Bryan R. Monte
AQ29 Autumn 2020 Book Reviews
Hester, Diarmuid, Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, University of Iowa Press, ISBN 978-1-60938-691-7, 319 pages.
Horn, Bernard, Love’s Fingerprints,, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN 978-1-939530-09-7, 134 pages.
This summer I received two interesting books for review by authors with completely different family dynamics. The first is Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, about American enfant terrible gay author Dennis Cooper, by Diarmuid Hester, a rising star in LGBTQI literary scholarship. Cooper has long been the ‘bad boy’ of the American gay writing scene for the post-Stonewall generation. At polar opposites, is retired university professor Bernard Horn’s book Love’s Fingerprints, which describes the love and connections that held his family together through four generations and their experience of emigration, the Holocaust, family conflicts, and failing health, as well as Horn’s engagement in the natural and political worlds.
Hester’s Wrong draws on archival materials as well as interviews with Cooper and those of his admirers. Spending ‘more than a decade’ on this project, Hester provides an excellent overview and summary of Cooper’s works from his early poetry and magazine Little Caesar, to his mid-life George Miles novel series, the deletion of his online blog by his provider due to a complaint, and ending with film collaborations with Zach Farley in the early 21st century.
Hester’s biography includes interesting aspects of Cooper’s dysfunctional family and their lasting influence on Cooper’s writing. Hester outlines Cooper’s artistic pedigree from his painter grandmother to his alcoholic, former-concert pianist mother, and his earlier, aspiring writer and later aerospace manufacturer father. Hester documents Cooper’s education, public and private, his parents’ divorce, his circle of friends, their attendance at punk music and art venues, and their recreational drug use.
Hester continues Cooper’s work as Beyond Baroque’s Director. Here, Cooper changed an open mike reading format to a programmed one. (I believe ‘curated’ is the word now used in British and American English). This caused lasting animosity with some of the earlier generation of poets and writers who had previously attended. This tension lead to Cooper leaving Beyond Baroque in 1983. In the meantime, he programmed punk and new wave writers and artists more closely affiliated with the LA contemporary cultural scene.
Where Hester’s book really becomes interesting for me, however, is in Chapter 6 “If There Actually Is Such a Thing Like New Narrative…”, which describes the Small Press Traffic Bookstore workshops on 24th Street in Noe Valley, San Francisco and New Narrative Writing. I attended SPT’s gay men’s Tuesday night writing workshops from January/February 1983 until July 1984. During this time, I graduated from Berkeley, founded a gay magazine, No Apologies, and later won a fellowship to Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program. If this chapter is representative of Hester’s work in the remainder of the book, I think I should be able to estimate the overall accuracy of Wrong. In brief, the things Hester got right were due to his own scholarship versus interviewee information, sometimes obtained decades later, which almost always contains a few inaccuracies due to faulty memories.
Hester’s description of the then competing New Narrative and Language schools of writing and their styles in San Francisco in the 1980s is spot on. His assertion that the New Narrative groups’ leaders talked a lot about gay community building as well as good writing is also correct. His description of the purpose of New Narrative writers versus the Language writers in San Francisco is also quite good. New Narrative promoted a self-critical, self-reflexive writing style, which was more like a conversation with the reader, as in the early novels. On the other hand, the Language school produced self-contained narrative entities composed of rapidly changing images from which the reader had to build his/her own narrative. New Narrative’s subject matter was the gay and lesbian community and its writing, which the mainstream press had not yet embraced. The New Narrative writers rightly saw Language writing as a privileged art form for writers who didn’t have to fight for visibility.
Hester also correctly observes that practically the whole New Narrative movement was included in the second issue of No Apologies. I created this magazine in July 1983 after I discovered just how difficult it was for gay men and lesbians to find publishers for their work. I wanted to preserve and disseminate some of the good work I had heard in these workshops.
However, there is one inaccuracy in Chapter 6 from information obtained from a Kevin Killian interview. On page 103, Hester quotes Killian as saying that when I went to Brown’s Graduate Writing Program, ‘he (Monte)…took No Apologies with him,’. Killian states further that ‘The materials I (Killian) had left over, gathered for No Apologies, I (Killian) used to start up a new magazine, Mirage,’.
