The Queer Syllabus: Threshold by Joseph O. Legaspi

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The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.

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I love Threshold’s dizzying and unabashed obsession with the physical—from the very first line of the first poem (“Revelation”): “His moon-white torso flashes like strobe lights.” I love that the book starts in a club, starts with gay desire, and gay sex:

…kisses plump as crushed tomatoes… Our tongues snakecharmed goosebumps / to the surface of our flesh… He Anglosaxoned me, the divinity of his / England flooded my mouth with light.

This speaker is not shy, no. This speaker is enthusiastic, effusive, prone to glad eruption, and I am a glad witness.

For so long I have settled for homoerotic under- or overtones, subterranean sublimated whisper-hints of maybe-sort-of want. In too many movies I have watched straight actors politely peck and then I have seen the straight—and gay—worlds praise these scenes as “brave” and “progress.” But I have itched for scenes of gay desire that are, and why is this so difficult, hot. The truth is, one can much more easily find such scenes in poetry. Poetry published a decade or two ago (or three or four or…) contains more eroticism and, let’s say it, actual gay sex, than all the subtext in movies from these eras—and from our present moment, too. A single C.P. Cavafy poem, for example, burns hotter than even the most lustful scenes from Call Me By Your Name (well, maybe excluding that peach scene). And yes, that movie was based on a book—a book of fiction, though… perhaps movies based on poems by Cavafy and Legaspi are what we need!

Back to Legaspi’s book: I love that this is a book written from the perspective of a queer Asian American, and more specifically, a gay Filipino American man, whose final sentence in his bio reads, “He lives in Queens, New York, with his husband.” What a blessing it would have been, in the early 2000s, to read that sentence, that bio, as I was starting high school and figuring out my sexuality and falling in love with poetry. I was desperate for community and had trouble believing that I would ever connect with other people who were both queer and Asian American (and it would be years before I would comfortably identify with either of those terms). His husband. What a phrase.

At the same time, in exploring and celebrating marriage, the book refuses any cut-and-dry, triumphant narrative of assimilation and acceptance. These poems drip and ooze with sensual detail as they restlessly question societal norms. They cheer for the strength and inventiveness of women, over the suffocating imperatives of patriarchy (the book’s dedication: “To Matriarchy”). They look and look to the speaker’s beloved Philippines:

A boy trails a school of boys up a tree
for fruit-picking, or prehensile expedition.
He lags behind not because he is unskilled
at climbing, in fact, he possesses the gibbon-
grace of Filipino coconut boys in provinces.
____________He trails to marvel at the twin jellyfish
of their underwearless shorts bobbing heavenward,
to glimpse at their flaccid nautilus, to bask
in their shared ocean life in the tree’s ether.

______________________(“Am I Not?”)

And yes, these poems are hot, in their desire for others and in their glorious moments of self-description:

______________________Gluteus slopes
you can balance a Ming Dynasty vase on.
Lines plunge low on both sides of my torso.
& skin: twenty square feet of tactile heaven.
(I moisturize everyday & exfoliate
at least twice weekly). & nipples:
soldiers saluting their high commander.
I set my faux-hawk Empire State high, head
of hair most men my junior pray & pay for.

______________________(“Hottie Sizzles”)

A queer Asian American praising his own physique, his own good looks! I am nowhere near the tiptop shape of this speaker, but nevertheless I want to write: an ode to my own body, here and now, on this earth. This desiring body, this lovely body, this skin, these features, this Asian and queer and American and earthly body.

The final poem in Legaspi’s book is “Vows (for a gay wedding).” This poem enlivens this ceremonial practice—and queers it, too, by making clear the hurdles a queer couple has had to face, and also by insisting on the unknowns and not-yets of what love means, could mean or look like:

I vow to love you in primal ways.
I vow to love you in infinite forms.

I know this poem has been read at weddings. I know this poem is being read at weddings. I don’t know how much I believe in the institution of marriage, but I believe in this poem and will read it (am always reading it in my heart) to my partner, to my friends, to my (hottie) beloveds.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.


Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, the Texas Book Award, and the Thom Gunn Award. More from this author →