August 25, 2012

Review by J. Scott Brownlee

AMERICAN BOYS
by Alex Dimitrov

Floating Wolf Quarterly
free e-book
http://floatingwolfquarterly.com

Upon first finishing Alex Dimitrov’s conversationally direct, unapologetically glitz-filled American Boys, I immediately wanted to pick up numerous women at local bars and write unflinchingly about my heartbreaking experiences with them. More importantly, though, I felt that beneath each poem’s defensive, deflective exterior (these are very, “I don’t care what you think, reader” poems) was a voice I could both relate to and believe.

While my own straightness means I navigate a romantic context parallel to (rather than perpendicular with) Dimitrov’s, his poems instantly struck a chord with me in the same way that James White’s do in The Salt Ecstasies, or Mark Doty’s do in My Alexandria, or Carl Phillips’s do in The Tether. If you have a pulse and are a human being and want to have sex with other human beings–to be hurt, praised, desired, ridiculed, and occasionally loved by them–then the work of these poets is essential. Dimitrov’s, too, deserves mentioning alongside theirs, and not simply because he is a “gay poet,” or a “gay urban poet,” or a well-connected contributor to and sustainer of New York City’s gay poetry scene through the Wilde Boys salon he curates. His is work that speaks up for itself–confident in its sweeping metaphysical pronouncements, unafraid to be heard.

Establishing this theme from its outset, American Boys opens by demonstrating Dimitrov’s playful awareness of and impressive resistance to desire as a singular poetic end:

You are so in love with love.
You are carving out another heart,
you are filling it with nothing see-through.
You must kill your boyfriends.
You must kill what wants,
like death, to keep you.

“Kill Your Boyfriends” uses honesty (rather than desire) as its primary conceit, and the end result is lines that go a step beyond the traditional love poem, replacing it with a new proto-love poem that is aware of its own inherent weakness/thematic limitation: love itself.

An assemblage of photographs, text messages, and OkCupid date-matching questions (e.g., “Which word describes you better: carefree or intense?”) help break up (no pun intended) the poems in American Boys–and effectively so, I think, as they show Dimitrov’s awareness that a Web-based collection like this has a responsibility to adhere to and at times directly contradict its reader’s expectation of what poetry “is,” what reading “is,” and what it means to encounter a “book” of poetry online, as opposed to in print. By engaging these ideas comically, Dimitrov helps offset the more serious overtones in American Boys. A humorous line like “Where can I find the best blue jeans to sell my book?” from “Leaving Town with Allen Ginsberg” made me laugh aloud, which is a rarity (and something to be praised, I think) in contemporary work.

Another instance of humor comes in the form of a text message exchange between Dimitrov and a disgruntled Facebook-er who apparently disliked a timeline picture of Dimitrov lying on Marcel Proust’s grave enough to send the poet an anonymous text:

Admirer/Decrier: One shouldn’t lie on Proust’s grave
Dimitrov: Who the fuck is this

This is the sort of additional bell/whistle you as a reader will inevitably either criticize or enjoy. At the very least, I found it entertaining, though not as compelling as some of the better poetry in the book:

Someone’s life is a red or blue light in the distance.
None of this will strip you down the way you’d like.
You know you came here for the wrong reasons,
so tell me, if New York was a word
would it be money or ambition?

And love—love again—
like a night siren, passes.
Why go into detail?
America is about finding something to worship.

When Dimitrov is proverbial poetic “money”–lines like these at the end of “American Faith,” for instance–his honest, direct, at times repetitive speaking style finds its groove amidst an equally repetitive context: the trappings of New York City/American consumer culture. After spending the past few years trying to articulate a poetics-of-place that accurately represents small-town Texas from my own straight, white, male perspective, I find Dimitrov’s American Boys project instructive in its treatment and construction of gay urban identity. While the contexts out of which we write could not be more dissimilar, I encounter a brother spirit in his work–one that, like mine, is concerned with place in broad, abiding, uncompromising ways.

While his poems often seem simple on their surfaces, it is their surfaces’ simplicity and reflexivity that Dimitrov is most concerned with exploring and bringing to light, as each mirrors the highly surface-oriented city about which he writes. Like the persistent, simplistic theme of river-as-mirror that dominates my own work, Dimitrov’s meditates on what exists between the spoken and actual thing–the reflective surface behind it, inside it, within it.Subsequently, the speakers in Dimitrov’s poems often float in the ether above the situations they describe/explore. The disembodied-ness of the speaker in “One American Summer” clearly evidences this idea:

In a train somewhere love stalls.
The gutter fills with someone’s glitter
and it’s boring but beautiful
how glitter has only one purpose.
Why I asked, if I asked,
to be here—I forgot.

While discussing American Boys with other poets through correspondence and online discussions, I discovered that some potential controversy surrounds this book–in part because its straightforward, minimalist approach to poetics is in some circles deemed lazy, or not conceptually charged enough, or lacking precise aesthetic intent. While I acknowledge that these are all potential problems with any poet’s work–regardless of school, clique, or clan–I think it would be unfair to assume that Dimitrov compiled the poems in American Boys simply as farce or spectacle, and that there is a distinct, tangible intention behind their placement and overall message worthy of detailed exploration, critique, and debate prior to the release of Begging For It, his first full-length collection, due out in 2013.

“Look at them, always / with an expensive abandon / and a little below the lips,” he writes ironically in “Kill Your Boyfriends,” followed a few lines later by “Say it without caring what they think.” In Dimitrov’s poetic universe, the blind don’t lead the blind–the too-beautiful do. Even if this is a seemingly obvious pronouncement to make, it also strikes me as true. Like his “blond poet crying outside New York University,” I for one admit to routinely keeping my own head down, pen perpetually to page . . . self-doubting, self-correcting, self-reflecting on failed past romantic experiences super-charged by beauty and youth.

I don’t know if there is a poetry more disarming and simultaneously as defensive as Dimitrov’s–one as thematically bold and, at the same time, as traditionally restrained. But then, poetry requires both from us–as readers and scholars and poets–doesn’t it? Wouldn’t John Keats agree? Wouldn’t you, too, agree given a microphone and polished lectern? Negative capability reaches out to us for a buck again and again on the broad, accessible streets of American Boys. And despite it being a collection that has the potential to divide us as poets–into this school, that clique, or that clan–I’ll close this review with the same slew of unifying, democratically-motivated questions Walt Whitman himself might ask reading Dimitrov’s verse: “Does it speak multitudes? Is it honest? Heartfelt? Will I find truth in it, Camerado? If so, how can I not read it?”

for Timothy Juhl, my brother in poetry

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J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry, Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere. Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review. His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems, explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.