This is incorrect. The split between Killian and me occurred five months after I had left for Brown. Before that, Killian and I corresponded and telephoned each other regularly from August 1984 to January 1985 exchanging around 10 missives each to coordinate work on No Apologies #4’s upcoming East Coast-themed issue.
It was Cooper, however, who unwittingly caused my break with Killian. On 8 December, after Cooper had read at my invitation with Olga Broumas for Brown University’s Gay and Lesbian Union, I walked him down College Hill to the train station. On the way, I asked Cooper if he had a piece I could add to the interview I had conducted with him in New York in October for No Apologies #4. He walked a few steps further in silence, then told me he had already sent one to Killian.
It was for this mis- or lack of communication and other reasons mentioned in my memoir of Killian in AQ27, that I stopped working with him in January 1985 and published No Apologies on my own. However, Hester would have only known about this if he had read Killian’s correspondence with me (now at Yale’s Beinecke Library) or my Killian memoir in AQ27, which came out in March 2020, probably after he had already completed and submitted his MS.
Overall, I found Wrong to be informative, scholarly, and accessible. It covers sixty years of Cooper’s life in just 319 pages (including a 20-page bibliography and a seven-page index). In addition, Wrong is not mired in technical or academic terminology and provides a good overview and generous excerpts of Cooper’s books so it felt as if I were reading them again. Wrong is an engaging book, which I found sometimes difficult to put down. Fortunately, the book is modular enough that it can be read one chapter at a time without losing the thread of Hester’s description and analyses. Many chapters also include conclusions with Hester’s suggestions about what each means to Cooper’s development as a writer specifically, and/or to LGBTQI writing in general. I believe any Cooper fan or scholar will certainly find Wrong essential reading.
In contrast, Bernard Horn’s poetry collection, Love’s Fingerprints, is a work written from the right side of the tracks of family dynamics and in a more traditional thematic and stylistic approach to literature. The love and relationships between father, mother, son and siblings is tender, palpable, and binds his family down three generations despite anti-Semitism, emigration, a North American trans-continental relocation, and war. Many of these family links are reinforced thematically with Biblical and classical references, many in the poems’ epigraphs.
Love’s Fingerprints is divided into five parts: a prologue ‘A Self-portrait with Music’, and four longer sections entitled ‘Hear!’, ‘Dreams of a Black Panther’, ‘Red Red’, and ‘The Ideal World’. In “Hear!’ Horn introduces his parents and grandparents. His father was a 1930s Polish Jewish soccer star and his grandfather was a butcher. They emigrated to Canada during the Depression. His Ukrainian mother also emigrated to Canada with her mother.
Horn has many poems in this collection about his athletic father and his bright mother. These poems especially depict the strong bond between father and son and between his father and his grandfather. In ‘Sunday In the Park’ father and son are ‘clandestine in their complicity of watching each other,’ at sport, his father ‘showing off with a soccer ball to his European soccer buddies’…‘easily heading the ball between makeshift goal markers’ who lovingly though doesn’t say anything when his son ‘missed an easy pop up and a grounder too’ during his softball game. The Victorian rooming house, where his father played poker and rented a room to change into his swimsuit, is described in ‘The Porch’. On the beach, his son watches his athletic father swim ‘through and beyond breakers,/far beyond the rotted jetties, as the sun set, as you vanished in the distance and the darkness/ on a moonless Saturday night in July alone,/except for the eight-year-old-boy staring out to sea’.
The bond with his mother can be seen in ‘The Work of Our Hands’ which describes how his mother rinsed gently his hair, even though ‘at ten she witnesses her father’s murder’… ‘at twenty,…brought her aging, half-willing mother/across Europe, the Atlantic, and half of Canada,’…and ‘at thirty-three, left her own beloved extended family there/and led her husband and three-year-old son/to New York…to escape a sister-in-law/bent on dismantling her marriage.’ ‘The Blue Corduroy Blazer’ describes his ‘math prodigy’ mother’s advice to ‘Save up,’ and ‘Buy one good suit,…a pair of pants, a couple of double stitched /shirts, top-of-the-line-ties, fabrics of/quality.’ This first section continues with additional family poems ‘To my Brother’, ‘Portrait of My Mother Knitting’ the long, prose poem/memoir ‘My Father, the Swimmer’, and ‘Wind Hair’ about three granddaughters, among others.
