Skin Flicks: Angelo Nikolopoulos' “Obscenely Yours"

Enter Obscenely Yours, Angelo Nikolopoulos’s debut book of poems, and here it is again: that freedom of desire, a broad daylight kind of sexuality...

September 27, 2013

    I MISS THE POEMS in which the homosexual fantasizes about having sex with the sexy stranger, the football player or the movie star — the heated sum of what most of us can’t have that lights up life for Dennis Cooper in the beginning of his poem, “After School, Street Football, Eighth Grade”:

    Their jeans sparkled, cut off
    way above the knee, and my
    friends and I would watch them
    from my porch, books of poems
    lost in our laps, eyes wide as
    tropical fish behind our glasses.

    Their football flashed from hand
    to hand, tennis shoes gripped
    the asphalt, sweat's spotlight on
    their strong backs. We would
    dream of hugging them, and crouch
    later in weird rooms, and come.

    I love Dennis Cooper’s poems because poetry is what called him first, before he wrote all those novels that let the darkness in and made him famous. Cooper’s poems are straightforward, mostly theme and variation, about sexy teenagers who inhabit a teenage world where they read and dance and listen to music. I encountered the poems when I was young myself and shared them with the only other queer boy I knew, in a year when the right combination of music and drugs and sexuality meant love:

    We snort all our coke
    on the way to the party.
    We bring the new album.
    We dance while we listen.

    The band is two women
    whose husbands control them.
    They do not speak our language.
    Each syllable’s an obstacle.

    They are in love with a man.
    He is in love with another.
    But they’re in no hurry.
    They could wait forever.


    I’ve been thinking a lot about that early and influential reading (aside from Cooper there was Allen Ginsberg, James White, Frank O’Hara, and Thom Gunn) and how it named a kind of desire — somewhat naive and intoxicating — that isn’t found so much anymore in poetry, or in the poems by gay men, in particular. There’s more of an interest, now, in the literary possibilities of language and form. And, because the American homosexual is more visible today than he ever was before, he may not have the same hunger for a poetry to accompany the revelation of his sexuality. The current poetry reflects a body politic that isn’t as overtly sexual as it once was.

    Enter Obscenely Yours, Angelo Nikolopoulos’s debut book of poems, and here it is again: that freedom of desire, a broad daylight kind of sexuality that is presented tenderly, experimentally, sardonically, in a way that is completely original and yet must also be read as an homage to a generation of gay poets that came before it.

    The book is, as the author says in an online interview with David Winter of the New York Writers Coalition, “mostly concerned with the impulse to give yourself — physically and emotionally and entirely — to another person, whether that’s a lover, a stranger, or an imagined other. What does it mean to want to be loved, wholly? There’s something obscene, I think, about the mechanics of love — that desire to be taken.” 

    The primary force of the book can be felt in lines written around that desire — where it succeeds and also where it fails. “I met a man / who was impossible and cross. // He loved me. / And then, famously, he did not,”  Nikolopoulos writes in one poem. And that curious word, famously, refers, I think, to the well-known fact that many gay relationships don’t make it past a couple of years. Because we don’t seem to last in pairs, Nikolopoulos is always questioning the relationship between physical love and something more permanent. The body and what the body does/achieves (orgasm and otherwise) are proof of something transcendent, but, as he says in “Washington Square Park,” the body is never enough:

    It is good that we are warm
                             and together,
    but say my love to me.

    The body is never enough,
                             for we can do one better,

    even if it cheapens us —

    before we enter the garden,

                             half-dressed and barefoot,

    prepared to replace


                             the fisted book of ivy —

    say my love to me:

    here in the rotted oak,

                             in the pebbled road;

    inside this stem and bloom,

    my darling, you will find me

                             here beneath this rock.

    I once knew a famous female poet in Provincetown who — in one of those summer rumors — was supposedly having sex with a man we all knew, though nobody could actually confirm whether the sex was actually taking place. Finally, someone who knew her for a long time said, “She’s having theoretical sex.” And in a way, Obscenely Yours follows a similar ghost pattern of intimacy. While the book takes on a long, cinematic catalog of sexual expressions (bondage, incest, oral, anal, fisting, and even the self-explanatory “Self Suck”), it doesn’t concern itself as much with the consequences of the sex as it does with the staging or presentation of the catalog. The fact that we never know if the book as a whole is meant as confession or conjecture doesn’t make it any less evocative. Nikolopoulos is more interested in looking at the performance quality of sexual desire than constructing anything like a treatise on love.


