Paradise now

On Evan Kennedy's 'The Sissies'

Photo of Evan Kennedy (left) by Peter Hochschild.

The Sissies

The Sissies

Evan Kennedy

Futurepoem 2016, 104 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-0996002530

An alien man-boy, Evan Kennedy. Already starting his poetic career with two pretty good books, then with a giant leap comes the third, Terra Firmament. Now another — this time a mega-leap on all fronts — a book he calls The Sissies. Kicking out the jambs on most fronts, though still in his early thirties, Evan seems to reach full poetic power. The Sissies is as shocking and dismaying as it is ecstatic. Read The Sissies. There’s no poetic genius around these parts today? Read this work and see for yourself! 

On the cover: day-glo field of green, in the middle a St. Francis or San Francisco image (multiplying puns, a city, the saint, and us queer “sissies” found in this book’s title). Cute, yes, but truly serious, too. Can you be cute and serious? Heck, how about this one — can you be political and delight in the variety of prosodies employed, enigmatic short lines, obvious short lines, prose poems, long long Whitmanesque lines? An agglomeration of agglomerations, whether of his body as a cell-community, the city of San Francisco as that, the San Francisco Giants parading community up Market Street — or just the act of bicycling between all these and always creating new lines of community reconfiguration, community extension, community loss (gay-bashing) or whatever! The Sissies is Whitmanesque, but without the ugly nationalism. There’s a constantly changing and greeny DNA exuberance in all its entirety, ever and always at work below any of these surfaces, changing it or them, her or him or us (readers and nonreaders). It’s always expanding more complexly. 

We know that, over time, as matter expands it inevitably forms even more complex structures. What stands out most in Evan’s poetry are its interlinks. What might appear at first as stylistic or syntactic innovation, and indeed is also that, turns back in order to link or relink the various delusory tenses (past, present, future) of a biomass of innocence or humility, Blakean maybe, or Wordsworthian. I’m not just talking primary colors (like early Blake); the terms at stake are those of scale. Not nativist or nationalist of course, but like the monk from a Franciscan legend who falls afoul of crude hooligans who beat and beat him, Evan’s queer-bashings are in fact foundational: the multiplicity of porous openings in the body-community make, via interconnections — even with one’s bashers, enemies, killers — a porous and crisscrossed converging and nonconverging of worlds, assemblies, collectivities, parades, in constant change of form, morphing themselves into other and new ones through these bruises, wounds, and stigmata that hooligans have inflicted on the bicycle-riding Evan on his daily rounds through the collectivity of this city. Put another way, The Sissies offers the constantly reaffiliating axes of communities in the city of Francis the stigmatic. From assembly to assembly comes to be the ectoplasmic appearance-man who “exceeded living bodies’ partitions”:

Made of dirt, would I know what
dirt tastes like. While I was cycling,
the earth and I
exceeded living bodies’ partitions.
Wishing that the strewn parts of
you long gone ones
would reassemble in a gust
of florescence and soundtracks,
I promise my legs can brace
for any supple clamor.
If the dead all rise age thirty,
at twenty-nine,
still ahead is my finest glamour.
Thus I became a hammer
to darkest anti-matter. Thus
I became a ticking time bomb
of kingdom expectation in
my gray hoodie and sharp teeth.[1]

“Made of dirt, would I know what / dirt tastes like?” What a question! But shouldn’t I know the answer myself, since having been apprised at a party of Evan’s design for a book under Francis’s tutelary guidance, I was brash enough to ask, “Well, does that mean you’ll start eating dirt?” (It appears he did, and that it tasted awful! Apparently there’s no good to be had in this impoverished world of ours.) Throughout The Sissies, implicitly, Evan’s body is a hologram-driven recognition of larger and still more shifting and changing living and leafy and fleshy agglomerations in the blink of an eye, dissimilar from what they ever thought they’d be before your eyelids even flickered. That’s DIRT, my friends; that’s dirt. It is the nonseparation of poem from persons, causes, thresholds of mediated personal vision for friends. Even I did not escape: the poem “Made of Dirt” is dedicated to me most kindly, given the seriousness of his response to what I’m now ashamed to name as my somewhat frivolous “dirt” question.

But that’s fair. I mean the weaving in and out of anything including yours truly (could I possibly be as show-offy as to think of New Narrative’s version of Frank O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poems?).

