from The Sissies
This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Brian Blanchfield features an excerpt from Evan Kennedy’s new book The Sissies. About Kennedy’s work, Blanchfield writes: “In its ecstasies and abasements, Evan Kennedy’s The Sissies, out just now from Futurepoem Books, runs footage of a present-day bicycle messenger and poet in high gear and in human entanglements ‘in this rehearsal for / the relinquishment of my body’ under the flickering reel of the life of a saint who sought ‘peace and the good’ even while being beaten and tormented. ‘Sissy,’ as if derived of Francis of Assisi, namesake of the city that has drawn and drawn together queer people far from families of origin and otherwise certain fates. This boy, high on his leather saddle flirting at intersections, is beatific, and one of the book’s self-knowing pleasures is that it decides not to decide between persona or personality. So The Sissies erects a tribute, or elects a tribune, to oversee and sanction queer experience unabashed and uncovered. Available, open, vulnerable, punk enough the author’s street address is right there in the poems. Here are the opening and closing pages and, downshifting and hilltopping, verse excerpts between. Want a 21st century canticle? Read through to the end.”
A Cyclist: Navigating a Leisure Topography and Derelict Duties of Self-Preservation
for Peter Hochschild
“Nature appeared to have taken up
residence in the street.” —Robert Walser
Set apart for everyday exercises in humility, and called to relate my engagement with urban ecology, I’m glad to have the chance to articulate today my methods of San Franciscan bonhomie and leisure cycling. It’s likely I’ve bicycled more of San Francisco than walked, and during the past year, I pedaled a red Peugeot from what must be the 1980s. I purchased it immaculate in Berkeley for $250 through craigslist. To date, the damage it has undergone includes several flats, unsecured handlebars, a tear in the back tire causing a bulge and wobble after 8mph, failing front brakes, rust, a leather saddle jacked in the Tenderloin, a detached gear shift, warped pedals prone to fall off when I operate with excessive élan, and a slack chain. There is always bad news about my bicycle breaking down, or, to less concern, my body: two times I’ve been car-doored, once felled by slippery streetcar tracks, hundreds of times cut off, threatened with my death, derided and called names, three times chased by drivers upon my retaliation, once thrown over my handlebars—and it was being thrown over myself that I distended time, was allowed to land onto revelation’s pavement directed toward an inothering district of pax et bonum.
So begin my biological and extraworldly excursions. I’ve a second skeleton contoured as my first but finer-tuned to self-preservation and armistice within a topography at turns vicious and fortuitous. San Francisco becomes the site wherein I negotiate a haven while keeping steady in my three bodies—my poet’s, my queer’s, my cyclist’s bodies—through practices and accoutrement that equip me to face my supposed haters—such as the academy, the church, bad weather, police cars, and taxis. The articulation of this skeleton—the loom stretching the skin that proves me—enacts a logic that has blossomed within its own law and self-nourishment.
A soft focus is the operator through these three bodies and permits my being disappeared toward a paradise now. At my best, I sink into animal instinct, a receptivity that narrates instruction bypassing my brain to my unimpressive but suitable set of muscles. I write some verse and it rhymes—I pedal up the hill and swerve coolly around hopeful destroyers—I, in an embrace, find someone’s tongue in my mouth and I fit it like a glove. Afterward, exhaustion is an ornament I wear, an indication that my body has passed along itself sufficiently within a gentler order of feeling. With weakness and dull fever, I’m closer to being rid of my body’s areas and appetites I’d like to slough off: the asthma flare-ups, atrophy in my kneecaps, the ache in my liver.
There is the question of how a body is to read a body coming through the city. I’d answer that extra caution is helpful until one’s able to enact a gentility among the world that indicates to everybody both indebtedness to the entire citizenry and confidence in one’s methods of self-preservation as a ticking gentleman time bomb, should it come to that, and for me it hasn’t. I suggest everybody luxuriate in this meekness.
Each day above ground has been very good to me while supposing that creation speaks back under terms of bonhomie and it is thanksgiving again on Earth.
Each thing points to its kind, and each kind in turn points to the entirety of kinds.
I reach, as my comrades should predict, Francis of Assisi, whose apparition billows toward recognition behind me while I write. Francis—the patron saint of animals, of ecology—despised his body but performed a superhuman etiquette toward the rest of creation. Amidst the kitsch of his representations, he remains San Francisco’s namesake and the hidden engine to the maternal camp of its drag queens, good cheer of the dogmasked boys on Folsom Street, even the animal humility of its bearded baseball players, and the uniforms and dissolution of earthly authority found in Oakland’s black bloc.
I am set upon a continual return to Francis’s “Cantico del Sole” to promote a unity of engagement along my cycling route and milieus with highest concern for the articulation of pax et bonum:
Be praised through those who
forgive through love, and
endure trouble, and endure illness,
blessed are all the meek who endure,
because by you they will be crowned.
