Persea Books, $15.95 (paper)
To describe Randall Mann’s newest collection of poems as “timely” points toward a conflict rooted in the collection’s own preoccupations. The word’s often-corporatized synonyms—opportune, favorable, convenient—are the lexicon of the CFOs and corporate rhetoric the collection examines and critiques, even as they are the basis of the poet’s own lexical play. No stranger to irony, Mann has a feel for “timeliness” that often renders itself as a consequence or derivative of mid- to late twentieth-century pop culture, and includes references to Edmund White (“to all my tricks”), Halston, VHS porn stars, Prince, and Dragnet. Proprietary wades through a personal and collective history of queerness—as a sometimes defiant, sometimes submissive lover of materialism—in an attempt to come to terms with the Unites States’ sociopolitical present.
Early on, the poem “Black Box” maps the trajectory of the speaker’s life as a function of capitalist influence on cultural values. He reflects on his accomplishments as “someone’s honor student,” on his first job as a salad bar refresher (“scarcity a line / I couldn’t fail”), and on an internship for AT&T minority outreach—each of these experiences serving as a kind of primer for a future in corporate America: “all this prepared / me for these squat blinking / office accessories.” The selected memories of “Black Box” speak presciently to the corporate climate that Proprietary goes on to dissect, a culture where businesses sponsor programs to benefit minority populations while simultaneously perpetuating longstanding discriminatory policies, where “[c]alendar is a verb,” and where “there is a sickness that is us.”
With Proprietary, Mann further solidifies his reputation as a poet of wit and cynicism.
“Black Box” also examines the speaker’s experience with the nonconsensual publicizing of his sexuality—how “little by little, I have become / so careful,” and in doing so, cultivated a collection of “seething smiles” in response to coworkers’ passive homophobia. “I didn’t want to scare / her,” Mann writes, “But I tell you, / I’m keeping score.” This score-keeping might be an example of how the speaker has internalized corporate ideology, how even in a lament of work-life woes (perhaps most wittingly distilled as “the dry drinking / after the accidental reply-all”), where the speaker attempts to deconstruct the model that has shaped his life, he is aware he might never break free.
Yet the impulse to “break free” permeates Mann’s work, which engages with the ways queer life and behavior can be a constant negotiation with (and battle against) the internalization of heteronormative and capitalist models. At times Mann’s use of traditional poetic forms falls in line with this imperative: by simultaneously using established formal modes or mechanisms such as the sonnet or end-rhyme, Mann manipulates formal technique in a way that liberates its content. Whether it is an abecedarian elegy for Prince, a leather-drag sestina, or a sonnet series with references from Henry James to Old Navy loungewear to the AIDS “Casserole Brigade for Hairdressers,” Mann’s range within confined poetic space displays a curatorial expertise designed to upend our expectations of both formalism and normativity.
In “Order,” a breathtaking palindrome and postmodern pastoral, Mann laments the rift between a “normal” father and his non-normal son. During the course of a trip to the computing center where the father works, the speaker grapples with “the sound of order; / the space between us.” While the father’s affinity for “punched cards / program decks and subroutines / assembly languages / and key punch machines” is not explicitly juxtaposed with the speaker’s affinities (though we have begun to understand what they are or might be), Mann’s tone and use of the palindrome’s point of reversal provide the reader what they need to know: “For years, / the space between us, / the sound of order / next to a mainframe.” In the shadow of a mammoth machine designed to organize and disseminate information, the collection’s larger preoccupations manifest through this familial interaction, suggesting the way normative society functions as a kind of measuring stick, or system of order, against whose shadow we gauge our status and worth.
In “Order” one can also begin to see Mann toying with the concept and language of property. A “Monte Carlo Landau / not technically ours” transports the pair to the father’s place of employment; however, in the latter half of the palindrome, it is the landscape that is neither owned nor ownable: “Something / orange-brown and dull yellow / had settled . . . the color // not technically ours.” The concepts of buying, renting, and owning are woven throughout the collection. In particular the speaker has a preoccupation with temporary possession—a rented car in “Order,” a rented escort in “Fashion,” a rented VHS in “Leo and Lance”—a fixation that suggests the speaker’s complex and mutating conception of property, of what can be owned and owed.
This shifting concept of ownership colors “Leo and Lance,” where Mann surveys queer shame and identity: “In an / elaborate bid / to convince // myself and the clerk / I was bisexual, / I bought a bisexual // video / that I can’t recall.” Here, the speaker attempts to use purchasing power to establish a particular social identity. The speaker buys the video Leo & Lance using his entire allowance, and the meditation that follows exposes the nuanced power of desire. The poem segues into an abridged historical biography of the film’s actors, Leo John Hilgeford and David Alan Reis. Both men were midwestern transplants to California, and both, at one point, were hustlers. We learn that these men died weeks apart in 1991, and my immediate reaction, as I imagine will be the response of many, is resignation. Lance died of AIDS complications, the profession on his death certificate listed as “model of clothing”; Leo died in a motorcycle accident. But the poem’s strongest moments are in Mann’s commentary on the truth: “A tree in India— // IMDB again, / as if the truth matters— / was planted in his name.”