You are always in motion in this “swarm,” Evan’s word for a collective or community, a.k.a. assembly, confraternity, etc. The main swarm is San Francisco itself, an interconnected biocommunity. In his writing, Evan is seen riding his bicycle all around town, up and down hills, threading his way through the gatherings, integrating them, altering them, being altered by them, making neuronal and bionic new connections among them. All the communities or sites, whether past or present, are ways of presenting this same paradigmatic politico-spiritual-physical biomass configuration.

And what better mega-assembly to be riding through to this end than one consecrated by a poet already special to Evan: Jack Spicer, who, without bicycle, spent his own time going from diverse confraternities of poets to the geographical precinct of North Beach, then under the hill through the tunnel westward to the little community of lost souls and poets in single rooms near Van Ness, making, in the process — not unlike Evan — magical entities, tying them together in or as poem incantations. Spicer’s influence extends in Evan in other ways, too. One of the main connections from Evan to the other previous great San Franciscan poet is a preoccupation with baseball: the San Francisco Giants. This communality between poets, generation to generation, enables Evan to borrow Spicer’s “diamond” metaphor, extending and opening it as Spicer does in one of the last poems in the Robin Blaser-edited Collected Books.[2] Saint Francis as Saint Francis and San Francisco as San Francisco continuously accrete meaning layer by layer, enlarging the paradigmatic community theme to embrace more and more of this paradise-now world, this changing biomass of us and ours as community that always has been, will be, and remains. Evan is all over Spicer like flies on what I’ll politely call cow flap. It’s the lowly, the waste in my expression for instance, that in Evan’s work becomes the lofty. In his use of Spicer’s baseball diamond is the semisecret unacknowledged Zen metaphor of “diamond” (think Zen’s Diamond Sutra) that is light, emptiness, energy. And this act of elevation extends Evan’s zero-sum cogitations to be less body, more mind, but I’ll get to that in a moment. From Spicer, expanded: the diamond as hologram? Through porous bodies, what we excrete of that evidence of both real (on one side) and unreal (on the other) remains. As important as it can be.

Or there’s the younger, living poet’s admiration as he participates in the “Giants victory procession up Market” (30). Poets assembled, biomass interconnections, confraternities whether of monks or nonmonks, assemblies of various kinds — the variety of phrases Evan uses to indicate his pondered cogitations on the theme of natural collectivity can’t go ignored. Nor should I say can the inherent tendency among collectives to shift, change, interconnect, and disconnect — this always-changing biomass I myself mentally connect with another Buddhist perennial, the teaching of impermanence. The injunctions to meekness are not abject but, as in the gay-bashing ruminations, an adequate response, and a kind of frame for this book. You are (a)bashed to experience the situation as a means of connection by squishing out selfness (via stigmata — holes able to connect self and other persons, things, plants of the biomass) as a way of setting it free — to extend tentative tentacles of connection all over (49).  

But here the similarities with Spicer are ended. There is no “beyond” in Evan’s poems, no Martian radio broadcasts; there’s just this one world here and now, always changing, always the same, never begun and never to end. Spicer’s paradise implied the otherworldly. Evan’s is paradise now. Now, through constantly changing assemblies, the meat-plant (a pun of mine on his double meaning here) of “the abashed” are marching up Market Street. And since they(we)’re always transient, then who can fail, in her changing configurations, to know you have to factor death in too; don’t you? Like all spirit-matter-entities: “I’ve begun to number my days since / the last quake” (60). In outer space, in this conglomeration of grist and blood, flesh and thoughts, what I thought was, “A me turns out to be a you,” i.e., turns out to be this world, this concrete particular world I am in, or better, I just am, right now. As the collectivity or assembly tends to supersede the import of the individual Evan Kennedy, there remain, always, the changing thing-tendrils, muscle-and-blood temporary entities connected with other similar ones, the larger muscle-blood-plant-root ubercommunity that’s this planet, alive, ongoing, changing, and finally passing out of existence, itself numbering its own days, as Evan does his. Paradise recycling and recycled.

