I read this without knowing anything more than that it was a poetry collection by queer poet Ari Lohr. It opens with a brief prelude about the fathomlessness of gravity and space, which isn’t about either, exactly. I knew from the opening blurbs and the table of contents that the content was going to include rape and violence. As someone who has experienced sexual violence and written about it, these words take on a recognizable meaning,
“you don’t disappear; you don’t die. You just change form.”
“No one knows how the universe began; no one knows how it will end, if it will end. Compelling theories exist, but scientists don’t have a definite answer.”
Substitute the words “how the universe began” with “how the rape happened” and we”re in familiar territory as survivors. The trauma certainly can feel like it will never end.
The prelude ends with,
“Everything that is, everything that ever was, everything we once knew, begins and ends in darkness. Can you fathom that?”
The last “that” might be the universe of trauma. Consider yourself trigger-warned.
Part 1 of the collection is called simply “LOVE,” and it, too, opens with a prelude, and a brutal and shocking one, having to do with hunting and prey, another obvious foreshadowing. I had to pause and breathe for a few minutes before continuing.
The first poem, Falling, juxtaposes the seduction and danger of queer love existing in public and ends with a city haunted by “ghosts of / queer / boys.”
The second poem, Driving Home From a Hiking Trip, perfectly captures how memories of our childhood can be a confusing melange of nostalgia and trauma. The memory of an angry father lashing out at a mother and children from behind the wheel while driving on a family is likely to be familiar to a lot of readers.
This poem also highlights how seemingly mundane memories can stay with us long enough to assume a mysterious significance, like clues to the mystery of ourselves. Seeing the Cascades through the car window — something that could only have lasted a few seconds — forms imagery that persists like a recurring dream.
The poems in this section continue to reveal more of the inner life of the poet. Buck teeth, “lip incompetence,” blowjobs, anorexia, and body dysphoria all make appearances. The narrative flow is more stream-of-consciousness than linear, highlighting the difficulties inherent in examining a life from within.
When love does finally make an appearance, it’s tender and vulnerable.
“How do I tell you
that the first time
I knew I loved you
was on our third date
when you told me
was your favorite version of me:
When my guard is down.
When my jaw is dropped.
When my mouth hangs open.”
The final few poems in this section reveal more about the lovers, and love in general, as an enduring power. The lover is named Adam, which sounds like a cliché but, if so, a totally apt one with its simultaneous allusions to “original sin” and first love.
The brief second section, RAPE, contains the more experimental poems of the collection. Lohr brilliantly overcomes the difficulty in using written language to describe an experience that the brain itself can't easily understand or grapple with.
A Self-Erasing Elegy To My Rape, in four parts, consists of (some of) the same words being used in entirely different ways. Through faded type, superimposition, repetition, erasure, staccato phrasing, and spacing, Lohr perfectly simulates a mind reeling to make sense of a senseless and violent act by recreating the fog of trauma. One middle section in particular, mimics the kind of racing thoughts that often result from trauma-induced mania.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the third section, DEATH, is the longest. I read the collection just two days after the horrifying invasion of Club Q by a fascist homophobe who killed five people and wounded seventeen more. A Song For the Gay Boys Who Never Came Home From Pride, in four parts, contains some gut-wrenching passages that might have read as heartbreaking prescience,
“to paint / a target / on your back / and / dance / to / the / rhythm / of / bullets / flying / through / the / nightclub / air? “
We know that Lohr is referring to the Pulse nightclub here, but these kinds of attacks against LBGTQ+ people are too frequent to assign these words to a single event. This section is at once a dirge and a litany.
Thankfully, Lohr tempers the tragedy somewhat with flashes of dark beauty in the final moments of some of the dead.
“have you heard
of a last breath,
felt the symphony falling
from your lips?”
“have you heard
the sound of a dead boy
beneath the dirt?
of his outstretched hands
praying for the conductor
to finish the song
“do you know why we love music so much?
the beat reminds us we are still alive.”
Still, these poems are devastating in their stark, spare descriptions of the violence of hate. I had to put the book down several times before finishing it.
Throughout this difficult section, there are some profound metaphors, one of which, by itself, is subversive in the best possible way. At the same time, it acknowledges the reality of being queer in America. The title itself does the heavy lifting: They Hid In A Closet, made from snippets of 911 transcripts from the Pulse shooting, is a poem about the most primal of urges, which is survival. Here, the proverbial closet becomes a sanctuary.
References to the science of gravity and light permeate the collection, including variations on the phrase “light birthing heat.” There are also many references to god and praying, but these are used in a universal sense more than a religious one. There are some lovely alliterations, such as the frequent occurrences of both “atom” and “Adam.”
The final section is titled NOTHING, a word that appears thirteen times within it. But it’s a trick, an illusion, like time and memory. The section begins,
“The night you died, 2,592,000 stars exploded somewhere in the universe.
There is nothing in the end.
What follows is everything. In the final three poems, the relationship between the poet and the lover, Adam, becomes more fleshed out and more tangible. Adam may be gone, but the love continues to grow. There’s a gorgeous contradiction at the end of Essay On Leaving,
“no mix of words or music or memories
can touch that sense of
that you were there and alive”
for Adam, his love, and Lohr’s love of him shines throughout this achingly sad and beautiful collection.
I once read that gravity was the primary cause of our bodies’ failures as we age. Ever since, I’ve joked that “gravity is killing us.” The last six words of this collection, which I don’t want to give away, prove me wrong.