Actors like to say that comedy is much more difficult to pull off than tragedy. Similarly, writing profoundly about seemingly weightless subjects and superficial people (at least on the surface) presents more of a challenge than academic subjects.
That’s why Walter Holland is to be commended for the mostly excellent collection Circuit. As the title implies, many of his poems are meditations on the gay dance party scene. I suspect that Holland named his book Circuit as opposed to "The Circuit" for the broader implications of the former: circuit as a conduit of energy; circular movement; athletic exercises.
All of these are present here. Holland looks at the sea of men at Fire Island Pines’ famous Tea parties as "would-be movie stars desirous of a scene to steal." Of "To the Boys Who Dance in August," he writes, "under/the harbor’s sky, these matadors of music/and mayhem charge their bull-like bodies sleek along the paths."
My favorite poem, the same as the collection’s title, is a small gem of an observation of a hot man who knows all eyes are on him. He is on Fire Island, at the end of the evening (morning, really) when "these nomads of a migratory nation/dance on, hard of body--fight this very temptation of sleep--long for world spun on Ecstasy and song."
It reminded me of Malone, the doomed golden boy who was the hero of what remains the greatest novel by far about gay men who work out and dance, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance.
The difference is that Holleran’s elegiac novel came out in 1978, and Holland is writing post-AIDS. A very different landscape, reflected in a series of poems about men dead and dying in New York and San Francisco.
Where Holland is less successful is in his series subtitled "Les Deux Magots," after the famous cafe in Paris. Here he writes about the City of Lights, Proust, Rome, Lorca. While these are certainly very good poems, it takes away from the book’s grand themes of time, youth, love and health lost. For that, Fire Island, with its Persephone-like defined season of renewal and decay, presents the perfect metaphor.
In one poem, he mentions Frank O’Hara, who died on the beach in the Pines. The reference is crucial, because O’Hara was not only one of the most famous exponents of the New York School, which believed in bringing the improvisation and spontaneity of jazz to poetry, he also wrote joyously about gay pick-ups and sex (in the 1950s, no less).
Circuit can be read in one sitting, although I found myself going back to certain poems over and over again. The editor and writer David Groff compares Holland to Constantine Cavafy. Like that early 20th century master, Holland frequently uses the second person to bring the reader into the poem.
There’s also a great deal of sensuality, pleasure in the sight, sound, taste and smell of things. But above all, there is an honest appreciation of beautiful men enjoying themselves on the dance floor and in bed, while appreciating the precarious transience of good looks, youth and health.
While I have great respect for writers like David Leavitt and Tony Kushner, their high-brow milieus present only one very narrow aspect of gay culture. As I said earlier, it’s much harder to write about men crowded into Pines share houses or dancing at Circuit events like the old Morning Party -- which he nails with a few words: "the Saint-at-large--outdoors."
Holland tackles these seemingly mundane subjects and makes them beautiful and, yes, profound. I look forward-- I expect--a companion volume dealing with the Black Party, the White Party and Gay Disney.
by Walter Holland
Poems by Walter Holland
Chelsea Stations, publisher