A Review of Timothy Liu’s Burnt Offerings, Say Goodnight, and Of Thee I Sing
Timothy Liu is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Vox Angelica (Alice James Books, 1992), Burnt Offerings (Copper Canyon Press, 1995), Say Good Night (Copper Canyon Press, 1998), Hard Evidence (Talisman House, 2001), Of Thee I Sing (University of Georgia Press, 2004), and For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), and apparently with another forthcoming from Talisman House in late 2008, early 2009. Liu is currently an Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University located in Wayne, New Jersey. Born in 1965 in San Jose, California, Liu, of Chinese descent, schooled at various universities including University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Brigham Young, and University of Houston. Like Cathy Song, Liu’s first poetry collection, Vox Angelica, would set a distinct and distinguished path, in that it heralded the importance of queer sexuality as one main thematic to Liu’s lyrics. In this respect, Liu stands out among Asian America poets; some might say his inspiration has much more to do with Walt Whitman (as much of his own poetry does reference him) as well as contemporary queer poets such as Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsburg, Mark Doty, and Adrienne Rich than Asian American writers like Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin. Central to Liu’s lyric is the graphic nature of queer desire in its variant forms whether it occurs in public spaces of restrooms and rest stops or in the supposed privacy of the bedroom.
In this Timothy Liu mega-post, I review Burnt Offerings, Say Goodnight, and Of Thee I Sing. The title to Liu’s Burnt Offerings already suggests the trope of sacrifice, much of which can be attributed to Liu’s consideration of an entire generation of queer men who tragically died during the first decade of the continuing AIDS pandemic. Burnt Offerings immediately begins with the question of queer men in “Thoreau”:
My father and I will have no place to go.
His wife will not let us in the house –
afraid of catching AIDS. She thinks
sleeping with men is more than a sin,
my fathers says, as we sit on the curb
in front of someone else’s house (10).
It is unclear whether or not this wife is the lyric speaker’s mother, but the way in which the speaker states that it is his father’s wife instead of his own mother does suggest that there is already a familial gap. Of course, this divide is furthered by the admission that the speaker is homosexual and therefore assumed to have AIDS. Given the temporal context of the poetry collection when protease inhibitors were just starting to be employed, AIDS and HIV infection were still immediately viewed as death sentences. The title of this poem though speaks also to the different inspirations that can be found in Liu’s poetry, much of which can be drawn from the American transcendentalists in that there is a desire to commune with the body among nature, to reach into the self and excavate one’s true “core.” In “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall,” the lyric speaker finds himself reading Whitman in a toilet stall and looking for inspiration:
O daguerrotyped Walt, your collar
unbuttoned, hat lopsided, hand on hip, your sex
never evading our view! how we are confined
by steel partitions, dates and initials carved
into the latest coat of paint, an old car key
the implement of our secret desires (12).
The lament being made here to Walt Whitman arises from a promise unfulfilled in relation to the possibilities for sexual desire to proliferate, much as it is implied in much of Whitman’s poetry, certainly in “Song of Myself.” Especially in relation to queer desire, the partitions not only evoke the toilet stall walls, but also the inability for homosexuality to appear uncloseted. Instead, encrypted languages emerge as car keys are employed to scrawl requests for a particular type of sexual partners. There is never the sense that these sex acts are themselves deviant, merely that they must be consistently hidden from view and complicated through surreptitious symbols and codes. The lyric speaker seems to suggest, if only queer sexuality might emerge so spectacularly as that image of Whitman in his mind.
The incredibly lyrical nature of Liu’s poetry is embodied in one of the concluding poems, “Across the River,” which is one of my personal favorites:
A steady wind. A childhood
that waits for us as daffodils
shed their husks on a shore
where no one has wept for years.
There is another world, time
enough for walks, for testimonies
of wood in a cast-iron stove.
A descrescendo. A wilderness
on fire. Then rain. Finally snow
with no one’s footprints in it (67).
There is a certain surrealistic and strangely utopic quality to the landscapes being described here, where time seems to stop even as nature is buffeted by the elements. If one considers the word “utopia” on its definitional level as a “no-place,” then “Across the River” interrogates this impossible location.
Liu’s Say Goodnight evokes many of the similar thematics found in Burnt Offerings. The connection to Walt Whitman is again re-established in “Oasis”:
Just off the Jersey Pike we saw it—
the Walt Whitman Service Area—our bladders
full, stomachs caught up in the rapture
of a Roy Rogers burger—a self-serve fast-food
feast: long lines of men standing behind
. . . .
