The Way We Love Now: Wayne Koestenbaum
This panel’s title pays oblique homage to the late Susan Sontag, whose 1986 short story “The Way We Live Now” itself honored Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now. “Now” is always a seductive concept, and it is always shifting. Love, too, is what semioticians might call “a shifter,” a pivot term—empty, unstable, and meaningless, subject to contextual tides of history, temperament, and locale. Sontag’s story showed how AIDS tore holes in our speech, introduced circumlocutions. To be polite, to be linguistically mild mannered, she suggested, was to substitute the placebo of bad faith for the brutal elixir of truth telling. This is the love panel. This is the sex panel. And this, perforce, is the perversity panel. Doesn’t the word “love” always bring wrongness, errancy, and deviation into play?
To salute perversity I’ll read two brief poems by Sontag’s contemporaries Adrienne Rich and Frank O’Hara, North Americans who wrote straightforwardly, which, in their cases, means queerly, about ardor’s incommunicability and whose candor about erotic disobedience preceded this country’s reactionary turn away from free speech and free love. Here is “Poem XIX” from Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems of 1976:
Can it be growing colder when I begin
to touch myself again, adhesions pull away?
When slowly the naked face turns from staring backward
and looks into the present,
the eye of winter, city, anger, poverty, and death
and the lips part and say: I mean to go on living?
Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream
or in this poem, There are no miracles?
(I told you from the first I wanted daily life,
this island of Manhattan was island enough for me.)
If I could let you know—
two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work
heroic in its ordinariness,
the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch
where the fiercest attention becomes routine
—look at the faces of those who have chosen it.
And here is Frank O’Hara’s poem “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming,” an acrostic for his lover Vincent Warren, written August 11, 1959:
Vaguely I hear the purple roar of the torn-down Third Avenue El
it sways slightly but firmly like a hand or a golden-downed thigh
normally I don’t think of sounds as colored unless I’m feeling corrupt
concrete Rimbaud obscurity of emotion which is simple and very definite
even lasting, yes it may be that dark and purifying wave, the death of boredom
nearing the heights themselves may destroy you in the pure air
to be further complicated, confused, empty but refilling, exposed to light
With the past falling away as an acceleration of nerves thundering and shaking
aims its aggregating force like the Métro towards a realm of encircling travel
rending the sound of adventure and becoming ultimately local and intimate
repeating the phrases of an old romance which is constantly renewed by the
endless originality of human loss the air the stumbling quiet of breathing
newly the heavens’ stars all out we are all for the captured time of our being