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David Trinidad's The Late Show: Poems [11 June, 2008]

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By David Trinidad; Turtle Point Press; 109 pages

The poet David Trinidad, who grew up in the suburbs of California in the 1950s, has memories of lip gloss.  His latest collection, The Late Show: Poems, includes “Gloss of the Past,” composed entirely of the names of lip glosses, with names redolent of the spirit of their era: “Pink Dawn, Aurora Pink, Misty Pink, Fresh Pink, Natural Pink, Country/Pink, Dusty Pink, Pussywillow Pink, Pink Heather, Pink Peony…” It’s a litany of names rattled off with such verve that the reader is tempted to find narrative and progression.  Is there, for instance, an unfolding pink drama here: “ … Turn Pale Pink, A Little Pink, Pinker, Pinkety Pink”?

Trinidad, who teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College, writes about life wrapped in a culture we tend to dismiss as “popular.”  Lip gloss, face cream with names like Topaz, and Barbie have colored his imagination, as has a reverence for movie queens.  “All This, And Heaven Too” is a series of Bette Davis film titles.  “Penelope” is a poetic biopic of Natalie, an account of how her third flop in a row drove her to the brink and back, before her eventual death by drowning.  The poet is both a fan and observer, mimicking the language in which we articulate our familiarity with celebrity: part advertising lingo and part fandom: “the first few scenes, in a nutshell,/of the mid-sixties flick/About a madcap mademoiselle,/A zany light-fingered chick.”

To read The Late Show is to catch a glimpse of what’s often referred to as a “gay sensibility.”  That’s not to dismiss Trinidad as “merely” a gay poet, but to state that he enunciates gayness in ways that are more interesting than what we might find in the pages of contemporary gay literature, most of which reads like oh-so-gay sitcoms.  That might seem an odd validation for a poet who writes, after all, quite often but not exclusively, about standard gay fetishes—what’s gayer than a fondness for Bette Davis and Barbie?

But Trinidad isn’t mired in nostalgia for its own sake.  His understanding of 1960s film-fan magazine rhetoric in “Penelope” isn’t a campy recreation but a mimicry that’s undercut by the almost comic mishap that was Wood’s life.  In other words, the only way to tell the Natalie Wood story is to be the Natalie Wood story.

Trinidad grabs phrases from the zeitgeist; his use of them becomes a slightly twisted back-and-forth motion between wryness and belief.  The result provides richly textured observations and recollections.

Take for example, “A Poet’s Death,” about his friend Rachel Sherwood who died in a car crash that involved them both.  Its epigraph is, of all things, the famous line from the 1970s paean to sentimental love, Erich Segal’s Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five year-old girl who died?”

The line is repeated again, as a question about Rachel that gets answered: “That she lived on Amigo/and was my friend … And that she/once, after a speed—and scotch-fueled orgy --/straddled, rode me like a horse./Rachel, can I say this: your cunt felt coarse.”  The last line flips the Segal sentiment in its forthrightness—it’s not a question, or even a note of regret, but a marker of a friendship that continued.  In the last stanza, she shows up after her death, a “pulsating white presence, in the hallway” and then: “I’m all right,” you said, “You/don’t have to worry about me.”  The scene may challenge our belief, but it also reflects the intensity of their relationship—an intensity that’s oddly made more possible by the presence of Segal.  What can we say, after all, about relationships that are not bound by conventional notions of love but are nonetheless as intense as this, and which are denied the language of sentiment?

The Late Show is about a life recalled and retold through the language and style of cultural artifacts.  It doesn’t stoop to the level of grand commentary on our times or times past, and for that very reason it adds density and vibrancy to both gayness and poetry.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 11 June, 2008

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