(NYQ Books, 2011)
Michael Montlack’s debut collection of poetry, Cool Limbo, is an urbane, cosmopolitan, and warm-hearted tribute to the teen queens who ruled his youth and the gay queens who nurtured his adult identity. From eternal hippie chicks who managed to sidestep the sexism of the ’70s via their sheer commitment to coolness, to memories of holiday parties where three sisters with big red hair shimmered in sequins like the Fates transported to late-20th century Long Island, to a portrait of a wealthy, aging gay couple in a Manhattan high-rise mourning the Camelot that existed between the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS pandemic, Cool Limbo offers enlightened interpretations of contemporary America.
A freewheeling sense of gender informs this collection, which is divided into two sections, the first of which sets the stage for the second. Girls, Girls, Girls is a set of sympathetic, humorous tributes to female icons, friends, and caregivers. The young poet in “Liz Taylor in Levittown” interrupts his Algebra homework to watch a television press conference featuring Elizabeth Taylor, who in the Reagan ’80s was one of the first celebrities to publicly speak out about AIDS. Even “the X and Y / and what it might all equal” of his neglected math assignment evoke feminine and masculine chromosomes. The poem ends with a childhood recognition of identity that alludes to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Waiting Room.” This time, however, queerness is no longer just a subtext, and the realization is not about difference but acceptance. As his mother lets the rice burn on the stove so she can rapturously watch Liz on TV, and as the father pulls up in the drive,
I knew exactly where I was—
as if for the first time—
I was there, just outside Levittown,
and surprisingly I was not alone
in that crowded kitchen
which suddenly seemed to be opening up
and opening up
at the beck and call
of one girlish but seriously angry voice
that somehow touched my mother
who'd once again be racing
to catch up with time.
From this section, an uplifting, unconventional portrait of community emerges, which includes such admirable characters as sixth-grade classmate Maria Lozarro of the poem “Girls, Girls, Girls,” who “modeled for Macy’s catalogs and had a pet monkey.” This budding sophisticate challenges discrimination in the classroom:
At our Christmas party she pelted
our teacher, Dr. Zarko, with a cupcake
for calling me Miss Montlack
and saying I was “chattering away like a regular yenta.”
Chronicling local divas from his youth to his adulthood, Montlack is drawn more to their offhand subversion of the heteronormative code than he is to its stultifying hegemony. This takes the book in an optimistic, hopeful, and inclusive direction, avoiding the depressing pitfalls of the obligatory coming-out story. “Brushing their layered hair toward feathery perfection,” the poolside babysitters of the title poem impress him with their utter indifference, which he believes effectively removes them from any power paradigm, whether of time or sex:
These brittle beauties
my temporary guardians,
wingless but lofty in platforms,
drunk at their post, uncertain of their mission,
stuck somewhere between. . . .
Ladies in waiting with truck-driver mouths
and illegal tattoos (they were only fifteen):
butterflies, unicorns, roses. The Harley guys they’d met hitching to the beach
could get them up to my sister’s room for quickies
but never made them blush.
With lighthearted titles such as “My Sister, The Drag Queen,” “A Golden Girls Prayer,” and “If Hello Kitty Had a Mouth,” the poems in Girls, Girls, Girls presume a gender system that is beyond binary.
This tone continues in the second section, Boys, Boys, Boys, with clever conceits such as “Uncle Mame” and “At the Filling Station (after Elizabeth Bishop),” which imagines the gay identity of one of the “saucy sons.” In this section, theory becomes practice and the songs of innocence become songs of experience, not without incurring some costs. Having observed, recorded, and internalized the lessons of the gender outlaws of his youth, Montlack joins their ranks as an adult. The Village has replaced Levittown, and he takes his place proudly in the city, even if it means occasionally serving the doomed role of standard-bearer or cultural representative, as in “Bringing Straight Friends to a Gay Bar.” And yet this gay, middle-class, East Coast life reveals some surprisingly universal truths about gender, and sounds some hopeful notes about the human capacity for understanding. In “My Father Was a Jewish Mechanic” a dad compliments a son in a wonderfully serpentine manner:
In my twenties he told me things
he didn’t tell my sisters.
Not because I was his only son.
But because I had what he called nerve
(for coming out during college).
Ya got a set of balls, kid, he’d say,
Bigger than your sister’s even.
A brother whose balls become bigger than his sister’s in a father’s mind when the son comes out at college: here is gender folded back like an accordion so that it becomes stripped of cultural connotation, down to pure platonic denotation. In “Brothers and Sisters” Montlack recalls how his family protected him against bullies:
My older sister couldn’t run
any farther than the length of our drive
in her platforms: bangled and baby-oiled
gladiator in the hedged den of our yard,
screaming over the Stones on her portable,
“Just try it, ya little fuckers!”
Mourning the break-up with his partner Chris, Montlack wraps gender in itself like a babushka doll:
I still wish
I could’ve spared you somehow—
a sister: Could have given you
some of that female loveso
you might’ve been strong enough
to believe a man could love you.
Perhaps best known as the editor of My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Montlack is no stranger to nostalgia. I remember attending a publication reading for this anthology at the AWP Conference in Chicago in 2009, the room filled to the rim with avid listeners, while the impressive figure of Montlack in black introduced a panel of readers including David Trinidad and Paul Lisicky. Montlack knows how to pay his respects. By sharing the perspective of a long-lived gay couple, the most moving poems of the second section of Cool Limbo, “Warren and Billy: Three Years into Fort Lauderdale” and “On Turning Forty,” similarly put a face on the recent GLBTIQ history. The year 1969 marked both the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement. Montlack poignantly observes that, after the onset of the AIDS pandemic, many of those who protested did not live to see the results. This only increases our sense of obligation. Warren and Billy frequently compare him to their lost friends, even though “We just remember the fun times.”
Now I am older than their friends were.
When they died. Leaving all that space for me
at the Mexican table that has become mine.
But I still feel so young. Even when I see
the new lines and circles in the mirror.
Maybe each year is a candle on their cakes too.
It is as if Montlack’s generation are the metaphorical children of those lost, offering a poetic sense of continuity, as well as an obligation to live well—for them. The idea of time as malleable permeates Cool Limbo. In “boy witch” a beautiful mother grants her son three years of dressing up as witch for Halloween. Although time does catch up—at age 7 he must start dressing as a cowboy due to his father’s insistence—Montlack tells us that what matters most is that lovely period of suspension, when a child is free to explore harmlessly, apart from ultimately evanescent cultural critique.
In striving to attain limbo, the state of equilibrium outside of chronology, Montlack’s poems suggest a plastic conception of time, where a Holocaust survivor enjoying her golden years in Fort Lauderdale can placidly recall being pelted by tomatoes upon first moving to America. The experience is that fresh and that detonated. In striving to attain limbo, the state of equality outside of culture, Montlack’s poems subvert the limitations of gender roles by doubling and tripling them back on themselves. Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we discover a heterogeneous conception of time and community, where multiple meanings and identities run simultaneously.
JAMES CIHLAR is the author of Undoing and Metaphysical Bailout. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his partner.