‘Obscenely Yours’ by Angelo Nikolopoulos
“I’d love the body that wasn’t mine.”
Obscenely Yours, the title of Angelo Nikolopoulos’s first book, is a valediction, a complimentary close, the typically polite termination of a letter that conventionally precedes the author’s signature and expresses the sender’s regard for the recipient (yours truly, sincerely yours, kind regards). This valediction, however, is the opposite of all those things, neither typical nor conventional, and if this sender expresses any regard for his recipient, it is a wry, complex regard indeed. Moreover, a valediction is the opposite of a salutation: a farewell rather than a greeting, an end rather than a beginning. Thus, in some sense, Nikolopoulos’s entire book is in reverse, saying goodbye before it says hello, leaving us before it arrives.
To whom or to what, then, is Nikolopoulos bidding farewell, and why is the tone of his valediction so arch? Before reading a single poem, I am reminded of the scene at the end of Edmund White’s classic 1982 gay coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story, in which the teenage protagonist gives his boarding-school music teacher a blowjob in his office, then turns away without a backward glance, as if walking irrevocably through a door into a gay adulthood characterized irremediably by shame and humiliation, as if to assert, as Catherine Stimpson wrote in her New York Times review of White’s novel, “that growing up is a descent into painful knowledge, indecency and repression.”
And yet, what Nikolopoulos is about here is not (or not only) the pain of knowledge, but its pleasure, and not of knowledge merely, but of experience. And if indecency abounds, as indeed it does, these poems are about the resolute refusal to repress it, indeed, the commitment to insisting upon it. It is this insistence to which the book’s title ultimately gestures, convinced that its minutely enumerated indecencies belong not only to the poet, but to the reader as well, not obscenely mine only but also obscenely yours. “I’d love the body that wasn’t mine,” the speaker says in the book’s prefatory poem, “Take the Body Out,” referring to the “blemished neck” and “goosefleshed thighs” of a high school crush, the “saltwater skin” revealed beneath torn off swim trunks: expression not repression, pleasure not pain, experience not merely knowledge. “To know is to touch the thing itself,” the speaker says in “Fisting: Treading the Walls,” echoing both Aquinas and Wallace Stevens, then echoing the words of Jesus to Doubting Thomas at John 20:27, “Reach out your hand and put it into / my side, he said, and believe.”
Yes, that’s right; Nikolopoulos has just compared fist fucking to touching the adorable wounds of the resurrected Christ. This reminds me of the survey course I taught as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of South Carolina in the spring of 2012. Having lived my whole life in the blue America, I was not prepared for the resistance that would greet me when I assigned my students such standard Great-Books fare as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Fart, poop, and pee jokes abound in the former, and licentious tales of randy nuns, priests, and laity in the Florentine countryside during the Black Death dominate the latter. Coming as they do at the dawn of the Renaissance, these two texts were the first on the syllabus, and my largely white, largely Christian, largely red-America students were profoundly confused. Weren’t we supposed to be reading masterpieces of European literature? Should not such masterpieces be characterized primarily by lofty and edifying sentiments that bring us closer to truth, goodness, and God?
And so we arrived at the peculiar spectacle of me, the gay Jewish liberal professor from the sinful, sodomite north, lecturing in front of PowerPoint slides projecting on the screen the “all things great and small” passage from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil Frances Alexander, and finally the words of Matthew 25:35, “Whatever you neglected to do unto the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me.” I had to explain to them that there is truth, beauty, goodness, and, yes, even God, in the mundane as well as the sublime. They wrinkled their brows, narrowed their eyes, and screwed up their faces. This, I believe, is what many readers will do as they peruse Nikolopoulos’ poems, and most likely what the poet wants, expects, and gleefully imagined as he crafted these exquisite intimations of immorality, including such phrases as, “The cowslips shameless across our knees” in the poem “Trans Amore: Auditions.” The cowslips are primroses on the speaker’s mother’s dress, which he is wearing in an act of childhood transvestism.
While the title of the book suggests a letter, its structure and much of its poetry proves to be more cinematic than epistolary. Obscenely Yours turns out to be the name of an imaginary film, as well as the title of a sequence of poems, divided into “scenes” (including a “deleted scene”) that appear intermittently throughout the book, a film about fantasy, pornography, role-play (top/bottom, farm girl/farmhand) cross-dressing, S&M, prison sex, latex, toys, polyamory, and more. Another poem sequence, also presented intermittently, reinforces the cinematic theme, borrowing language from Women in Love, a 1969 film adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, directed by Ken Russell from a screenplay by Larry Kramer. The third and final dispersed sequence in the book is likewise cinematic, comprising a series of “auditions” for a number of imaginary films with not-so-vaguely pornographic titles like “Brother Knows Best” and “Forced Entry.”
An important text for Nikolopoulos is Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (the second section of the book is entitled, with characteristic whimsy, “A Lover This Course”). In one of the untitled Women in Love poems that begins, “It’s a darling thought,” he includes a famous quote from Barthes’ influential text, “Where there is a wound / there is a subject.” Barthes’ essay continues:
…the deeper the wound, at the body’s center (at the “heart”), the more the subject becomes a subject: for the subject is intimacy (“The wound…is of a frightening intimacy”). Such is love’s wound: a radical chasm (at the “roots” of being), which cannot be closed, and out of which the subject drains, constituting himself as a subject in this very draining.
It is precisely this frightening intimacy of the deep, amorous wound at the body’s center that drives Nikolopolous’ vision and his verse (“But I love the body,” the speaker says in the very first line of the book’s very first poem, an homage to Sharon Olds’s “Take the I Out”). Perhaps in a sense the poem becomes the wound (“I’m tempted to quit but isn’t art performative,” says the speaker in the final, untitled Women in Love poem), and Nikolopoulos himself drains out of his own verse, constitutes himself as a subject in the very making of his own poetry. And perhaps the reader is so constituted as well (the wound is of a frightening intimacy), so that the body that is obscenely yours becomes also obscenely mine.