Queer Intimacy, Queer Art: Impressions from James Lowell Brunton's "Opera on TV"
Recently, I have been reading personal accounts of men who sought after HIV from one another, what is often called 'bugchasing' and 'giftgiving', with the virus being the gift or bug. In Michael Graydon's study of this desire (looking at multiple forums dedicated to bugchasing), most who seek HIV are hoping to "attain a new state of being that transforms identity, social roles and relationships" (281). For those looked at by Graydon, HIV, through its cultural associations with queer communities, seems to support queer identification and solidarity, while at the same time reinforcing cultural schema that are comfortable to some gay men (e.g., men who penetrate and share HIV are masculine, while those who are penetrated and receive the virus are feminine). In one particularly forceful message posted in a bugchasing/giftgiving community, one man wrote, "I admit I am shy to take my death fuck, but fuck man, I need to feel more like a gay man" (290).
In reading these personal accounts, I am left to question the cultural phenomena which created, and continue to create, such deep-seated self-hatred and negativity within many queer people. At the same time, I question how life-affirming queer politics in the face of so much loss can be created and maintained. Authors like Lee Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz have presented competing perspectives on maintaining queer life in spaces of social death, questions extending to the relative value of optimism and hope, and whether these are valid strategies to mediate queer life. In the face of so much pain, and in the face of so much internal disagreement, it is especially important to amplify first-hand accounts of people maintaining social life in anti-queer spaces and times.
One such author, Dr. James Brunton (a UNL alum, instructor, and former writer for Watershed), offers an important and unique perspective that should be investigated. This year, Brunton published Opera on TV through The Operating System, a book of poetry working at the edge of form where poems go from blocks of prose to itemized lists, from recreated transcripts to traditional lines and stanzas. Readers are met with questions through this playing with form, including what it means to be a poem -- and if these different forms of embodying poetry can also "be" "poems", what does that say about poets? Readers are also asked: what does it mean to be queer, and how can queer life be expressed?
What struck me most were the ways that queerness is embodied in these poems. In an interview about this collection, Brunton said that these poems are written in ways "that aren't designed to explain queerness to straight people, which I'm fine with". Throughout, I am left with the impression of Brunton trying to find ways to affirm life at the margins, both personally and professionally, in a world that is often hostile to subjectivities understood as queer. Through my own reading of this work, I will explore some of my first thoughts and their relevance to life in these spaces.
I will turn my focus first to "What Art is Left" (13, also in the link provided), which is a poem of 9 lines and 5 stanzas. Structurally, the poem is written mostly in pairs of lines, while the final line is alone. The first two lines are self-contained sentences, but quickly sentences cut across lines, and then stanzas. Punctuation is not necessary for the first two lines since they are apparently self-contained, but as we move through the poem, its absence is highlighted and meets the reader with force (“our // American cars our woods our drab / fluorescence"). As we end the poem, the narrator both asks and answers the question of "What art is left but these // devotions none beyond reproach".
In a world rife with alienation, where people must hold their breath in the darkness of the drab fluorescence of their jobs, where enemies are those things which are not able to sing (as I understood this line, not able to communicate in a way that is true), how can queer people affirm themselves? How can queer people find art and beauty in the banality and pain? For the narrator in this poem, it appears as though dissolution is the answer to many of these questions -- of the workplace, of the capitalist desire toward the accumulation of material goods, of externally-imposed structure.
Just as the rigid form of the poem dissolves away (with twin lines fading to single ones, with single-line sentences literally overflowing the boundaries, with traditional grammatical rules being thrown aside in favor of fluidity), Brunton appears to suggest that the material conditions we encounter should also dissolve away. After all, beyond "these devotions" -- as I saw them, the image of the narrator's love, described as a "hungry animal afield" "with thorns in her hair" -- there exists nothing, and especially no art, left "beyond reproach". That is, any art or meaning which is not personally affirming and focused on intimate self-narrative is not beyond reproach, and is not truly art -- or, at least, not art in the same way that love can be artful. Our cultural focus on consumption, production, and rigid structure is life-denying, rather than life-affirming, which can be sensed through the list of items Brunton investigates.
In these ways, Brunton's "What Art is Left" suggests to queer readers that it is possible to find beauty in this world. At the same time, though, that beauty cannot be derived from the normative values which are placed on those who navigate anti-queer social systems. I am reminded of J. Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure, which deals with "queer failure", or the rejection of, playing with, and trivialization of these values. They write:
“Failure, of course, goes hand in hand with capitalism. A market economy must have winners and losers, gamblers and risk takers, con men and dupes [...] The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.” (88)
For the narrator in Brunton's poem, their focus on the apparently trivial (thorns in the hair of a lover, for example) over the acquisition of property and performing labor suggests that they are embodying the queer art of failure: in losing or foregoing "our // American cars our woods our drab / fluorescence" in favor of "my love", the narrator imagines a new goal for life and for being. This new idea of life and being critically undoes the life-denying expectations that are placed on queer people and allows for a new form of personal embodiment. This embodiment is the only kind of art that is then "beyond reproach" in this poem -- suggesting to the reader that failing queerly may be a way to affirm themselves in a world of so much denial.