Be praised for and by and through
our sister, our bodies’ death,
from whom no one living can leave.
I made myself a sleeping place—I made myself a cycling place. When legible, the arrangement of animals and buildings articulated reasonable assembly, then the next moment something dumb. I got an idea to spin thoughtlessly with the Earth— To enter the food chain almost on top but aim to be subjugated to the respect and service of all creatures— I tried this
lovely human invention and bicycled past peacefully ambulating people. Nature took up residence in the street. I gave a greeting then cycled around it.
from My Body is a 5’8” Tower of Meat
What archive of revival can win
imprisoned senses. We bandy and fever and tally.
Animals appeal to me since they slide in instinct and elision.
Paradise is a woolly face, a furred face resting against me.
Free to barter within the pastoral, it’s a hearty chortle
from trees I match.
Swaths of fabric I’d tear from me.
O environs I need to graze toward escape.
It’s like my head is made of lead—
from (The) Undernamed
I’ve been maligned, as you and this city know, while
I wreck my physique by staring down
barrel-chested men. My slim body—over-extended
and sickly with the blackest slice of bread it could acquire—
my incredible body used to be berserk
with lust but now lives in the jubilee of my meekness.
The open within this could bear
passage for a terrific ship of my serious griefs,
but it’s fine to stay buoyant through my naïve
affection. I am X years old and still talking
like this—incredible. Just incredible
that the calamity that is my innocence
gilds a pleroma unique to the day when the earth
again of this city will fall apart.
Call me freak—every man is a masterpiece but
what is it to confuse this many creatures.
for Brett Price
from (The) Abashed
Bring forth any within you to save you.
So made changeless, a wave or nerve
to enact its fullness. If I’m raised
over waste, hold me there to vomit
the meat I’ve sucked down
and peril I’ve soaked in through
local commotion. There is a continent
at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
What is it to be equipping for
the convenience of
kingdom— such as swapping spit with
strangers, giving dogs a good scratch
behind the ears,
or fighting from my bicycle
the cars that could spell
my death in the papers. And
drinking milkshakes in Mission diners.
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest,
and I threw up at the sight of that.
My only security has been to garden civility
in city boots scuffed along the way
by impedimenta to my solace.
from Putting Holes Through Me: Have You Ever Become an Ecstatic Stigmatic
To keep one’s ground, and thus get pounded into it—
There is a matter of what a body does after absorbing force and emptying, like a reluctant instantaneous vacuum, the air for a time and stilling it. I actually mean, what happens to the evil and where does it go.
And isn’t there a lovely symmetry of opposition between a barrel-chested aggressor and someone much lighter with one of those come-at-me-motherfucker looks, which doesn’t necessarily appear retaliatory but could be as benevolent and serene as a monk’s.
I want to derive a near-palpable affirmation through Francis of Assisi, who suggests that getting beaten up should remind one of bodily frailty within a world and law that’s best to despise (and by despise, he means leave toward arrival elsewhere): …if we bear such great wrong and such cruelty and such rebuffs without disquieting ourselves and without murmuring against him and think humbly and charitably that he really believes us to be what he has called us and that God makes him speak against us, write that here is perfect joy (Little Flowers).
Being reviled, they rejoiced— God’s standards are not my own, but I want to apply Francis’s to my present community now coming through.
A scene in the film adaptation of Little Flowers (dir. Rossellini, 1950): Travelling alone, a minor friar named Juniper enters an encampment of rowdy warriors. It is soon understood he’s not welcome. They are wrestling, punching each other in the face, and placing bets as to whether their comrade’s bleeding nose can fill his cup. Juniper intervenes: “I talk and talk yet accomplish little.” The goons begin tossing around the monk, using him for a jump rope, after which he concludes that “it’s by example souls are won” and faceplants from a gallows into the dirt, pleasing everybody. Raising a monument of stupidity, the composure of the monk’s body alternates between limpness and rigidity, hinting toward a tumbler, scapegoat, bound livestock, or holy fool (though I have been called worse). Rigidity to support the pull, limpness to accept the push, the bleeding monk, it’s decided, is to be put to death by getting bashed over the head. (In the end, he lives, but it’s his idiot charm that saves him.)
