SUBTERRANEAN FRESHNESS
Rane Arroyo and His Poems

Rane Arroyo

The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems
(University of Arizona Press, 2008)
&
Same Sex Séances
(New Sins Press, 2008)


In 1936, the great Spanish poet Miguel Hernández wrote:

I am tired of so much pure and minor art . . . I don’t care for the puny voice that goes in ecstasy standing before a poplar, that fires off four little verses and believes that now everything has been done in poetry. Enough of the prudishness and syrupy-sweetness of poets acting like candymakers, all prim, all with sugared fingertips.

This critique of minor poets, which in the Spain of that time meant aesthetic formalists who celebrated an apolitical, unerotic view of the “World” and “Nature,” appeared in his rave review of Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, a book that Hernández claimed made him want to “throw handfuls of sand in my eyes, to catch fingers in doors.”

The effect Neruda’s poetry had on Hernández was immeasurable, and I cite it here because it is this sort of reaction I had when I read two of Rane Arroyo’s books: The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems and Same-Sex Séances. In a blurb on the back cover of the former, Frank X. Walker hails Arroyo as “Neruda’s illegitimate son!” It’s an astute, sober observation, for any one who reads Arroyo’s work recognizes an unsung writer of major stature, one who eschewed the jeweled perfection and polish of a mere aesthete in order to face the world’s countless injustices, inequities, and lovelinesses head-on. This is not to say poetic beauty is sacrificed for undigested polemic. As with the poems of Neruda, there is much that is beautiful, moving, and rhetorically powerful in Arroyo’s writing; but even the most superficial perusal of his work reveals that it was not written in a hothouse.

In fact, Arroyo’s poems are not unlike Neruda’s description of Hernández’s face upon first meeting the Spanish poet: “He had a face like a clod of earth or a potato that has just been pulled up from among the roots and still has a subterranean freshness.” Although generally not rural in reference or scope, Rane Arroyo’s best poems evince that “subterranean freshness,” as if years after they were written and subject to repeated edits their ink is still wet.

I first encountered Arroyo in 1996, when visual artist Brad Pease and I were assembling the fourth issue of Gerbil: A Queer Culture ‘Zine. Our theme for that issue was “Media,” a subject that spurred Arroyo and his long-term partner, Glenn Sheldon, to submit poems for consideration. Brad and I had never heard of either of these poets, but recognized right away that their work was exceptional. We published a poem by each, and Arroyo’s contribution, “Dream Starring Andy Garcia,” is cited in full here:

He walked naked into
the party, put his
head on my hard lap,
wept because he
didn’t have a shadow.
Talk turned to Greek
statues. He asked why
his morning beard was
black while his pubic hair
was red. I pushed him
into the shower. He
pulled me in and I also
wept with him
at not having a God
in any of my images.
The party dragged us
back into its endless
singing of “Happy Birthday”
to the sun. I stayed
in this dream until
9:45 AM when a beer truck
on Temple Street blew
its horn. Happiness
is so easily stolen.

Although there is no such thing as a “Rane Arroyo Poem”—for Arroyo was too versatile and eclectic a writer to churn out the same sort of thing year after year, or even within the same book—“Dream Starring Andy Garcia” does feature a number of characteristics common throughout Arroyo’s verse. Beneath the veneer of a uniformly tight-lined structure, the poem evinces a “subterranean freshness” thoroughly appropriate to the poem’s conceit. Irrational elements coexist alongside rational ones, pathos with joyous celebration. Of course, as the title indicates, this is the spontaneous, unfettered world of a dream; but then so many of Arroyo’s non-dream poems are in fact dreams, fantasies, wish fulfillments, explorations of formerly unpermitted worlds.

The world of the dream here is not, however, untethered surrealism. The narrative is clear, the language controlled. Vibrant and sad, “Dream Starring Andy Garcia” seizes its lyric moment—that wryly-acknowledged instant when the poem’s narrator is torn from the weightless transformations of dream by the dingy weight of waking life—without hiding behind what Hernández called “the puny voice that goes in ecstasy standing before a poplar.” There is no escapism here. Rather, the uninhibited progress of the dream exploits the provocative intersection where regret meets desire.

