James Gendron - Instead of getting lost in the ether of lofty post-modern jargon, his readers get revelations about desire, car crashes, the Internet and isolation at parties: “the ill-logic and deformed language”
James Gendron, Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). Octopus Books, 2013.
Wasting my life in the gleaming snow
aka cocaine. Did you realize the human body
has got over seven miles of braided thoughts?
Under this girdle of fat I'm wasting away,
in a sweater, eating from a bucket.
In fat I see myself distilled
more honestly than in my face.
It stuffs me full of non-predestined life.
Pain: where do you come from?
I feel you, because I'm emotional. And I feel you
again, because I'm remotional.
“I once moved to a house so oldFor weeks all I thought about was pulsating waves; sex boats penetrating water: mouth-shape tight, and mouth-shape wider and mouth-shape wider, like water gulping water. James Gendron’s Sexual Boats (Sex Boats) from Octopus Books is steamy—your breath won’t fog the windows (and the water isn’t as dirty as it seems)—but it does rock back and forth quite a bit.
I was unequal to living there.
I was hungry for two years, even while eating.
My foot was just long enough
to not touch the past.”
—From “Stronger than Dirt,” by James Gendron
Forget the hot bubble bath the title suggests because Gendron’s prose works more as a black guffaw, as if to say: bend over and let me show you. Six chapters of poetry swallow his first collection, but just as “[p]oetry/is easy: you write whatever you want,” Gendron likes to backwash. His reoccurring title, ‘Sex Boats’ makes some waves, but the waters are at times tepid. The poet wants to almost abandon the reader in the shallow end, but when he’s deep, he’s very deep: “Sometimes I think the wind/is cute, then it destroys a town.”
Rather than peeling the flesh, the steam in Gendron’s poetry is more like a burning: the scar is internal. It can be both ghastly and haunting, but the intimacy is important. That’s the kind of poetry that shakes you from your bunk. My favorite piece in his collection, “Does the Hospital Deserve my Love?” does just that:
“A green car broke my friend. I saw her in the ICU. The x-rays revealed
that her skeleton was male. That’s why she can no longer walk.
As an exercise, I lie down in the hallway and sleep. I begin to feel
a certain warmth toward the hospital, but nothing I would
characterize as love.
Exercise two: I’m wearing a sick person’s body as a suit.”
Gendron often reflects the past as something current, or always with us and it is rightfully so. It’s eerie how the door opens and shuts on its own, isn’t it? You can give credit to the whirring fans and open windows, but it’s almost like someone is always in the room with you. As his narrator describes in “Shade,” the familiar always lives within us: “I swear: when you leave me alone./every part of my body/is having its own nightmare.” If you row the Sexual Boat be diligent about it.The poetry here can be worthwhile, but your arms may ache once you reach the waterfall. - Janae Green
“Where are you tonight, my personal party?” asks author James Gendron in his first full-length book, Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). It’s the poetry book of our generation, if only our generation liked poetry and reading. It’s devastating and comic, each poem a reminder that everyone else is as twisted and lonely as you. It’s also more than that, making paradoxical associations that most of us never think of: the afterlife with alcoholism or angel sweat with the odor of corpses. Gendron enters a consequence-free zone where language can be dumb and all the better for it. Transcendence rises out of the most banal moments and in the best of poetry makes it sing.
In the poem “Licking Your Pussy ’04,” Gendron writes, “I felt cilly (silly), having my picnic blanket fall/on so many skeletons from the Iraq war, which had recently begun at that time./I just want six days/to prove I’m not an animal.” He makes the gentle fall of a picnic basket over skeletons seem like the most natural thing in the world, the kind of surrealism that is not heavy-handed but as light and airy as whipped butter. His voice is chatty and casual, which makes it easy to digest the internal and external wars raging throughout Sexual Boat.
The titles of eight of the book’s poems are variations on Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). Inside the sexual boat are more sex boats, like a funhouse mirror that goes on and on forever. Gendron’s prose connects love and sex to the U.S. military and burn victims and then to Pizza Nite and the wings of Christ. Everything is allusive and connected. He gets that intimate relationships are intrinsically tied to world politics, but also to the blinking lights of an ICU. One moment he’s writing about how it’s always December three feet from a bullet, the next he’s hiring a witch to kill his lover’s boyfriend.