Here, Mann irreverently declares the truth’s insignificance (at least to the mainstream) while simultaneously illuminating, by way of the truth, Leo and Lance’s realities (or fatalities), as well as the way they have been distorted by time and public scrutiny. In doing so, Mann also sheds light on the cycle of queer shame: the shame the speaker first felt walking into the store to buy Leo & Lance is perpetuated by the insistence of a society eager to wash him (and them) clean of their “dirty” professions, obsessions, and desires. The media, with its capacity to choose what truths to express or neglect and then curate those truths—the media who decided Lance’s death certificate didn’t matter, but Leo’s memorial tree in India did—serves here as the proprietor of cultural normalcy, conferring the “proprietary” power of the book’s title.
To this end of illuminating the power in reclamation of facts and language, the collection also utilizes queer slang, for instance in “Realtor,” where the terms “House in Vermont,” and “high-five,” are used as code for HIV (“I never meant / to live in euphemism”), codes which were shame-based for many, but fear-based for all. Mann recounts memories of lovers and addicts alike, and in “Etiquette,” a succinct and heart-wrenching lyric, he summarizes an important transactional history on which the collection draws:
We had no latex love to give
in blighted, half-remembered scenes:
to hollow boys in acid jeans
who asked to lose their will to live.
Mann’s interrogation of shame in Proprietary is not limited to sexual shame. “Proximity measures shame,” Mann writes of an elevator encounter with executives, where “this one’s chatty, that one’s gravely engrossed / in his cloud.” Later, the speaker resolves to move outdoors: “Leafy trees grow a short walk from Building 5. / Take a walk. It might be nice to lie and watch the smoky / marrow rise and fall, and rise. Don’t close your eyes.” It becomes clear the proximal shame is not bound within the building’s corporate structure, but extends to the external consequences of their affairs.
Moreover, Mann often conflates the language of business and the language of sex, as in “Clinical Hold,” where he wields a corporatist lexicon with formal grace and skill:
park paints dotted-
for sport. Before
it gets old,
there’s a re-org.
I know a cloud
keeps a log
of every load,
Here, systems of order and desire play out against a corporate American backdrop. “Associations / are seductive and global,” Mann writes in “Perspective,” and later, “I have options: / undercut what I say // as soon as I say it, / or look you dead // in the face, / a parody of sincerity.” Mann is invested in the way we use language to communicate desire—both internally and externally, to ourselves and to others. Appropriately, the next level of this contemplation negotiates the costs and consequences of these exchanges—a kind of relational checks-and-balances or profit–loss report. “Fashion” enters “The age of paper,” wherein “sex is mathematics,” and where “a business-class-lounge / lizard”—a former lover of the speaker—squeezes “the life out of everything / he had been given, or not given / like a cock ring.” There seems to be both admiration and resentment toward this character throughout the poem—a kind of respect for the severity of his lifestyle, but a disappointment in its ultimate performativity. The collection’s core preoccupations trace back to exactly this conflict—to what extent do we engage and embrace our consumptive desire, what are its limits, and to what extent can something ever truly be ours.
Mann closes the collection with the poem “I Resign,” which re-plants us firmly in the tumultuous soil of the present-day by way of the past. “All the reports are of drought // and hate fucks,” Mann writes. “Fact is, / one day you’re watching // the submarine races, the next, / duct-taped in the boiler room // of love, all uniform / role-play. So much // ordinary suffering.” As he has done throughout the collection, Mann paints a picture of the current landscape. And while seemingly dismal, it is often followed by a kind of nostalgia—not one that is so much rooted in a return to the past, but one that looks to the past for renewal. “We didn’t feed ourselves / much less the world,” he writes, “But we had fun. There’s a chance / we can have fun again.” And precisely this notion of fun—something rooted in the personal, and thus as allowably normative or non-normative as the individual’s desire—seems within the control, or grasp, of our speaker. It is, perhaps, even something over which we might all claim true ownership.
With Proprietary, Mann further solidifies his reputation as a poet of wit and cynicism. Having always had the ability to guide us through the dark depths of sex and culture, this time he does so with a more vigorous critique of corporate strategies of suppression and social models shaming. From the board room to the back room, Mann dissects how we use language and negotiate our desire against the backdrop of the United States’ corporate and material culture, while simultaneously reminding us not to lose sight of how that culture, or subsets of that culture, have shaped our understanding of ourselves. Here, Mann asks us to resist as we have resisted before, while also finding time for joy, engaging with the depth of our desire, but with self-awareness of its power. Proprietary is an important addition to Mann’s already impressive oeuvre—a collection as sharp as a straight razor, but more tactile and visceral, its edge against skin and blood in its wake.