The poem is also formally innovative. Arroyo pushes many of the lines forward with anticipatory endings so that the narrative gushes toward its conclusion. At the same time, each line is of interest in itself, functioning in part as a micro poem-within-the-poem. Consider the line, “Talk turned to Greek” which evokes associations of homoeroticism and other aspects of the classical world. The first word of the next line (“statues”) at once supports these associations and redirects them: the realm of the body—or the representation of the body—as opposed to an abstraction. Suddenly, “naked” in the first line, “hard” in the third, and “shadow” in the fifth, are illuminated in a fresh context. Thus, if line arrangement urges forward movement, phrasing and imagery invite reflection. The effect is one of rapid, simultaneous movement forward and backward, which underscores the poem’s spontaneous dream landscape.

Elsewhere in Arroyo’s work, dreams assume more figurative meanings. “Even in imaginary America,” the poet laconically asserts in the final couplet of “Mayberry RFD,” “America has to be imagined.” Here, a flabbergasted American of color, searches in vain for people and places that mirror his culture. In the absence of even the most ubiquitous clichés, such as an illegally-owned Mexican body shop or a Guatemalan hotel maid, the voice asks “How / white is white?” As with so many of Arroyo’s poems, “Mayberry, RFD” channels the voice of the lost and exploited. Like Ai, Martín Espada, Adrienne Rich, Gerald Stern, and many other fine contemporary poets, Rane Arroyo takes Whitman’s dictum about speaking the pass-word primeval to heart: “Through me forbidden voices,” Whitman shouts in section 24 of Song of Myself: “voices veiled and I remove the veil.”

Varied and complicated, the forbidden voices in Arroyo’s poems are almost always homosexual Latino males. Professor Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, who introduced the poet’s work in volume E of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, has written that “Arroyo’s self-reflexive poetry often focused on the inner conscience of a poetic persona, a gay Puerto Rican bard who feels out of place in the world and who is constantly struggling to grapple with what it means to be a poet marked by racial, sexual, and linguistic difference.” In “Some Debts are Angels,” the stunning mosaic that introduces The Buried Sea, the poet himself announces:

I’m a Puerto Rican, gay, Midwestern, educated, former working class, liberal, atheistic, humanist, American, male, ex-Mormon, ex-Catholic, pseudo-Buddhist, teacher, reader, global, and popular culture-informed poet. These are a few of the adjectives that I’ve come to own and that inform my poems.

Arroyo’s ownership of these identities enabled him to write autobiographically without risking repetition and, more importantly, allowed him to channel and reconstruct seemingly disparate elements of American life as formally unified utterances. In “The Defense of Marriage,” same-sex couples include “a biker and a Bible Salesman; / sailor and tailor; lawyer and an illegal alien; / low-rider and low-rider; baker and thief.” Such inclusiveness is the promise of Whitman’s radical democracy. However, Arroyo’s aesthetic is often less congruent with the long-lined, unrhymed litanies of Whitman than with the more compressed stanzas of Emily Dickinson. In a telling portion of “Some Debts are Angels,” the poet acknowledges the influence:

On starting high school, I was placed in the lowest track in English courses. Being one of the few minorities in that suburban school, I was automatically dismissed as an “other,” someone of the margins, someone remedial simply by the weight of his name and the burden of his skin and kin color. How fortunate for me. It turned out that my teacher was older, ready to retire and chose to follow her choices of texts instead of the prescribed ones. It was there, in that non-sexy purgatory, that my teacher read Emily Dickinson aloud. I heard and realized that despite my Americanization, I didn’t know how to speak English yet.

