Simply put, Aaron Smith’s collection, Appetite, is all about being gay. It’s full of frustration, anger, exuberance and humor, all of it grounded in his gayness. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as a twenty-year old Seinfeld gag puts it, but it’s the truest entry into a review of this collection.
And as the title suggests – as the eponymous poem bears witness – it’s essentially about desire, in its purest form, the carnal drive that motivates him (us), the all-consuming temptation for which we’re willing to risk everything. (“Dance//music and AIDS tests/and married men: one//with a crucifix that dangled/in my face when he//straddled me, who said show/me your dick, while his//kids slept on a foldout/couch in the basement.//I fantasized every heat-heavy/glance into a love-story and//stole ice-cream sandwiches/from a convenience store//on Murray Avenue. It was/Pittsburgh. I was hungry.”) The phrase, carpe diem comes to mind, with all its implications of joie de vivre, of not planning ahead, of making mistakes. This is crystallized in the poem, “Psalm (West Virginia)”:
These days when it’s raining
and I wish it were over: the winter, the year,
the students’ random commas
like shaved-away hair, I think: now is the time
before it all goes bad: a lump
not found, a spot on the skin, a dizziness
deep inside the brain. Cars pass
like little trains, but less ambitious, and I wonder
if I’ll wish for this: pillow of gray sky
smothering me, the mist on my glasses
making it hard to see. No real tragedies to make me
unhappy. I’m told I’m depressed, but I think I’m crazy
with loneliness, from too many bad
decisions. Today I say: hurry up, go faster. I don’t care
what happens. I’m willing to regret it all.
What a beautiful line, “I’m willing to regret it all.” You don’t know unless you’ve tried, right? “Follow the dream,” “scratch the itch”…go for it, dude!
There are poems about realizing his gayness at an early age and the reactions of his family and his contemporaries. The mother takes a “Christian” attitude about it, i.e., its “sinfulness”:
Mom held the belt
in her hand, said she could
smack my face over
and over and enjoy it.
Yes, she said that.
Yes, she loved God that much.
In “Lucky,” Smith recounts the bullying and torture of other “sissies” and writes to himself: “You were lucky you were only laughed at.” In “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Back)”:
I hate straight students who look disgusted once they figure out I’m gay.
I hate straight men who imitate my voice when they think I can’t hear them.
I hate straight men who make their wrists limp when they think I can’t see them.
I hate straight men who joke about bending over for soap in the shower.
I hate straight men who have sex with men.
I hate straight women who say, “It’s such a waste that you’re gay.”
I hate straight people who say, “I don’t understand why you’re so angry.”
“What Christians Say During Sex” “Antibiotic (West Virginia, 2010)”, and, in a veiled way, “Hurtful” are other poems that enlarge upon the contempt and the resentment at the reactions he endures.
But about that appetite, that desire: “What I Wanted (Age 8)” is a funny, confessional sort of poem that traces the craving, the longing, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it back nearly to the germ of consciousness: “I wanted Adam Nelson to coach/our intramural basketball team/with his shirt off.” And further into the poem: “I wanted all men/in nothing but towels, to watch/them drop those towels in locker rooms/(oh, locker rooms!)…” “Anonymous” and “Notes on Contributors” also dwell on the compelling nature of desire, always tugging at us with contradictory impulses of lust and guilt, as in this stanza from the poem, “Spring Rush” in which the poet strolls across campus and sees college boys, half-naked, playing touch football (“I am old-/er and pretend not to see, furtive//in sunglasses, looking at them…”) :
Their biceps bulge, unbulge, bulge again.
It’s not that I want them. I’ve had enough
men, and yet I can’t stop looking at them
while trying not to look at them.
But Smith is also just downright funny, especially when he writes about movies, The collection is full of poems about the movies: “Fatal Attraction, 1987 (Movie Review and Trivia),” “Celebrity Photo (Daniel Craig w/ Angelina Jolie),” “Boogie Nights, 1997 (Movie Review and Trivia),” “Casino Royale, 2006 (The Blue Speedo and Daniel Craig).”
Part 3 is one long, witty eight-page poem about Smith’s love of the movies, called “I Love the Part,” with an epigraph by the gay New York School writer-artist Joe Brainard that reads, “Today I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie and ate King Kong popcorn.” Each line/stanza begins with a form of “I love the part in…” For example, “I love the part in Margot at the Wedding where the son tells Nicole Kidman he masturbated last night. It’s as awkward as the time a poet rambled on about his unfaithful boyfriend at a publishing party. He was drunk and everyone quietly stood there eating cheese.”
And of course, we associate an obsession with movies and celebrities with gays, right? Right.
There’s more that can be said about Smith’s verse, the repetition, the short lines, the internal rhymes, but it’s the gayness and all that implies by way of outrage, sarcasm, humor and iconoclasm that this reviewer, at least, thinks the salient elements to point out. All of this is on display in the collection’s final poem, “Train (Hymn)”: