If the thrill of poetry lies in its intimacy, it should follow that the relationship between the reader and the text is an erotic one. But what are the power dynamics of that encounter? Dodie Bellamy once wrote that Kevin Killian and other queer New Narrative writers created a relationship in which the writer was the top and the reader the bottom. That stands to reason: as a reader, the poem enters you. The fear of the text is the fear of contagion: if the reader allows themselves to be permeable, they open themselves up to the possibility of being changed.
In Active Reception, Noah Ross asks what happens when that relationship is reversed. “Can the reader / top the author / can the author / lay it out / a spread / open for reception / this here / authorial / theory / of bottoming.” What of the vulnerability of inviting oneself to be read: the text a malleable, ready thing, prone to interpretation? And what about the poet bottoming to the poem itself: taking language in, offering oneself as vessel, moving with the text as it unfolds? Ross writes, “The muse is a dom top / the poet / hole / greedy.” In what ways does “writing from the bottom” allow us to investigate power structures not only between top and bottom, or reader and author, but also between the subject and the state?
Two things jump out immediately. First, for Ross, bottoming is not a disembodied metaphor. The asshole is present: earthy, extended, material. Each of the book’s three sections (titled “cheek,” “w(hole),” and “ch / eek”) opens with a permutation of “GUTS / BLOOD / SH!T / SPIT / CUM”—a fluid barrier through which a reader must pass in order to continue the encounter. In a moment where queerness is too often instrumentalized as a desexed discursive trope, Ross reminds us that his is a queerness that fucks and is fucked.
Second, Active Reception posits an overt politic to bottoming. A social politic, sure (“to bottom not to be filled but to envelop to embrace to engage”), in which the hole does not represent a passive lack but a present, capacious, hungry, active space from which to write. There is an intentional somatics to this sort of reception: to receive body (rather than tame it), receive language, and tune in to what both voice. But he does not stop there: for Ross, to write from the bottom is to write in the service of the bigger political project of liberation. As passive bottoms moving from a position of lack, we are always/already bottoming to the state, open for surveillance, bred in the social reproduction of capital and empire. In inhabiting a more active reception, as Ross envisions it, intimacy creates affinity: a permeability of open borders, a call for “abolition let / open all gates be / they rectal / or built as / environment let / flood all gates / as receptacle.” Power fears penetration the way civilizations leverage their fear of space and the ocean through militarized exploration, the way straight men construct themselves as tops and fear their own assholes. This is the fear of the unknown, the endless, the surprising, but it is also the fear of being out of control. Here, to be penetrable is to be in solidarity with all who are dispossessed by pinkwashing, colonialism, gentrification, and other forms of state violence. It is to feel the apparatus move inside of you and to refuse it, as Active Reception refuses to be incorporated into a “market-safe” version of queerness that reproduces capital and empire:
THE APPARATUS focuses on the family, on the uniforms, at once desires representation & abhors exposure, directs traffic into, lines into, the STATE, into, cops @ prides funded by salesforce, amazon, google, apple, airbnb, pg&e, uber, whole foods, bud light, smirnoff, rainbow french fry boxes, the game is, one of consumption, material & branded, the corporation is a legal body, says, “I’m an ‘ally’”…
Of course, beyond the social anxiety, there is an unbridled euphoria to bottoming and Ross honors the deep joy of this dissolution. Active Reception writes into the place where language fails. There is a pervasive sense of play, rhythm, and wild enjambment that breaks apart not only the line but the word. Ecstatic incantation rends fragments to utterances: sense breaks down to syllable, and then to sound. Language erupts across the page in shapes that edge illegibility, tease hidden meaning with their pornographic architecture. Slashes are not just tools to break and punctuate but also exist independently, carving wild visual designs—just as the hole refuses nothingness, the break refuses invisibility. In thrall to the pleasure of the text (a Barthes vers, if you will), the poet allows themself to be curious, to unpack the usual and unlock the possibility of true surprise.
Ross extends the same vitality to the materiality of bookmaking. In a particularly enthralling section, Ross pushes against the trope of the writer as a brain-in-a-jar by detailing the erotics of his studio practice. “I buy a typewriter on the internet, an Olivetti Dora, I want to feel each key press the page, tender, sometimes harder, sometimes drill it, when it comes the carriage won’t unlock… from the bottom I can make these little books to distribute… I bind them, thread & a sewing needle, prick them, let them prick me, I draw blood, in the name of the project.” There is a buoyant earnestness to this intentionality of preparation, of material care for vessel and engagement with object.
I puncture a series of O’s with a needle and thread, I contradict the terms of the page, of writing, of myself, this is engagement not contractual, but felt, make it tangible, a process, feel it out, i bottom, fucked, over, and over, again, fuck, over, and over, again, extending what is felt, to an audience, in this case of one, in this case of many, sewing us, together, binding us, together… Pricking at the tip of this sp / read at the edges of a p / age at the dissolution of my fantasies / str / etching me slowly / gentle at the gr / asp there is the word it is calling from a higher place / from a lower place / from the ceiling from the bowels of a blessing can can h /ear it / can can sense it at the tip of a tongue of the rim of a ba / sin receptive / to the son / ics of a sen / tence as it changes as it / glazes over mean / ings and the bind / ings they’ve ex / tend / ed themselves from.
We are with him in breathless exchange.
In another section that explores a less sexy dimension of permeability, Ross ponders sickness: not just a phantom STI but a psychosomatic gut ailment, acknowledging that most illness is socially transmitted whether physically or psychically: “There’s something to be said, about the flow, of energy, of the emotional, like the gut transfers, its bacteria, across stomachs, across housemates, lovers, friendships, I pick up, my bacteria, willfully, from the people I love most, it slowly kills me.” This hits different in a COVID world. Where Leo Bersani once wrote “Is the Rectum a Grave” in reference to the death drive jouissance of barebacking in the time of HIV, a similar gothic gravitas can now be attributed to more semantically benign openings: the mouth, the skin, all mucous membranes wet and ready to receive. We are now acquainted with the jouissance that accompanies the transgressive intimacy of taking off our masks within six feet of someone, or worse, allowing someone into our homes: gestures made more intimate by knowing fully what’s at stake. After a masked, socially distanced winter causes flu deaths and certain kinds of social anxieties to drop, it is hard not to think of oneself as a walking glue trap for the germs and vibes of others. But, as poet Rebecca Teich writes in an interview with Brenda Iijima, “This pandemic has made a lot of our networks of connection and contagion overt, and the degree to which we do or do not live and acknowledge our interconnected lives… Many have become suddenly and intimately aware of the vast networks of contagion that already existed among us, an ’us’ that cannot be partitioned apart or segmented in ways both chosen and not.” Ross picks up his bacteria willfully: the fantasy of individual immunity is not worth the sacrifice of community and all that is communicable within it. As Teich writes in Caffeine Chronicles, “in all contact, there is contagion”—and while we must develop practices to keep each other safe, true safety rarely comes from abstinence-only total isolation, especially for those of us precaritized in other ways.
Therein lies a conspicuous omission: there is a welcome ease to an unbridled queer sexuality that’s not explicitly concerned with virulence, but can the two ever be separate anymore? Active Reception is an ode to bottoming thick with what feels like post-PrEP revelry, but any confirmation or denial of such precautions is coyly absent: a detail which feels oddly unmooring. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s recent The Freezer Door deals with similar paradigms of open sexuality and affinity but includes a brief acknowledgement of personal safer sex practices which does nothing to take away from the transgressive exuberance of scenes in which she is getting fucked against a tree in a public park. Informed consent is hot, as are complex metaphors.
All that aside, Active Reception is ultimately an affirming and, to use an all-but-exhausted term, necessary text. At a time when discourse is eager to clean up the hard-won materiality of queerness, when the community is lost on whether Pride should be a space for kink or for cops, Ross grounds us in a world where queerness is not simply aesthetic or rhetorical but in relationship with butt stuff, with the mess of human bodies, with each other. Ross reminds us that the state emerges from the church and thus it is the sinner who is made criminal: the queer and not the dictator, the sodomite and not the [upwardly mobile cis white] rapist. These are the constraints we push against, the struggle that marks our bodies as the battleground. What power then to own our dispossession, to open ourselves to pleasure rather than productivity, to let ourselves become unraveled by desire rather than attempt to replicate control. To be broken open and remain not only intact but emboldened. In mainstream horror, holes are filled with monsters: “wings spread at lengths unholy as an exorcism of my needs revealed as apocalypse.” Active Reception knows that to be monstrous is to threaten the order of things and invites the reader to conspire: to enter or embrace one’s own capacity to be entered, to transform, to be implicated in all the juicy possibilities.