There is also an element of ambiguity that is important to take note of. In the third line, Brunton writes: "And from this music". Since we later learn that there is no punctuation through the poem, there are a few ways that this line could be read. Two of them are as follows: that the lover is music (interpreting the line as having no punctuation), or the lover generates music (interpreting the line as "And from this, music"). In either case, there is a clear sense that the lover is generative of art and is important to the narrator in a way that capitalist production is not -- suggesting more generally that finding love is the only art beyond reproach. But if the former interpretation is the one that most readers take, then we are left with an understanding that the very existence of queer people is artistic -- that in the face of such overbearing repression, queerness in itself is something to acknowledge as artistic and subversive. This is a particularly life-affirming position to take, and for the queer readers of Brunton's poetry, they are left with an impression of optimism and courage.
But if the latter interpretation is what most readers take, then we are left with the impression that love generates art but is not art in itself. That there is power innate to queer love, only able to be harnessed when recognized and used for self-affirmation. After all, Brunton's narrator has to confront the question of "What is an enemy / but that which does not sing". Similarly, what is an enemy, but that which cannot recognize itself? Readers, if they have this interpretation of Brunton's hidden punctuation, must grapple with recognizing desire in their own lives, and move toward art and music over the norms that work to eradicate difference.
Regardless of a specific interpretation in these lines, Brunton's "What Art is Left" is a poem that offers a thoughtful exploration of structure and desire, failure and value. For many of the bugchasing men investigated by Graydon, the possibility of seeing love and intimacy as art is a difficult question to grapple with. Through Brunton’s toying with structure in the same way that queer people toy with regimes of control and homogenization -- just as sentences literally overflow the boundaries we expect them to stay within, queer people exceed boundaries imposed upon them -- he provides a new way to understand queer intimacy. This intimacy, though different in many ways from the bugchasers, largely seeks the same goal -- to navigate desire, to find a way to live in a world set up in opposition to queer embodiment, and find an authentic sense of self. Through this, I recognize Brunton's claim of writing in ways "that aren't designed to explain queerness to straight people" through the conscious decisions made in this poem. Through this writing, he puts pressure on queer readers to self-determine their sense of self, just as the narrator of “What Art Is Left” must.
Later in Brunton’s book is "Iowa", a prose poem dealing with the possibility of queer life in a time and place of so much penalty and reduction (54). Brunton notes that queerness is often "reduced to legality or love" in debates of inclusion and representation, even though these are but two small parts of what constitutes queer identity, much less the larger question of humanity. Although these are important elements which complicate identity, the reduction of queer life to only these questions erases the richness of queer identity and expression. For those who do not love, are they not 'at the table' in these discussions? When the love runs dry and the law is silent, where do we turn? Brunton asks these questions, allowing the reader to confront them at the same time. Additionally, Brunton asks the reader to explore the inherent contradictions that live within the law.
Since "Periodically we exist on the verge of legality", the reader understands that the law is not a neutral, objective arbiter of morality. In many states, such as Iowa, the status of laws which criminalize marriage between same-sex couples has changed "periodically". Similarly, here in Nebraska, the story of queer acceptance within the law is complicated. The story goes like this: in November 2000, voters approved a ballot referendum which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In 2005, this referendum was struck down by a District Court Judge; on appeal in 2006, the Eighth Circuit overturned the 2005 decision. The people who were impacted by this string of decisions were pushed first to the periphery of the law, then included only in name, then excluded once again -- these periods of allowing queer life to exist at the margins soon faded, replaced by something sinister in its wake.
There is also an important sense of place within this poem, with the expanding hills of Iowa compared to the importance of people. "Romantically one wants to matter as matter the rolling hills of Iowa. [...] As hills matter so does one to another and possibly more." Even though these hills are mired by exclusion and carcerality, Brunton suggests that queer life is still possible. It is possible to "Habitually [...] eat oats around a table" in this space, where "it will suffice to love the table periodically". Brunton paints the setting of Iowa as able to maintain life -- even the life that is pushed to the periphery -- through persistence. In spite of the periodic exclusion of people from these legal institutions, the table stands there, the narrator is able to eat oats and love the table, is able to occupy the same space as the hills, and to love and be loved just as the hills are.
"Iowa" depicts the ability for queer life to be maintained, even in places which are hostile to it. Readers are left with a life-affirming ethical commitment by Brunton through this poem, in much the same way that "What Art is Left" affirms new forms of embodiment and art. Rather than falling into the same trap as many authors, Brunton represents Iowa and rural communities on the plains as possible. There is a reimagination of what life could look like in these places, while also respecting the material realities which color life here.
There is a persistent negativity in the narratives of so many bugchasing men. For example, one writes, "I'm fuckin' aching to get popped in the ass with that 1st poz load ... finally have the release I've been looking for ... to be the fuckin' pig I am" (286). Brunton's work, however, presents a strong alternative perspective to the negativity that so many queer men voiced, and continue to voice. It does not trivialize or mitigate the feelings of exclusion or impossibility that they face -- but instead, suggests that their approaches are misguided. This poetry recognizes the ways that queer life is marginalized, in the same way that many bugchasing men understand themselves to be pushed at the margins of their own lives, while at the same time proclaiming proudly that queer life is possible, even in spite of this marginalization.
As I read these narratives, I recognize just how much queer-identifying people would learn from Brunton's work. It is an important perspective in the larger discussions we have about survival strategies and spaces of affirmation, catering to more than just the law and love. It presents a strong counterpoint to the often highly negative and life-denying narratives of bugchasing men, which serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of queer possibility and embodiment.
Graydon, Michael. “Don't Bother to Wrap It: Online Giftgiver and Bugchaser Newsgroups, the Social Impact of Gift Exchanges and the 'Carnivalesque'.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 3, 2007, pp. 277–292. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20460930.