by Christopher Schmidt
Slope Editions 2008
Reviewed by Jason Schneiderman
The End of Possibility
You should probably judge Christopher Schmidt’s first book by its cover. It’s a friendly blue-grey, not too flashy or eye-piercing, but it stands out. The text elements are well balanced, the framing lines bringing a sense of order and balance. There’s a black and white photograph by that at first seems to be an obscenely aged body, shown from the waist down—hairy, wrinkled, bunchy, strutting—but then it resolves into two fingers, poised for walking, Yellow-Pages-style. It’s clever and shocking, an intimately coy visual pun. It retains its eroticism and appeal even after surrendering to your realization of what it is, because you can still see what it looks like. In other words, when you go to the bar that is a bookstore, Schmidt’s the keeper you want to take home. The cover is a perfect flirtation, a come on—it’s a promise, and Schmidt delivers.
It’s easiest to start by describing the pleasure of the most obviously conceptual poems, the poems which are most clearly driven by a conceit. “Top/Butt” tells the story of an erotic outing without the use of the vowels “a” “e” or “i”. (“Soon Luc spots humongous chub on pup slut Todd.”) “Block Text” lists words that include “black” or “block” but reverses them to give us new formations that are deracinated (“Block Panther”), funny (“Cockblacker”), or topical (“Jenny from the Black”) while keeping the eroticism of the words/work in place.
The vision of the erotic that Schmidt offers is surprisingly friendly, and refreshingly playful. Throughout the poems, sex is not tortured or punished, but social and inventive, bringing back the best of the sexual ethos of a magazine like Gay Sunshine, while abandoning any self-righteousness. Timothy Liu, who selected the volume for Slope, is right to compare the work to Barthes. Schmidt is a master of that untranslatable jouissance that Barthes prized: Schmidt offered up to us as a pleasure. Who would think that avoiding vowels could make sex talk fun? Schmidt takes Kafka for an outing to a Bathhouse and the Black Party, though Franz seems to have less fun than Schmidt does (poor Franz). It’s also a decidedly gay book, unapologetically invoking Polari (a British gay slang that went out of style with stonewall), , bathhouses, and Kiki DuRane ( ’s character in the duo “Kiki & Herb”). But it’s gay the way that Erasure is gay. You don’t have to like the boys to dance to it. It’s all right with Schmidt if you don’t speak Polari. After all, no one does.
Schmidt’s touch is so light, it feels like he’s rediscovered the harpsichord in a time of Thelonius Monk imitators. In some ways, it’s that generous trust that the reader understands that makes the book move so trippingly forward. But Schmidt’s irresistible charm is underwritten by an enormous intellect and a genuine concern for the reader. If this book were a one night stand, it would not only care about your orgasm, it would make you pancakes in the morning, and from a recipe in an obscure French cookbook you’d spend the rest of your life trying to track down.
Schmidt has a wonderful ear for casual speech, and for internal rhymes that come back quickly on themselves. His engagement with the banal continually elevates the mundane into a tight sonic playing field. From “Go Lightly,” a sonnet early in the book:
Helen chooses beans and egg whites. June:
yoghurt, prunes. “Starch can line a skin like stress,”
says Helen. June: “I bloat a tide full moon.”
Sugar is not a vegetable, “ought” a thing to obsess
Just as he settles into a perfect iambic pentameter, he disrupts it, and he distracts from the rhymes by overloading the lines with the same sounds. Prosodically, the poems are tight and smart, but they always insist on remaining a field of play. These poems are masterful in that the know all the rules, but more importantly, know why those rules were made in the first place. Lines like “Those who know, don’t. Those who care, scare” (39) and “Thin, skin so uninteresting” (57) pepper the collection. Unpack this one: “Queensburying (like bunbuyring, like Ashberying)” (39). Working from the template of ’s “Invitation to ,” Schmidt wrests the wry “Invitation to Ms. Kiki Durane,” (appropriately) an altered Sapphic.
In a long poem about a (possibly seductive) student, Schmidt explores the parallels between teaching and prostitution. The boy finally reveals that he has tiny vestigal fingers growing out of his pinkies. It’s a moment of amazing intimacy and confusion. The relationship has reached the end of possibility—and it’s beautiful, in part because Schmidt is so good at calibrating those moments where there’s no where else to go. In these ways and more, Schmidt’s debut collection is a remarkable accomplishment—clever, smart, and emotionally satisfying.