Format: 87 pp., paperback; Size: 6×9″; Price: $18; Jacket Art: Paul Thek / designed by Zoe Norvell Publisher: Birds, LLC Number of boys mentioned in the poem “Selected Boys: 2003-2008”: 17 Number of base pair deletions homozygous carriers need in the CCR5 gene in order to have resistance to HIV: 32; Another book by the author: Mr. &; Representative Passage: But isn’t the mind the body. / Isn’t mine. And what has / been done to it, and how: / plucked like a flower / versus / plucked like a string.
Central Question: To what extent can young queer poets write about older queer people? To what extent should young queer poets write beyond their own racial and socioeconomic backgrounds?
HIV infects the body through a protein on the surface of white blood cells. A tiny percentage of people have no functional receptors for this protein, meaning they can have sex with whomever they want and never risk contracting the virus. Other people, like the poet Jameson Fitzpatrick’s uncle, have fewer working receptors, so HIV is harder for them to contract, develops more slowly, and leads to less abundant viral loads. “Roughly,” about his uncle, is the longest poem in Fitzpatrick’s new collection Pricks in the Tapestry, a book that often views queer cultural inheritance in the 21st century from the vantage of past generations.
In “Roughly,” Fitzpatrick, who was born in 1990, stares across the Millenial-Boomer divide with bifocals on. A speaker modeled on the poet tells the narrative of his late uncle’s life, while another speaker based on Fitzpatrick’s mother offers her own account in the form of footnotes. Spanning nearly twenty pages of mostly unbroken lines, the poem asks the reader which voice has better access to the reality of a man who was born in 1955, ran away as a teenager, likely worked as a rent boy, turned a chaotic youth into a stable adulthood, and ultimately died of AIDS. Fitzpatrick’s mother backs away from relating important biographical details about her gay brother with claims such as, “My repressive powers are enormous.” Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick’s unflinching narrator tells us frankly about the problem with his side of the story: “….I did not really know him.”
My uncle, who was gay, died in 2018, and we could only tangentially discuss our shared sexual orientation. And while gay identity is unlikely to ever be a topic of discussion at most families’ dinner tables, relating to older gay men outside of the family has its own difficulties. Millennials missed the decades in which queerness coalesced from a much-maligned sexual preference into a community: we never experienced the height of our country’s “repressive powers,” the hedonism of the 1970s or the scourge of AIDS’ peak. Still, to be a writer and not to be interested in history is like being a food critic who never considered how dishes are cooked—historical touchstones are a foundation, even if one decides to treat them with pointed irreverence.
There are other, more direct ways of engaging with the past. In his 2016 essay “Men of a Certain Age,” Fitzpatrick wrote about having sex with older guys:
It’s not time travel—the century doesn’t unturn itself—but the act of sex does put you in touch, literally, with a history that is both yours and not yours as a young gay man.
I say “yours” and “not yours” (meaning “mine” and “not mine”) because being gay can be a communal identity but not strictly a generational one. The concept of a queer family is necessarily metaphorical, wherein the points and modes of connection challenge the rule of biology. Queerness, meaningfully, is not a birthright—but nor does it exist in a vacuum, outside of time.
Fitzpatrick writes confessional, autobiographical work rooted in identity in part because the mode provides him with an interesting filter for looking at heritage. His poems brim with banal details that he uses to point toward the artificiality of referencing the hardships and culture of our gay forefathers. While self-consciously laboring to keep readers’ attention during a soliloquy on genetics and HIV, for example, he notes, “On my desktop, I keep thirteen windows open, and in each one, multiple tabs.” Elsewhere, he describes learning about his uncle by searching him on Google.
For Fitzpatrick, the self is a sieve through which history is strained. His vision of gaydom is Caucasian and New York-centric, which determines both the present that he writes about and the past he tries to commune with in his work. He narrates many of his poems from the Fire Island Pines, a gay mecca since the mid-20th century, and in “Roughly,” Fitzpatrick’s speaker stays at a house that used to be owned by the Broadway dancer Tommy Tune, the sort of name check that would make an old queen smile. The poet imagines asking his uncle: “Did you ever go to Fire Island?” “Where did you stay?” “Did you ever party at Tommy Tune’s house?”
Fitzpatrick’s insights are often true-to-life, and drawn more from personal experience than historical conjecture. Plus, he delivers them in a lucid and honed poetic voice:
I was just a boy. But it was
true, what they said, that I liked
other boys, that I had stolen Sarah’s,
though he was four years older
and they were very much in love.
I made him break up with her
in a Chili’s parking lot
while I waited inside. I was
fourteen. How humbling
to have been fourteen, to have eaten
at that Chili’s, often.
His style is colloquial, and precise without ever being precious. In fact, any instance of more formal syntax stands out. In the case of “From a Friend,” the shift from a conversational tone to one that’s primmer provides a truncated narrative poem with a surprising, profound ending:
I hear you loved me.
You never said.
But knowing one person
has come to this conclusion
is enough—not my friend
but another man she knows
you slept with. When you
go, take my longing with you.
I have no use for it now.
