Idle States and Idle Loves
Christopher Hennessy’s book came into my hands by way of an old teacher who thought the book would have something to say to me. The title, Love-In-Idleness, seemed to so perfectly fit my emotional state at the time and the still-static nature of my love life that I took the book with trepidation, as if I were being held a set of schematics for my psyche.
Turns out I wasn’t far off. Love-In-Idleness, Hennessy’s debut collection, is certainly about more than just the gay experience. It would be a failure of sympathy to read his book, which tracks the relationship between self and the family, self and nature, and self and society, from childhood to adulthood, as only a statement about contemporary gay life. But the title, and my default way of being, drew me to the poems that seemed especially interested in examining the nature of gay bodies, both the speakers’ and the various love objects that flit in and out of view throughout the collection.
Hennessy’s poems tend to be ornamental, perhaps overly so, but his tendency toward embellishment is less a flaw of composition and more an accurate representation of the poet’s early psycho-sexual repression, and his grown up escape from such an “idle” state into another, preferable form of idleness. Hennessey’s poem, “Sick Room,” deftly illustrates how damaging idleness can be to the self:
Fever is hostage for you,
my dear wound, my truce.
My spit is a tasteless poultice
and my breath is
leaves of mint on your chest.
I am ridden, I
am prone, here.
I am the ever-present room,
In his poem “Autopsy,” Hennessy’s speaker announces that his “slippery virgin heart is ripe,” a declaration that he is moving, however awkward or uncertainly, into a position of sexual confidence. The heart is fruit, fleshy and soft, ready to be consumed. Somewhat surprisingly, the poem reverses its logic in the final tercet, where the speaker says “there is no heart in a pumpkin- / shaped boy who eats out his in- / sides to suck on his sin.” The delicate fruit, the object of Edenic sin (as I read it), is no longer hanging on the branch. It’s been grounded, gourded, and the poem turns toward from self-examination to self-recrimination.
Hennessy’s speaker connects his sexual maturation with a grave awareness that his “pumpkin- / shaped” body cannot house a heart because the shape is ill suited. Maybe having been burned in the past for my own squash-like physique colored my perspective when I first read these lines and saw in them an implicit critique of how superficial gay culture can cause those of us not blessed with conventionally beautiful (read: thin) bodies to practice self-loathing.
A bit removed, though never truly removed, from that first reading, I think it is hard to read comparing oneself to a pumpkin as anything but an exercise in self-deprecation because the shape of the speaker’s body seems linked explicitly to his emotional state. Contrary to what the speaker says, I don’t think he’s heartless. Rather, his heart has become the sin he sucks on, just a pit to go along with the flesh he eats away, sulking darkly, waiting for love to break him open. The cynical among us might question whether love has such restorative powers. Some days, I think it might.
Christopher Hennessy:: Love-In-Idleness:: Brooklyn Arts Press