Gay African-American poet tries to make sense of his life.
Arnold Hawley won the obscure Alfred Proctor Prize for Poetry for an early volume of verse, but larger critical acceptance has been elusive. Delany (Dhalgren, 2001, etc.) divides his narrative into three concatenated sections. In “The Prize,” Hawley confronts the fact that his latest volume of poems has not been a success. The narrative moves back and forth through his life, introducing us to his formidable Aunt Bea, an opera-loving polymath whose death precipitated her nephew’s breakdown. The second section, “Vashti in the Dark,” recounts Hawley’s impulsive, egregiously brief marriage (less than 12 hours) to a disturbed and disturbing young woman he had just met on a park bench. (She shifts identities so rapidly that he’s not even sure of her name.) Finally, “The Book of Pictures” depicts 23-year-old Hawley grappling with his sexuality while a student at Boston University. He encounters various characters on the periphery of society, most notably a mentally retarded but sexually aware giant rescued from Alabama poverty by a pioneering photographer in homoerotic images. Woven through all three sections is Hawley’s attempt to come to terms with his feeling that “pre-Stonewall fear of discovery had been replaced by a post-Stonewall sense of vulgarity in all this public discussion of what, after all, surely should be private.” While he recognizes and celebrates a more “modern” acceptance of homosexuality, Hawley ultimately acknowledges that he has never escaped the timidity, terror and shame instilled by his repressive upbringing.
Dark reflections layered into a complex, refracted narrative.