Horn also addresses the Holocaust in ‘The Merit of Ancestors’, ‘Try to Remember”, ‘What My Father Revealed’, and ‘What My Mother Revealed’, and his own personal experience of anti-Semitism in ‘Jew Cap’.
The second section contains more poems about Horn’s own family, friends, upbringing, and contemporary events. ‘Cinderella’ describes the reaction of two young girls watching the speaker’s daughter try on her wedding dress in Israel. They ask Horn if his daughter is Cinderella, and their mothers mouth “Say yes,”. ‘At Capo Vaticano’ he describes the rescue of his granddaughter as she fell from some rocks and was about to hit her head. However, Horn’s son-in-law, grabbed her by the ankle just in time. Later, the little girl is shown playing with her sisters oblivious to the danger she’d survived. Then follow two poems, ‘My Daughter’ and ‘Asphaltine’ also about the speaker’s daughters, as well as a remembrance of a grad school party in ‘Forty-Five Years Ago’ of a professor passed out on the living room floor and his wife weeping over the kitchen sink.
This section also includes two strong, long poems: ‘Sappho’s Blues: Four Songs’ and ‘Dreams of a Black Panther’. The first mixes classical invocations and images with modern, musical, poetic modes The second is a pastiche of Horn’s childhood love of learning, which led him to speak out of turn for which he was punished, his college years discussing politics in a Boston coffee shop, the observation that all the metal in us is produced in stars, and the stony New England soil which still produces daffodils and homes for rabbits.
Part 3 ‘Red, Red’ is about mankind’s engagement with the natural world. Whether swimming through it and admiring its beauty as is ‘The Snorkelers’ off a Red Sea reef, or coming eye to eye with a raccoon trashing his waste cans or with a great ape in a zoo rolling its eyes as children tap on the glass of its enclosure in ‘Raccoon’, Horn describes inter-species awareness and connectivity. ‘Above Leuk’ describes a medieval church’s walls built from human bones as expertly as ‘The master wall builders from Connecticut,…who worked /mortarless, as they tossed stone rubble/from a cleared field perfectly/into place’. ‘Sycamores’ describes Nature’s healing effect on Horn. Here he leaves ‘his perfect Cambridge apartment’ at 3 a.m. to ‘make my eight mile loop along the Charles’ to clear his head. In the title poem of this section, ‘Red, Red’, the phrase ‘Is that all there is’ is repeated twice to unite the surprise of a damaged, bleeding hand in the first stanza and ‘raspberry red stained lips and teeth in the second stanza, the first time as disappointment and the second, as a celebration of satiation.
The book’s final section is ‘The Ideal World’, though I found this a bit misleading, because I felt much of its imagery, thoughts, and perceptions are part of the real world. Here Horn explores the topics of meditation in ‘The Silence’ and ‘Mind, Feel’; film and the human drive for sex and death in ‘Strange Love’ and ‘Death, Rothko Said’; the haunting memories some music brings in ‘Schubert’; and a selection of political poems mostly based on personal experience. ‘Hope. Heartbreak’ is about a remembered conversation with a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman in a hallway after a lecture. Here, the woman, who knew his work well, asks about the use of temporality in one of his poems. Unfortunately, Horn never heard from her again. At the poem’s end, Horn years later wonders if the woman still feels the same about his work due to the on-going conflict in Israel and Palestine. This terminal section ends with the section’s title poem. Here Horn writes that the strongest example of political/social change, is not ‘the fear filled bravery of those who face down the instrument of /tyranny’, but a child, no more than three in her mother’s arms yelling the contagious chant: ‘“The people demand social justice.”’
Love’s Fingerprints is a varied, engaging, and accomplished poetry collection, another excellent book in Circling Rivers’ growing collection. AQ