It’s the sissies that you spit on as they try to leave their worlds. Heads get crashed against lockers— Boys are thrown into fountains— Can I design before my enemy a perfect joy or would it be just desperate inversion. A sissy absorbs the disclosure of aggression and happily renounces it through a bruise. The ilk of them becomes subjugated to the order of things then vanishes. Could I continue going, obeying, walking, sleeping,
dying bicycling, subject to all of creation if it was called for. Humiliation is an angel— Sissies are tied to fences— And the ilk they’re from vanishes into an articulation of praise, and they syncopate in their bathing suits or denim jackets what amounts to a disinheriting of the population, or the outside. They go about thinking each other’s names and peopling their inquiry through whichever loss is newest. Could I be humanized according to them and go about dizzied by the turns of my affection prompting me to look first in this direction—O city that’s out west—and then in another—O other city that’s out east. I could be at risk of undergoing a kind of conversion here, or I shall just get a crick in my neck. I look at my travel plans, and nothing corresponds to the continual departures upon the rosy promise of their air kisses, executed from afar between shy abyss and sentimental heaven. A vernacular to restore my rest— Sissies are held by the ankle outside windows of tall buildings— Others are inflicted with velocity— It’s not so much them “failing” all together but a matter of inheriting an order—and habitation no matter whether the houses are removed or the hills depart—that withstands the enormity of their intelligence and care. My gladness is a momentary faded glimpse onto the long lost tranquil city expanse that enacted this request. Meanwhile, the sound of my helmeted head hitting the pavement is my contribution among the sissies in the call-and-response of industrious fevers hoping to raise a melodious standard against those who threaten us. Put the shame of my denials around my bare shoulders. I am so fair-skinned, the veins across my body rise to its surface bright blue.
Or is it a matter of grace and nature.
Step on necks and the necks will sanctify your kicks. Piss on ants and the ants will sanctify your piss.
In my 1394 Utah Street room, I sleep beneath a poster of Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy where the friar has fallen into the arms of an angel the instant after the stigmata are put through him. When I, in bed, find my attention turned toward him, I am often in pajamas, or less, after drinking, or pedaling hard from a ballgame or drag show, and arriving fresh from my failure to level a paradise of urbanites, or steal affections. I mean that my soul can only find solace through transitory glimpses onto the prospect of spilling over my contours—or having my contours penetrated by otherworldly force. So I labor, get, spend, wipe out, fatigue, ruin, rehabilitate, bandage, quake, worry, read the Psalms (ten at a time per David Brazil), think of Jack (Frost, then Spicer: How / Motherfucker can I sing a sad song / When I remember Zion?), and amount to a tower, rather, heap, of bones, aspiration, and genitals getting in the way when pedaling or designing angelic meditations in the slop of my habitat.
The date Francis receives the stigmata is September 14, 1224 in La Verna, Italy. Two months earlier, he brings a few minor friars—Brothers Leo, Masseo, Angelo, and Illuminato—to a hermitage there to fast and pray. Francis is saddened upon news that the holy emperor has decided to launch a new attack of Crusaders upon the Arabs at Damietta, including the sultan Francis befriended over several days of spiritual discourse five years earlier. It is while considering his Muslim friends in danger and the loosening of rules within his expanding order—through weeks of fasting and meditation—that a fiery vision kindles itself within the heart from which praise lifted. The vision is later spoken by the friars to be a man with six wings—two above the head, two stretched forth in flight, two veiling the entire body—nailed to a cross, seraphic and passive. Stilled beneath the vision, the founding friar rejoices and sorrows. The five injuries depicted in icons—one through each hand and foot, and a gash in the side—of this pretty harsh bashing, or zapping, are explained by hagiographers as occurring the other way around: they describe a wounding from inside on out stoked by full-hearted devotional imitation of Christ’s Passion. The friar spends the next two years, the last of his life, concealing and bandaging his open wounds as conversation with God—a servitude that began the moment of his conversion to the helpless and penniless holy fool and shaggy mess barely standing within the filth of his loving fervor. That is, he arrived to reveal a kind of grandeur.
To open an inquiry, I suggest that the damage put on me be expelled along my body’s surface by a salvific quiet (yet I’m not able to surrender the option of bashing back should I weaken). Monks are marginalized to offset the sins of the populace. I have been set apart even on my way to the billiards. That it could inhumanly belong to me and so absent me— The divinity behind Francis’s metamorphosis into a repository for violence is irrelevant to his human/insect/animal revolt and rigorous demonstrations of a meekness with which some of us naturally proceed. I want the sissies to be delivered into a benevolent humiliation, or swoon, affirming a dizzying necessity to look back elsewhere. This is how somebody attained recognition as a sanctuary for the world and the violence done to him. He was quite aware of what he was going through.
Cantico del Sole
let through praise while cycling
—a hill or shop to match you—
the shining bay
the foggy gray
beneath all names and phrases
let through praise while working
—a bird or book to watch you—
the formal sun
the queerer ones
lifting their heads to face you
let through praise while flirting
—a storm or song to patch you—
the iced-down bruise
the new black shoes
and all the things that make you
let praise through earthly city
—a sibling glad to catch us—
the blameless meek
the faceless deep
please mind your house and graces
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