The gay bashings come back at a price, constantly. They solicit the turn to pride, for instance. “It’s tempting to seek machismo in one’s bruises, like the scruff grown nearly thick on a boy’s cheeks,” Evan comments at the start of one line of thought, only to end up concluding on a different note with a cautionary question — “Isn’t it still butch to look beaten up no matter how many, if any, punches one throws back” — then breaking to end with “but I want to level this inquiry toward a genderless declaration … of the marginalized” (68). What emerges is a shaman-like declaration that privileges margins as places of connection between this world and the other, ours and the one next door, whatever. A margin is, after all, a place where the sometimes-still-living traditional interconnecting can be found (through ayahuasca, for instance). The bemused implication thunders out a question: is the poet to be found in any other place than here, in these margins? And, you might ask, can the margin end up more important than the page, even? You wonder. In some sense a person with thought-considerations of any philosophical or political kind “goes to the margins.” In this case, is the kind of interconnected changing biomass self-thinking in the poet’s writing questioning the capitalist, industrialist, unnatural macro-world? Does his micro world of thoughts/actions and San Francisco/personal world experiences arise as ways of challenging something? A brujo or poet, that is, a concrete thinker-shaman of our post-industrialist silences?

Francis himself, the one who first tempts Evan to the bashing riff mentioned above, remains, and this is to some extent at odds with this book’s approach to “pride.” It’s a big world out there (Whitmanian), and so is it surprising perhaps that even in the persona of this book there would appear a certain braggadocio such as that seen on the bare-chested pugilistic Evan on the cover of his previous work, Terra Firmament. A remedy? Perhaps. Why else the recounting of stories of Francis and his little band (drawn from the book called the Fioretti [or Little Flowers] of St. Francis), stories that encourage you not to abnegation but to peace, tranquility, and friendship with all being? The bashing of one of the brothers of Francis is recounted (in the essay “Putting Holes Through Me”), as are anecdotes of Francis’s stigmata, imagined by the poet as piercings rather than as the traditional outward-erupting membrane-rupturings that in Catholic lore are a mark of sainthood. To be faithful to these ideals, the writer must himself provide or imagine an exchange whereby the hooligans inflict the wounds as self-generated — though of course literally other-inflicted by the rural bums. And the justification becomes a connection, not surprisingly. It is not through wounds that one becomes abject, but through which the person-in-question extends dendrites connecting up, so to speak, neuron to neuron in this giant mind/brain physical/spirit that is simultaneously oneself and the (changing) world together. An insistence on nearly every page of this prose/poetry book on not a need for, but a realization of, already-existent interconnections and their philosophical and political ramifications.

This is certainly an awareness (thank you once more, dear Walt) that largeness needn’t equate to pride. The largeness of things should maybe instead be called, to be more nuanced, the scale of things. Scale permits what largeness alone doesn’t: the heart-spirit speaking from us to us and others, to all who hear with ears made for hearing. For isn’t it precisely scale that allows interconnection? A heart-scale? Evan-Francis riding his bicycle on his daily rounds, finding himself beset with overwhelmingly superior bullies “pounding” him into the ground (in “Talks of the Anybody Francis of Assisi”), is what I call the largeness-dimension in its delusory literalness supplanted by, let us say, heart dimensions, for the moment looking like the hologram producing images of reality. The right name for the dimensionality of this poet’s interactions with the homophobic bullies isn’t anything as crude as largeness but is uplifted to the level of heart-hologram-world interaction: scale, or insight. There is only nonseparation. Waiting in the wings, it is true, are rancor, anger, and the like, but under the rule of heart-spirit, what hegemonic rule can the fates ever permit them to achieve? To put it a little differently, say that here is no spirit without body and here too no body that’s not also spirit. And this is a true and firm basis. To mark the distinction: the dimension produced by heart has to go by a name other than the “only-material” dimension produced by largeness. The material is integrated, but not separate. It isn’t largeness, but the inseparability of mind/matter, that’s the incipit to this book, the topic sentence of the paragraph back to which you can always refer to understand the mysteries of its content that otherwise are veiled. This is the hierarch of giving as much as the opposite, a hierarchy of taking, in other words. 

The wounding of the planet’s biomass connections that link up things, communities — the same as stigmata — is not in doubt. Rarely, though, can a single dimensional line trace its trajectory. Ruffians can’t understand heart as long as they remain hooligans and bullies. Contrariwise, can’t the “already familiar” be taken by archons or revenants, those in charge of linkage, and transferred not one-dimensionally but for instance slant-wise to the variety of star-like differently abled dimensions? (H. P. Lovecraft thought this — perversely.) Our species isn’t the center of things, and human-to-human axes aren’t the only kind of connection. What about an axis going from animal to human, then back? Must that be excluded?

