I highly recommend getting hold of Bruce Snider’s latest collection of poems, Paradise, Indiana and reading it back-to-back with his first book, the Felix Pollak Prize-winning The Year We Studied Women, published in 2003 by the University of Wisconsin Press. These two volumes are not only inextricably linked in both place and subject matter; they are also each, in their own ways, an essential addition to any collection of LGBT literature.
Snider’s poems are also just plain good. Though his more playful debut sticks to childhood for the most part, exploring what it means to grow up gay (and simply to grow up), his second book—winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize—takes up an adolescence spent in the open landscapes of Indiana (“I could feel/the sky crush down on me”). Paradise, Indiana also fearlessly recounts the speaker’s troubled romance with his cousin, Nick, who later commits suicide. But if the subject matter sounds too heavy, not to worry: Snider is a master of the quiet moment, his memory-driven narratives slowly unfolding until the accumulation becomes a kind of redemption, which is what all poetry should aspire to. In “The Girlfriend,” Snider captures just how hard it was to watch Nick’s girlfriend publicly grieve when the speaker knew him far more intimately; he closes the poem like this, looking toward nature to articulate his own unspoken grief:
After the rains,
tent caterpillars will fill the trees like snow.
Webbed and resinous, they’ll cover
entire limbs, multiplying as they feed,
a strange white silence
even kerosene can’t kill.
So much of Paradise, Indiana (and so much of life) is about those “strange white silences” we can’t get rid of, and it is these silences, which keep the speaker and Nick from being able to name openly the desire that must have consumed them. This gorgeous book is, of course, an extended elegy, yet it begs the question: How does one memorialize a love whose memory many would rather keep suppressed? The poems themselves are the answer as they ponder what those left living in the aftermath of any tragedy must do to make some fractured sense of it all. But poetry—as Snider well knows—is, at best, a flawed copy of the real, and so he makes do, admitting over and over to the limits of elegy and of writing itself, especially when it comes to describing such a life-altering event, or the place one once called home. In “Heat Lightning Over Tunker,” he writes as always with stark honesty:
Here the dead
know better than to ask for much:
mound of dirt, pine box. On the shore
there’s just another old fishing boat,
but it’s more than enough to cross.
Reading this book, I thought of the famous question posed to Russian poet Anna Akhmatova by a woman who recognized her, standing in the long lines outside the prison to leave packages for loved ones rounded up during Stalin’s purges. “Can you describe this?” the woman asks. Akhmatova replies: “I can.” The stakes may not be quite the same, but in our country, at this time, young men still risk their lives by acting on urges that feel all too natural, by coming out to families and friends who may shun them (or worse) for doing so. One has only to have been paying attention to the news the last few years for evidence of the suicides of several gay teens that prompted sex columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller to start the It Gets Better Project, which shares testimonials to help young LGBT people see that life might not always be so harrowing. In Savage’s September 2010 column for The Stranger in which he declares his intention to start the project, he writes about Billy Lucas, a teenager who hanged himself in Greensburg, Indiana after enduring severe bullying. Savage says, “Nine out of 10 gay teenagers experience bullying and harassment at school, and gay teens are four times likelier to attempt suicide. Many LGBT kids who do kill themselves live in rural areas, exurbs, and suburban areas, places with no gay organizations or services for queer kids.” Bruce Snider, in Paradise, Indiana , is doing his part. He has at last told his story, describing what must have resisted description for years. How does one ridge back from memory such an unlikely love? The poem “Parts” finds the speaker and Nick during one of the many cautiously tender moments they share throughout the book:
In the back of that car, all elbows
and mouths, we knew nothing
corrupts like happiness. We ducked
deeper into ripped seats, two boys
in the shadow of cottonwoods
Though Snider shows us pockets in this rural landscape where a young gay man might have escaped, it’s as if the oppressive land itself is always waiting to take over and reassert itself again. “Closing the Gay Bar Outside Gas City” gives us what was once a refuge, but has now been abandoned, reclaimed by nature:
Even the magpies, locked in some
blood-sleep, stir in the eaves as if
to speak of patience and regret. Stains
from tossed eggs mar the sides, dents
from stones pitched through windows
boarded up where FAG and AIDS
are sprayed in flaking paint along
What is remembered desire, if not “some blood sleep”? Another poem, “Cruising the Rest Stop on Route 9” makes evident another risky escape for this speaker:
You lean against the sink, its faucet
dripping, trying to form a word, night
stalled between hand and zipper.
You know a man on his knees
can read the scored tile, torque of
his mouth filled with night and the marsh
I hope Paradise, Indiana gains a wider readership than books of poetry usually do, if only to show those who make their lives in rural and isolated areas that there are writers committed to speaking for the voiceless, telling the necessary stories. It’s gratifying that Bruce Snider dwells in the past without so much as a hint of nostalgia, that he offers up both the beauty and devastation of small-town Indiana where, he tells us, “Even the buckeyes I picked/along the dirt road opened to soft gray meat, so much hidden/where you’d least expect it…” Snider has unearthed much in this volume, and it reads like a late torch-song (without the sentiment) for a speaker’s first love and the land that shaped him.