Friday, August 25, 2017

R.I.P., Mark Merlis

The Washington Post reports the sad news that local gay writer Mark Merlis, two of whose novels—American Studies and An Arrow's Flight—our group has discussed, died on Aug. 15 at the age of 67 from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

For much of his adult life, as Merlis notes on his own website, he earned his livelihood doing health care analysis for the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service and, later, as an independent consultant (experiences he drew on for his most autobiographical novel, Man about Town). But he also harbored literary ambitions that found fruition with the publication of American Studies in 1994. That novel, like the three that followed, has been widely praised for the sensitivity with which Merlis addresses such themes as the corrosive effect of shame and the intersecting paths of past and present.

The title of novelist Christopher Bram's loving tribute in the Aug. 22 Advocate, "The Books of Mark Merlis Brought Modern Gay Identity to Life," really says it all. As Bram notes, the novels "share a family resemblance: fine literary texture, a keen sense of gay history, a moral complexity worthy of Henry James, and strong sexuality. But he never repeated himself."

Bram calls Merlis' second novel, An Arrow's Flight (first published in the U.K. as Pyrrhus in 1999), his personal favorite, an assessment I heartily second. It could have been a mere "stunt, an elaborate joke: a gay retelling of the Philoctetes story set in the age of AIDS. Go-go boys mingle with Greek soldiers in ancient armor; soothsayers advise hustlers. It's wonderfully inventive and wildly funny. Yet the novel ends on a tender note that's not just moving but wise."

I'm chagrinned to admit that I had no idea Merlis had published his fourth (and, sadly, last) novel, JD: A Novelin 2015. It's available in hardcover and on Kindle, and I've just ordered it in the latter format.  From the plot summary, it appears it explores some of the themes in American Studies, and I look forward eagerly to reading it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

London Bridges

Watching Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, one of the movies discussed in our book on gay film. Beautiful movie, quasi-documentary, his reminiscences of growing up gay in Liverpool in the early 1950s. Great line: he quotes a judge of the time who, sentencing two gay men, said: 'Not only have you committed an act of gross indecency, you have done so under one of London's most beautiful bridges!'

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Having finished "In the Empire of the Air"

     Now having read all the contents of Philip Clark's edition of In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton (as I hadn't when the group met on Wednesday), my admiration is all the more. I wish/wonder if members of the group could do something to promote the reputation of this wonderful poet.
     Several people at the group meeting pointed to allusions to other poets in his work. I didn't get a chance to push in with John Berryman, alluded to by the title of 'Inner Resources' (one of the 'Four Poems', p. 43)—see Berryman 'Dream Songs 14' ('Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so / ... my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored / means you have no / Inner Resources"'—and 'Mr. Interlocutor' in 'Plusieurs jours', p. 70, recalling Berryman's invocation throughout the Dream Songs of the byplay in minstrel shows between Mr Bones and Mr Interlocutor.
     So presences of Eliot, Crane, Berryman, ?Auden ('no radio goes dead' p. 52 makes me think of Auden, 'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone', and maybe the Yeats elegy)—quite a range, and probably other poets. An imagination not circumscribed in any school, but still with its own very distinctive character; a way of writing which is, as everyone says, like John Ashbery's—but better.
     Someone (Keith? Barry?) perceptively pointed to a tactic in some poems of seeming to come up to a point but then dropping back from it—cf. 'Unattached', p. 15: 'I have / developed, then, this / leaping-back motion as a device / for getting out of the way / of these next few things as / they happen ...'
     The construction of stanzas (often of the same number of lines within a given poem) and of individual lines (mostly of about the same syllable count within a given poem, though usually not a repeated rhythm) is another whole aspect. Poetry that's both very lyrical and very formal.
     I'm grateful to Philip for bringing these poems to the group, and to the group for such an excellent, impressive discussion of them. I really do hope that Britton's work survives and becomes more widely known. Like Keats he only had a short time to write, but he should not be 'one whose name was writ in water', as Keats thought he would be.