‘Begging for It’ by Alex Dimitrov
“It is this flood of living that comes.”
Alex Dimitrov’s Begging for It is filled with intensely personal, affecting, disarming poems. Dimitrov had me at pretty much the first line: “In America, I stopped to listen for God.” Four lines later, “Let the blood wet the ashes, / let the semen wet the mouth.”
America makes several appearances in this book, starting with the brief and powerful opening gambit, “Heartland.” In “Leaving for America, May 1991” and “American Youth,” the speaker recounts arriving in the U.S. as a child with his family. His homeland is referred to in “This Is Not a Personal Poem” only as “a former Communist country,” and the speaker goes so far as to say his foreign birth “may or may not matter.”
So the book would seem to dispense with immigration (per se) early on. By page 13, in “America, You Darling,” the speaker has already grown up and fully arrived:
I stand in my underwear
before the flag, before another man
who promises a lot like our next President.
But there is a sense in many of the poems of trying to get in. Not just to belong, but to become. There’s an erotic gaze at a father’s neck and a subsequent intimate encounter with his underwear. In the “Self-Portrait as . . .” triptych, Dimitrov inhabits several film characters—all female. In “A Lover’s Discourse,” the speaker studies and tries on his own clothing—“the clothes I last wore / when we were together”—in an effort to become the self he was then.
The body appears throughout, its fluids and edges, as pleasure-giver and prison. In the title poem, the speaker considers “How the body becomes a cage you can’t feel your way out of— // how God rips through the skin / of every man you know. . . .” Elsewhere, it’s the speaker who does the ripping: “I have my filthy lips, my shiny teeth / and they are biting. . . .” And “At Close Range” asks, then answers:
Why do the teeth survive the body?
Seduce, rip open,
they season the flesh.
Because there is culpability in these renderings, we never see the speaker as victim. In “To the Thirsty I Will Give Water,” Dimitrov quotes Montaigne: “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle / than myself.” The figures (or selves) in these poems range from kept boys (“Men you’ve lived with / and men you live on”) and out-and-out hustlers (“a check—another zero—and I’m yours”) to screen goddesses and literary giants. And ex-lovers (lots of them), whom the writer is careful not to demonize. These various personae can be read as costumes for the self. From “This is a Personal Poem”: “My self’s self is thinking about itself. / Trying to sell its self a new self.”
Here Dimitrov is playing with language (and with us), but that’s never his point, and just to make sure we get it: “Don’t worry, reader, / I’m not trying to fool you with language . . . .” A few other poems are likewise tongue-in-cheek, but Dimitrov is never coy. He reveals and reflects on his postures; therefore, it’s not posturing. For instance, in “Sleeping with Everyone” (the title alone a self-deprecation):
. . . I wonder if I could role-play
as a plumber or psychotic
youngish writer who wears leather
and takes it real hard in a walk-up on Allen St.
But wait, that’s me! I should stop writing
personal poems. This is getting ridiculous.
The language in this collection is terse, and rarely do the tightly constructed free verse poems spill onto a second page; most are composed of two- or three-line stanzas. The couplet, especially, as in the work of Dimitrov’s acknowledged “poetry mother,” Marie Howe, seems to give the poems a halting, conversational quality. The lines are short, with few exceptions, most notably the final poem, a long-lined abecedarian with a Whitmanesque title, “I’m Always Thinking About You, America.”
Many of the poems conflate pleasure, pain, sex, death, as when “A mosquito presses into my skin / with such cruelty I mistake it for love” (“Sensualism”), or
I need the day’s sharpness—
something alive to sift
through me and kill.
(“All Soul’s Day”)
But is the book title’s “begging for it” merely the masochist’s craving for what the sadist withholds? Or the traditional masculine’s entreaty for sex from the traditional feminine? Who, in this volume, is begging? And what is It? There’s a vein of longing throughout. Beyond the obvious erotic possibilities, “begging for it” might be the poet’s (and our) search for that which is just out of reach: “all all all we do / is want” (“This is a Personal Poem”). Aren’t all of us asking to be let in? Immigrants, seeking our place. From “I Will Be Loving”:
Every time I have sex I am leaving the town
I was born in again and for good.
“For good”: that is, forever, and for good. And from “Evening”:
There is a place everyone leaves for.
. . .
And there is a place for those still here,
watching the last ships circle around the receding island.
Although the book’s prevailing atmosphere is one of ruin, emptiness is often juxtaposed with hope, or something like it. “Prayer for the New Year” is a third-person account of a night in New York when “love isn’t enough for anyone out here” but “Across the street the blond gives his body / to every man who believes…” And the speaker, who has been a mere witness, enters the poem in the final line: “Saint or stranger, I still recklessly seek you.” Like the thirsty insect in “Sensualism”:
The mosquito will drink
for as long as I’ll let it. And I do.
I hold still waiting for you. The vein rises.
It is this flood of living that comes.