A guy walks into a bar. Or is it a Middle Eastern novelty store? A coffee shop?
Well, he’s somewhere in northern Japan, nursing a drink and tapping his fingers as “Lady/ Day simmers overhead”. The guy’s an expatriate, disillusioned by his country’s prejudice against people of color and the queer community—both of which marked him back home.
It’s men like the unnamed speaker, guys coming to terms with their sexuality, whose journeys Kevin Simmonds tracks in his debut collection of poems Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011). (The book is available for pre-orders now and will ship on August 15, with the big release Sept. 1.)
The dejected speakers are men whose “unforgivably christian” fathers have written them off for being gay. As a result of that, they look for what their fathers couldn’t give them in other men. A father’s love takes on various forms in this 90-page collection.
For the expatriate in “Geography”, it’s “Tsuyoshi, the bartender”, whose quiet patience makes him a father figure to the speaker.
While there’s not much known about the two men’s relationship with one another, one thing that’s known is the speaker’s been in Tsuyoshi’s spot before. The speaker’s tone is intimate here:
Tsuyoshi’s drying glasses and wondering about me, why I would bring my
body all this way and sit across from him […]
[…] why I’d come to live in a small town
only to be misunderstood […]
That Tsuyoshi knew enough to wonder those things says the men aren’t just on a first name basis with each other. The physical details are striking:
[…] Ice melts as Lady
Day simmers overhead.
Tsuyoshi’s drying glasses […]
[…] he’s setting down
like chess pieces.
It’s impossible to read “Geography” and not think of the novelist, playwright and poet James Baldwin, who fled the U.S. in 1948, decades before the speaker’s expatriation for similar reasons.
The essayist and civil rights activist spent most of his later life in France. Like Baldwin, Simmonds’s speaker in “Geography” fled to leave behind the hopelessness men like him succumbed to back in his country.
For those who couldn’t flee hopelessness, it overwhelmed them like it did the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”, a poem about self-mutilation (“give the wound finally/ a mouth/ a smile on each wrist”).
The tone starts off sad. With nothing to live for, the speaker’s contemplation of death is clear in the psychological details:
who will claim me
[…] nearly 40
still with every candle
& blown out in me
When we get to “a father unforgivably christian/ & Jamaican/ fine without my call/ on father’s day”, the speaker’s tone is angry. He even entertains the thought of castrating his own father (“observe as meat falls/ without his seed/ his rightful & clean erection”).
The speaker’s state of mind is not only an attribute of his father’s rejection, but other long-held hurts.
In her Huffington Post article “LGBT Bullying in School Linked To Long-Term Health Effects In New Report,” Joy Resmovits writes “that LGBT-targeted bullying related to gender expression or sexual orientation during school years led to increased young adult depression, suicidal thoughts, social adjustment issues and risky behavior.”
She adds, “LGBT Young adults that reported high levels of anti-LGBT victimization as teens were 5.6 times more likely to report suicide attempts than those victimized less frequently.”
No doubt, given how some kids are cruel, Simmonds’s speaker in “bouquet of scalpels” was bullied. But instead of acting on those violent thoughts, he takes “cover/ in another man’s body/ as” the other man “takes cover/ in mine”.
That the men take “cover” in each other’s body evokes the cliché “love heals all things”. Despite the speaker’s sad and angry tones, the musical moments in “bouquet of scalpels” give the poem some pleasurable moments. Check out the rhyme with “me” and “memory”: “come rot with me/ or trembling/ withstand memory”.
Here are the stretched and short “E” sounds: “he who led me […]” and “[…] perfected agonies/ nearly 40”. Another musical moment is the recurring “H” sounds: “he who […]”. Then there’s the recurring “observe as meat falls”, which intensifies the speaker’s thought of castrating his father.
That the thought even crosses the speaker’s mind speaks to his wish for revenge against a man who emasculated him throughout his childhood. In that context, the father’s the bully who contributes to the suffering that follows the speaker well into adulthood (“nearly 40”).
While the father’s rejection infuriates the speaker in “bouquet of scalpel”, it sends the “baby faced man” in “Tenor” seeking attention from other men. The sexual energy in “Tenor” is heightened when the “baby faced man” becomes a desired object that will “be made to obey/ be held steady by the promise/ in a man’s nonchalance”.
What’s clear earlier on is that the “baby faced man” is as damaged as the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”. Both men are hopeless but for different reasons. Unlike the speaker in “bouquet of scalpels”, the “baby faced man” is not sad or angry. His reckless sexual acts are what make him hopeless.