Fitzpatrick preceded Pricks in the Tapestry with two chapbooks. The brilliant Mr. & centers around a long title poem whose sections slip into one another, implying both gaps in logic and a situational continuity. The shorter pieces depict marriage from a decidedly 21st-century perspective, as an easily satirized and politically ambiguous institution just made available to same-sex couples. The chapbook also demonstrates Fitzpatrick’s considerable ability as a modernist and elliptical poet, a tendency he mocks in Pricks in the Tapestry’s “After the Reading,” in which he links his conflicted relationship with older queer communities to a rejection of their aesthetics:
I know what it means
when the old poet says he liked
my more complex poems
even more I know which ones
he means the ones I read for him
not him specifically but
because of the fact of him
Fitzpatrick goes on to muddle the poem’s syntax more and more, making fun of the obtuseness of 20th-century experimental poetry while simultaneously acknowledging his ability to appease the tastes of its practitioners, the waning daddies of literature. The poem concludes: “I ruin you with my living.”
His first chapbook Morrisroe: Erasures consists of twenty-four erasures of a text describing a hookup by the legendary photographer Mark Morrisroe, an avant-gardist who helped pave the way for the more intimate, direct and confrontational queer art of our century. Before he died at age thirty in 1989, from complications of AIDS, Morrisroe injected life into the potentially sterile form of the photograph by writing all over the white borders of his prints. Fitzpatrick’s erasures similarly draw readers’ attention to the emotional ends of a mechanical process, while viewing the sexuality of Morrisroe’s writing through the scrim of time:
In “Men of a Certain Age,” Fitzpatrick reflects on his reasons for making the book in the first place. A “man of a certain age,” whom he loved, inspired him to write about the art of those lost to AIDS:
Their work, like sex with older men, struck me as another way into this continuum of contemporary queerness. Can it be a coincidence that what would become some of my favorite art was made by people who died of AIDS-related illnesses—poets like Tim Dlugos and Melvin Dixon and Tory Dent, artists like Paul Thek and Mark Morrisroe?
These artists remain an obsession for Fitzpatrick, even if his own poetry has, in the case of all but Dlugos, liberated itself from the anxiety of their influence. The cover illustration of Pricks in the Tapestry, after all, is taken from a painting by Thek.
I’m writing this essay ten miles across the Great South Bay from the Fire Island Pines, in the Long Island house my boyfriend, Jeff, also a “man of a certain age,” has owned since before I was born. We’ve been in lockdown for months because of COVID-19, but the other reason we’re staying put here, for the time being, is that it’s summer. Like Fire Island, Fitzpatrick’s narratorial homebase for parts of Pricks in the Tapestry, our village of Bellport swells in size when New Yorkers flee the city heat.
Once per season or so, Jeff and I spend a sunny, drunken day out on the boardwalks of the Pines and its gay sister village of Cherry Grove. These towns have struck me alternately as havens, as places of extreme natural beauty, with their pinus rigida, casual nudity, and roving deer, and as annoyingly scene-conscious getaways for a supposedly predictable clan of summering men. The longtime cliché is that this clan consists of smooth, young, Caucasian gay men sniffing poppers in pools and going to mid-afternoon parties they refer to as “tea.” Without a doubt, those traditional activities are still going strong, but my own experiences on Fire Island lead me to believe that the two towns and their connecting beach attract a more diverse group of revelers, in terms of race, age, and body type, than the gay stereotypes people drag along from the 1970s and 80s.
In Pricks in the Tapestry, Fitzpatrick positions his speakers between the timeworn, orgiastic perception of the Pines and the town’s formidable artistic history. George Platt Lynes and Paul Cadmus took photographs and painted on the sandbar; Horace Gifford and other architects defined the landscape with their cedar, modernist homes; the fiction writers Edmund White, Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran saw their books grouped under the genre of “Fire Island Novels” because of their characters’ social lives; buttoned-up W.H. Auden as well as Mark Doty took the Island as settings for their poetry, and the most famous poet to party in the Pines, Frank O’Hara, was killed on the ocean beach in 1966, struck by a twenty-three-year-old driver whom the police suspiciously declined to charge.
Fitzpatrick is sometimes funny, but more importantly intimate when he writes from the homo utopia. In one poem, a play on O’Hara’s classic “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” Fitzpatrick ironically replaces O’Hara’s sun with the Bravo talk show host Andy Cohen. The poem’s most poignant lines find Fitzpatrick’s speaker at an underwear party, too anxiety-ridden
to get it up
in the backroom’s sea of bodies,
the whole scene dazzling me
like the sun
I couldn’t get too close or look
Fitzpatrick approaches his environment with futility, angst, and self-awareness dashed with deprecatory humor, but as an urban poet, he often connects these emotions with a wider set of convictions. Perhaps the collection’s best poem, “The Last Analysis; or, I Woke Up,” gets at the strange politics of our moment—rather, the moment in which the poem first appeared in Poetry, at the beginning of the Trump presidency. Every action seemed weighted with politics, but many people who felt outraged about racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism were shocked that such strands had converged into a fascist government, seemingly suddenly:
Someone called me faggot and it was political.
I called myself a faggot and it was political.
