This Life Now by Michael Broder, Reviewed by Thom Goins
The historical narrative of homosexuality is one characterized by religious oppression, genocide, social rejection, infection, treatment, legal reformation, and an increased tolerance for gay culture. During centuries of conflict and fluctuating resolutions, as with any oppressed faction of people, literature has served as a means of documenting an internal, more accurate history through personal narratives. While a majority of past queer writers avoided persecution either by disguising their orientation through well-crafted innuendos between male characters or by paralleling their intimate experiences through invented heterosexual couples, contemporary authors are more likely to boldly capture aspects of the gay experience through explicit memoirs, fiction, drama, and poetry. One such bold modern poet is New York native Michael H. Broder.
In his 50’s, Broder is an older “new voice” in contemporary poetry, with his first book This Life Now (A Midsummer’s Night Press, 2014). With individual poems published in various journals and anthologies, such as The American Poetry Review, Assaracus, My Diva, and Ancient Obscenities, Broder’s This Life Now is a unified compilation of biographical poems that reveal aspects of Broder’s life through the narrative of an unnamed HIV-positive gay man coping with both the death of his partner and the contraction of HIV. This Life Now is a truly small treasure of 56 pages bound in a book measuring 4.2 inches by 6 inches, with alluring cover art by Stefano Cipollari. Broder’s segmentation of the book into three distinct chapters—“My First Ten Plague Years,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sodomite,” and the book’s namesake “This Life Now”—enhances the storytelling. Rather than adhere to the typical beginning-middle-end formula, he uses in medias res to plunge the reader into the tragic middle of the story; then he visits the beginning, and concludes with an ending that births a new beginning.
In the first chapter, “My First Ten Plague Years,” Broder introduces the reader to the melancholic protagonist who acknowledges his boyfriend’s forthcoming death:
A few words go a long way between us;
as they must, since not much time
remains for more than this.
I saw you standing on the fire escape,
arms spread wide to catch the setting sun,
head tossed back, shoulders
flirting with the shadows,
as if you could elude the waning day. . . (“Variations,” 1-8)
The “setting sun” and “waning day” imagery, paired with the phrase “flirting with. . . shadows,” are appropriate metaphors for life fading from his partner, who can be assumed to be Tony, a recurring muse in subsequent poems. The tone of the chapter then shifts from romantic and sorrowful to sexual and haunting. Through couplets in “Prologue,” Broder juxtaposes explicitly sexual lines and an HIV diagnosis and frames the reality of the early obscurity of HIV/AIDS:
When I think of how it began,
I enter an endless regression—
before the visit to the counselor’s office,
blood draw, awful flu in May,
before I let Tony fuck me raw to say I was sorry.
But that wasn’t the first time.
The first time I got fucked was in 1984.
We already knew what was risky—
I took his cum anyway.
They barely had a virus yet, so
I chose to believe it was something else:
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
I deserved to have one time skin to skin. . . (1-9, 15)
What is achieved through this juxtaposition is a snapshot of the gay sexual climate and consciousness of the late 80s and early 90s, as many mistook the diseases as being the flu. Furthermore, those references to condomless intercourse, known as bareback, and the reality of infection, combine to create a hindsight poem of haunting naïveté.
Other poems in the opening chapter, “My First Ten Plague Years,” address illicit drug use, vagrancy, and casual sexual encounters known as cruising—each topic woven into the narrative of a lover desperate to hold onto an ever-fading Tony, a brilliant musician lost to the damaging fast-paced life of sex and addiction: “I’m glad there was a moment in my life / when I was foolish enough to love the likes of you” (“Another Tony Poem” 1-2).
Broder uses “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sodomite” to capture the formative years of the gay protagonist through a blend of childhood memories, puberty, pop culture references, gay symbolism, and early sexual encounters. The first two poems of this section, “A Brief History” and “Supermarionation,” have an existentialist, just-is quality; nothing in the narrator’s childhood influences his sexual orientation—neither the 1960’s humdrum routine of his mother and father, nor the neighborhood in which he lived, nor the early viewing of a 1968 horror movie, nor high school girls questioning why a young man will not date them. As repeated at the end of each of the poem’s couplets, those occurrences are “without irony” but are often subjected to scrutiny by those eager to define the origins of sexual attraction:
In 1960, by my mother, my father’s bread is buttered
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sodium lamps surround our housing project like a stalag.