Far from it. The growing plexus of the occluded and illogical, the illegible in all its forms, is hexed only by the transgressive moment in repressions and in the de-repressions along the million lines of dimensional crisscrossing and entangling as in quantum entities extending to the ends of the universe instantaneously. To enable this inevitability more quickly, a writer may make possible all the growingly huge number of these friendships with writing techniques so simple that they will be understood even by the ignorant or ill-willed. It may be necessary to write in BIG LETTERS, as Evan does with his simplified Franciscan materials, or to use primary colors, as Flannery O’Connor put it for the willfully unedified who otherwise failed to understand her brand of Catholic mysticism in a land at times as overcome with lack of knowledge as the deep South (O’Connor lived in Georgia). The higher the matter, the greater the need for concessions. This drives Evan to speak very plainly when he writes for instance that “Boys in dog masks still speak / English” (21). If you have to choose between BIG LETTERS, simplicity, or a respect for linear law — by all means choose the first.

Alongside the necessity for a new philosophy and politics emerges a need for a logic that is different and more twisted than the normal A=A logic. It will seem kinky. It is inconsistency that is mother of all higher logic, poetry, and science, is it not? The pervy, the kinky, the off-center, the contradictory, the noncompliant. Pervy as sex, yes, but it encompasses and emphasizes a lot more, doesn’t it?

Inconsistency or incoherence as fecundity? Or instead of saying fecund, should we use the word multifacetedness as a manifestation of the physical laws decreeing all matter or material configuration (“perversity” and “kink” promote this among us humans) become more and more complex with time? Starting with the Big Bang, the longer “our” universe exists, the more complex it becomes. If Evan does “not not love animals” (21), why then the mention of boys who disguise themselves with contempt, perhaps, toward canines by putting on dog masks? What if brains aren’t everything? Now, perhaps I don’t want the brains of a dog if I have human brains. But is that all there is to it? What if, in my more and more demanding need for greater collectivity, I should learn to yearn for the solidity of community that a pack has? And the dog(-pack) merely refines the wolf. There has been such affection in this poet for the wolf of Gubbio in his retelling of the Franciscan story. Why can’t anyone’s response to animals be as multifaceted as this communal reality really is? Put it this way: just because someone is usually a pitcher does this mean he or she doesn’t occasionally want to be a catcher? A catcher may turn the tables on his man and become the pitcher! Or the reverse! With the baseball imagery, doesn’t this sexual imagery seem inevitable?

Well, and weren’t the basics already set long ago? Let Walt speak for himself: Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (And do allow Evan the same, equally, if you please! After all, don’t I allow myself this right and don’t you yourselves? Let us be fair here, I beg you!) 

Though it’s true that San Francisco itself is a/the paradigm of paradisal confraternity, does this have to exclude anyone, even those whose immediate usefulness to the community isn’t always recognized, like gay-bashing thugs? Logic’s not always useful. Shouldn’t these bashers, bullies, and hooligans too be embraced in utopian community? We’ve already seen how Evan when under attack knows how to use a magic called stigmata. This method is “to keep one’s ground, and thus get pounded into it” (68). But wait — can this be anything other than the most obvious and shopworn of meanings? It has a different meaning. To keep one’s ground and thus get pounded can become a way to be grounded. This is something basic, something strong. If you are pounded into the ground and dwell there, how can you not, as a living system, spread out tentacles, connective root systems? They go forth from an entity outward generated by a new heart, putting out connections from the multiple dimensions of the heart to reach or to form other persons, other communities large and small — and not just in two or three dimensions. The dimensions are endless. And so too the interconnections, the connecting of anything(s) with any (non)thing or person or things and so on. So to be pounded is really, with the right heart, a privileged escape hatch, via all sorts of axial lines, to the whole of the abounding hyperuniverse connectivity. And also — to its lack.

And as things always and ever keep changing, so do communities. As the bicycle rider pedals his way through his paradigmatic city-community of San Francisco, the rich fetid biomass is constantly heaving, exchanging, morphing together — and apart. So to be among these always changed and changing entities is by definition to be an alien. A non-man. As the gnostic gospel of Thomas advises: be passersby. And that he is, isn’t he — this poet? Along two-dimensional axes and along slanted weird ones that reach other worlds entirely and connect to them and with them. Gay-bashing is a paradigm. Things always turning into their opposites. “I think about my friends among the bashed” (67), a line that would normally call for rancor but here sounds a plea for Franciscan humility, a vector of connection especially clear in the section titled “Putting Holes Through Me.” (And of course among the more numinous ways of putting holes in a person is the erotic, naturally — perhaps one of the strongest?) 

