Book Review

“I WAS LIKE WEED but they didn’t smoke me”

This is the opening poem from Almost Obscene, the first collection of poetry by queer Colombian poet Raúl Gómez Jattin to appear in English through the translations of Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott. In this extraordinarily dense and direct short poem, presented on its own with no title or attribution, readers are thrust into Gómez Jattin’s poems of largesse, self-mythologization, wit, loneliness, and lust. With weed as the metaphorical stand-in for the author in this opening poem, a reader could reasonably enter this book expecting to encounter the poetic tropes that drugs carry with them. As Robert Fernandez cautions, the risk of reading Gómez Jattin’s work in the “Dionysian strain” is that the reader would come up short. For these poems, intoxication is not a way of leaving the personal for the kaleidoscopic synesthesia of a trip or an all-consuming addiction to be recovered from, but the bacchic is relevant. For Gómez Jattin (who self-reflexively names himself in many of these poems), poetry is the vehicle by which he becomes intoxicated with life; drugs are secondary. In this sense, I was reminded of the opening of Tomaž Šalamun’s poetry collection Justice, via Šalamun’s sensitivity to his fraught, but deeply meaningful, physical position in this scene:

Not a minute of my life
was lost.
Tanks were there
and altars in paper boxes.
White grass burned in white flames
and I was on cocaine.

Here, Šalamun’s speaker’s intoxication registers flatly next to the loaded images of tanks and the white flames of burning grass, cocaine merely a way to cram as much experience of an already supercharged reality into every second. Gómez Jattin doesn’t need any help doing that (not to imply that Šalamun’s poetry needs it either). Rather, drugs—particularly weed—serve as a facet of his sociality, a way (and reason) for him to relate and, in turn, be cast out. What follows that first poem is a collection spanning almost twenty years, containing selections from Gómez Jattin’s five books, each animated by an intense desire to be in relation to those around him: to love, to fuck, and to be loved and fucked; to touch or even to think about someone so hard their image materializes. In the earlier poems, his reaching often finds reciprocation. In the poems toward the end of the book—written later in his life when he was by turns homeless or institutionalized due to mental and physical health problems—there is either a sense of almost-but-not touching, or the touch of physical violence. This shift is seen perhaps most explicitly in the excerpts from his final collection, The Book of Madness, a diaristic, book-length poem that perseverates on his existential and physical anxieties, tumultuous connections with his family, and the ominous figures of the white-coated authorities that populate this period of institutionalization. This poetic sequence animates these subjects through a cadre of occult characters, such as a dark wizard, an angel, a witch, and Satan:

They carved up his insides with the sharpest scalpels
“You are a woman” They yelled and laughed
. . .
“We’re doing surgery
When we’re done you’ll be a different person”

Mired in the haze of tumult in that latter transient period of his life, Gómez Jattin engages these imagined figures with equal parts ecstasy, anger, paranoia, self-loathing, and a desperate, unrequited desire for emotional connection. In a moving entry in which his imaginings take a different route, he begins by debating whether to retreat to a park bench to sleep, unsure because of the memory of kids throwing rocks at him last time. He goes back to the park and finds it empty. His sleep brings him dreams of his cousin Lucia and his dreamed daughter Rafaela, who “can sing in every language.” Overcome with love for Rafaela, “he wakes up crying as it starts to get light.” This ending shows that, despite the antagonism of the outside world, the core of Gómez Jattin’s poetry is an intense endeavor of relation.

Two remarkable poems placed back-to-back in the selections from Gómez Jattin’s mid-career collection On Love capture this relational intensity in different, but complementary ways: “Serenade” and “The Solitude of Gómez Jattin.” “Serenade” starts in the sexual exhilaration of a Shakespearian monologue, the speaker imploring, “come to the window love,” as “the trees wind sets a moan to music.” Desire changes the atmosphere like an intoxicant as the speaker senses the lover in the physical environment, causing the trees to “sound like you tuned in to my pleasure” and “look like you leaning over my face.”

