Dark Reflections

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate, September 2007.)

 

darkreflections

Dark Reflec­tions (Car­roll & Graff, 2007)

Samuel R. Delany’s lat­est novel Dark Reflec­tions is a beau­ti­ful, heart­break­ing book writ­ten by one of the most pro­lific and con­sis­tently engag­ing Amer­i­can writ­ers work­ing today. Though no longer writ­ing in the sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy gen­res in which he made his name as a young lit­er­ary prodigy, Delany (now 65-years old) con­tin­ues to turn out cap­ti­vat­ing fiction.

One of the most con­sis­tently “fan­tas­tic” ele­ments of Delany’s early Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fan­tasy nov­els and sto­ries was his pen­chant for plac­ing artists in esteemed posi­tions in their respec­tive soci­eties, wher­ever their loca­tion in time and space. Dark Reflec­tions, how­ever, gets down to “real­ity” as Delany fol­lows the strug­gles of Arnold Haw­ley, a black, gay poet (and, it bears men­tion­ing in this par­tic­u­lar organ, an under­paid adjunct writ­ing teacher) in his 60s liv­ing in the East Vil­lage of the early twenty-first cen­tury. The novel tells Hawley’s story in three non-chronological parts. The first sec­tion, “The Prize,” finds the aging poet in New York work­ing on an eighth book of poems as the twen­ti­eth cen­tury slips into the twenty-first. The sec­ond sec­tion, “Vashti in the Dark,” is set in the 1970s and tells the story of his dis­as­trous, short-lived mar­riage to a young white street girl he meets in Tomp­kins Square Park. The last sec­tion, “The Book of Pic­tures,” goes back to explore Arnold’s col­lege days in Boston where he begins his first adult homo­sex­ual explo­rations with a black deliv­ery boy. In the dev­as­tat­ing con­clu­sion of the novel, when a coin­ci­dence forces him to revisit that (aborted) encounter in Boston, he real­izes things were not as they seemed and is forced to reckon with a life­time of missed opportunities.

Though Delany has never pub­lished any poetry of his own, he is an accom­plished poetry critic (his essay “Atlantis Rose,” in the col­lec­tion Longer Views, is among the best crit­i­cism on Hart Crane), and his won­drously ecsta­tic and exquis­ite prose style often bleeds into the poetic. Dark Reflec­tions finds him putting his knowl­edge and love for poetry to fine use in telling the story of Arnold Haw­ley.

Delany is metic­u­lous in the socio-historical details sur­round­ing Arnold Hawley’s life, and Haw­ley seems to have a knack for miss­ing out on the momen­tous events and move­ments of his life­time. He is in touch with the black poetic tra­di­tion, but unmoved by the mil­i­tancy of Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics, and when he becomes a teacher he is increas­ingly irri­tated by his stu­dents’ pig-headed insis­tence on cap­i­tal­iz­ing the word black. Arnold does hang out with some friends at the Stonewall Inn when he moves to New York City (before the 1969 riots that made the bar famous), but he remains indif­fer­ent to the gay lib­er­a­tion move­ment, see­ing it as a cel­e­bra­tion of the embar­rass­ing and unsa­vory aspects of gay life. In the 1980s he never fully par­tic­i­pates in the com­mu­nal griev­ing and out­rage of the AIDS epi­demic. (It is only by acci­dent that he dis­cov­ers a for­mer friend of his died of AIDS.) Even the rit­ual bond­ing over the trauma of Sep­tem­ber 11th is lost to him: he doesn’t own a tele­vi­sion and spent the day at home by him­self, not know­ing any­thing was out of sorts until the next morn­ing when he goes out to the cor­ner bodega.