    Martha Graham’s memoir, Blood Memory, was fascinating (but a failure) because it was, in effect, not a book about somebody’s inner life as an artist, but a storied history of a mask, a persona. At no moment in reading that book did I ever feel as though I was getting the real Martha Graham: the artist seeing herself exactly for who she was and not how other people saw her. (She was a famous drinker, for instance, which is barely mentioned.) Some years later, after reading the book, I saw Graham in an old documentary, talking to the camera before going on stage for a performance of “Clytemnestra” and, again, there it was — the persona. Pretending to be real. Where did the real Martha Graham reside? In performance.

    Obscenely Yours, though certainly not the failure that Blood Memory was, is doing something similar by revealing a sexual landscape through a kind of persona or deliberately pitched voice, and reading those landscapes as personas of space, which in their heightened and erotic way, feel staged — literally and figuratively. (“The first thing we love is a scene — / a well-lit place where ravishing happened.”) Nikolopoulos uses the ingenious organizing principle of titling the early poems “scenes” and “auditions.” Here is the beginning of “Obscenely Yours (scene one)”:

    It’s not the forced entry if you’re dressed up,
    fantasy’s fledgling

    in your ski-masked kitsch —
    lose the props. More interiority

    and less Times Square.
    Think stranded by the river.

    I remember when I first read the great dramatic monologues “Herbert White” and “Ellen West” by Frank Bidart and how I was completely in awe of the inhabitation Bidart performs in those poems, the way he steps inside the voice of White, the serial killer, and West, the anorectic. But even more impressive is the fact that Bidart found a language for something there has rarely been language for: souls on the outskirts of their own existence. “How did I live this long?” each character seems to be crying out from the core of his or her performance.

    That effervescent feeling of a writer finding language (which is not the same thing as finding words) came to me again while reading Obscenely Yours. The book is formally adventurous (traditional couplets are common here, but so is the poem that breaks off into fragments) and it is humorous and aggressive in nature as well — particularly in the way it puts gay sex front and center, overshadowing anything and everything else that may be happening. There is a kind of subtext here concerned with the chronology of sexual awakening, but the physicality of now is always trumping the more fluid course of memory, which is how all the sex here occupies the mind of the book. Because that sex is (most of the time) of the anonymous variety, the homosexual on these pages is always ruminating on the ever-evolving homosexual text. The poem “,” for instance, addresses the outdated idea that every homosexual hates himself, or at least struggles with feelings of self-loathing. For Nikolopoulos, the new homosexual acts more out of his own wonder at how he managed to survive his forebears and the plague years than out of anything like feelings of dread about who he is or how he got here:

    On the subway home, it is not guilt
    that hangs overhead, not regret soiled

    in the folds of the shirt, the torn buttonhole.
    It is wonder, instead, and lineage.

    I imagine the long row of men before me
    in their muslin shirts, trimmed beards,

    And Nixon is president.
    It is the lull and glow of the Hudson

    where they’d feel through darkness,
    over damp planks, until they hit body —

    chest, torso, legs — and that was that.
    You, I’m so happy to have found you.

    I love the tenderness in this poem and how Nikolopoulos gives thanks to his tribe with the great choice of the words: “wonder” and “lineage.” It’s a rare move for a young gay poet to actually acknowledge an older freedom that has allowed his own to be activated. The poem is also a reminder of sources — both personal and literary — and by the end of the book, I had the sense of someone who has not only followed a maverick sense of sexuality (outdoor sex is still the best, most radical location), but of literature/reading, as well.

