Killian and Halpern at Alley Cat Books

Kevin Killian and Rob Halpern 7.21.2012

Kevin's photo of the reading audience

Saturday night: Alley Cat Books in the Mission hosted a reading to launch Kevin Killian’s new book SPREADEAGLE, part of The Fellow Travelers Series, printed and bound by Publication Studio, founded in 2009 by Matthew Stadler and Patricia No. The Publisher’s Forward notes that “Above all, the ambition of the new Fellow Travelers series is to become the image of newly-won liberties: the right for everyone to think, to write and read freely, regardless of markets—for pleasure alone.”

Rob Halpern read from Music for Porn, recently published by Nightboat Books in New York.

Music for Porn is, Rob said, a result of his obsession with  the figure of the soldier.  Of his book, Lauren Berlant  writes: "Music for Porn is an astonishing event of poesis. Rob Halpern writes a ravaging and tender incantation of the bodies that die for love in the intimate, political wars of our present.”

The book is a weighty 165 pages and comes in a brown paper wrapper, which when removed, reveals a beautiful and colorful collage of gay porn produced by Halpern and Tanya Hollis. Black and white collages punctuate the various sections of the book which include: Envoi, Imaginary Politics, Speculations, Note on Affection and War, Runaway Soldier Punk, Memoranda, Obscene Intimacies, Porn, and Dedication.  The book begins with the following quote from Gertrude Stein: “A soldier a real soldier has a worn lace a worn lace.”

Rob Halpern. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Killian
Like Stein’s work, Halpern’s writing is staged in impure genres. Much of the writing in this book is prose. Some pieces, such as “Some Speculations Around George Oppen’s Parousia,” are lineated; this one is composed in tercets with an italicized hanging initial or final line as here:

So this must be the passion whose
Patient parousia by which I think
He means a body in a present
One’s own
                                --labor failed to make   (33)

Halpern’s writing refuses simplicity, the enclosure of genre; his is a writing that calls out, exposes, opens itself to the possibilities of prosody and criticism, mourning and desire, the body, the eroticized, the militarized, the individual’s messy entanglements in the social,the social’s unmarked reproduction of its own disasters.

In “Whither Porn?, or the Soldier as Allegory,” Halpern writes,

Adjunct of multimillion dollar contracts, my soldier appears within an apparatus of control pornography, prosthetic of police where the visible and the invisible, funded and defunded, normal and pathological, public and private, militant and military, impersonal and intimate are produced, delimited, and reinforced. But porn is so ambivalent, it can always go both ways. Without denoting an essential quality of the image, porn connotes a whole technology for governing the tension between eros and identity, life and death. Porn brings to light, permits and publicizes, just as it darkens, prohibits, and privatizes. Check out all the closed and repetitive codes privileging male pleasure ensuring hierarchies and machines of domination. Like the military, pornography is a biopolitical operation for regulating the social body and all the particular bodies that comprise it, admitting some, canceling others (157).

I’m just beginning to spend time with this amazing book. I’ll leave you with some excerpts from a piece I like very much, “Notes on Affection and War,” writing that is meditation, close-reading and critique all in one as it moves across prosody, lyric, Whitman’s soldier, war and nation building, bodies and affect:

Whitman arouses so many intimacies in his democratic vista mythic future of my country, extension of a mangled present seemingly raw at first, unbound to any proper social knowledge. The open form of feeling in the Civil War verses organizes an emergent sound—“the hum and buzz of the great shells”—echolocating inchoate feeling tones fear shame sorrow tenderness rage whose sub-vocal expression Drum-Taps goes on to marshal as purposeful emotion. In doing so, Whitman performs the affective tuning of a military figure, a sound figure perhaps only fully realized in our own present. This tuning has naturalized my ears, so I can’t hear the noise any longer, a silence we might now call completed sound, converging with its own suppression.

Even while prohibiting it, military culture stimulates homoerotic affection in just proportion with a paranoid disavowal of its usefulness. It’s a textbook illustration of ‘instinctual renunciation,’ whereby the prohibition of eros becomes the site of erotic satisfaction. By contrast, Whitman affirms the use of homoerotic affection while still pressing it into the service of nation building. His homoerotic comradeship partisan and militant becomes fraternal mourning unaligned and disarmed as soon as comrade become soldier.

Whitman’s prosodic drive toward a postwar democracy is contradictory not unlike my own and quietly harbors militarized sense, at once ahistorical prescribing amnesia and metaphysical positing value. This desire for democracy requires a sacrifice, a body that disappears withdrawn from view just as it achieves a sublime meaning. How to restore that thing to the relations from which it’s been absented? To be that sacrificial body, a soldier’s corpse is drained of its historicity bare life, dead meat, taboo just as the nation’s mourning is hygienically cleansed of partisan militant subjectivity.  (48-50)

Kevin Killian, whose stylish grey hair I envy, then read as only Kevin can—in a quiet but staged, bemused address. SPREADEAGLE is nearly 600 pages and was begun in 1990 when Sam D’Allesandro died from AIDS. Kevin said that he had wanted to find a way to keep Sam alive, and so in 2012, in SPREADEAGLE, D'Allesandro lives.   

The book has two parts: Part I: Extreme Remedies and Part II: Silver Springs.

Photo of Kevin taken by Daniel Nicoletta

Part I takes place in A-Gay San Francisco and involves the characters Kit, an AIDS activist and fundraiser who was once the boyfriend of Sam D’Allesandro, but who now lives with Danny Isham, a 50ish writer constantly mistaken for Armistead Maupin. Danny writes a series of Rick and Dick novels.His father is the famous poet Ralph Isham. He and Danny have been estranged.

