Four years ago Adelle Waldman published The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., managing to produce the best of the “literary young man in Brooklyn” bildungsromans by elegantly eviscerating the very genre. Nate, her hero, is a Baltimore transplant to Brooklyn, a writer on the make. On a date with an on-again-off-again girlfriend, he finds himself “transfixed” in his “distaste” of how “the skin underneath [her arms] jiggled a bit.” Waldman’s ability to voice, with humiliating precision, the clinical harshness of Nate’s judgments of women, and the fact that Nate never really develops into an adult, leaving the roman without a bildung, made all the other contenders in the genre seem timid with self-consciousness, exposing their authors’ unwillingness to reveal their narrators’ worst tendencies for fear that their male authors would look bad.
Jeremy Sigler, a Baltimore transplant to Brooklyn, is not afraid to make himself look bad. The many cringe-making situations in My Vibe, his new book of prose poems, land it into the long lineage of horny-guy maybe-autobiographical books like Henry Miller’s Sexus trilogy and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. As if to trigger the association to Portnoy, Sigler’s “I” (we might as well call him Jer, to distinguish him from Sigler, the author) finds himself drunk with two art-school classmates, Amy and Brandon, who “dared me to carve a hole into a canned ham. And sort of, for lack of a better word, fuck it. Right there on the couch. In front of just them.” But unlike Portnoy, stuck in his mother’s bathroom with a defiled raw liver, Jer ends up with his two classmates on a fog-bound late-night sailing trip. When a stoned Jer falls asleep at the wheel and nearly sails them into the shore, they’re saved by their professor, who “looked at me with disappointment. And I think disbelief.” That sense of proportion—a delight in both pride and abjection—seems closer to the parallel constellation of pioneering gay writers like Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White. Like them, Sigler’s acceptance of switching from being on the bottom to top extends past the erotic into all of life. The comedy that runs through the volume, his wise-cracks, and the slower, more cosmic jokes evoke Sigler’s delight in spinning around the dharmic wheel.
A quartet of themes—art, death, sex, and pedagogy—run through the whole book, with alternating currents of embarrassment and exhilaration coloring all four. In the first poem, he’s almost killed by an electric guitar short-circuit in high school band practice, an ode to art’s inherent danger. In the second, he goes to a Chinatown massage parlor where he is shocked by the masseuse’s proposal concerning her 14-year-old daughter: “ ‘Was I willing to do what?’ ” Turns out the mother wants to trade “five hours of massage for five hours of tutoring” her daughter, “in order to test into Hunter’s gifted and talented program.” Sigler front-loads the story with such charged clichés of white narrator getting Asian bodywork that we sense a profound ethical release when confronted with the final image of “the same closet-size massage room we always used …. converted into a kind of makeshift classroom. The massage table now served as a desk, flanked by two folding chairs. A cozy lamp had been placed on the desk, along with a generous stack of lined paper. And three sharpened pencils.” The title, Tugged by the, sets Jer up as the subject, and lands him with all the seedy allusions of that past participle, “tugged.” By the final description, the adjectives “makeshift,” “cozy,” “generous,” and “sharpened” paint a portrait of the masseuse, her immigrant chutzpah in service of maternal hustle.
Like John Yau, who makes an appearance in Driving Down (“I’d say we resembled Cheech & Chong. Yau being Chong”), Sigler is an art-world poet. Tablet readers may recognize his art criticism, which is unique nowadays for its willingness to singe delicate art-world egos in the interest of getting at the truths of artists’ and patrons’ egos, lust, and money that most art writers carefully tiptoe around. His MFA is in art, not writing, and his many years as a critic, art editor, and art-school instructor make their way through this volume. (Disclosure: I teach at SUNY Purchase, where he’s taught, and I make a brief appearance having a drink after driving him back to Brooklyn, and have had drinks with him. And I have heard earlier, woolier versions of some of these poems as anecdotes over those drinks.)
The setting is often a less-than-glamorous workaday bohemia: trying to sell his artbooks on his stoop (“I threw in one of my daughter’s My Little Pony’s with that Hanne Darboven biography”) or finding a Duchamp hung at the Roy Rogers at the Maryland House rest stop on the way to a teaching gig. There’s something Buster Keatonish about the way Jer heads up to the manager’s office and “handed him my official Maryland Institute College of Art Faculty ID and told him in the lowest octave my balls would allow, that I was going to have to confiscate one of their artworks for ‘educational purposes.’ ” He gets away with the picture.
