gays gonna gaze

Richie Hofmann is the queer darling of poetry tight now, in the Frank O’Hara mold, but where O’Hara’s stanzas are crowded and sloppy and the kind of jubilant gossipy chaos of Sunday brunch in the city, where everyone is talking about their Saturday night hook-ups, there is a melancholy distance with Hofmann.

In this poem, for example, “the smell from your armpits,” is jarringly clunky and clinical. I’m not saying it’s not intentionally like this, but it’s not exactly evocative. It’s at a remove. Evocative of evocation. It’s like watching someone remember something, like when you’re chatting with a friend and they go off on a reverie, and you can see that they’re transported, but you’re not. And you give that to them, because, you know, you’re friends. As poetry, I see the agricultural college piece, the scents, the sniffing of the briefs (I mean, why else are you fishing in the hamper for his — and yes, “briefs” are gendered — undies), the “naturalness” of it.

But there’s an inertness of things (which is a valid observation), of surfaces, a lack of interiority to the poem (again: valid — poems can be that), everything is from the outside: the greenhouse, the field, the memory of “you.” It’s true that the smell of a “you” may be all that presents to memory. That it is everything, the thing that, in memory, contains everything that we remember: the thing that is natural but that polite society covers. It’s like Forster in Maurice, when Maurice goes to wake Dickie up:

He lay unashamed, embraced and penetrated by the sun. The lips were parted, the down on the upper was touched with gold, the hair broken into countless glories, the body was a delicate amber. To anyone he would have seemed beautiful, and to Maurice who reached him by two paths he became the World’s desire.

I remember the bookstore in Broad Ripple where I would go alone, at 16, to buy these wonderful books. I worked in Broad Ripple, as a delivery boy for my high school sweetheart’s father, who owned a chain of toffy florists. So I started to hang out there, in the little “artist village” on the “Old North Side” of Indianapolis. A denizen of the little bookstores that carried these novels with their quiet scenes of longing and fleeting intimacy, which I would read at the dark little cafe on the corner after school while REM’s Murmur murmured in the background. I would shop for my big wool overcoats and military berets at the secondhand and consignment shops on College Ave., a few doors down from the Vogue. It was a whole package deal. I may have occasionally dragged friends along, but mostly it was my world, my escape from the alienation of the suburbs a few blocks away. And the old record store — Peaches , I think it was — where I perused the back walls and discovered Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson, and countless other 1980s oddballs.

In this four or five block “village” between the tony suburbs and the Old North Side I was free. I remember reading Maurice, David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of the Cranes, David Hollinghurst’s the Swimming Pool Library, and reading the passages describing male bodies, hungrily, over and over, as if they were spells, incantations, that would yield something more: everything. And it’s not like these were pornographic novels. The descriptions were minimalistic, frank, chaste even by today’s standards. I still remember this passage from Leavitt’s book that rocked my world:

Frank lay stretched naked on the bed, his hands behind his neck, and Owen was suddenly astonished by the two shocks of black hair under his arms. They stared frankly at him, like an extra pair of eyes.

That was it. I had never experienced a scene like that in real life. Just a man, naked on a bed, his hands behind his neck. Just that! I read it over and over. It was seared into my memory. To this very day. 

Hollinghurst mentions “hair” over a hundred times in the novel. And for me, at that age, bodily hairiness was not only exotic but forbidden. This was long before pornography was ubiquitous in popular culture, and I was achingly curious about what other men looked like naked. There was nowhere I could go to see them. At school I had swim team with the upperclassmen, many of whom were in full blossom, but didn’t dare let my eyes stray. Of course this marked me immediately as gay. Immediately. The straight boys could horse around naked in the showers, fumbling, grappling and grabbing at one another, but it petrified me. I mean it’s a colossal irony, that looking away was the thing that marked me. 

Just to be able to look at a naked man — not in porn, which anyway was, again, hard to come by (which is another story) — or a partially naked man, to be seen seeing, to gaze upon the gazer, was forbidden. Like: forbidden by The Gods. Some terrible fate would be visited upon my head if I dared to look at a man like that. Of course, many, most I would say, of the young men I knew, knew. And some had fun with it, teasing or taunting in a way that almost seemed invitational. That was, in a way, a sort of generous display, but I felt like simply to look would be self-immolation. Like looking up at the sun during an eclipse. Even a glimpse, like the one in the Leavitt passage, was impossible. Because even though everyone knew, it was another order — several orders — of audacity to own it.

Eye contact — merely to gaze — was a privilege of those boys higher up in the pecking order. I mean, this shit goes deeeep. We’re learning more and more about the gaze in our primate cousins:

Being looked at elicits a reflexive, involuntary response. Humans can detect that they are the target of another’s gaze through subcortical neural pathways, even without conscious awareness. Detection of direct gaze in turn triggers a cascade of activation in social cognition centers of the brain that underlie the self-conscious state of arousal and endocrine responses we experience as the “feeling of being looked at”. Achieving eye contact with another has important significance both for the sender of this social signal and the recipient. Among most primates, direct gaze can serve as an explicit and implicit signal of threat or dominance, indicating that overt physical aggression might soon follow.

Harrod, E.G., Coe, C.L. & Niedenthal, P.M. Social Structure Predicts Eye Contact Tolerance in Nonhuman Primates: Evidence from a Crowd-Sourcing Approach. Sci Rep 10, 6971 (2020).

So, it’s real. It was real. I had been taught about the male gaze and its privileges by my father, whom we could address with our eyes down and a “sir” tacked on, when we were allowed to speak at all. (And then it was always in too soft or too loud a voice, or one too laced with sarcasm or tinged with fear — there was no way to do the thing correctly, which was, of course, the point of these exercises in dominance/submission.) To have a man “expose” his body to me like in Leavitt, without hostility, much less as carelessly as this, was unthinkable, and therefore thrilling just to think it, in my experience. 

In Hollinghurst, which I haven’t read in 35 years, it seemed to me the whole climax of the book was a scene of one man gazing on another who was naked.

I remember buying The Boys on the Rock because of this cover, which still makes me weak:

I had never been able to look at a boy who was spread open to me like this. It’s funny because the male gaze is so privileged in our culture and society, and yet to turn it on itself was illicit and dangerous. And I knew that looking at men like this was wrong. I knew it. No one had to tell me. Much of the action in Hollinghurst takes place in public toilets, and no one had to tell me that, either. Locker rooms were charged. Anywhere men were alone and the private parts of them out was electric, because you had to be careful with your gaze, and that carefulness, that attentiveness to looking away was a kind of looking at, and everyone could feel the warp of it, like the event horizon of a black hole, sucking everything in. Don’t get too close! It’ll crush you!

Anyway, back to Richie. I find I don’t share much, experientially, with millennials, and nothing at all with zoomers. I’m not interested in their sexualities or their groping to express them. Youth doesn’t have the ability to see itself as others see it, until it’s too late. They display their sexual discoveries as if the continent of sex hasn’t been peopled for countless millennia, as if there are “old ways” that have been superseded. As if every life — every single one — was not first written like a spell on a folded sheet of paper and blown into the fire like a wish. There is no secret knowledge, just secret wishes.

The worst part of “aging out” is the only role young gays allow you, the only role they literally see you in is the “wise gay elder,” who is there to testify, like a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. You want to say to them: “I’m 53, not 103.” But it’s useless. The gaze goes from a desiring gaze to a condescending, pitying one. 

We are all awkward blossoms, it would seem, some of us are just closer to falling.

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