Here's a little taste:

When Kit moved to California, he came from Connecticut with a picture in mind, a Technicolor sunrise, that neither time nor experience ever changed. Even the grim toll of AIDS, which otherwise occupied him to the point of monomania, had dimmed his mental image only a whit. ‘I’m still high on San Francisco,’ he told his friends, who told him to take a job with the Chamber of Commerce. Now as he looked out his window on Pacific Heights, he knew he’s living above his head. Literally he was high, since he and Danny lived on the fourth and fifth floors, made you dizzy to look down. Surrounded by balconies filled with earth and shrubs and flowers, the top floors were like their own encampment above the rest of the world. Kit always enjoyed having people over who don’t  whistle when they see the view it, because it depressed Danny when they were not impressed. Danny could never play poker that’s for sure, since disappointment showed on his face like the Slough of Despond. Even these sophisticates though usually said something about Vertigo when they glanced past the violets and vervain to the dizzying drop down to Chestnut. Kit was watching TV, and gabbing on his cell, and handing the gardener Danny’s check, and still he was thinking about when he first came here, to this city and how magical it was then and blah blah blah dot dot dot, etc.(233-34)

Here’s a section describing Sam:
Sam D’Allesandro was handsome, not young any more, but unusual even in a city with thousands of good-looking men. Or he had been handsome, and then facial wasting had set in, and he couldn’t afford the treatments that would return his former contours, so he lived in the shadows now, like Paul Muni at the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

He was a writer and travel agent. A book of poetry he had published  himself had garnered good reviews in the gay press. He hated to think of it—the ignominy of publishing his own work—and he hated the work itself. He had put poetry aside and was writing prose now, longish prose narratives, texts that explored and deconstructed the idea of a self while spreading transgressive sex thick across the page like butter across a slice of toast. His book of stories,The Zombie Pit, had appeared in 1990, and another one, sort of  a remix of the first, was The Wild Creatures and came out in 2005 (67-68).

Part II takes place in Gavit, a fictional small town in California’s Central Valley. The main characters in this section include two brothers, our narrator Geoff and his brother Jim who is a police officer in town, Avery, a young man who makes an appearance in Part I and lives for a while with Kit and Danny. There are also the brothers Adam and Gary Parker Radley. Gary comes to town with “his dark spectral stare and his muscle-bound body” (297) and tells Geoff to “lie spreadeagle” in his trailer (308). There’s a ton going on in this rollicking novel which traverses a vast array of references from Robert Bresson, Dario Argento, and Downton Abbey to Audrey Hepburn and Fleetwood Mack.

Here’s another morsel, an interaction Geoff has with a librarian that is quite funny. I note this with affection, having fielded many reference questions myself.
When I was a boy, my mother had a cat on the wall that told the time, its black diamond eyes swinging from one corner of the kitchen to the other, every time the second-hand ticked back and forth, disguised as its tail.
That cat was the funniest thing. When someone asked , ‘What time is it?’ the standard answer was, ‘I don’t know, ask Felix!’

Everybody in Gavit knew about our clock, most like it, and some compared it to the eye of God, always watching and seeing no matter where you try to hide. When I was a boy I asked casually, ‘Where’d you buy that clock, Ma?’ and she said it had been a wedding present from Montgomery Ward. Thereafter, because Mother’s Day was on its way, I saved up fifteen dollars washing cars, and I bought her an identical Felix clock, from the Montgomery Ward catalogue down at the Library. The librarian, Mrs. Hill, was a youngish woman who had been in Gavit too long. ‘Your mother has that clock, Geoff, are you certain she’s going to want a second one?’ ‘Sure I’m sure.’ ‘To me it would be like having twins or some other multiple birth.’ ‘She’ll like it for sure.’ One is okay, no—more than okay! One has made her kitchen a happy place, but two will make her the laughing stock of Gavit.’ ‘I’m going to take the chance,’ I replied, every bit as stubborn as any old librarian. ‘I’ll rake the chance of offending her with Felix the Second.’

I was a bit gruff with her, butch, but nothing a grown woman shouldn’t be able to handle from a kid. She swiveled her chair to the typewriter and, her back straight as a rod, continued typing my envelope for me. To Montgomery Ward (309-310).
‘You are a peculiar boy,’ said Mrs. Hill, whipping out my envelope with a dramatic flourish. She snorted through her nose, flicking her curls off her forehead. I’d like to see what your mother’s precious John Updike would make of such a situation. Your mother was born a Woodruff and nothing cures a Woodruff till they take our feet first.

‘You sound like you’re a million years old,’ I said, grabbing the envelope.

‘I can remember a time when there was no such thing as a cat clock in this town,’ she said. She closed the cover to her typewriter and swiveled back to me, chin first. ‘If that makes me old, so be it.’

‘I’ll check out these books here,’ I said.

‘You are too young to be reading the life of Audrey Hepburn,’ she said. ‘As a matter of fact, I don’t know why we keep these books in the library so children get their hands on them.’

‘Was she a sinner?’ I asked, thinking of my mother’s boyfriend, Marion Crawford, and his sermons on Sunday about the sins that hide under baskets.

‘No,’ she said. “But if these books aren’t over your head, then we’re all in danger. Why don’t you spend less time in the library from now on and for goodness sake, try to forget there ever was a woman called Audrey Hepburn’ (310-312)

Dash out and get these two gems here:

SPREADEAGLE at http://www.publicationstudio.biz/
and  Music for Porn at http://www.spdbooks.org/

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