Like the puckish silent-film star and director, Sigler the author seems intent on placing Jer into little morality tales and letting us watch the slapstick that ensues when he tries to stick to a principle, each twist of good or bad luck adding to our amusement at his stubbornness. Like when he berates an “Israeli or Russian” woman for taking up too much of the lane at the pool, and “uncontrollably” waves his arms, accidentally delivering a “very slight smack” that “made a shockingly audible splat on her tight swimming cap,” and ends up hauled in front of five lifeguards in their office. Which leads him to an earlier incident when he got into a near fistfight with Heath Ledger for kicking Ledger’s sandal into the lane as retaliation for the actor hogging the lane with his butterfly stroke. The author has told us that it’s Heath Ledger, but Jer doesn’t find out until months after the incident when he rents Brokeback Mountain and his wife informs him “that the actor we were watching lived near us. And swam at our Y.” That’s the last line before a chapter break, and Sigler doesn’t mention Ledger’s sad fate, though, clearly, he assumes we know it. Suddenly the different levels of knowing reveal a gaping absence: What seemed an amusing distance between the narrator knowing who it was while Jer, the swimmer, didn’t, becomes stark when the author’s sudden silence leaves an afterimage, a current awareness of a tragedy that we’ve held in our mind through the whole story.
The first word or phrase of each story floats where a title would usually go, but they seem less like poem titles than like emails that start in the subject line. Each story is rarely longer than a few pages, and when they seem headed in one direction, they twirl to another before landing in a third, fourth, or fifth. They hew to dream-logic while never leaving the realm of the possible and have the confessional honesty of “best of” highlights from years of really top-notch analysis. Just as cubism infected just about all painting for the two decades after 1914, the confessional style has become one of the emblems of our times. It’s powered some remarkable short books, like Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Sheila Heti’s How a Person Should Be, and long ones, like Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle. Sigler’s title riffs on the moody Norwegian’s; in replacing “Struggle” with “Vibe” he doesn’t just nod to the ur-American blissed-out surface and deep-down sadness of the Beach Boys 1964 hit Good Vibrations. His title touches on a much more infamous autobiographical title: My Struggle is Min Kamp in Norwegian, Mein Kampf in German. When Sigler tries to wrap his head around the Holocaust directly, imagining out loud over a beer his refusal to beg for his life, a grad student calls him out “in such a way as to reduce my point to some kind of clichéd Hollywood heroism.” So Sigler regroups and tries to imagine the enormity of suffering by imagining himself writing a poem that will become yet another filmic adaptation, with Christian Bale starring and Sofia Coppola directing. But more than just ridiculing a dead dictator, replacing the self-important “struggle” with the who-gives-a-hoot “vibe,” there’s something in Sigler that wants to point out the monstrous as the only way to disarm it: “In truth, I have such low self-esteem, such a deflated ego, such guilt, such interplanetary negativity, so many character flaws, such a borderline personality disorder, such bad fucking karma, so much built up toxicity and rage, that it kind of makes sense for me to just go with it.”