How difficult my life felt relative to how difficult it was
was political. I thought I could become a writer
and it was political that I could imagine it.
I thought I was not a political poet and still
my imagination was political.
It had been, this whole time I was asleep.
Here, Fitzpatrick strikes at the frustration of a generation that has identified the problems with America without having achieved the civic mechanisms to implement answers. Moreover, his repetition, a feature of many of his poems, makes for an especially compelling poetic rhetoric when tied to the minute-by-minute workings of a political conscience.
As a Fire Island poet, Fitzpatrick criticizes the bodily and racial sameness of those around him, which often reveals how the speaker feels about his own body. He describes the torsos of others at a pool party as “all glistening / gold and pink.” His speaker watches “as they flex and pose / for a photo / I am not in.” The punningly titled “White Gays” moves the Fire Island poem onto the iconic rail transit between New York and Sayville, Long Island, where the ferries and fairies bound for the Pines and Cherry Grove depart:
Privilege is a man
Taking up two seats on the train.
Now four, putting his feet up.
It is also my not having
to describe his leather loafers for you
to fill in the white space of his body
straight and able
and also my body’s proximity
to his, across the aisle
on this train he is taking from
the Hamptons and I am taking
from the Pines.
Jeff and I live two stops past Sayville on the same train line Fitzpatrick describes in his poem, which might be why “White Gays” leaves me with a disappointed feeling of tunnel-vision typecasting. Fitzpatrick intends to comment on a white gaze by constricting the poem’s world to the concentric spheres of the white speaker and his subject. But the hermeticism of this world, as in much of Pricks in the Tapestry, does more to further a dynamic of uniformity than to criticize it. After all, the Long Island Rail Road conveys tons of commuters to New York from various stations on Long Island every day, yet Pricks in the Tapestry suggests that the entire island is something of a funnel from one tony vacation enclave or another back to hip Manhattan and Brooklyn. Not only do mostly full-time residents live in the towns in-between, but many of them are not white. The same is true of summer communities. Yet as Fitzpatrick writes, in another poem:
Everyone in this poem is white. My uncle, me, my mother, my grandparents, the man or men he stayed with after running away probably, Tommy Tune, the TV stars I saw at tea, our ancestors. This troubles me: the fact of the frame.
The decision that this frame should only include gay experiences like his own was undoubtedly deliberate and self-aware. Nonetheless, creating a binary of New York City and Fire Island in order to comment on gay homogeneity was a method employed to exhaustion by writers in the 70s and 80s, among them the aforementioned “Fire Island Novelists,” and doing the same in 2020 feels both frustratingly nostalgic and also unreflective of a more visibly diverse present. After the above quote, Fitzpatrick pivots to discuss the disproportionate rates of HIV among the black gay population. An urgent piece of commentary, it’s also an indication of how people of color linger at the edge of his tapestry like blurry, sympathetic victims—of AIDS, or in “Poem for Pulse,” of shootings.
The lovers he writes about in his poems, in both the country and the city, are often stereotypes of upper middle class gay people, perhaps the sole group Fitzpatrick feels comfortable pigeonholing. Even “Craigslist Ode,” about the sex life of a young New Yorker, ends up being a toast of largely archetypical yuppie cock:
…..To the famous journalist
With the big dick I fell in love with,
and the baseball cap through the peephole
who said “this isn’t going to work”
when I opened the door. To the guy
who held me down but wouldn’t touch my dick,
to the redheaded bro in Murray Hill
whose dick smelled so awful. To my crush
from Hebrew class, to his name appearing
like a blessing in my inbox.
Fitzpatrick mentions a “young doctor, balding” and a “married guy in real estate,” the only other hook-ups he defines by their professions. There are no Uber drivers, no dockworkers or delivery men his speaker meets through sex. Geographically, his promiscuity leads him through a similarly limited vision of New York: it extends only to the most drably gilded examples of post-Giuliani Manhattan, the housing complex StuyTown and the neighborhood Murray Hill. Fitzpatrick mentions “men who came from Queens and Long Island and Jersey just to see me,” yet to use a Craig’s List-ism, his speaker will only host, never travel—he shows no interest in the large, heterogenous borough, region or state these men come from, much less the people themselves. The poem also ends, like a few too many pieces in Pricks in the Tapestry, by disclosing that many of its observations were manifestations of the speaker’s vulnerability:
….to my ugly men
and my beautiful, all of them, the ones
unremembered even in metonymy,
my each and every one who could have hurt me.
I hope that Fitzpatrick will figure out a wider lens with which to view homosexuality in his later work. His examination of gay whiteness is undoubtedly a self-examination, yet it suggests the limits of poetry that uses identity as both the spark and the conclusion of an author’s introspection, which can warp thoughtfulness into self-righteousness—and in this case, self-pity—with variable literary interest. As he puts it in “How to Feel Good,” a poem that torques Rilke, “You have to choose what to feel bad about.” I admire Fitzpatrick for transcending the formal hang-ups of past generations, a burden that other writers spend their careers sorting out. Still, I’m waiting to read what he feels bad about next, and also a more diverse look at what makes him feel good.