Suzanne Parker’s Viral is a book of elegies for Tyler Clementi. Clementi was a Rutgers undergraduate who jumped off the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010. On September 19, Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and a hallmate, Molly Wei, used Ravi’s webcam to secretly film Clementi kissing another man. The case became symbolic of cyber-bullying and bullying in general of LGBT youth.
A book like this could be fraught with sentimentality, yet the poems work, and the book works. The book expands the vitality and purposefulness of elegy because it offers insights into not only Clementi’s experience, but tries to give some sense of the appalling behavior of Ravi and Wei. The book moreover keys into the cultural moment of homophobia and its toxicity when paired with the speed of the Internet. The situation and its aftermath were complex, yet little seems to have changed the state of bullying or the tormenting of LGBT youth.
I happened to be a doctoral student at Rutgers when Clementi died. Rutgers’s official response was to offer more dorm options and an attempt to change the culture at the campus in New Brunswick. Yet, less than three years after Tyler Clementi’s suicide, the Rutgers President, Robert Barchi, apparently thought it was just fine for the basketball coach, Mike Rice, to routinely use homophobic slurs to motivate players. Rice was only fired after a video of him hitting, kicking, and harming his players appeared. Rice then received $475,000 to settle the remaining two years of his contract. At the Rutgers-Newark campus, while the Clementi tragedy was occurring, I was teaching a novel by Sarah Schulman, People in Trouble, that depicts LGBT youth in New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Because of its graphic, yet somewhat tame by 2013 standards, depictions of lesbian sex, some of my students frequently dismissed the novel as pornographic, inappropriate, or lacking in literary value (my students were wrong).
My point is that although there may have been official condemnation of Ravi and Wei’s behavior and Clementi’s death, an invisible hetero-normative privilege and scorn of homosexuality remains not only at Rutgers, but in American culture. In addition, Clementi was bullied because he was a sensitive, violin-playing wallflower; Ravi and Wei got a charge of picking on a weaker, nerdier kid.
In 1993, when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University, I was, for some godforsaken reason, living in a dorm largely populated by jocks. I experienced culture shock coming from a majority-black school in Fort Lauderdale to a nearly all-white campus in Bloomington. This is the backdrop for a palpable memory I have of overhearing two men in the bathroom casually talking about date rape. Clearly, when confronted with an oppressing cultural machine, there was little for Clementi to do. He must have been seduced by the Hudson River and Ravi and Wei’s sneering and scorn was a comfortable way of fitting in; only they know what they were thinking, and must deal with knowing that although not proved in court, they contributed to a senseless death of someone who wanted to feel love, like everyone else.
Suzanne Parker’s Viral conveys all of this in lyric poems. She deftly balances narrative and exposition with quick turns of syntax, surprising metaphor, and giving satisfying emotional conclusions and by interrogating the cultural ignorance surrounding bullying of LGBT youth.
See “Practice I” where Parker takes the implicit homoeroticism and violence of football as a counterpoint to Clementi’s pursuit of the violin:
“It is something else,” the man says,
“when your own son chooses violin
over football.” Nothing another’s
sons would do: their desire
to lean themselves onto huddled
shoulders, the thick of slingshot bodies,
to crash, collapse—flesh, helmet, bone
hammered to the ground.
They lift themselves into the embracing air,
shake off the world, fasten on the next play.
In “Splash,” Parker sensitively describes the final plunge:
It’s the thick callous
on the man’s palm against
the back of the body’s neck,
a place hidden as a fort
built in high, swaying branches.
They are in a bar and a man is wet
from the bucket raining down,
a hundred shatters of light
splashing the crowd’s desire.
Parker uses line breaks to create interesting tension between a club and the event of the suicide without revealing too much. She has a wonderful ability to question her subjects empathically. That is, she puts herself in the place of the other, no matter how alien or uncomfortable. She uses her lyric talents to give voice to this empathic questioning.
Let’s address the title, Viral. Clearly, it suggests our digital definition of unwanted forwarded email, or of a message intended to spread (e.g. viral marketing, or “gone viral”). It also, though, suggests the HIV virus, the virus that causes AIDS. Although it’s undeniable that AIDS has, especially in its early decades, destroyed much of the gay community, it has nothing to do with the Clementi tragedy. In my opinion, to imply that it does is facile. However, the title poem is about the first definition: “Did u see it? Did u? See it? See? See? See? See it? When? / Now? See it! Saw it. See u? U see u? Did. Did it.” The poem uses a Gertrude Stein technique of repeating (with variations) the same words to get at a musical wordlessness and crack open fresh meanings.
Other poems use elegy in its most elegant form to convey a general sadness and longing, as in “Passage”:
People are dying all around—
leaves at October’s end.
In transit, generic, something
to be raked, mulched;
they are just another job
requiring a Sunday afternoon.
Viral uses stories published widely in the newspaper as the basis of its facts, but it takes those emotional impulses and, in elegiac form, creates a satisfying and thoughtful series of poems about a misunderstood tragedy.
It is not sufficient to know the shame of the Clementi incident; we must feel it so that the invisible systems that allow such things to perpetuate are dismantled. Viral does its part to help chip away at those systems.