Gendron’s poems lack the egotism and stiff formalism that are turn-offs in a lot of contemporary poetry. It’s evident he hasn’t been affected by the M.F.A. writing programs that breed a safe, uniform style or a pretentious and false experimentalism. He’s over being anything but Gendron, highs and lows included. He makes auto caricatures of himself, poking fun at his vulnerability. He embraces so-called ugly language, inserting pop culture references, Internet slang and made-up words—"graynbow" and "Wolfwater" being personal favorites—with the ease of a modern-day William Carlos Williams.
In “Shade” he writes: “I swear: when you leave me alone, every part of my body is having its own nightmare.” His clean, micro-specific poems restore my faith in an art form that many have left for its oversentimentality, a slice of stale cake that has been left out too long. Some of his lines are brilliant in their simplicity: “Glass is a liquid actually. So earlier, when you said being around me was like eating glass, you really meant drinking.” For all the overly careful writing of the literary world, much of it never really touches on uncensored human emotion. But that's not true in Gendron’s case. He is obsessively concerned about the precision of his words, demanding that they convey something real.
Other lines reel with a surrealism that lends clarity rather than confusion: “I love you like an asshole/loves his best friend the sun./Is half your face his?/Turn it away./Is half your car his?/Sell it for cash./Love sews the faces of burn victims with moonlight and sexual hope/until they’re perfect, gleaming/teeth in the Human Chandelier./It’s a strange feeling, wanting/to kill someone.” It’s a brilliant summation of what it’s like to be with someone. In a genre where the superfluous relationship poem reigns supreme, I get a love poem that I can believe in, finally.
Gendron aspires to be what rapper Ghostface calls the smart dumb cat. Instead of getting lost in the ether of lofty post-modern jargon, his readers get revelations about desire, car crashes, the Internet and isolation at parties. What Gendron deems “the ill-logic and deformed language” in Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) takes us on a journey through adulthood (eating anger and cancer scares included), the World Wide Web, and the dark crevices in between. When you finish it you will feel like, in Gendron’s words, “the germs seen by the beautifulest person on the bus, who is never me,” and that is just one of his many startling lines and insights that will shake off any preconceived notions about poetry. If only every poet applied the smart dumb cat philosophy, and with as much vision and skill as Gendron. - Zoe Brezsny
|Major American Poet: James Gendron|
"And in my sadness I heard water"And in my sadness I heard water
flow through every object in the room.
And in the water I heard a great distance
carefully annihilate its travelers,
and carefully, almost lovingly,
drop a tiny flame in the mouth of an infant.
Water, you have made my room flexible.
For every drowning victim,
one single fish is pulled into the air.
There are no ideas in death, just pain. It even hurts to take off my pants.
Ideas and I are at cross-purposes, like the limbs of Christ.
I have an idea and a friend. My friend has an idea, and is an idea.
I dive into my friend daily, deeper each time, blasting my face on the rocks.
"Uses of Instinct:" I sleep, and gain weight slowly through the night.
I don't know what an entity is, so I don't trust entities. Entities are assholes.
My friend has evolved an extra hair for each of her ideas to live in.
I've just read the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. May it give me courage!
I see x, and I smear it on my face. Only, it isn't x—it's something else.
The ideas huddled together and slept. When they woke up, they were fat.
This is my lucky idea. Whenever I think about it, I think about luck.
Luck is a combination of two things: luck and skill.
Nobody wants to have second thoughts. But then again…
X is the most skillful of the letters, but not the luckiest.
Steam rose from my wounds like a rose.
Prose PoemI moved out here to poison my body. My wet friend and I stand at night. We stand in a circle, the shape most connected with magic power. Happiness wisps overhead, just out of reach, all the colors of the graynbow. Inside my mom, a finger is growing.
AmazingSome people think it's beautiful,
the mysterious glow in the night sky
of astronaut urine. Up the hill,
in the research hospital,
they pull out a monkey's heart
and blow on it to keep it cool.
October is a latent wish:
the dead women are pregnant,
the pregnancies are planned.
You can forgive the one
who makes your life amazing.
James Gendron was born in Portland, Maine and lives in Portland, Oregon. His chapbook, Money Poems was published by Poor Claudia in 2010. He teaches writing at Portland State University. His recent poems appear in Octopus Magazine 15. Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) (Octopus Books, 2013) is his first full-length book of poetry.