Poet Aaron Shurin’s Involuntary Lyrics
Some poems burn into you immediately, branding you. Some works take a long time to leave scars. The slow burn — that’s how it’s been with me and Aaron Shurin’s slim volumes of verse and poetic prose, which for two decades have been holding ever-increasing space on my bookshelf, slowly working on my psyche, like etching acid. When I first encountered them, Shurin’s mystifying, jumbled-word romantic lyric poems struck me as impenetrable. Sometimes they seemed all form and no meaning, just blocks of words, cut-ups, phrases shuffled around for sonic effect, musical, sensuous words and worlds colliding, a territory beyond my comprehension. My synapses wanted to re-order the poems “correctly,” to derive some clear understanding from them. I was looking for logical, straightforward meanings, and instead got intensely personal word puzzles, somehow indicative of Shurin’s inner fire, which often left me cold. In person, Shurin has always been such a hot, gorgeous man, one wants to connect with him. But if you can’t comprehend a man’s poems, how are you to grasp his heart?
Now, after a long warming to Shurin’s work, those same investigations into word play speak to me as powerfully as any Shakespeare sonnet, maybe more so, since I know them better. Happily, Shurin has just produced one of his finest books of verse, the new volume Involuntary Lyrics (Omnidawn), a voyage of intricate line and word play. Plus he’s been working hard on the forthcoming memoirish book of essays In the Bars of Heaven and Hell, a deeply dreamy rendering of what it was like to be young, gay and cruising in Berkeley in the 1960s.
In the early 1980s, under the auspices of City College of San Francisco, Shurin conducted both gay and lesbian studies classes and creative writing workshops at Everett Middle School in the Castro. He coached me and many others to explode language and conventions. He instilled in us the idea that poetry was more than just rhyme and meter, it was a vast world of possibility; similarly, gay life was more than just cruising, it was an entire culture in the making, a vast field of exotic interactions, inviting exploration.
Now Shurin is one of the elder statesmen of poetry in San Francisco, the distinguished co-director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the University of San Francisco, curator there of Readings at Lone Mountain, as well as director of reading series at 544 Natoma and the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University. His mellifluous poetic and speaking voice is distinctive, resonating with a vibrant sense of local gay history. Shurin rates as one of the city’s literary treasures, and close inspection of his works offer sweet rewards.
Shurin published Giving Up the Ghost in 1980, with a foreword by poetry great Robert Duncan, who wrote, “Poetry is surely the form of language re-arranged so as to accommodate new knowledge.” Duncan referred to one of Shurin’s series as “Goyaesque,” as something out of a hallucinogenic carnival. A steamy, erotic carnival at that! In class, Shurin emphasized the importance of surprise meanings created by line breaks and unexpected word juxtapositions. His poems didn’t read literally, but lyrically, as dreamscapes, or wordscapes, full of rocky outcroppings of meanings, words crashing on a shore, withdrawing, leaving drift words and broken images. You could feel the presence of lovers, of desire, of the intense cruisiness of the times, of the reaching to grasp at essence.
In Involuntary Lyrics, there’s an ease about the poems, as though Shurin’s opened up his forms to let a breeze in. The form still informs the work, as controlling as ever: “Each ‘Involuntary Lyric’ ends its lines with the same words as a correspondingly numbered Shakespeare sonnet,” explains Shurin
in the volume’s “Foot Note,” but the poet has shuffled these rhyme-words out of sequence “to spring their traps.”
Take, for instance, the poem “CXXVI”: “all my skill/ all my power/ even if it kill/ me’ll be to hour/ by hour bring you intricate pleasure/ as if in so show-/ ing you my various or versey treasure/ you might grow/ fat sweet more delicious because more nourished by attention then be/ freed from wrack/ & wheel of this life now in rich saturation the/ only promise filled before they take you back.”
Check that against the Shakespearean sonnet “CXXVI”: “O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power/ Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour,” and you’ll encounter the same rhyme words, now plucked, re-ordered and stretched into a new context, full of modern sensibilities, yet with that thread to the past clearly visible: tense, taut, fully alive with the sound of “now.”
The evolution of In the Bars of Heaven and Hell follows along the lines of Shurin’s most well-known work, his deeply touching Unbound: A Book of AIDS (1997), which revealed Shurin’s mastery of prose and personal revelation. The work has earned critical recognition as one of the most powerful, poetically rendered memoirs of the plague years. Turning that same power of observation and reflection on an equally historic era, In the Bars of Heaven and Hell traces how Shurin came to his gay sensibility as a young man in Berkeley and San Francisco.
“The arc of the piece,” Shurin says, “is essentially from the 1950s to the hippie gay bar in North Beach, the Capri, a prelude to Stonewall.” It is part of a new collection of essays called King of Shadows, which has received funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission. “One piece begins in high school when I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says, “an initiatory experience of coming into a kind of gay identity, as well as coming into a deeper sense of language.”
In one typically tongue-in-cheek passage about preparing to cruise over to the city for a night at the Rendezvous (“cleanest and cruelest of all the collegiate bars”), he tackles the problem of his then-teenage hair: “I was slim; I had nice bones and a twinkle above them when I managed to relax, but my hair — oh, my wiry, independent, shtetl hair, my Ukrainian ribbons from my mother’s side, folkloric bonnet of curls, was out of the question, way too heavily accented, ruefully unacceptable, untidy, un-Californian, un-Rendezvous. I combed my hair down over my brows, wet straight bangs, and wrapped the folded towel across it, knotted behind my head, hair plastered to dry flat on the griddle of my forehead. In half an hour, dressed for recovery, bandage removed, the vicissitudes of organic growth had been countered by a smooth semi-industrial layer of perfectly straight strands, my fall of grace.”
It’s that kind of close personal inspection, presented lyrically, with as much attention to sound as narrative, that gives Shurin’s work its bright sheen, affording his writing a special place in the canon of queer literature, and making the effort to divine his meanings — well, divine.
Shurin reads from his work-in-progress In the Bars of Heaven and Hell on Wed., March 15, 7 p.m. at the Eureka Valley-Harvey Milk Branch Library, 3555 16th St., SF. Free.