Tobias Wray’s debut poetry collection, No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man, adapts its title from mathematician Alan Turing’s 1952 letter written just before pleading guilty to “homosexual acts” which were still punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration at the time (and were only decriminalized in 1967—amended in the year 2000 to be equivalent to the UK’s heterosexual age of consent). Wray’s collection is a tender memorial for Alan Turing and the gay men who’ve died by suicide, been legally persecuted, and continue to face homophobic violence today. At the same time, Wray walks alongside Turing in this collection as the speaker explores his own masculinity, relationship with his father, and the weight of learning about one’s queer ancestors.
The collection begins with an elegiac poem, “All the Grand Deaths,” which mesmerizes with its deft internal rhymes while leaving one uneasy at the violence of the piece, those tense moments of dialogue interspersed between the dirge’s relentless rhyme and rhythm:
Death by snapping vine,
death by cat o’ nines, by dole,
by virtue or grace; by mistake.
Death by heroic lace
left too long by the window;
death by 1983, by augury.
Death by wingspan, by
the lengths to which you’ll go.
Death by island, by shoal.
Scene: A father and son driving.
ME: Yes, I am.
The poem becomes more fraught with each “scene” as they draw out into silence after a cry for help or someone’s last words, only to be juxtaposed against Wray’s poetic dexterity, moving us forward to witness the next tragedy.
While the collection is largely about processing death and loss of community, Wray also memorializes semi-fictionalized moments of intimacy between Turing and his lover. “Turing’s Theories Regarding Homosexuality” brings the first section to an urgent and sensual close, Wray thriving in the persona poem:
how to subtract the man from his signs, his wide smile like a bridge to paradise, nightstands, the swell of morning behind heavy curtains, all those collections of O’s, archipelagos, like planetary actions, the swirling in, we press to spread wide, swallowed, discordant, gravity’s only compromise, yes, relentlessly pressed, spread, I opened, uncomplicated, unacknowledged, that the last time must needs remain memory, staccato of no applause, shoes on walls, fabric, bruise, a blast, helix-like in irony, fabulous liquids, his face increases in detail daily, unrevealable, that low smell of him.
The eroticism of this poem comes to life in Wray’s prose block, seducing the reader with small details like “the black line we ignore between speaking lips,” and increasing in its urgency and fragmentation of release, “shoes on walls, fabric, bruise.” The reader is swept up in the fantasy, the intimacy of the piece, even as this “last time must needs remain memory.” These semi-historical dives into Turing’s memories and joys are the collection’s celebration of his life, reconstructing a communal memory of joy and found family, rather than just grief and persecution.
The speaker delves into his own memories immediately after, in the third section, as he acknowledges his own burgeoning sexuality in “Beginning’s End”:
. . . the problem of a boy seeing
a man’s skin as skin is that it becomes what it is,
like a sculpture suddenly breathing. I remember
my father in the shower, and remember
his watching my watching, and every encounter
with every man thereafter was nameable.
. . . The blossoming of being
seen and seeing.
No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man hinges on “being seen and seeing,” on interpellation and the power of naming queerness—recognizing it in both history and oneself. Being perceived as a gay man becomes pivotal in the collection, to be perceived meant Alan Turing’s eventual death, but one cannot have intimacy or community or history without being perceived. To be seen is an act of resistance and the relief of being recognized. In the speaker’s adolescence, there’s a constant awareness of who is “seeing” him and his queerness, like in the following poem when his mother “says she never suspected me” oscillating the reader between being named and the historical danger of being “suspect.”
The speaker’s relationship with his parents evolves over the course of the book, grappling with childhood abuse and the realization that his father sexually assaulted a young girl in the poem “Heavy Curtains.” Themes of suicidal ideation resurface near the end, this time in relation to his sister in “The Questions Themselves” and the collection as a whole takes on a darker note of helplessness while processing of childhood trauma, such as when he recalls listening to his father play the clarinet:
Anywhere in the house, we his audience, sunk
like walking stones
over water, trapped
in fading song and after.
My sister tells me
we hid in the closet,
his hard face. Is there
anything more sinister
than a memory lost?
Than a bare music stand?
Revisiting memories of his father and their relationship, the title of the collection takes on a different hue—No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man—as the speaker confronts the abuse, learns about his father’s crimes, and realizes that there are missing memories that nevertheless shaped him and his sister into adulthood.
In the end, Wray’s collection returns to the “scenes” present in the first poem, but they’ve transformed into moments of invention that we’ve memorialized only as mathematical genius while the British government spent decades divorcing Alan Turing’s accomplishments from his identity as a gay man. Tobias Wray creates a testament to Turing’s existence and identity, coming face to face with Turing and sharing a poetic space with him and his inventions. In the final moments of the collection, we see the machines that may or may not have their own kind of consciousness—ones that see and are seen, “offering / anything that passes there long enough / its own set of eyes.”
About the Reviewer
C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor of Colorado Review. Janecek’s writing has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Lammergeier, Peach Mag, Permafrost, and the Florida Review, among others. On Instagram @c.e.writespoems.