Page after page finds de la Flor purposefully mixing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry all together in long prosy lines that bend genre and gender, time and space.
In his long narrative poem “Rattlesnake Country,” Robert Penn Warren writes of “The compulsion to try to convert what now is was / Back into what is.”
In his fantastic debut collection, Almost Dorothy, Neil de la Flor, another writer of long, narrative pieces—whose work, to be clear, is both far gayer and far goofier than Robert Penn Warren’s—seems compelled to write for a similar reason. He takes the past with all its touchstones (personal, political, pop-cultural) and experiences (painful, funny, perplexing) and makes them live again, fully present and inhabited on the page.
In the collection’s first poem, “Introduction,” for instance, de la Flor writes of “the first time I felt close to another man,” which happens to be “The first night I met Joey,” when “he picked up a guy and fucked him on my futon while I slept next to them.” The tale is timeless and universal: a sort of love story, a coming of age. But it is also clearly set in a certain era that once existed but can never return: Miami in the late 80s, during the relatively early years of the AIDS epidemic, when the narrator could frequent amateur strip contest night at “Club Warsaw, which is now Jerry’s Deli,” and can recall a particular Wednesday when “Madonna showed up with her entourage,” and “We were very excited because she was rumored to be dating Sandra Bernhard.”
de la Flor’s book is the (deserving) winner of the 2009 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize, although to consider his work just “poetry” would to sell it short. Page after page finds the author purposefully mixing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry all together in long prosy lines that bend genre and gender, time and space. Some of the pieces, such as “Especially, Death” and “Memoir of a Barbed Wire Fence,” from which the collection draws its title, even contain visual art and images. This non-stop juxtaposition of forms—there are interviews, abecedarians, theatre scripts, lists of definitions, and lineated poems—adds to the overall energy and exuberance that make the entire book an engaging read.
And although de la Flor’s preferred mode is a kind of deliberately rambling and seemingly random lyric discursiveness—since often, that mode is best suited to the apparently random and/or senseless events (the deaths of children, the separations of lovers, the murders of gay singers and transgendered sex workers in “Paloma” and “Cassandra ‘Tula’ Do,” respectively) being described—the collection comes across as having been composed and organized with care. It contains five sections, but the sections seem barely able to contain de la Flor’s enthusiasm and relentless sense of humor. Almost Dorothy is incredibly funny, featuring laugh line after laugh line, as in the absurd “Nineteen Ninety-Nine” when he writes: “It has often been said I love Samba/and sex” followed by “(Who is a gelding?)” followed by “I fell in love with Reagan’s Ayatollah,” followed by “I proceeded for once. Part of me said/with a great threat of evil—toss me to the fucking wind” and on and on.
It’s almost as if de la Flor knows he’s capable of coming up with so much comedy, like he is just is so funny all the time, that he can’t help but crack joke after joke. Yet Almost Dorothy has plenty of sadness and confusion, too, when the humor stops on a dime and makes you marvel at the sudden emotional depths and reversals, as in “Aphorisms for Frida Kahlo” which begins with Groucho Marx thinking “we are all clowns in disguise,” and ends strangely and poignantly:
At age 13, Frida Kahlo joined the Communist Party. Inspired by the Mexican Revolution, she fell in love with a cactus and a pig. Shortly after her death, the hieroglyphs in Egypt were decoded. They all read, Diego.
The pleasingly unbalanced atmosphere of the book is enhanced not only by this precarious funny-sadness, but also by its possessing a feeling of truth that seems simultaneously more and less than true, and a sense of reality that seems rendered with faith and honesty, but also with exaggeration and surreal embellishment. It is impossible for a reader to know, for example, just how accurate or how fanciful a prose poem (or short short?) such as “Whoa, Mommy Choked” might actually be. “I remember the scene almost,” the piece begins:
at the disco in Feva, when Travolta appeared in his white suit shake-shakin’ his ass to “Stayin’ Alive” in the middle of the disco lights. Whoa, Mommy choked. Nice package. I looked at her like what but she just smiled at me with globs of Snowcaps and Jujubes stuck between her teeth.
The poem goes on to include other details—“Two weeks later Daddy cancelled his job at Holy Cross Hospital to join the flower business”—that feel “real,” but did they happen? Are they true? Literally true? Emotionally? Is this “Mommy” the same as the mother who appears in other pieces? The one in “Especially, Death” who flew with the narrator “to New York where there were hookers in redskin leather pants battling on Broadway and I thought the plane would crash on the way when lightning struck it and the Statue of Liberty almost poked me in the eye”? Does it even matter?
It’s amusing to contemplate, but not necessary to know, of course, whether any of the apparent autobiography is really autobiography at all. As with the tragi-comedy, this almost-realness keeps you from ever becoming too comfortable, forcing you to really pay attention to each assertion and anecdote. None of what de la Flor does seems familiar; he is never lazy as a writer, and you, the reader, cannot be lazy either.
de la Flor increases the off-kilter pleasure of the book through continual references that combine both high- and low-brows. He can do Greek myths with the best of them, as when he writes “Only when his beloved companion Patroklos (Hector) is killed/ by the Trojan prince Hector (Patroklos) does Achilles return/to battle, smoldering for revenge.” But he can do classic movies—“That Halloween my family dressed out of Wizard of Oz. Bobo our mutt was Toto, Mom was the Wicked Witch of the West, Joey was Dorothy, and I was Almost Dorothy”—with equal aplomb.
In “Rattlesnake Country,” Robert Penn Warren claims, “All I can do is to offer my testimony.” Obviously, he can do much more, and so can Neil de la Flor and he does: testimony, memoir, stand-up comedy, you name it. Almost Dorothy—almost true, almost fiction—succeeds, because of de la Flor’s seriously playful refusal to permit it to settle on just one genre, resulting in a multifarious testament to love and family, beauty and grotesquerie, science and death—and to the language used to describe and record them all.