So we get the fifth poem, I was on, the one that horrified my millennial ex-students when I sat next to them at a reading of Sigler’s a few years ago. They looked embarrassed for me when I laughed during it, and I was partially mortified in explaining to them afterward why I laughed because the differing understanding of sexual politics between our slightly different generations was so fraught. Sigler frames the poem with a request: “So I asked my intern—the one who recently called me a ‘douche’—to assist in a difficult task. ‘There’s one girl left,’ I explained. ‘One girl from my past, who I’ve yet to stalk.” Jer makes contact with his high-school flame, happily married and raising horses, and he dictates his reply to her question of “What do you remember???” His answer starts with touching her leg at their stacked lockers. When he touches her butt “You’d look down at me, smile, and politely ask me to stop.” A red flag, even by the standards of the ’80s, when no meant no. He remembers visiting her at school and, “copying something I’d seen in a movie when I swept my hand across the top of the table, sending a bunch of things flying: a heavy book bag, a Sony Walkman, my wrinkled navy blazer.” They go on to somewhat graphic pawing. What’s jarring is the adult Jer channeling his adolescent memory of sex, “of doing to Becky what Jack does to Jessica Lange in the bakery in The Postman Always Rings Twice.” And when we get back to the framing device, adult Jer asking his intern to buy him a ticket on the “next southbound Amtrak” to visit her, it’s “So that I can step onto the grounds of Becky’s stable, walk past the snorting horses, like any Native American poet worth his salt, and get reacquainted with my old friend. Then, we’ll continue our long-paused kiss. And our rape scene.” When Sigler read the poem out loud a few years ago, that word, “rape,” stuck in the air. Sigler knows the mental alarm that word sets off, but here it is, on page 14, right near the front of the book. It’s not that Sigler is not self-aware. In a later poem, he writes, “But it’s hard to speak about desire these days.” And after a few lines, the table full of male poets “attacked me for being a misogynist.” Like Chris Kraus and Laura Kipnis (writers whose professional careers have also straddled art and academia), Sigler wades into the dangerous waters of desire. Like them, he’s aware of the risks of speaking of desire honestly, heightened in his case by being the proverbial straight cis-man (and Ashkenazi-white on top of that). With that word, “rape,” adult Jer incriminates teenage Jer, taking the most extreme rhetorical responsibility for a primal scene of teenage fumbling that’s both banal and excruciating to remember 30 years later. But there’s an implicit acknowledgement that neither of the Jers, young nor middle-aged, knows Becky’s reaction at the time, and for someone as keyed in as Sigler to the minutiae of social interaction, we realize that he, the author, knows that so much of these memories are the remembered projections of an addled adolescent, that most untrustworthy of narrators. And that “scene” in the phrase points to a more complicated possibility: that the awkward fumbling was not a “rape” but a “rape scene,” a reenactment of the actors’ lust, like so many teens imitating the movies’ how-to of consummating desire. The poem doesn’t end there. The next, and last, paragraph presents an image so dense with absurdity and irony that it’s worth quoting. Instead of excusing his earlier words, it acknowledges the absurdity of his adult delusion precisely with the sort of larger-than-life romantic clichés of Hollywood:
And after our rape scene, I’ll ride off with Becky, clung to her back, holding on for dear life. And I’ll whisper in her ear: Please train me. Train me just as you train your horses. Train me to be a champion. Train me to know that I am the voice of my generation.
There’s a lot of adult flirtations through the book, and each story plays through the charged vectors of lust and power at those moments. In one, his acupuncturist neighbor stands up so that she’s backlit, making visible “the outline of her pussy hair” and a “short little string directly between her thighs.” He goes on to question “numerous women about this sort of exhibitionism. They’ve all agreed that a woman knows the visibility of her pussy at all times relative to a man’s roving eye. And so ‘the show’ had to have been intentional.”
In one of the most tender works, the tables are turned, and Sigler feels the charged erotic desire of his drawing teacher, an aging Sy Sillman, Josef Albers’ most loyal disciple: “And then his white sausage fingers would gently take my tight claw and hold my hand as we drew together. As molesting as this was—and it was—I have to admit it worked.” That tension, Socrates’ barter of youthful desirability for the teacher’s wisdom, leads to an exquisitely erotic albeit sublimated result. Isn’t that what so much great art does, after all: infuse the everyday with our suppressed desire? The words in the last sentences of the poem burst with homoerotic allusions and point Sigler to a liberating embrace of the beauty that blossomed from the awkward lessons: “Did Albers do this? … Did he draw till they drew the rim of gorgeous ceramic flowerpots on creamy gray newsprint.?/ He must have.”
Sigler’s own teaching makes for some of the finest poems, for here his utter chaos collides with the exigencies of how to teach creativity. In his role as professor, we hold our breath, waiting for disaster to strike, which it often does. Jer the teacher hopes to impart to the students some wild authenticity that will get them beyond the selves they know. Because he knows when they hate him, it’s all the sweeter when he pulls it off, when his stand-up comedy class, taught “to bait the administration into firing me” performs in a loft, and “the first kid was out on stage. It was too late to turn back. … He forgot that there was life off-stage. … He never wanted it to end! He had no intention of ever coming down!/ Ever!”
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