If Arroyo’s verse honors the tight stanzas of Dickinson, his colloquial, plainspoken voice resembles the verse of William Carlos Williams, whose deliberate regionalism was framed by intellectual sophistication and an awareness of continental trends. Williams provided Arroyo with a model by which he might reconcile “geographic specificity (his own love of Chicago, his parents’ Puerto Rico) with cosmopolitanism (a learned engagement with the Western tradition and extensive travels throughout the world.)” In other words, Arroyo’s articulation of form did not occur in an aesthetic vacuum.

What is more, Arroyo understood that formal unification does not promise the seamless co-existence of opposing forces. When men of color meet whites in Arroyo’s poems, the results are perilous. In “Piñata Cowboys,” the young and ebullient narrator, puffed with false bravado, stalks a world of “bars and bedrooms,” only to “end up in an inglorious // country & western world, vaqueros / in rodeos our fathers will never know / or value. We break again and again.” In the similarly titled “Piñata Boy,” that breaking becomes brutally literalized. No longer told through the voice of a brazen bar boy, this poem chronicles an unveiled moment of autobiography, the aftermath of a collective hate crime against a university professor. It also exposes a patriarchy where victims (women and gay men) are blamed for the violence they endure: “The police ask me again and again: / were you trying to seduce them? ”The victim’s friends are of little help, since they either deny their own homosexual activity or see beatings as a recreational hazard. Arroyo ’s husband Sheldon suggests turning suffering into art: “What if / Cabaret was updated with Neo-Nazis?” But perhaps the poem’s most powerful moment is encapsulated in these nine lines:

My students see I’m human at last.
My face heals as the attackers are
given probation: boys will be boys.

Father would wave his belt but
was unable to fix me. I’m not
broken, Papi, and I won’t break for
you. The S&M club screamed

when we dragged in two women
for drinks. NYC was never Sodom.

Here Arroyo’s compressed language conflates present with past and juxtaposes different strains of violence—gay hate crimes, parental abuse, and gender wars—to demonstrate how deeply engrained such behaviors are woven into the fabric of American life. Again, the poet exploits lineation in ways that suggest valuable subtexts not otherwise revealed in his prosy sentences. “My face heals as the attackers are” asserts that Arroyo’s face becomes a testament to the attackers’ existence; and it’s through this visual map of his trial that his students see him, finally, as human, one of the many cruel ironies of the poem in which suffering is a requisite bridge for compassion. In the line “broken, Papi, and I wouldn’t break for” the father instead of the son is broken. “[W]hen we dragged in two women” signals violence that is transformed by the next line. Initially it appears as if patrons of the S&M club are horrified when two women are violently “dragged” into the bar; “for drinks” deflates that image, and yet reframes the “scream” in line seven as an instance of misogyny: what are those women doing in our bar? Thanks to smart lineation and the juxtaposition of disparate images, the poem works in several directions at once—a feature common to great poems.
There is nothing reductive or narrow in Arroyo’s continuous focus on the themes laid out above. No one knew better than the poet himself what value there is in returning to one’s obsessions:

Over 25 years ago, I sat down at a stripped table in my sexually-charged Chicago and wrote a list of ideas for five books of poems. It was a map, my version of the yellow brick road, news from a secret waterfront. By focusing on my Latino world, I found the larger world. It was 13 of looking at a mountain, one that refused to stay still.

This wry and entirely honest admission tells us just about everything we need to know about Arroyo and his approach to writing. By engaging in a continuous dialogue with his local, national, and international identities, he honored all the dimensions of his art—and his art became relevant to those beyond the boundaries of his lived experience.

