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Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections [29 August, 2007]

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By Samuel R.  Delany; Carroll & Graf, 320 pages

Dark Reflections is Samuel Delany’s richly comic and extraordinarily multilayered book centered around Arnold Hawley, a gay African-American poet living in New York.  It’s an effortlessly experimental novel that moves back and forth between time periods, but with none of the labored cuteness present in what often passes for “experimental.”  Hawley’s poetry has the respect of his peers but isn’t sexy enough for a publishing world that demands newness and flash in a rapidly waning genre.

Hawley is asked to judge the work of a younger colleague whose poetry consists of a set of cards in a box, each printed with words like IN, LOVELY or BLUE.  The point of what the publisher calls a revolutionary work is to turn the reader into a writer, someone who puts the cards together to make her own poem.  Hawley recognizes this latest version of fridge magnet poetry for what it is, an “absurd bit of poppycock.”  Dark Reflectionsconcerns several things at once: the contemporary publishing world, the state of today’s poets (and perhaps poetry itself), the blight of political correctness and the twisted labor practices of academia.

It’s Hawley’s shambling, shuffling and often inept figure that prevents the novel from becoming didactic.  While waiting for the subway one evening, Hawley gets a whiff of pee and wonders, with some panic, if he might be the source.  Suffering from bladder problems, he has been occasionally piddling onto his aging cashmere coat.  Dry-cleaning it would be a financial burden.  This is not the book to read if you are an aspiring writer with hopes of a quick million-dollar contract.

Hawley lives in fear of losing his meager livelihood and becoming homeless.  He constantly seeks to reassure himself that he belongs to what he imagines is the world that produces literature and culture: he haunts the local bookstore even though he can never afford to buy anything; he attempts conversations with fellow poets and publishers, and usually loses respect for them over the course of an evening; he stores volumes of his work on bookshelves in his crammed apartment: “Because of these I am alive.”  He tries to ensure his own posterity by dating photographs of himself as if they were of someone else, of a poet whose successful life was being recorded for a biography, “the poet Arnold Hawley, age 18.”

Despite his fierce fidelity to his work, Hawley is a timid man.  One day, he literally runs away from two men who seem to be part of an elaborate blackmail scheme involving scores of male nude photographs.  Years later, in what forms the shattering conclusion to the novel, Arnold Hawley walks into his favorite gay bookstore and is confronted with this incident from his past.  His memory of that time is now a cultural artifact.

I write cryptically of this incident because I don’t wish to give the ending away.  Let me add this: the ending is not a mere ending but a revelation that comes at the conclusion of this bloody brilliant book.  Let me also add this, equally cryptically: attention must be paid to a set of teeth.  Dark Reflectionswill be read by many as a celebration of gay life and bodies and sex and history, about the beauty of porn and the triumph of art over adversity.  It is about none of that.  In all the descriptions of cocks—flaccid, hard and somewhere in between—it’s easy to miss, as Hawley so frequently does, the proximity of art to inequality.  What we fetishize as art and culture is usually lost in the smell of piss and shit, until it’s packaged and sold to us in the shape of a coffee-table book.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 29 August, 2009

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