How those men kept filing in—truckers,
Boy Scouts, New Yorkers, bikers—no time it seemed to look for glory holes, to worship
at the altar of a stranger’s groin and taste
the infinite while wives and lovers
rummaged through a bargain bin in search of tunes
to play just once on a beat-up deck
for the ride back—a hard pack of Camel lights
and some change to spare on the burning
dash—none of us losing any time at all (85).
We are reminded from the earlier poem, “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall,” that queer sexuality in public restrooms isn’t so problematic as it is the way in which individuals feel required to conceal their desire. The same issue seems to be at work in “Oasis,” as the lyric speaker perceives the possibilities for queer sexuality to emerge at this rest stop, but if such possibilities are thwarted, for what reason does this seem to be the case? The fact that the lyric speaker ends with this sentiment “none of us losing any time at all” implies more likely the opposite, in the sense that by rushing from one location to another, there exists a lapse in the ability to see beyond the incredibly fecund intersubjective encounters that can happen. There is of course a playfulness to this poem as the reference to Walt Whitman also appears in conjunction with Service Area, suggestive of sexual servicing in addition to its automobile assistance. In addition, the sacred and profane are yoked together as it is the full stomach is in “rapture” because the lyric speaker has consumed a Roy Rogers chain-fast food restaurant burger.
In “Strange Fruit,” the lyric speaker briefly meditates upon the continued prejudice levied against queers:
Spray-painted across a garage door.
No names to attach to the crime.
No cause for alarm—some lesbians
returning home to find their cats
still hanging from a coat rack
in the entry hall—Holiday’s muted
voice echoing through the house
on the CD player left on repeat (97).
While the tendency in Liu’s poetry is to concentrate on queer men, there is an obvious move outside of this framework here. The explicit linkage between Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” to the hate crime posed here does serve to make a provocative cross-politic between sexual prejudice and racial discrimination. The phrase “no cause for alarm” does appear ironically, as if no one should be bothered by what has happened to these women or their pets.
Liu’s poetry also possesses an elegaic quality that appears in quiet domestic scenes. In “Two Men in a Rest Home Looking Back at Us,” the lyric speaker considers the mortality of two men, presumably partnered and at the ends of their lives together:
One unable to speak to the other
slumped over in a chair—jaws working hard
to oil a mouth that only family
would kiss. We are given one body only
youth a faded mask that never fit.
Would we get in bed with them, trying to love
what we will become—spent passion
like some recurring dream we carry
to the grave? A calendar bearing
Michelangelo’s slaves—such eternal folds
of flesh touched by mortal hands (57).
This poem draws me immediately back to Cathy Song in the poem’s consideration of aging and death. Especially given queer cultures focus on youth, this lyric sequence considers the other end of the spectrum to the extent that physical beauty (at least in the normative sense) is so evacuated as to assume a state that “only family” could appreciate. The lyric speaker places the representation of this aging couple against Michelangelo sculptures, figures with bodies that never age and therefore described as having “eternal folds/ of flesh.” The rhetorical question that is asked is never quite answered here and instead interrogates the constant desire to remain youthful. The poem thus seems to ask, what is lost when we can’t “love/what we will become”? This poem also brings me back to Burnt Offerings, in evoking the “Strange Music,” reprinted here:
Men have seen their own graves at the edge
of clinic beds, afraid
the watches strapped to their wrists are nothing
more than faces on clocks
still ticking in a childhood house. To kneel
before a dying lover
is to know those calendars yellowing
against a wall. Sometimes
men stop eating. Just like that. No taste
to revive their tongues again.
Bells linger in the air long after
pigeons fly up into
the afternoon, yet nothing endures
longer in the mind
than that echo of what we might have been.
Once again, the ephemerality of queer love appears as to weigh heavily on the mind of the lyric speaker, where time is so abbreviated as to be compared to “clocks still ticking in a childhood house.” Whereas the actual time is truncated within these doomed relationships, the eternity of “what might have been” exists as a doleful lament for different futures and trajectories that never had the chance to be mapped. Liu takes common images and always is able to transform them especially from the perspective of star-crossed, mortality-bound lovers.
Of Thee I Sing continues to take up the trope of sacrifice, death, and queer sexuality in “The Expulsion.”
Time will erode our darkest memories
as faces of ex-lovers start to fade
Nothing to hide, we lie beneath the trees
and linger in some surreptitious breeze
where kisses are blown to the edge of shade.
Time will erode our fondest memories
as angels descent with vials of disease
to infect the love our bodies have made.