I kept in touch with Arroyo and Sheldon for several years before I lost track of them. I found them again when I set up an account on Facebook four years ago. It was this connection that furnished me with the publishers of my second book of poems—Radiant Losses. That my manuscript won the New Sins Editors’ Prize in 2009 I attribute in large part to Arroyo, who, as one of the presses’ editors, saw in my work something worthwhile. Once the manuscript was accepted, I got to work with Sheldon and Arroyo on revisions. Sheldon did the first round. He focused primarily on technical matters: points of grammar and my overuse of the dash. I was grateful for these comments and gleefully made changes without having to strain myself. Arroyo’s edits, on the other hand, invariably focused on ways in which to move my lines forward without impeding the flow. He felt I should eliminate a lot of commas and rethink so many lines breaking with pauses in breath. It was an entirely new way of seeing the poem and one that went counter to any formal instruction I had received. In a few cases I asked myself, “Is this guy nuts?” only to realize, once the suggestions sank in, Arroyo was right.

Two edits in particular improved and transformed my poems in unexpected ways. In my short poem, “West,” I originally wrote:

Walking east I call
to mind
                  another time
when done
                    with walking east
I turned the other way
and walked alone
because it was the other way.

Arroyo urged me to remove the last word from the poem; the final version, ending with the word “other,” reverberated with such power I stared at this “new” Tony-Arroyo poem in amazement and wonder.

Another major edit appeared in a sestina, where my slavish attention to the restrictions of the form weighed down the ending of one stanza in particular. Arroyo simply suggested I move the line into the following stanza, regardless of the demands of the form. I did, and the poem read so much more smoothly.

I mention these edits not to highlight my own work, but to show that Arroyo’s unerring editorial eye reflected his composition practices. The effects his edits had on these poems lent them attributes I see again and again in Arroyo’s own verse: vibration and flow—features that create an abundance of poetic tension, whereas crisp and often arresting images urge one to stop and contemplate, lineation, phrasing, and impassioned utterance beckon one forward at rapid speed.

During the period of editing Radiant Losses, Arroyo and I would often digress from the work to talk about a mutual passion: gay storylines on American and European soap operas. I thought I was the only one who watched Chrolli—the love story of Christian Mann and Oliver Sabel—or YouTube clips of German daytime soap Verbotene Liebe. As we talked and talked about our two forbidden lovers I realized one of the reasons Arroyo’s work is routinely spontaneous is that he embraced the adolescent within. So many poets suppress their childhood passions as irrelevant or embarrassing, but Arroyo mooned over Chrolli (and Kish from One Life to Live, and so many others) the way a teenage girl might the boys from One Direction. Naturally, he knew how to harness these enthusiasms for material in his poems. As a result, there is a good deal of popular culture in Arroyo’s work, where he elevates Selena and Daniel Day Lewis the way other poets might Dante or Dido. In “Brokeback Mountain,” Arroyo transforms a commonplace meme (“it’s the story of my life”) into a grand litany of identification with and departure from the now-famous narrative of two doomed cowboys. The effect is at once comic and sad—“minus / a season among sheep, plus mountains / looking like saddles for my true / love to ride”—whereas the poem, like the film itself, concludes with a moment of devastating lyric power: “… we ride away from the cosmic / to the specifics of long nights without stars / with clenched fists, us undressed and / wondering what it feels like to become fiction.” Arroyo’s embrace of the ephemeral is everywhere in the poems, and never naïve.

In writing this tribute I am forced to acknowledge that Arroyo’s substantial contribution to American letters, although celebrated in some circles with prestigious literary awards and rave critical reviews, has gone largely unnoticed by far too many for far too long. When I speak of Arroyo or his work, people “in the know” respond with either marked enthusiasm or, more frequently, befuddled ignorance. Arroyo’s sexuality is not really the issue because this bipolarity regarding awareness of his work is evident among purveyors of gay literature as well. Poet and memoirist Steve Fellner cites Arroyo as a major voice in contemporary gay poetry:

Only the best poets can convey joy. Unabashed, authentic joy. Which is probably the most important feeling to express. In the queer poetry world, victim narratives and reductive identity politic still rule supreme. With the creepy way PoBiz (and the world) operates, how can one find the courage to display an emotion as natural and as generous as joy?

I don’t know.

But I believe that Arroyo’s The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems accomplishes that feat.

There are not too many queer books (and books in general) that I find as ethical, generous, and as artful as his.

