“Because muscle has memory,” Randall Mann offers in his newest collection, Straight Razor. And though he is writing of his father here, Olympic runner Ralph Mann, the line could easily become tantamount to the book as a whole: because Mann flexes his muscles as a poet, and specifically one invested in formalism as an act of sexy restraint, we are allowed the memory of how poetry can move us, can make us desire again, can be the object of our very desire. “It’s a helluva time,” Mann poses, “for poetry to be in fashion.”
Fashion — such an apt metaphor for the finely-wrought poems in Straight Razor. One can’t help but remember this from “Personism,” Frank O’Hara’s manifesto: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” O’Hara’s rendering itself isn’t cliché, of course, but the contemporary problem comes from too many gay poets claiming this in their own work without merit. Mann, on the other hand, earns the tight pants of formal apparatus. And in a move that invokes jealously and lust in readers — how many poets can do that?! — these are pants Mann wears effortlessly, like in the sonnet “Hyperbole:”
Last night was filled with ways to fabricate
affection: tulips; lube; imported beer,
I think. Hyperbole will be my fate:
I left before he might reciprocate;
I swallowed so his mother wouldn’t here.
I start with good intentions on a date—
my unswept hair; my briefs. I’m losing weight.
What stays, like some insipid trick, is fear.
With so many poems equally masterful, Straight Razor becomes a contemporary Letter to a Young Poet, showing an upcoming generation of poets that hard work and attention to detail is just that, hard, but the payoff can be an art both seductive and enduring.
Many have pointed to Mann as a documenter of place; his Poetry Foundation bio begins, after all, “Randall Mann’s poems are often set within the landscape of Florida or California.” And though this is an accurate assessment, it has always left me wanting. Yes, Mann writes about place — as do many, if not most, poets — but how he chooses to describe place and how geography intersects with form is what makes Mann a cartographer reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop. Straight Razor takes us to the usual locales, Mann’s native Florida or his beloved San Francisco, but what strikes me most are the places, both domestic and foreign, that are new to this collection. The gorgeous assembly of intimate couplets that make up “Fantasy Suite” typify this ethereal sense of place:
Like the idea of horror-porn, the scarred carpet? Duct-tape
that fantasy suite. In St. Louis
for suicide. St. Louis. Let’s say
some places are better than others.
If fantasy darkly meets suicide in St. Louis, this is not to imply Straight Razor is without fabulous exuberance, as well. In “Translation,” Mann, in the “role of Hungry Poet,” takes us to Rome, where his healthy host “shows me the Picasso / without being showy. / Their Picasso. / So this is what it’s like, / Picasso in a dusty makeshift frame.” When a prominent Italian poet enters the scene and asks the Hungry Poet whom he likes, Mann explains:
I say, let’s start with A: Ashbery.
She says, in English, yes, this Ashbery. Continue.
I give her a secondhand line about anxiety
and the death of meaning. In English.
Again, Straight Razor becomes a wise object lesson in what poetry, at its best as poetry, can be: both part of a tradition (here, Bishop, Justice, Ashbery, when Ashbery chooses to marry his vivid imagination to a narrative that actually makes sense); and yet, innovative (high formalism brought to the tremendous world of queerness). This last attribute is especially refreshing, true queerness in a time where gayness is becoming increasingly mainstream and polished. In the collection’s title poem, we still find ourselves, thank god, “Sticky, cold, / a billfold // wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt, / I felt // like the boy in a briny night pool.” To put it succinctly: fuck yes.
I have long been a fan of Mann’s poetry and to gush — how uncool of me! — reading Mann is a good part of what made me take poetry seriously. Reading Mann again and again is now a prominent part of what keeps me working hard to be the best poet I can possibly be. Mann’s verse is superlative in a moment when literature needs more writing deserving the mantle of superlative. Straight Razor does not disappoint. “I start with good intentions,” Mann writes here, and it safe to say his intentions have won out. In lines bolted tight, as he says, “You can’t stop what’s coming.” Thank god. Thank the Castro and our Calvins and our blond fuckers and our stalkers. Thank them all we live in world alongside Randall Mann’s poems.