James Allen Hall returns to poetry with Romantic Comedy, a sophomore collection sounding the parameters of genre to subvert cultural notions of literary value and artistic legitimacy. What realities do stories authorize, and which remain untold? “This story,” they profess in “Biography,” “is mine: there was / a wound, then a world.” Rather than playing into the attention economy’s appetite for sensationalism, Hall’s poems resist the formulaic while paying homage to the oeuvre, a formal balancing act that celebrates queer life. The poems create liberatory narratives that break constraints or speak through them. Hall parses music from the blizzard — as when “one year / [they] watched the snow / pile to [their] door / all December, all / January,” “the year [they] wanted / to die,” and, faced with winter’s architecture, “learned / another song. Sang / another way.” Whether grieving the death of their father, documenting the survival of sexual assault, interrogating the scripts of addiction, or revisiting an ’80s crime thriller, Hall’s second collection constantly affirms the ingenuity of self-definition as a technology of survival.
Remember, my mother says, they found Adam Walsh
in pieces, buttoning my jacket, kissing my cheek,
sending me off to school, directly across
the dead-end road. Street severed by woods,
I couldn’t shake its prophecy. In school, we play
Hangman: on the chalkboard, a neck in a rope,
a word underneath in dashes, letters looming
from the fog, filling in the blanks, until
one grinning boy hangs another.
In Romantic Comedy’s opening poem, the speaker announces the book’s genesis: “This story / is mine: there was / a wound, then a world. / It did not mean / me well.” Thus begins a harrowing trek through a life marked by violence and a quest for sensation and connection. There is a retro sheen to these poems, a disco ball fracturing of darkness and light, an AIDS-era aura of intensity fueled by impending extinction. The book is framed by performance, by the language of theater and film, with an array of references to movies which enact the romance of brutality and the brutality of romance, to Cher and Charlie’s Angels, porn and Harlequin romances read “in the laundry room, / my head propped up on a pillow of unwashed / dresses.” The book is romantic as Keats is romantic — it glimmers with negative capability, the “used car salesman who, post-coitus, / cleaned himself with his Megadeath concert Tee,” the “Bad boy who gave me chrysanthemums / and chlamydia,” the private courtyard where “he kisses me / under a magnolia as fragrant as the one in the garden where I hid / as a boy,” “the snow / lowering its gentle hammer on the skulls of lovers.” The book is comic in that the hero, against all odds, survives. I am astonished by the range of these poems, that they can theorize creation, “proving desire, not god, is the father / of man,” and language, “A pile of sticks bound for the pyre— / it’s easy to forget faggot is already plural. / Every plural scissors its singular, / everything pieces back to one…Example: the plural of story is history,” while still giving us a flesh-and-bone guide whose older brother, at Thanksgiving, “stabs his food / with a bowie knife,” who survives rape, and who has a serious romance with suicide: “Every gay man inhabiting my students’ short stories / crossed out by AIDS or hate crime. Is it any wonder / I have failed to imagine my life won’t end / in autopsy?” It’s too late in the day for gloopy hope poems to do me much good, but Romantic Comedy broke me open for its willingness to go there, “into the subway, where the rats are /…where grit diamond-sparkles in rough light, / down where the understory waits its turn / to be born, invented by fairies, told around a fire, / unfolded, weaved, made up by survivors, / by the likes of you, and me.” Romantic Comedy is a masterpiece of queer self-creation.