Home alone, watching Rosemary’s Baby, I shuddered
High school girls wonder why Michael won’t date them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
without irony. (1-2, 4-7, 9)
The harshest critics of homosexuals, typically religious zealots, have been known to attempt to explain homosexuality as being a result of some “flaw” in child rearing, exposure to some external chemical (i.e. sodium lamps), the influence of a demonic presence through viewing things such as horror movies, or the result of an individual being unable to “score” with the opposite sex. Broder’s social commentary here speaks in favor of those who know that human sexuality is not as deliberate a choice as naysayers purport it is, and several things that occur and exist in life do not shape sexuality.
This commentary is continued in “Supermarionation,” titled after the 1960’s puppetry technique used in the popular television series Thunderbirds. In this poem, Broder’s narrator recounts him and his brother playing with NASCAR toys. The two boys are puppeted by early and rather persistent North American gender norms for males—again discounting the notion of a distinct catalyst lending itself to the predisposition of homosexuality. It is not until “Imaginary Playmate,” “Gladiators,” and “Mod Squad” that same-sex attraction is addressed through an adolescent aesthetic assessment of males in popular culture: a Batman-inspired, superhero fantasy, an analysis of actor Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, an assessment of the muscular physiques of slaves in Ben-Hur, and a rather hilarious comparative evaluation of young actors on the sitcoms Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family—all leading up to his first real-life crush on a boy named Doug Abrams. There is an innocence to be appreciated here.
Thereafter, the chapter covers the protagonist’s exposure to the overwhelming dictums and jargon of 1970’s gay culture in the poem “Directional:” “an earring on the right/ meant a man was gay,” “a colored [handkerchief] in the right rear pocket/ marks the passive partner of a given/ fetish,” also known as the “bottom,” while a left-pocket “hanky” identifies the dominant partner, known as the “top” (lines 8-9, 13-17, and 20-21). The explanation of these and other codes is somewhat comparable to Alice’s descent into Wonderland, as the young man acquires a measure of knowledge needed to penetrate the surface that separates childhood from adulthood. Broder closes this chapter with “Secret” to bring the reader back to the core narrative of the book, a young man attempting to cope with loss and despair:
Remember when walks on the beach
led to trysts in the cool sand beneath the boardwalk?
Disease then crept through your body,
but you kept it at bay with a churning engine of desire. (1-4)
The concluding chapter, bearing the book’s name This Life Now, is a remarkable passage from death to rebirth. Tony has died, and the narrator trudges through a healing phase marked by evocative nostalgia, casual trysts, a retreat into pursuits of knowledge, and self-assessment:
On bad days I seek a theoretical basis
for my actions, a point of origin, a strategy,
a thread to pull me through,
. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Because
meaning is not so much in things
as in the story the thing implies,
like melody implies harmony,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When we behave radically, or irrationally,
it is because we do not perceive ourselves
in meaningful relation to the field
and this is very distressing, even terrifying.
This is chaos—the inability to perceive
the ordering principle at work. . .
. . . I seek experience,
drink experience, as if by sucking and swallowing
I could replenish some heart center,
something I did not even know was empty. (“The Old Meaning/Moaning Dichotomy,” 1-8, 24-29, 31-34)
It is this assessment that moves the man to a resolution through closure and makes the necessary emotional space for his new and current partner—a man who brings with him love, comfort, and stability amidst life’s inevitable sorrows:
I’ve been in love before,
but never like this,
the way I lie, arm around him,
dark outside, can’t sleep,
thinking of mother in a hospital bed,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . I turn, the away I face,
clock I check as he rolls over,
fast asleep, and catches me. (“You See, the Thing Is” 1-5, 9-11)
As of today, Michael Broder and his husband, poet Jason Schneiderman, live in New York, where they both teach English. In addition to instructing and writing, Broder works endlessly to banish stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS by offering opportunities that create dialogue and unity between positive and non-positive individuals. His most recent effort is the HIV Here & Now Project, through which poets of any gender, orientation, heritage, creed, and diagnosis status can submit poetry that adds to the conversation of HIV/AIDS.
Broder, Michael. This Life Now. New York: A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014. Print.