This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Brian Blanchfield features a poem by Christopher Nealon. About Nealon’s work, Blanchfield writes: “It’s an honor to share the latest, the eighth by my count, of these longish, idiosyncratic, sharply conscious, polyhedral essay-poems that Chris Nealon has been writing for the last few years. (The first five constitute the entirety of one of the standout poetry collections of the century so far, Heteronomy, published in 2014.) The breakthrough I feel in the form is that they are built, fitted, no less than, say, Pound’s ideogrammatic Cantos are, but they are also fluid, drawn forward with ‘graceful carriage,’ continuous, developing. Like his others, this poem is an instrument for thinking, about sexuality, about interiority, about difference, about solidarity. I mean, you can use it, to think. That doesn’t preclude Chris Nealon himself from thinking in it, even—characteristically—reading in it; in one passage here we overhear the attentive critic weigh the words in an Oppen poem that remarks how Keats and Shelley’s bedrooms seem sized for boys. The nascent analysis of Oppen’s choices forms another facet on Nealon’s shape. He reminds us everywhere of his work at the poem, unwilling to sucker a reader ‘under a spell,’ wary of the ahistorical lyric, keeping us dry of a certain soak. Yet for that reason, and because he’s good, by the end I feel suffused with something, something like trust.”


You Surround Me

Let’s say you have a sexual fantasy that makes you feel like a man.

Say it makes the chi run down your body in separate streams until it crosses at the groin –
          become a V – become an X –

Shyly at first along the distal extremes then rushing past itself in heedlessness half joy and half

Reverb: music of the spheres as you approach your VO2MAX

After-image: uncrossed wires giving scorched and vivid outline to your body 

          So now you feel like a man

But what on earth is a man?

A little bit cis  / a little bit trans

          Alpine terms for matters subterranean –

Transpadania / Cispdania – French then briefly Austrian in the spring of 1799 –

          Napoleon was really trying everything in the run-up to Empire

Then the indeterminate polity for which there was no better name than “League” –

          The League of God’s House / League of the Ten Jurisdictions 

                                       Oh hell, the Bishopric of Chur–

Of course this is the internet talking

But it’s also my body  

          Cadence is my body talking

And you – how you confuse me with your rolling gait – 

Crossing leagues to reach you on the other side of the room –

The knot in your body you call desire is not the truth, it’s a commitment – made unheeding,
          made too early –

          And even when it’s phallic it’s defensive

          It loosens shyly in arousal then re-tightens

Tuning in to graceful carriage always makes me feel bisexual –

                            A little mystical –

Then I crash to earth 

You can only have sex with men, but it’s not like homotopia is patriarchy-free

You can just have sex with white boys, but, mm, that’s sort of the problem

There’s a dialog I tumble into during orgasm, it goes 

          What do you know about people’s souls?

          Hardly anything 

Standing over the little bed where Keats died – thinking of that Oppen poem —

                            “A friend saw the rooms
                            Of Keats and Shelley
                            At the lake, and saw ‘they were just
                            Boys’ rooms’ and was moved
                            By that … ”

Keats’s senses – they surrounded him – world-suffused and bursting – full of breezes  

          And next in fullness to the dark – 

Like he felt he had to be hollow to take in the world  

          Later in my own bed –

Open window – gibbous moon – the pulse of jasmine and the evening cries of seagulls –

And another scent beneath it all – the half-life scent construction leaves – ceramic tile and
          cedar planks and fabric and lacquer –

The scent I bet makes natives miss it when they travel, though they never sense it when they’re
          home – 

          The deciduous wave that hit me in Ithaca

          Or the scent I came to know in Barcelona, pervading everything,
              down to birdsong –


Salt that opens deep interiors – 

          A depth like “quiet breathing” that means, not volumetric but suffusing –

          And your spirographic movement through it – 

That surround – not what they call Switzerland, not what they call Rome –

That was where he lived

And who are you?

          You’re every boy I ever –

No … you’re more than that – you’re Michael Tolliver in 1975, telling Mary Ann he fell in love
          three times today on the bus ride home –

          You’re Mary Ann –

Or – I don’t know – I’m just not sure how wide my soul can go – I can’t be Whitman –

          Though maybe from another angle –

I can’t see vistas but I sense interstices –


To feel surrounded – to be shot through – 

Freud called it paranoia: fear that all the labor of the making of your unitary body could be

Undone by the river of desire – “river” here in general meaning homosexuality – 

          That was 1922 

By 1968 Guy Hocquenghem is having none of it – homosexuals aren’t paranoid, queerness is
          relief from paranoia – from the fear of not being normal, 

          It’s waving not drowning,

And it prefigures the undoing of hetero and homo both– perversion universal – the end of

          That was 1968

But the jokes are still funny – “No one ever threatens to take away your anus” –

And it does still feel like he got something right – 

Male paranoia as a problem for us all

I forget how easy it is to spot me

Traipsing by the slightly drunken Sunday morning park bench cowboys with a quart of berries
          and my head in the clouds –

“Hey man, how was the market?”

