Saturday, July 05, 2008

Adultery, Lust, Guilt, Joy: GOMER'S SONG by Kwame Dawes

How can a man be born again, once he is a man? How can a man live within a whale and be carried from one land to another? How can the dead rise again?

There are dozens of books that enfold these questions, and more that embellish the wanderings of the Chosen People for forty years, or even such small details as the use of a scapegoat to take away sins.

But GOMER'S SONG, the 13th book of poems from Ghanaian-born, Jamaican-raised, South Carolina poet Kwame Dawes dares a more complicated story: that of Gomer, whose name is almost unknown. She was a harlot that the prophet Hosea took as his wife -- so says the Scriptural tale. And more often than not, in the studies of these stories and histories of the people's relationship to their G-d, harlots are symbols of deviating from the G-d/human relationship.

In Dawes's poems, Gomer lives instead today,in Canada, in South Carolina, in Jamaica, as a woman whose adulterous past clings to her even as she marries, even as she settles into a one-on-one relationship. And though that past is rife with sex, with whoring, with "hooking up" for pay of various sorts, it's not a portion of the anatomy that can be cut off and discarded. Nor is it only a tale of shame -- Dawes speaks with the tongue of Gomer herself, and we hear love, delight, excitement, adventure. In the poem "Skin," the "narrative of contradictory omens" that Gomer tells has a cost even in the words:

... it does not come
easy -- I am horny today, and I brush
against him every chance I get. [...]
I shiver at his touch. We are listening
to the music of lost things, the things
I would rather forget, which I breathe
to the tracing of his fingers along my back.

This is a dangerous music that carries with it the potential for slave-keeping, for ownership of body, for urgency that gambles desire against risk.

Reading the three sections of "song," I flipped back often to the title page, the author photo, trying to comprehend the drive behind a man who would enchant himself into woman's mouth. It's not just her skin of romance he evokes; it's also the skin of shame. And it's the body of menstrual cycles that bleed and ache, as well as the body of salt and longing. In "Translating Love," Gomer sings, "I will smell of blood; I will weep more, / the taut muscle of my desire will grow liquid; I will take long baths to soothe the weary nerves. // I know seasons, the come and go of need."

The bruising effort of this transformation from man to woman voice renders a smoky hope that writers and readers can and will cross barbed wire to comprehend and speak for each other. The brown skins of Gomer's songs glisten and melt; the division between man and woman is as enormous, and as small, as the division between skin colors -- where comfort and wealth depend so often on the ability or willingness to pass for "other," or to manipulate the loser's position to take advantage of the one who thinks he is the winner, the conqueror.

From "What We Have Learned":

and we have learned to speak them
in those dark moments when our needs
overwhelm us: You too will hurt
me,and I will let you hurt me,
and you will think you have ruled me,
but you will never understand
that I have forgotten the rituals
of hurt -- now they come as ordinary
paths to my peace.
We have learned
to carry in us the bloom of desire,
a kind of perverse daring that we break
loose in dark rooms, frightening
our lovers with the unfolding
of ourselves.

Adultery, lust, betrayal: we have almost all known them in some form, most often in longing and desire, even celebration. Is it wrong to remember our past? How shall we construct the future if we deny that knowledge? How shall wisdom grow in us without pain and confusion to feed its root?

There is good news here for feminism, that a man's voice can speak of women who "make even the most wayward / of women understand that the longing / in them, the taste for sweetness on those days / when the blood is gathered deep in them, / is the promise of God, and laughter / is the healing, and memories lengthen days / when they are warm with such thick / pleasures."

Scattered with infidelities and secrets, GOMER'S SONG is also a portrait of our daughters and nieces and even granddaughters, in a world where "hooking up" is a common term, and girls in a high school play with the idea of getting pregnant all at once, to enjoy baby showers and attention and the life-death drama of childbirth. I found here, also, the dangerous longing for submersion into someone else's dominance, the willingness to endure bondage as long as it doesn't scar too terribly, doesn't spoil a pretty face or backside.

Last week a twelve-year-old Vermont girl died, and her story resonates with the possibility that she was lured toward Gomer's dark choices and losses. Poetry makes something happen; Kwame Dawes's poetry makes a reckoning of cost, a calling of truth, a weighing of freedom and commitment and power. Give the book to the girls and women in your life. Give it also to their men.

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