignore the ways in which our world is built on theft — the piracies of whiteness, a sense of entitlement to someone else’s body or someone else’s country. Good Boys relishes the moments when one cannot be good anymore. At their best, the poems in Good Boys fulfill the etymological definition of poesis — the act of making. Fernandes explores the ways that a poem can be a way of putting something together and taking it apart over and over again, the way a life can be narrated and renarrated, a familiar image suddenly seen anew. The poems demonstrate an intelligent handling of form, disrupting convenient distinctions between the neatness of intellect and the chaos of feeling. If the poems embrace a certain disorder, lingering in the pooling of despair or the leaking of love, they also suggest that important things happen at the corners and edges of our lives, the places when forms come together, but also where they come apart.
Rachel Carroll is a post-doctoral research associate in the English Department at Rutgers University. She is currently working on a book on race and experimentalism in American literature and visual culture.