On the other hand, later that same year, Fellner added:

This past year gay Latino writer Rane Arroyo passed away. He created poems that were every bit as good as Doty’s, but he never received even close to the same amount of national and monetary success. It’s not like Arroyo wasn’t using traditional narrative/lyric modes. Perhaps what blocked that from happening is his overt humor, more incisive and inclusive politics, and lack of self-righteousness. Both Doty’s Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems and Arroyo’s The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems were released the same year, but Doty’s received all the attention, garnering a Lambda Award win and the National Book Award…I would argue that often any kind of straying from one of the grandfathers of gay poetry causes problems. It’s also undeniable that passive, unconscious racism within the gay community stifles some voices as opposed to others.

Without taking anything away from Doty, whose outstanding contribution to American poetry must be recognized, I do think Fellner raises a valid question: why would two “New and Selected” collections released the same year, written largely within the same idiom, receive such radically different attention from mainstream American readers? For Fellner, the answer is connected to racism and radicalism: Arroyo’s otherness and powerful, often humorous deconstruction of various cultural and economic hegemonies scare away white, middle-class readers.

The Toledo-based Arroyo attributed his low profile more prosaically to avoiding the coasts and dropping out of “PoBiz.” This makes some sense, but then many equally talented writers have worked independently on their own terms outside of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles and still managed to build more substantial reputations. Neither is the problem one of accessibility: Arroyo’s writing, though individual and intellectually far-reaching, is more straightforward and accessible than many writers of greater renown. His semi-obscurity remains a mystery. Thankfully, the unwavering quality of Arroyo’s writing—which includes 11 books of poems, two collections of plays, and one book of short fiction—speaks for itself.

The first and only time I saw Arroyo in person was during his last public reading at SUNY Brockport College, March 31, 2010. The event began with a recording of Tina Turner’s “You Better Be Good to Me” booming out of one of the auditorium speakers. Those of us in the audience didn’t know how to respond to what was happening until Arroyo emerged, clapping his hands. We gleefully joined in, sensing what we were about to witness would be unusual and therefore special.

And it was. During the reading, Arroyo balanced formal recitation with a number of humorous and penetrating impromptu speeches; he also delivered a powerful performance of “From The Book of the First Serpent,”which to my mind is the standout poem from Same-Sex Séances,and quite possibly one of the finest poems he ever wrote. A mosaic in four sections, “From The Book of the First Serpent,”shows Arroyo working in an idiom he rarely explored—an anaphoric litany that echoes Biblical verse from a searing, sardonic point of view. “When Adam was thrown out of Eden / on his ass,” Arroyo intoned from the podium, “he cried out O my father.” Because “God micro-managed” and “Adam was many Adams,” the serpent promises two men who return to him that they “shall / build a shining city / and name it Sodom”—a city the serpent promises to guard so angels will not harm it. By standing the story of Sodom on its head, “From The Book of the First Serpent,” inverts the narrative of moral order to scaffold a myth for inverts. Perhaps the poem’s most memorable moment arrives more than halfway through, in a pithy hiss: “Beware those who teach you to hymn and not him.”

Arroyo’s last three words of the reading were “Live. Then write.” Less than two months later, Arroyo died and left behind a prodigious backlog of work. “He was always writing,” Sheldon confided to me, “always bursting with things to say.” While the University of Michigan has expressed interest in archiving his unpublished poems, it is uncertain when or if they will be available in book form. In the meantime, we would do well to savor the impressive body of work that was printed in his lifetime, work insisting again and again, “The dead tell the living to live.”

Contributor

Tony Leuzzi

TONY LEUZZI teaches and writes in Rochester, N.Y. His second book of poems, Radiant Losses, won the New Sins Editorial Prize in 2009 and was released the following year. In November 2012, BOA Editions released Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi’s interviews with 20 American poets. His latest book of poems, The Burning Door, was released by Tiger Bark Press in March 2014.

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