In a series of personal essays, Lambda Literary Award–winning writer and academic Mann (English/Virginia Tech; co-editor: LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry From Appalachia, 2019, etc.) explores the experience of being a gay man who appreciates conservative Appalachia.
“I own no Cher or Streisand CDs,” Mann proclaims early on, making it clear to readers who may be unfamiliar with his work that he doesn’t fit gay stereotypes. He doesn’t live in a large city, and he’s content with living with his “husbear” in the mountains of the Virginias, listening to Joni Mitchell, and reflecting on writers such as Wordsworth and Keats. Across 22 essays, Mann discusses religion, politics, and sex while addressing the seeming disconnect between his sexuality and the down-home world that he loves. Religion remains the thorniest aspect of Appalachian life for Mann, but in the essay “Surly Bear in the Bible Belt,” he smartly traces his sexual desires for stereotypically masculine men and bondage back to the rigid gender roles of fundamentalist Christianity. Politics, including the election of Donald Trump, are woven throughout these pieces, but they come to the forefront in “Confederate” and “Watch Out! That Queer’s Got a Gun,” in which Mann offers nuanced and surprising stances on hot-button issues. However, the author always wisely brings his arguments back to the personal, concentrating on emotions that Civil War pictures stir within him or how a gun can assuage his anxiety over potential homophobic attacks. His carnal desire for “burly men” comes up often, and it may be the one point that feels repetitive in this collection; however, he sharply analyzes it in the travelogues “Whoremonger” and “A Leather Bear in the Big Easy,” which call to mind the frank, revealing essays of Edmund White. Mann offers some of his best insights in shorter, more poetic pieces, such as “David” or “Country Boy,” in which he concisely relates that two aspects of his identity are intrinsically linked: “I’m country because of the men I’ve yearned for and the men I’ve loved.”
Intelligent, intimate analyses of a gay life in rural America.
A collection of poetry focuses on everyday beauty and wonder.
Over the course of 50 poems with straightforward titles, retired high school English teacher Hathwell (Between Dog and Wolf, 2017, etc.) explores the world around him. Nature is a touchstone of his poetry. In “Poplar,” he expertly describes the titular tree “catching a breeze, flutter sage and silver wings” while in “Sunflower,” he lingers on the “wide blank face” of the “saddest flower.” The author also showcases culture in his poems. “Fred’s Girl” is a propulsive ode to the Fred Astaire–Paulette Goddard duet in the film Second Chorus, and “Sunday at the Symphony” captures the ethereal experience of live classical music. But the poems aren’t limited to the author’s immediate surroundings. A visit to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, is the subject of “Readiness Is Everything,” which encourages readers to “imagine the world without you.” Hathwell plays with humor in “Dust Is Winning,” about the futile fight to keep things clean, and shows his cynical side in “Red Dress,” which describes the “ruby radiance” of an ensemble depicted in advertising. The act of writing is another recurring theme in this collection. “Song” depicts a successful writing day, in which “I rise from my desk, / Majestic, and I dance,” while “Sure Thing” warns readers “that language is prepared to lie / When you ask it to.” Quiet moments are also rich material for the poet. Throughout, he matches his message to the pacing of the poem, creating an immersive experience for readers. In “Finding Myself in the Morning,” readers sink into Hathwell’s serene, solitary scene where he can finally “not wonder / who is speaking, or what comes next.” In “Ten O’Clock,” the audience can sense the descent into a “deep, forgiving sleep.” The one flaw of this collection is its breadth. Because everything from Astaire to flora is fair game, the individual poems don’t always flow from one to the next, and transitions can be jarring.
Like the demigod from which it takes its name, Defining Atlas is a durable, uplifting volume.
A strong current of self-affirmation, self-love, and self-confidence runs through this work, and readers will come away feeling their spirits improved. We feel some of this current in the clever “Limited”; Michaels takes the titular subject and turns it on its head: “I’m new, but I’m old / Not limited beyond my means and methods / But limited because I’m special / Special beyond the heavens and everything that surrounds me / That I’m among…limited.” Elsewhere in “From the ashes…I am,” he sings a hard-won song of renewal and rebirth: “I am victory in its rawest form / I am hope that never conform / I am the will, the drive, and the truth / I am like everyone, like you.” But Michaels does not hoard specialness or victory for himself; he wants it for his reader too, and in “Wake Up!” he urges us on toward a bright future: “There’s something good here for you / Your purpose can never be defined by just one blue / Your destiny awaits you.” Underpinning Michaels’ stirring message is a strong faith in God, whose presence infuses many of the poems here: “But I always thank God for the latter / For the strength and will it takes / Shines so bright / Shines so right.” Michaels often adopts a loose scheme of rhyming couplets, and this decision leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses. Too often, the poet picks awkward or odd pairings; e.g., “And if I could become a perfect saint / I would make believers out of the ones who say they ain’t” and the “you/blue” couplet mentioned above. But such missteps are infrequent, and they don’t dim the warm light that emanates from Michaels’ fine volume.