A Gap in a Two-Way Mirror

Reviewed By

As a chapbook, Narcissus Resists works. Across nineteen poems, a conceit such as this can get old, but Hittinger keeps his book compelling and engaging.

Despite what brooding know-it-alls in your workshop or writer’s circle tell you, Greek mythology is neither dead, nor tacky, nor useless to contemporary poetry. With Narcissus Resists , Matthew Hittinger provides readers with a crown of fourteen sonnets, each developing the character of the man-child smitten with his own image in an image-obsessed contemporary culture, all intermingled with five ekphrastic meditations on Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” Hittinger pulls in inspiration and language from Ovid (of course), Eliot, James Bidgood’s remarkably indulgent film Pink Narcissus, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The original Narcissus provides a readily queer-accessible myth, and it has certainly been used by gay artists for inspiration in the past, most notably in Bidgood’s classic erotic art film. Hittinger does not fail to pay tribute to this film, using the poem “Celluloid” to encounter it like a porno theater hookup: “…The marqee read COME/ LIE IN HIS CAMPHOR AND NITRO-CELL-/ U-LOSE SHEETS…” This is the second of the fourteen sonnets, and the first major event after the titular character tires of his own beauty.

After “Celluloid,” Narcissus goes “Clubbing” and “Cruising,” suffers a “Concussion,” and has lots of “Cybersex.” He also lends his voice to a dubbed pop star and writes the tell-all, I Am the Narcissus Virus, which results in a blogging war with the transsexual Tiresias. Hittinger takes Narcissus on a journey through the contemporary melodrama of fame, all while exploring the gay version of Mulvey’s male gaze. Even Narcissus’ reflection (named appropriately and simply Water) gets his fleeting tabloid notoriety.

As a chapbook, Narcissus Resists works. Across nineteen poems, a conceit such as this can get old, but Hittinger keeps his book compelling and engaging. The glimpses of Dali’s painting, interspersed with the snapshots of Narcissus’ misadventures, provide the momentum necessary. Momentum alone would not be sufficient, but the language is clever and luxurious enough to keep one reading.

As the book is a hybrid (Hittinger’s own label) of the sonnets with the ekphrastic odes to the painting, so does “ekphrastic” become redefined as a hybrid of frenzied with ecstatic. These two words describe these five poems best. They run over with breathless enjambment and no punctuation other than an occasional colon and a final period after fourteen lines. They are not sonnets, however, but sets of seven couplets rampaging along in amphetamine descriptions of the painting:

third hand less than second hand less than
first hand less precise stone harder

smoother heavy with distance cliff side
weathers away birth groan the light

agleam immediate on thorax…

There are arresting descriptions of “the ghost dog bent in the shadow/ a bloody honeycomb in its maw” and “an etching a split echo of leaf.” The pace of these poems, coupled with the lack of stops for breath, gives the formal effect of an eye darting around the painting, desperately trying to take it all in before it vanishes.

This desperation to capture a fleeting image is more explicit in the sonnets, as Narcissus resists his own reflection only to entrance his onlookers. He dances “with a silver ball’s thousand rhombs,” tantalizing those watching (including, unavoidably, himself). After he begins to gain notoriety, “gossip sought to unzip/ the uncut rumors (he was Euro after all.)” When approached, “Narcissus replied I’m a rare flower and left/ to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony/ in honor of the Narcissus Institute of Skin/ and Water.” The poet is winking at us through these poems, yet there’s still a real pain at the core of the character, seen through the violent imagery that interrupts the language of beauty and gazing. For instance, in “Corporeal,”

My scars are beautiful, deep pink. Listen
to their echo—which sounded like the red
blotch of a slap, the thick calm of palms

Narcissus finds that “his nemesis was not at a clone/ or evil twin, but that gap in a two way/ mirror.” A being of light and shadow, flesh and water, body and reflection, there’s a distinct and ever-present emptiness. Narcissus is vapid in several ways. He exists as an idea or untouchable image, only becoming flesh when he’s wounded.

It’s interesting subject matter for a young writer who is amongst the most photogenic of the new batch of male poets. If you question this assessment of Hittinger, check out his photo spread in the December 2008 issue of MiPOesias (which, to its credit, selects and publishes quite flattering photos of the writers within its pages). Hittinger is easy on the eyes, to be sure. He has even been the muse for at least one other poet, in Andrew Demcak’s own Pink Narcissus.

Whether this will add a layer or two of context to your own reading of Narcissus Resists, I can’t say. It certainly bled into my reading of the chapbook, but that didn’t detract from the cleverness, pathos, and richness with which Hittinger composes this ode. Narcissus may be vapid, but these poems certainly aren’t.

Matthew Hittinger was one of our featured poets during National Poetry Month. Check out his contribution, “Xanthic the Day, Cyanic the Day,” in Rumpus Original Poems.

Evan J. Peterson lives, writes, and teaches in Seattle. His poetry, nonfiction, and journalism have recently been published or are forthcoming in the Southeast Review, Sweet, Studies in the Fantastic, and Ganymede. For more, check out his blogs at Poemocracy.blogspot.com and Wonderkabinet.blogspot.com More from this author →