“You’ve waited / your whole life for them to miss you,” Aaron Smith writes in “After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong about the Sadness of Men Who Love Men.” Uttered in the aftermath of an acceptance that feels like an arrival, this declaration satisfies one of the many cravings in Appetite. Yet satiety does not last. Broken into five sections, the collection traces the relationship between desire and identity through a range of relationships. Speaking from both natural and social spaces—insofar as one can separate social and natural space, it also vividly renders the effects of place on desire and on how people reflect on desire. With a plainspoken style and full-frontal honesty, Smith makes the complexities of flesh palatable. The poems watch, and they let us watch through them and with them.
While several reviewers have rightly noted Frank O’Hara’s influence on Smith, the collection’s first poem, “Men in Groups,” nods to Whitman with its long lines and detailed observations of bodies. Watching a group of men playing basketball, the speaker says, “They’re electric.” Although the men in the poem interact in homosocial situations, they use verbal and physical violence to obscure their bodies, calling each other “retard” and “faggot” and throwing “rocks and punches.” “Men in groups” go on to “hurt women in woods,” “carry caskets,” “carry guns,” and “smash windows.” Smith writes, “Men in groups are locked up,” which places groups of men in prison but also jangles the metaphorical chains that men place on themselves around other men. After “[m]en in groups pull their pants down,” they “slam their fists down,” an attempt to break with the body and to break the body. While it seems that the men in the poem want nothing more than to escape their bodies—perhaps a desire instilled by a heteronormal society, the speaker of the poem puts them firmly into their bodies with his observations.
In several poems, Smith writes about coming of age and coming out in a religious family and what seems to be a small town. “Psalm (Queer)” reads:
Mom held the belt
in her hand, said she could
smack my face over
and over and enjoy it.
Yes, she really said that.
Yes, she loved God that much.
At the end of this brutal scene, the speaker seems to forgive his mother, displaying a love of which her legalistic religion is not capable. The mother in “Sometimes I Want a Gun” also attempts to force her son’s body through the meat grinder of religiosity. After seeing a news story about “gay cancer,” the speaker “had to tell mom” that he “was afraid the feelings [he] had / meant [he] was gay.” She tells him to “[r]ebuke the devil in the name of Jesus,” which becomes a refrain in the poem. After he sees “Tony Danza taking his shirt off on Who’s the Boss,” he says, “I rebuke you, satan, in the name of jesus.” After jerking off to the “cover of a J. Crew catalog,” the speaker “begged god to take [him] back.” Smith writes, “I said: Send me a sign to show you forgive me. / I would have called the slightest breeze his presence.” In “Christopher Street Pier (Evening),” we find the speaker in New York: “I moved here for the same reason / all gay men move here: to stop / struggling against what our bodies do.” After worrying about whether his sister will “get what she wants,” the speaker questions his own happiness, concluding, “Though not very / long or completely or in any way / I can explain, I could say, yeah / I think I’ve been happy.” But in “Prodigal,” the following poem, he has returned to West Virginia, “[a] person who lives in the same state / as his parents, one of three gay men in a tiny college town,” unable to see past the “fucking trees.”
No matter whether he’s in New York or West Virginia, Smith seems most alive at the movies. “Fatal Attraction, 1987 (Movie Review and Trivia)” and “Boogie Nights, 1997 (Movie Review and Trivia)” are columnar poems that present scenes and interpretations from the movies on the left side of the page and trivia from “imbd.com and other various websites,” as Smith states in the notes to Appetite, on the right side of the page, re-creating the experience of watching a movie with someone who interjects random facts. In “I Love the Part,” a poem modeled after Joe Brainard’s long poem I Remember, Smith recounts favorite scenes from an array of films. The poem also bears an epigraph from Brainard, which also appears in Ted Berrigan’s “Sonnet LIX”: “Today I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie and ate King Kong popcorn.” The movies become a place to escape but also a place where one can be oneself, and Smith writes about the movies in spatial instead of temporal terms: “I love the part in American Beauty where Chris Cooper is wet and kisses Kevin Spacey in the garage.”
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books about film and poetry, after acknowledging Frank O’Hara as an exception, Rebecca Morgan Frank writes, “When it comes to many contemporary poets writing about the movies, whether they are offering a portrait of a star or a film, the poems are so often caught in the same nostalgic voice that it is as if we’re reading the same reflective poem on repeat.” I think “I Love the Part” is another exception to Frank’s generally accurate statement. While one can certainly sound nostalgic in present tense, Smith sounds more like someone reveling in an eternal present, a present in which people stop looking away from the body and stare at it. The movies provide one the few spaces where it’s socially acceptable to gawk. I think Walt Whitman would have liked the movies as much Frank O’Hara and Aaron Smith.
Telling us “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Back)” and “What It Feels Like to Be Aaron Smith,” Smith reminds us that the voice, too, is a part of the body, and it, too, must be accepted. The poems in Appetite call us from the prejudices and hypocrisies and absurdities of society and into our bodies, which is to say “appetites.” They tell us:
Because there’s nowhere to go
when we die, our lives really can
be summed up by so many buildings
between two rivers, and because
they’re unfinished, the sky behind
glows pink and gray inside them.
Appetite, by Aaron Smith. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 72 pages. $15.95, paper.
Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Caketrain, Double Room, The Fiddleback, Phantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.