A monk from Franciscan legends in Rossellini’s movie Little Flowers is found being set upon by ruffians, getting the shit beat out of him. Obviously the picture blurs with the book’s gay-bashings: “A sissy absorbs the disclosure of aggression and happily renounces it through a bruise” (69). In gnostic literature, if you give the correct password to the archon-guardians of the gate to the divine, you are allowed into the extreme heavens. The password affirms something unseen that subtends, and yet is not separate from, the whole biomass. And this “something” is summoned with the vocalization of the archon’s password. It is this: “I am a child of starry heaven.” The other leg of the two are passwords already taken for granted: namely, that you are a child of earth too, each being the other by virtue of being itself on a ladder of ascent. 

Correspondences. Was I privileged in the poet’s book for a dedication (secretly) because I too have been gay-bashed twice and sent to the hospital each time? Lines of communication may be invisible or inaudible but still the greater for it, may they not? I hope that the holes in the gushing stigmata in this book will serve to open further paradises made of a body whose power is to make them cohere into a body of the invisible child of starry heaven. Did Evan know this? All the better were he not to have consciously realized this commonality. Paradise is friendship. As I see it, at the top of the hierarchy of ecstasies, the highest is intimacy, where every being and nonbeing is each as able to love one another as the existent or nonexistent that the other is. Is this too much to ask? Multiple Whitman lines could be cited here, along with Blake. This work re-turns pages of those past writers, these great earth-mystics as we know them in the West, reconfiguring them maybe, just a little, as would behoove those twenty-first-century beings as ourselves.

The alien poet ever moving from agglomeration to agglomeration is a picture in motion. A nomad. A passerby, as the Thomas gospel says. That this is in fact truly the normal situation is something most of us may fail to realize. On the contrary, to think essentialistically is to be at odds with the core spirit of The Sissies. The subject of this book is, in a sense, motion itself. It is, then, a book of change. Dogen, founder of Zen Buddhism, put movement at the heart of his philosophy in an essay called “The Time-Being,” in which the very fact of being or existing is equated with changing continuously. And can continuous change in turn ever be viewed as anything but the only possible reality of what we call existence or being? (Think: impermanence, transience, the heart of all teaching issuing from the dharma wheel turned by Buddhists.)

An alien, a nomad. An inhuman. Or an insider or shaman. A go-between uniting what’s apart. These notions lie at the heart of what is being written in this work. They deserve honor — not just the lines, but the pages, in fact the bound entirety of them proclaiming long-lost notions that deserve reconsideration — don’t they? Just as for Georges Bataille (“The Light around the Body”), the tiniest mote of matter as noted by Einstein in his famous formula is, when compelled to, converted to the disproportionate light that floods all vastness (E = mc2). As in the selfsame formula, how breathtakingly expansive is the work presented in this book!

Destruction is the key to this transmutation. A mote of matter must be smashed apart to become the overarching light of the vast energy that it already potentially is. One might say the opening of one system to another requires what has here been called stigmata piercings. Simone Weil is quoted to this effect (67–68) to praise the sacred this-worldly diminishment of matter, the single and only work known to effect the production of (the) holy. Chris Kraus introduces a similar sort of dimension in Aliens and Anorexia, in which the falling away of flesh produces the alien, the UFO, the nonhuman, that is to say the spiritual. It is of course, as you see, a zero-sum game. Less matter, more spiritual. Freedom lies in the destruction of body — a notion I think Evan only partly participates in through his stigmata interlocking him with an infinity of communities.

Are these really current ideas? More likely, as ideas, they will appall you. The coming apocalypse that those much younger than I will inevitably endure may suggest however a greater dimension of spirit through privation if the environmental pivot has indeed been reached. I don’t want to turn gain into loss (except that I also do want that), so I will try to avoid putting a philosophical frame on this. But in the coming years, decades if there are any, may we not expect to find that the idea that loss (privation, matter, famine, disaster in general, species loss, etc.) equals gain might fall at that point on more receptive ears, perhaps on those of everyone who then might still be striving to exist? This is also Evan, in intimacy with blood, gristle, shit, plant leaves, and all else that continue to reconfigure this paradise called earth.

1. Evan Kennedy, The Sissies (New York: Futurepoem, 2016), 54.

2. Jack Spicer, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Books, 1975), 259.