          It was good – we share some berries –

And as I turn to go he says, “Dude, guess what?”

I pause. “If anyone tried to shoot you I would stop them.”

One of those berries was different

Popping it absently back at home I felt myself begin to float beside the window –

          I drifted down among the alders –

Then I was clambering through brush into a complicated nest of freeway ramps

          They darkened shifting over me – Dark City, Piranesi prison – 

It reached into my guts – I dropped to my knees –

          And crouching there I vomited out a thick coagulate blood

The iron struts withdrew – before me was a broad and leveling path –

And there as though she’d been waiting was a silent, regal kari edwards –

          Effortlessly upright in a feathered silver cape, her hair swept into coils 

Meeting her gaze was like a cup of coffee – abruptly I wanted to chat –

kari! You should see the trans kids now – is it quiet there – has it really been ten years –

But she just extended her hand to pass me a cup –

          OK a chalice –

Clearly designed to suit my dream life – it hefted like an unignited lightsaber, with an ice-blue
          pulse below the rim –

But I couldn’t hold it for long – my hands were too substantial –

          It sank into my groin

& there – right where normally I can only moan –

It made an opening in me – a gate so outward-facing passing through it felt like discomposing —

And all that night the demons I had thought were only ever sent to torment me – they swaddled
          me –

In silver sheets beside a high and open window –

And I slept

You wake into the heavy world

The gunman enters the club with an AR-15 of course, trailing 45 Republican Senators and the
          last round of the dead

They howl as the shooting begins – impotently urging dancers under tables, toward the exits –
          reaching for the falling bodies they can’t touch –

          Then they’re gone

Your demons slam you down into the concrete on the corner of 26th and Mission

          Now, they howl – 

Now your dream is over

The final stanza of that Oppen poem is interesting

He writes, “indeed a poet’s room / Is a boy’s room / And I suppose that women know it”

Then he concludes,

                                                      “Perhaps the unbeautiful banker
                                                                  Is exciting to a woman, a man
                                                                  Not a boy gasping
                                                                  For breath over a girl’s body”

So yeah poets are male 

But also: boys are beautiful

And: women don’t like boys they like men who make them feel like girls

          Also: fuck bankers

And the whole perfume of ashamed resentment, I get that

          I remember reading a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was like
               16 where a woman turns to her lover and says, “You fuck like an intellectual”
                           and thinking yeah, that’s gonna be me

But maybe most interesting – breath

I’ve always had this feeling that maybe all my sexual fantasies are really just breathing exercises

          Like you clench your body to release your diaphragm

Like you drop for a moment down into something only seemingly abyssal 

          Down into matter, flux, the green world

Down into the immaterial sponginess that makes the bankers and the poets both go unhhh

Hetero  /  Homo  //  Cis  /  Trans

Just as a matter of language?

          I’m not the same as myself

          I’m not the opposite of myself

I’m downstream from the values of some ancient warrior class that got to decide what men and
          women are

          Not that they knew they were doing it

I love that moment in Billy On The Street where the bros pounce on this cute boy
in midtown Manhattan and they’re like, “Dude: for a dollar: true or false:
masculinity is a prison”: and go apeshit high-fiving him when he smiles and
says “true!”

I crumple a little when it’s clear that the answer to the question in the article I’m
reading called “Is Masculinity a Death Cult” will quite persuasively be “yes”

I realize it’s preposterous to pit my tiny life against the tidal swells of the history of gender,

          It’s like scorning wealth –

But every day in graceful carriage I can see it all undone so easily,

If only we’d all undo it –

Moods like waves of cortisol

How they leave me feeling hidebound, autoimmune – like will I only ever desire what I desire,
          What kind of poet is that?

          I washed with the chemicals they gave me to wash with 

          I felt with the feelings I was given to feel

Remember queer theory? How we used to joke our sexuality was “graduate student”?

          I want my sexuality to be “courage”

I want that sweet reductio that pours out everything and leaves your demons agape 

          Then I’ll let them come to me, shyly in a circle

             Was it all so quick, they’ll ask, like you were never even there?

             In all that paranoia – did you ever even sense the ache of love?

Yes, I’ll say, I saw the stars dissolving at the break of day

Yes      I heard the nightbird



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