Andrew Hahn reviews Randall Mann’s DEAL: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS

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Andrew Hahn

Deal: New and Selected Poems

By Randall Mann

193 pages. Copper Canyon Press, 2023.

Randall Mann has a proclivity for the exquisite. Each of his poems is like a pearl, his collections a strand. (Make it a double strand.) Much has been made of his love and mastery of strict formalism and his highlighting of the high and low nuances of gay culture. In Mann’s new book Deal: New and Selected Poems, he writes of post-sex sex life, disco, STIs, and queer myth with an accumulative clarity, sexy line breaks cutting personal reflection. “All / my ambitious / friends want // to talk about / is joy,” he writes in “Friday,” a poem about the mundanity of the workday and of streaming a film in the evening to try, futilely, to erase it—but also, and poignantly, a reflection on “the first // gay thing / I remember / other than / the longing”: Rock Hudson’s cruel news coverage after revealing his AIDS diagnosis. Mann, in some ways not unlike James Schuyler, is an effortlessly associative writer, and by the end of the poem, where he hopes he is “undoing / my own ruin,” what has been strung together breaks our hearts.

Mann’s formal choices—in many of the newer poems, taut lines with interlinking rhyme—do not distance him from the poem’s subject, but rather for Mann provide the intimacy, the security to reveal what he needs to, nothing more and nothing less, and the framework in which to craft something frayed and beautiful that for him is his most honest expression: “I feel incredibly held by my formal choices because they enable me to move into the poem,” he tells Copper Canyon publicist, Ryo Yamaguchi, during a recent interview. “I feel safe and I know where I am.” Over the course of his career, as Deal shows, Mann has found such safety in queering and stretching open strict forms.

In Proprietary, his fourth collection, Mann meaningfully begins to use the lean line as essential infrastructure, which he builds on in his subsequent A Better Life, and in the new poems in Deal. While the newest poems in Deal include a pantoum, sestina, and two palindromes, Mann’s chief architectural elements are very short lines coupled with whipsaw rhymes, the dare and compression of the those together, a stillness and a quickness. His poem “The Summer of 1996,” an elegy of a sort for both Florida and a friend, demonstrates his flawless concision: “Todd aka / Toddonna / (for money, / she feigned / only / Madonna) / crawled / onto the scene–– / drag fight; / fag night–– / at Ambush. // Butch.” This poem demands to be read slowly, guided by purposeful punctuation, yet it glides down the page like a queen at a roller disco.

Mann’s linguistic capability to turn back to the past while looking forward positions his work as a document of gay history. In the poem “A Better Life,” Mann reminisces, “I didn’t think I’d make it // to fourteen years ago. / Fear lives in the chest / like results. // You say my gray, it makes / me look extinguished”. In “A Step Past Disco,” a new poem, Mann writes, “I am // between, / young enough / not to have / lost / all my friends.” Mann’s lived, survived experiences coming of age in the AIDS epidemic serve as the axis on which such moments hinge. And often central to his rhetorical turns are structural ones as well, his choice of repeating forms such as the villanelle; pantoum; and palindrome, or mirror poems. In one of the mirrors, “Poem Beginning with a Line by Wayne Koestenbaum,” the central line, “The repetition of the word terminal,” is both the closest in proximity to its double and also, in a moment of self-reflection, as it were, slyly calls out the formal arrangement—see that word “repetition.” In other words, Mann knows what he’s doing, knows you know, and thus nods to artifice and also undercuts it. The words revolve, familiar yet slightly out of reach, like luxury baggage on a turnstile.

Mann always finds a way to allow the past to lie in the present. In “Blue,” he writes, “my Blueboy tucked / behind Sporting News, / and the torn- // out waxed / bodies— / dead now, // beautiful then. / And then? / We know what then.” In Mann’s work, even the most benign choice of diction can feel multitudinous: in the previous quote, the word then, with the two meanings: at the time in question and next; afterward. Subtle, yes, but Mann’s poems are rich with such moments, large and small, word roots and idioms and inference. The poems in Deal, a sublime, unrepentant declaration at midcareer, put him squarely in a line of queer poets, such as John Ashbery, Thom Gunn, and Marilyn Hacker, of doubleness. Mann has been quietly, movingly adding poem after memorable poem to the queer canon for three decades; anyone who cares about poetry should read Deal.

Andrew Hahn is the author of the poetry chapbook God’s Boy from Sibling Rivalry Press. His work can be read online in Hobart Pulp, Barren Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and The Florida Review among others.