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 complex work of poetry about seeking one’s rightful place in the world.
Poets have long used the topics of arrival and departure to explore feelings of belonging. In this debut book, Dutt gives us a glimpse into what a foreigner’s arrival to the United States looks like: “how to then shed this skin / wrapped since youth / how to speak American / when we arrive / without our imagination / to bring down bodies.” This sense of displacement festers in this book, which effectively presents a portrait of a family lost between two cultures and two generations: “We can’t talk / about what we did how sometimes it’s different / from the way it’s shown but they think they know / and we can’t tell them we can’t even tell each / other.” The family systematically struggles with preconceived notions that some Americans have about the Indian population. This subject matter is nothing new, especially in the modern era, but thankfully, Dutt’s collection is a productive contribution to a conversation about inclusion and tolerance and not a rehashing of stereotypical attitudes. Despite the tumult of arrival in a new place, daily life is shown to function as prosaically as it did before. In “Over Cider and Whiskey in Hotel Rooms,” the speaker compares the generational gap that exists between her and a figure who appears to be her son. The poem builds as the stakes get higher, though it ends on a small instance of everyday life: “we’d be so annoyed / when someone would slap the car / to pass and cross // we’d all have to get out / and check.” It’s these moments, when the poems seep through the speaker’s humanism, that make the collection so gripping. And at times, Dutt takes readers by surprise with tragically poetic stanzas: “all those stones / go home to your country / my country? / where we are on any map.”
An exciting poetic work that lives up to its emotional and linguistic potential.
Callen (Running Out of Footprints, 2013) offers a quaint, playful collection of poetry and prose that spans nearly 50 years of her life.
The creation of “I Love You, Sun,” the first poem in this book, dates back to 1967; the closing poem, “Galaxy Girls,” was written last year. In between are 39 other pieces about nature, love, and the absurdities of Callen’s long life.Her descriptions of nature are filled with wonder and delight: “On a clear night…the stars hung rich and heavy over us, and it felt like we could reach out and touch heaven,” she writes about the Alaskan sky; in “Come Into Life With Me,” she urges readers to “Stand wild in the pulsing rain / and know the strength of its wetness.” Love is also a major theme, both romantic and platonic. In “Puzzle,” she’s intrigued by an unnamed someone, “And, fan that I am of wholeness / I grab you up in little gifted pieces / and turn you around and around / against the straight edges of my brain.” Callen is a talented storyteller who recounts many different scenes with wit and humor. In “Blue Moon Baby,” for example, an acquaintance details his daughter’s birth and the burying of the placenta: “He finally ran out of words, like a tightly spun top that finally came to rest,” Callen writes. In “A Wonderful Fantasy,” the author works herself into a tizzy anticipating an old boyfriend’s overnight stay, which ends in disappointment. “Never Enough” tells of Callen’s family as they struggle to calculate how big a batch of mashed potatoes will be required to satiate holiday guests. Only two pieces seem out of place in this collection: the grim “Time Twister,” which details the 1966 Tower killings at the University of Texas at Austin, and “Mom Visits,” an imagined reunion between the author and her late mother.