No place to hide, we kneel before the trees
and offer prayers in vain. How to appease
the laws of nature we have disobeyed
even as time erodes, our memories
no match for the Almighty God’s decrees:
All shall burn till the debt in full be paid.
Too late to hid among Edenic trees
uprooted. All of us down on our knees,
stripped of everything we own but a spade
in hand as death erodes our memories—
exhausted corpses laid beneath the trees” (15).
This poem is certainly a wonderful example of Liu’s attention to form and structure; Liu’s three collections often include sonnet variations and his poems more generally ascribe to a uniform length and meter. The “villanelle” is a wonderful choice for the content of this poem in that it has a dream-like and repetitive quality that focuses on particular themes and lyric motifs. Here, the phrase “time will erode our darkest memories” is a risky beginning because it is so abstract in its meaning. However, the poem will go on to explain how time erodes memories precisely as queer bodies age and die. The “expulsion” alluded to in the title draws the collection back to the religious imagery that appears again and again throughout all three collections. In this case, the “expulsion” refers to queer men who have been cast out of a kind of Eden for their sexual desires. What is interesting here is that queer men are hastened to their deaths by angels who are the ones who delivers vials of what seems to allude to the HIV virus to their bodies. There is a sense of repentance after the mortality of the queer body is made clear, hope that prayer can extend one’s life, but such possibilities are extinguished in this poem. The appeal the religious powers seems to exists ironically as it is the angels themselves who participate in the reconfiguration of sexuality as being potentially lethal. Further, instead of a life extension, the poem concludes with the image of corpses beneath trees. It would seem that queer men are made to “dig their own graves” so speak. The reference to “laws of nature we have disobeyed” once again makes clear that queer men are seen to be religious blasphemers for participating in homosexual actions. While the poem seems to suggest repentant queer bodies, the tonality offered more largely is one of sadness and resignation at the loss of premature life.
“Tenderness in a Dark Age” continues to the theme of queer mortality in the face of AIDS/HIV:
Shadows of headstones
lengthen as I burn
the photos—old lovers
wreathed in flame,
mouths still hungry
for whatever there was
to get—all of us
before an open grave
where one would survive
to bury the other (37).
The title refers to a “dark age,” elucidating a complicated time in which so many queer men lost scores of friends and lovers to the AIDS virus. Consequently, the poem opens not with one shadow of one headstone, but rather with “shadows of headstones.” Interestingly, there is a sense of that these “older lovers” still possess a kind of power with their “hungry” mouths. In this respect, the lyric speaker suggests that such dead lovers cannot be easily forgotten, their desires still remembered and pressing against the lives of the living. To a certain extent, such an admission calls attention to the ways in which discourses of AIDS/HIV cannot simply be extinguished. In the case of the queer community, survival during this particular time period was predicated often on the death of so many that many continually were burying lovers, friends, and acquaintances.
In “Bisexuality,” Liu offers one of his lighter poems that occasionally appear in “Of Thee I Sing.” In the lyric scenario drawn out, a homosexual man is at a bar with a bisexual man:
His credentials? He says he did it
with a boy or two long before
his pubes set in. Says he’d
do it again were he not already
married. Says his wife completely
understands, having done it
herself with a sorority girl
before they ever met. I’m drinking
my beer as slowly as I can,
nursing it like the truth I know
will finally get told, peeling off
the labels on my Amstel light—
first the neck, working my way
on down the front, and then
the back. This could take all night (41).
The lyric speaker here seems unconvinced of his bisexual conversation partner’s bisexuality as he admits, “I’m drinking my beer as slowly as I can, nursing it like the truth I know will finally get told.” In this case, there is the sense that if given enough time there will be some sort of admission in some form of a strong homosexual impulse. The act of peeling off the labels from the Amstel light seems to invoke a metaphoric comparison of the actions that the speaker involves himself in—that is, he seeks to strip away the layers of closeting that his conversation partner might have put up, so that he can ultimately see if a queer sexuality is underneath and for the possibility of a sexual encounter with him. The Amstel light bottle therefore echoes the male body, both in its phallic structure and in the way that the labels appear analogous to clothing.
With queer Asian American literature being more generally under-investigated and under-utilized in the classroom, Liu offers much in illuminating queer sexualities in a variety of forms, situations, and lyric trajectories.
Say Goodnight: http://www.amazon.com/Say-Goodnight-
Burnt Offerings: http://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Offerings-
Of Thee I sing: http://www.ugapress.uga.edu/0820326003.