    Nikolopoulos shows his influences like badges of sunlight and has done more than his fair share of reading. Echoes of Whitman, Cavafy, Barthes, Olds, Doty, and Bidart are all here. In “Obscenely Yours (scene five)” Bidart’s gorgeous epiphany about love’s union: The love I have known is two people staring not at each other, but in the same direction (which Bidart himself took from Antoine de Saint-Exupery and reworked in his own poem, “To the Dead”) gets a somewhat cynical update:

    If two men look out the same prison bars
    and one see stars

    Where the other sees mud,
    I’d say check your telescope at the door,

    sweetcheeks, I’m into recidivism.
    Your bad choices,

    my clean slate make for a saucy Venn diagram.
    Aren’t we hypothetically?

    Even when he isn’t writing about sex (which is rare), Nikolopoulos is influenced by those gay poets who looked at things other than the pleasure or the riddle of sex. His “Washington Square Park,” with its lush address to a certain flower and a very particular New York street and season, sounds like something James Schuyler could have written:

                    Fifth Avenue, late October,
    and the black-eyed Susans —
                    sultry sun worshipers
    mouthed by leopard slugs
                    this morning — are getting
    ready to break my heart.”


    Obscenely Yours finds beauty in encounters with other men (strangers or lovers), but this is not really a book I would call beautiful. The language is too calamitous, too made and too clever to call it a beautiful book. Beauty is, however, the great subject here, and the poet looks at it hard. The collection calls to mind Reginald’s Shepherd’s pronouncement, “I don’t trust beauty anymore, when will I stop believing it?” from his essay “Notes on Beauty,” which ends like this:

    Beauty isn't particularly good for anything, except perhaps helping one get laid, if one happens to be beautiful, and I like the idea of its uselessness. In a society so over-ruled by instrumental reason, to be good for nothing is perhaps simply to be good: in its inutility, beauty manifests what Kant called the kingdom of ends, in which people and things exist in and for themselves and not as the means to other ends (profit, power).

    And getting laid, or not getting laid, or getting too laid, is the leitmotif that runs through Obscenely Yours like the exacting light through a film projector. The poems see-saw between real sex and imagined sex until the heat is practically drawn out of the act. These aren’t, then, really poems of eroticism as much as they are poems about the remains of it: eroticism deconstructed and traced backward, so we can see the psyche in collision with the body. Theoretical sex. Almost all the poems occur at the beginning of the sexual encounter, when the mind turns off the body and the seducer reactivates its possibility:

    I like it better when I’m unconscious —
    sexsomia’s ontology, hard

    copula of possibility, to be.
    In this dream I’m Farm Girl Walking.

    Goldenrod. Milkweed.
    Beyond the barn where the workmen

    lunch in the open field.
    Rye morsel. Tin canteen. Aren’t you

    the prettiest girl we ever seen?
    Wet animal smell.”

                            “Obscenely Yours (scenes two and three)”

    Obscenely Yours is enraptured by the male body in surrender, the encounter where sex exists as a kind of horizon line — always there, whether it’s actualized or not. Take, for example, “Brother Knows Best: Auditions.” The poem has incest as its subject and yet, strangely, like a spell, provides the book with its simplest and most erotic statement:

                    …It was an awful fluttering
            how he’d lock the door and put himself inside
    my mouth, and I’d stare at the unmade bed,
            his worn boxing gloves, until he had finished.

    At the end of the poem, something is won but not understood:

             This mountain he had climbed to let out a cry
    from above, as if he’d won, that he had earned it.
              I watched him at his terrible height from above.

    The last poem in the book, “Yours,” is, I think, the finest and, with its effortless playful cataloging of places for sex, the most rhapsodic:

    by torch and hitch knot
    by love-blackened heart
    in neon lights and cellulite
    by shot in the dark

    in the cold examining room
    with iron and stain
    inside this stem and bloom, my darling
    by well-lit ravishing

    beyond the night-veil
    near dusk-maddened cows
    in the valley, unchartered
    by big fat red mouth

    inside the parked Chrysler
    fringed by goldenrod
    by rope and fire and spit on the ground
    by reddened tincture of oxide

    It’s the culminating poem in a book that wonderfully reclaims the male body in all its complexity, vulnerability, and beauty as an object of desire. Perhaps a letter signed “obscenely yours” is, for all its delight in making something theatrical out of the intimate world, a love letter after all.


     Michael Klein is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently The Talking Day.


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