Reviewed May 11, 2012 by Patrick James Dunagan.
Shortly into the reading at City Lights Bookstore celebrating the publication of Advice for Lovers, Julian Talamantez Brolaski said “I won’t be reading any of the naughty ones…” Immediately, without intending to interrupt or otherwise disturb, but admittedly not giving it any thought, I piped up from the stairs, “Oh, but you should. Those ones are really wonderful and good!” Truly, these poems—all those in the book—are great, the naughtiest ones just happen to also rank among the most superbly supple display of an embrace of lyric language to be found in the work of any contemporary younger poet. Brolaski’s gifted play of alliteration and syllabic deft shines with this collection. The power is immediate and raw. Without any time wasted, the territories and range of poetry covered and referenced by this collection are clearly staked out. Here are a few lines from the book’s second poem:
Amidst such lines, brazenly tossing out the unabashed gauntlet, Brolaski questions “Why be chaste upon the ponderous page?” This poetry embraces lyric whimsy with the crushing one-upmanship of a seductive eroticism wholly its own, unmatched in contemporary spheres.
One of the editors of NO GENDER: reflections on the Life & Work of kari edwards, the rigidity of received gender categories is of central concern to Brolaski’s own life. And somewhat surprisingly, given the undeniably sexual flair of these poems, to a fair extent Brolaski successfully slips free from this categorization. . In a Q&A I had the pleasure of conducting over email with the City Lights Spotlight series editor Garrett Caples last year (here), he explained that, “Julian’s a third-gender poet who’s coined a set of pronouns and possessives for third-gender reference: ‘xe’ [zi] for subject; ‘xem’ for object; ‘xir/xirs’ for possessives; and ‘xemself for reflectives.’” Brolaski self-identifies by way of a denial of traditional gender descriptors, utilizing a new set of terms with which to identify the sexualized other. Here are several representative lines from midway into “THE WHEEL OF SHEEP”:
A macho, lusty Bravado zings its way elsewhere throughout the book:
That infamously ever-sexualized accessory, the garter, makes frequent appearances in these poems, from “Sheep undoing the garter / Sheep essaying their shears for barter” to the closing lines of “DEEP IMAGE: TO VENUS”:
So, too, the directive to “fuck harder” appears multiple times as a favored refrain: “When they do buck and bray in sensate ardor / Bottoming out the sea, fond sailor, fuck them harder.” And: “I’d slash my braids upon the mart to barter / If only you’d come home and fuck me harder.” The two are seamlessly weaved in a mirrored resonant playfulness within the closing of “FUCK ME HARDER”:
Occasionally, Brolaski’s similes are reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s lyrics; they get a bit too easy: “Your lips are like tulips your teeth are like doves.” However, only a few lines later springs out the strongly assertive: “Your ass is like a cut pomegranate / Exposing its berry fruit. I can’t fit / My fist inside your rosebud Indeed the sex is so vibrantly attractive and alive in the music of these poems that the Biblical Song of Songs offers a proper comparative feeling for the erotic transcendence lifting the work from smut into art.
The second section of the book, coming after Advice for Lovers, is titled Nudisms and opens with the poem “INVOCATION TO JACK SPICER: SIMILIA SIMILIBUS CURANTUR.” Here, Brolaski asks the now uselessly yet nonetheless lovingly concerned question of the dead poet: “Jack, can’t you see how sad songs / help when you’re sad?” Clearly, Spicer, who from all accounts died of alcoholism at forty feeling unloved, did not get much help from any “sad songs.” While Spicer could tell his imaginary Billy the Kid-figure that “There’s honey in the groin, Billy,” his love poetry was always destined to be lament and never joyous. In too many ways, Spicer’s poetry is a record of his living self-burial within language itself. Spicer quite literally died due to his vocabulary, as Robin Blaser’s now infamous relating of his last words vividly claims. Brolaski is not having any of such nonsense.
These poems strongly evince a refusal to be so destroyed by language, which for Brolaski remains nothing more than an ever-adaptable tool expertly handled. There’s no concession of power to readers, either. Just as Ricky Martin is quoted (in “RICKY MARTIN ON HOMOSEXUALITY”) as saying “You can put my poster on the wall and think of it however you want,” so too Brolaski willingly and knowingly offers poems without concern for how they’re received. Whatever readers may do, Brolaski’s already hit the intended high marks and moved on. The effectiveness of these poems is never limiting or limited by language. Rather, Brolaski language-use is radicalized in a poetic restructuring of sexuality. These poems are meant to be transformative, accessible, even utilitarian; in fact, many times they declare the need for an attentive response, as in “OPEN LETTER FROM THE LIBERTINE”:
The good times do roll. Exuberant celebration of sex is everywhere. Brolaski’s teasing authority spins role-playing on its head for both laughs and arousals. Here are the opening lines of “HATERZ GOSSIP”:
With both an MFA from Mills College in Oakland and a nearly finished PhD from Berkeley, Brolaski has the academic chops to pull off a resolutely joyous turn to scanned, rhythmic verse while embracing a colloquialism of “the streets” that deploys slang as deftly as it invents it.
Brolaski achieves endless delight and surprise with reoccurring rhymes and off-rhymes calling out to each other across pages. At times, lines reappear altered slightly, occasionally their near exact beats, words, and phrases are repeated, mirroring in form the storehouse of randy encounters from out of which they gather memories of pleasure to bulk up their content. These poems don’t back away from speaking of things as they are, lowering inhibitions while simultaneously raising the bar on how skillfully poets might embrace and enact an erotics.
Many young poets demonstrate a blind spot when it comes to embracing the past; often anything beyond the English Romantics (let alone the 20th century or the last couple decades) remains as if in a locked box to which they have no key. In contrast, Brolaski engages everything from the Latin poets of antiquity, to 16th and 17th century versifiers, treating such poetry not as historical artifact but as an utterly contemporary competitor for the affection of lovers.
The stylized writing in Advice for Lovers leaps from off the page with a rarified finesse. Brolaski adopts a modeled tone so distinctly and completely unique, so purposely unfashionable in its daring and erudite deportment that it will leave readers reeling. This poetry doesn’t look for or expect an audience as much as demand the existence of one. Those so heartless as to turn away from this work have not an iota’s worth of the pounding muscle in the chest which Brolaski has relentlessly relied upon in the writing. Quite fittingly this book is not for haters, after all, but for the lovers whom the poems address. Best learn this advice, my dears, and never refuse so true a heart’s measure.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is "There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk": A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011).