27 September 2010

Matthew Shepard: On Martyrology and Media Distortion

I've been writing about Matthew Shepard, or at least the image of Matthew Shepard clouded by eleven years of martyrology and media distortion.  If the gay rights movement has a patron saint, it is the smiling face of Matthew haloed by his longish blond hair.

Harvey Milk's face has been edited out of history by that of Sean Penn.  Judy Garland has been demoted to an entertainer and actress.  And Harry Hay, well ninety to ninety-five percent of queer youth have no idea who Harry Hay is.

Honestly, what else is there to say after eleven years?  Everyone from his mother to gay rights groups, Fred Phelps to Congress has had something to say about Matthew.  It's pretty much all been told by this point.  Posthumously Matthew has several movies and even a poetry anthology.  What is left?

 I started writing about Matthew by accident.  My ex sent me some old love letters that I had written twelve years ago.  My ex was in Spain studying abroad during the period when Shepard was killed.  In the letters, I am writing about the crime, the fledgling efforts for hate crimes legislation and how a 21 year old man in Wyoming sparked the anger and fear of a twenty-two year old man in Montana.

I even found a copy of the November 1998 issue of OUTSpoken: The Voice of Gay Montana covering the vigil held for Matthew Shepard in Missoula.  The article included pictures from the candlelight vigil.  It gives an immediate emotional portrait on the tail of Shepard's death.  OUTSpoken, the author of the article Greg Kastl and Matthew Shepard have all passed into history.  I suspect that only Shepard remains in the cultural conversation.

Trying to write about Shepard is like attempting to scale Everest.  It can be done, but few do and fewer still scale the peak well.  My writing began with a series of negations.  I attempted to remove eleven years of media attention and popular culture from the lens.  I don't think this is entirely possible, but the attempt was necessary.  Who was Matthew Shepard before his death?  Who was he at the time of his death before so many other people responded to it?

I may never answer those questions in my writing.  Shepard might remain a cultural nexus point, unable to transform back into a 21 year old college student in Wyoming.

Timothy Liu said that writing a poem is in essence having an argument with yourself.  In this case my poem is an argument with Shepard, both who he was and what he has become.  What is straw and what is chaff after so long a time?

12 September 2010

Book Notes on Elizabeth J. Colen's Money for Sunsets

Paperback, 90 pages
From Steel Toe Books
July 2010
ISBN: 9780982416938

Reading Elizabeth Colen’s Money for Sunsets isn’t something that I could just once. After finishing the book, I needed to go back and reread the text with all the cues and nuances I picked up the first read.

Money for Sunsets has a persistent anxiety of certain danger. The end is near (now) ((maybe)). In her poem, “The Rules of Subduction” Colen urges the reader, “Read about tsunamis from a thick blue book. Read about the Big Ones, the ones that killed…” (10).

There is a luminosity to the voice that graces these poems. Call the voice adolescence or coming of age. Colen manages a self-doubt and bravado so compelling that I never questioned them coexisting within the same person.

After reading sections in this book, I was unable to sit still. The prose poems are filled with cars, travel, and motion. There is an energy, an immediacy that persists after you shut the cover. Someone (Auden?) said that poetry does nothing. Colen’s poetry says, “Go. Now. Faster.”

The musicality of the speech in Money for Sunsets carroomed off the page. In the poem “Take,” “Sweet, slow sound, her jaw rounding out the silence” (24).

This collection of prose poems is not only smart to the ear. There is a running commentary about the roles of women when conflated with money and power. In the poem “Synthesizer Approximating Strings,” Colen give the reader a hard look at violence against a sex worker, saying the forty dollars she was paid “buys here silence” (19).

Colen also gives a brilliantly scathing critique of oil and the implicit consumerism even in the best of us in her poem ‘The Next Cold War” “O’ my electronics never deceive me.” “My gas tank is filled with oil, my gas logs; oil, picture frames are wood or oil, but oil was used to make them…” (6).

Poetry this complex and urgent is a kind of reward for all the mediocre verse that I read.

Please do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Elizabeth Colen’s Money for Sunsets.  Read it. This book is equally good read in a comfortable chair or pacing back and forth across the living room carpet. You can read it a second time, doing the other.


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