Generational joy and trauma intermingle in Benjamin S. Grossberg’s My Husband Would as his past, present, and imagined futures operate together like gears in a tightly-wound watch. While Grossberg’s work is deeply rooted in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—as the AIDS epidemic peaks—there is a certain timelessness to the collection, grounded in his exploration of community, family, and relationships. He deftly manipulates time and tension by beginning his collection (and the multiple poetic through-threads within the book) in media res. The first poem thrusts the reader into “the aftermath” spinning contingencies and losses while evoking the word so often used to describe disaster: “the aftermath of a man may be // no more men.”
The nonlinear narrative structure places the reader both before and after trauma—both inside and outside the moment of a shooting in the following poem, “Heaven.” The subtitle reads: “The Houston nightclub, long shut down, where I once spent Friday nights.” After setting the scene, Grossberg begins mercilessly: “Someone shoots up Heaven, / both bars and the small / dance floor in the back.” And yet, the bullets and the dancers alternate their roles as ghosts, as memories. Amid this vision of violence, there is an alternate reality of joy, the patrons unfazed:
He throws down
the gun, its cold solidity,
and charges the crowd.
But the boys turn to mist
still laughing at their own jokes
and settle once he’s passed.
My Husband Would disorients the reader constantly, putting into question what reality is, what has passed, what was just a hopeful dream of a young man imagining how his life might have turned out differently.
This time-traveling collection is a perfect vessel for rumination and coming-of-age. The speaker exists as his teenage hopes and desires, as the man looking back on his youth, and as someone who is still puzzling out possible futures. Particularly poignant is the moment when the boy sees two men’s quiet intimacy at his first summer job:
and they stroll off together, in love,
as I imagine, together from some country
where men are all built on that scale, where
skin is clear and lashes always auburn,
a mountaintop place where humans grow
longer and more graceful in the thinner air.
It seems they have come down to meet me
over the glass barrier between us,
to show me something of life
Indeed, he is waiting for a stranger to sweep him off his feet for a thrilling foray into his imagined adulthood. Up to this point, the speaker had only been able to imagine an underground nightlife and the vilification of queer people in society. This mundane afternoon in “The Magic of Macy’s” is transformative, the moment through which his community is realized into two human beings and even then, they must be from “a mountaintop place.” There is still a glass barrier between them and the speaker; they still feel like an impossible dream.
The speaker is often entranced by his dreamlike memories, doubting how many of them are true or how they have been warped by the AIDS epidemic—he struggles to keep them from becoming nightmares. He feels his “self would become a plate / held at a careless angle, / its contents slowly sliding off. / With a dog circling, circling.” There is a constant unease in these poems; there is a tenderness and fear. This trauma reveals itself in unexpected ways when past and present collide. The fear of police brutality and gay panic continues to haunt the speaker even in the present. In the poem “Whose Eyes Dart Contagious Fire,” a stroll in the park with another man conjures a scenario where “that’s what they’re saying, hitting / the word like a nightstick / on an open palm, a public park,” while nearby, a young, heterosexual couple shows affection openly. Then, the present reality dawns, despite the speaker’s conditioned fears:
Except it didn’t happen that way.
It was sundown, and we cleaned
each other with a crumple of leaves.
And walking back along the path,
we passed teenagers from the local
college—a couple, I think—probably
out there to get stoned or watch
the sunset. Likely both. And that,
too, is beautiful, is innocent, isn’t it?
They looked up at us as we passed,
two middle-aged guys knocking
shoulders, holding hands, but they
didn’t do a double take. The guy
nodded his head a little, the girl smiled.
Throughout the collection, there is a well-justified fear of violence, discrimination, and death. A summer afternoon at Macy’s is taut with unwanted advances: “My supervisor, / a jowly fifty-year old with a lisp and a gap / in his front teeth, / did ask me to dinner, / and I refused.” The constant pressure of regular blood tests, wondering, “how it might have gotten in—that tainted cell—and wondering who you could and couldn’t tell.” Social stigma is mythologized, passed down through generations in “Math’s Punishment”: “hand in hand out of Paradise, just / as the nephews must have / stepped forward, if a little too stunned / to hold hands, away from the animal world.” Grossberg takes Welsh folklore—an unruly myth of rape and incest—and in it finds a kernel of wonder by the end.
And there is no shortage of wonder and love in this collection, despite the omnipresence of queer and Jewish generational trauma in the speaker’s communities. In “The Dogs of Sochi,” an animal left for dead suddenly leaps from a truck full of bodies and the speaker incants her freedom: “You taste the air rushing on her tongue, / the push of blood and breath, a running song.” The speaker, descending from the roof with scraped palms after fixing his chimney, feels “like the man I have / for a long time wanted to / go to bed with. And be.” Grossberg explores the speaker deeply, weaving together his dreams, memories, and myths, culminating in self-realization and joy:
I marry a column of air.
I marry my own
freedom, and at the altar
it and I merely brush
knuckles. I marry time . . .
This man gets down,
on one knee and raises
a small velvet box
into a wind that lifts it
from his fingers,
to the leaden sky.
About the Reviewer
C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and assistant managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s writing has appeared in Lammergeier, Peach Mag, Permafrost, and the Florida Review, among others. Instagram @c.e.writespoems.