Here, “baby faced man” leaves himself, both literally and figuratively, open to be taken advantage of. An initial interpretation was that the speaker in “Tenor” took advantage of “baby faced man”:
he imagines how
to build a father
A father needs to be seduced
at the urinals
sure you’ll swallow
after the fuck
even the shit on the tip.
By assuming the role of “a father”, the speaker is a predator preying on a misguided man’s weakness.
However, rereading “Tenor” provides another interpretation. Suppose the speaker’s not the one “fathering” the “baby faced man”. Suppose the speaker’s a bystander overhearing someone else with “baby faced man”; then the other man is the predator. (In that case, apologies to the speaker.)
In that context, the “you” (“[…] you’ll swallow/ after the fuck/ even the shit on the tip”) makes sense. And so does the speaker’s uncertainty in the last stanza:
The baby faced man is a singer
and when I listen to his voice
I’m unconvinced the trembling vibrato
is really his […]
The poem “Bad Catholics” reduces the speaker, his father and siblings to rabid animals that, as the epigraph states, “become less aggressive at the site of meat.” On the surface, the poem is about giving into carnal desires:
We kept the butcher’s block bloody
Calm coming over us like gravy
at the sight of pot roast
A stew of slowed cognition
we were blunt in our surrender
“Bad Catholics” is musical right away, with its alliterations: “[…] butcher’s block bloody” and “Calm coming […]”. Then there’s the recurring “S” sounds—“stew of slowed” and “surrender”—in the third stanza. While those moments didn’t intensify anything in the poem, they made “Bad Catholics” a pleasurable read.
Considering that the meat is what satisfies the “five boys & a husband”, Simmonds is clever in how he uses “Bad Catholics” to allude to the issue of the “down low”, or men who have sex with other men unbeknownst to their girlfriends.
In that context, the speaker’s father is to the butcher what the “pot roast” and “lamb” are to the “five boys & a husband”. That the speaker’s “mom […]/ […] kept an eye on the butcher/ his […] special discounts/ whenever dad made the trip alone” speaks to the mother’s insecurities.
The allusion to the “down low” is the fact the speaker’s mom sees the butcher as a threat to her happy home, as if the mom thought there was a possibility her husband might be a man on the “down low”.
Going back to hopelessness, gay men in Mad for Meat aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by it. Everyone’s fair game in the opening poem “Gift”:
He saw a galaxy
& from all over
they brought their cuts
laid them down
for him to divine
iridescent foil or the way
it locked into bone
No one knows
. . .
But he saw car brakes
unresponsive as lungs
in a grandson’s chest
as the inhaler lies
on the bathroom sink
. . .
& there were the winning numbers
shining from a mutton shank
Once, he bent down
left ear listening
to a loin
as if through a trapdoor
would bring turnips
or misshapen potatoes
He tried with those
& gills of fish
but could never find
The speaker’s tone is one of sympathy for those who bring “their cuts/ […] for him to divine”, those hoping that “winning numbers” shine “from a mutton shank”, “the poor/ or misinformed” who “bring turnips/ or misshapen potatoes”.
The folks in “Gift” are as hopeless as the “baby faced man” in “Tenor”. Like the “baby faced man”, the people in “Gift” leave themselves open for someone to take advantage of them.
On one level, it’s ludicrous that anyone would see any credibility in a guy who “saw a galaxy in meat” or who listened “to a loin as if through a trapdoor”. Someone like him would otherwise be dismissed as a lunatic, or be strapped in a mental institution’s padded room.
On another level, that the guy is even seen as credible says something about the people who trust him. In that context, “Gift” speaks to desperation driven by hard economic times (“[…] winning numbers/ shining from a mutton shank”).
Most recently that desperation’s manifested itself in the something-for-nothing crowd being taken by the Nigerian Scam, which involves a wealthy foreigner enlisting the help of the unsuspecting victim to move millions of dollars from their homeland. The victim’s promised a reward (a percentage of the fortune) for his/her assistance.
The scam’s successful, according to finance officials. “We have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months,” Special Agent James Caldwell, of the Secret Service financial division, was quoted in a 1997 newspaper article. “And that’s just the ones we know of.”
The desperation in “Gift” is also driven by a general concern of the future’s uncertainties ([…] car brakes/ jam/ unresponsive as lungs/ in a grandson’s chest”). That Simmonds’s speaker is sympathetic instead of condescending is reason enough to love Mad for Meat.