In the third stanza, the poem shifts from delirious desire to polemic intensity as the speaker stoically grapples with the lover’s hesitancy through bold challenges to the lover’s father, who designs to keep them apart: “Come to the window and stop being scared of your father’s Colt 45 / I’ve brought my own.” In the fourth stanza, the speaker reveals the lover was sent to Paris, presumably by the lover’s father, to protect him from his love affair with “The town / poet   The one who’d earned a sad / reputation as a fag from your beloved body.” Motivated by his intense love and catalyzed by the homophobia that surrounds him, the speaker’s testimony of enduring love and the unique sublimating power of queer pleasure accrues to an inspiring reckless defiance by the poem’s end:

Don’t forget none of that matters to me
It’s just jealousy   Just nonsense from your old man
and his boring friends pussy tormentors
and from those fake friends of yours who like my dick

Don’t forget that love’s worth more
Than all of them put together   We’ve even fought
against ourselves   Our pleasure
has all the masculine beauty they’ve never known

Transitioning from the speaker’s aggressive defense of his love at the end of “Serenade,” the speaker of “The Solitude of Gómez Jattin” uses direct address to burrow into his love, and finds a new configuration. Like “Serenade,” however, the poem opens again with an invocation of the lover:

My love, I don’t know where you’re burning now
I need to surrender you as always like a slave   Poor you
You’ve got to fall ill again and again

What to do you with you there all empty
like foolish biology   Come on get rid
of your grief and take flight

If the first indicator of the poem’s self-reflexive nature is the title, the second might be the speaker’s invocation of illness, which Gómez Jattin often uses to describe his own physical and emotional struggles across the entire collection. More so than the first stanza, the second reads like it could be as much a self-directed monologue as an address to a lover with the “you” instructed to set out on a flight to escape grief. In the next stanza that flight brings the speaker to the addressee’s niece:

What does this moment tell you? Do you like that aged
attentive way your beautiful niece looks at you?
Go and bring her back to when she cried for no reason
Or when she wet her pants from laughing so hard

In the next stanza, the speaker returns to the semi-abstract, self-reflexive intimacy of the first two stanzas, imagining planting a “grand tree” in one breath then instructing the lover to “make a kite and use it to raise your loneliness / to the clouds.”

As if regaining ground lost during the niece’s absence, the penultimate stanza interrupts the surreal exuberance of the previous stanza and falls into a patient meditation as the speaker reflects on the progression of his and his lover’s shared relationship with the niece as she ages:

No   My friend we really don’t want to do any of that
We want to lie down again over her belly
But those times have passed   Her body and desire
wander between movie theaters and city bars
feverish after other bodies and other desires
And that’s okay   It’s her life without us
She too has the right to open pleasure

Rather than invoking the niece as a one-line detail meant to elucidate the relationship between speaker and lover—or even writing an entire poem about her without a lover to contend with—this tenderly written reflection on her maturing personhood becomes the most powerful source of personal intimacy in the piece. The ending of this stanza is illustrative of Gómez Jattin’s poetics in its sense of affection for the niece persisting despite, or perhaps strengthened by, the distance created by her desires that pull her away from the speaker and lover. It also speaks profoundly to the ending of “Serenade” in the way the speaker’s imagined version of the niece is free to pursue her desires when the lovers in “Serenade” are not.

In the final stanza of “The Solitude of Gómez Jattin,” this ecosystem of affection is rendered altogether different when the title is made active as Gómez Jattin offers himself to his niece and his lover:

There’s the moon abandoned and it’s not dying   The wind is lonely
You’ve got me
And our lady   The Solitude of Gómez Jattin

It’s the gesture of offering his selfhood and solitude as statue, a monument akin the statues of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Sorrows) that brings me back to the first page. When Gómez Jattin compares himself to an object, in this moment and similar moments in other poems, he differentiates his expression of self-referential solitude from the narcissistic melancholy in, say, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (which interests for different reasons); he makes himself a poetic object like Berryman, but takes the additional step of and placing himself on the stage with (and in service of) his lover and niece. Self-referential gestures like this occur in similarly remarkable ways throughout the collection, and almost always serve as a vehicle to explore, deepen, and strange the interpersonal connections and disconnections of the myriad Gómez Jattins of his poems.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Gómez Jattin’s unique and intense mode of relation, he is still a relatively unknown writer, even in his home country of Colombia. As translators Kathrine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott point out in their translator’s note, he is a controversial figure in Colombian poetry and stands as the country’s first poet to insist on an “openly queer poetic subject.” As much as one sees the force of queer marginalization in set, setting, and scene in Gómez Jattin’s poetry, one also sees an arguably greater but opposite force applied by the poet in the way he demands to make himself and his love the subject of his writing. Almost Obscene is a deeply moving collection of radical love and radical reaching out.

About the Reviewer

Ryan Bollenbach is a writer and musician living in Houston, Texas. He is Managing Editor at Gulf Coast, and formerly served as the poetry editor for Black Warrior Review. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Bennington Review, Quarterly West, Snail Trail Press, and elsewhere. Reach out on Instagram @Silent_As_I_Am or visit his website.