If that descrip­tion sounds like Arnold is a lonely man, he most cer­tainly is – in his per­sonal and his artis­tic life. He does have a few friends, but Arnold has pur­pose­fully resisted being drawn in to any par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal camps or artis­tic move­ments in the name of artis­tic indi­vid­u­al­ity. As Delany puts it, “his lonely and ascetic prin­ci­ple was: art is the one human enter­prise in which, when you are doing what every­one else does, you are doing some­thing wrong” (278). Arnold is also extra­or­di­nar­ily sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism. His overly pro­tec­tive atti­tude towards his book-length prose poem, High Toned Hom­i­lies With Their Gun­wales All Sub­merged, bor­ders on the tragi­comic. Arnold pride­fully counts the pub­li­ca­tion of this chal­leng­ing, exper­i­men­tal work as a styl­is­tic coup, but he is wounded by two unsym­pa­thetic pub­lished reviews and a cou­ple of harm­lessly mis­guided com­ments at pub­lic read­ings and soon gives up on try­ing to pro­mote it. Arnold’s frag­ile ego even begins to beg the ques­tion; how did some­one so sen­si­tive to the wounds of crit­i­cism and rejec­tion last even this long? Delany doesn’t force a firm moral judg­ment on Hawley’s deci­sions to remain iso­lated, but there’s no ques­tion that Arnold’s timid life is full of missed opportunities.

More­over, when he does take risks things seem to go wildly awry. The mid­dle sec­tion of the novel, “Vashti in the Dark,” tells of Hawley’s dis­as­trously short-lived mar­riage to Judy Hain­del, a young white street girl he meets in Tomp­kins Square Park, where Arnold goes from time to time to sit, read, and write. Judy knows Arnold is gay from the start and she actively encour­ages him to go out and exper­i­ment with men. How­ever, the impul­sive mar­i­tal exper­i­ment ends trau­mat­i­cally, and their rela­tion­ship is among the most mem­o­rable sequences in the book. For Arnold, the whole affair inspires one of his more suc­cess­ful poetry col­lec­tions (also titled Dark Reflec­tions). The last sec­tion of the novel is a return in time to his col­lege days in Boston. One day Arnold meets a mus­cu­lar young black deliv­ery boy named Slake Bow­man who tries to seduce him. Arnold rejects his advances, but later tracks Slake down again to resume the encounter. Arnold is shocked by what he finds when he finally meets Slake and his white lover Joey, and it causes him to lit­er­ally run away from them. Later in life, and near the end of the book, he comes across a bit of stray infor­ma­tion linked to the two men, and the sledge­ham­mer of a con­clu­sion forces him to recon­fig­ure his inter­pre­ta­tion of Slake and Joey and recon­sider the deci­sions he has made over the course of his own life.

Arnold Haw­ley is among Delany’s most reserved main char­ac­ters, defy­ing the usual expec­ta­tions of porno­graphic excess and brazen sex­ual explo­ration in Delany nov­els. In par­tic­u­lar he stands in stark con­trast to John Marr, the black gay phi­los­o­phy stu­dent in The Mad Man (1994) who dives head­first into Manhattan’s sex­ual under­world of pub­lic parks and porn the­aters. Arnold is so timid that on my first read­ing of this novel his naiveté seemed almost implau­si­ble. On the sec­ond pass I real­ized that he was, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons here and there, just all too will­ing to retreat from con­fronta­tion and explo­ration out of fear, which is usu­ally jus­ti­fied by the belief that one is pre­serv­ing a sense of com­fort and safety. Arnold is also, like so many pre-Stonewall gay men, a vic­tim of the gross mis­in­for­ma­tion about homo­sex­u­al­ity in his time. (When he is young, a doc­tor tells him that at most, one in five thou­sand men might be stricken with the “dis­ease,” and that there are no doc­u­mentable cases of Negro homo­sex­u­al­ity at all!) The best thing we can say about Arnold is that, unlike David in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, at least he isn’t cruel, self­ish or manip­u­la­tive in his sex­ual uncer­tainty. I wanted to write “con­fu­sion” to end that sen­tence, but Arnold isn’t really con­fused about his sex­u­al­ity. He knows, and even­tu­ally accepts, that he is gay, but he has resigned him­self to also accept the social lim­i­ta­tions that come with it

Delany’s pen­chant for mate­ri­al­ity is always at work in his writ­ing, always present in his razor sharp atten­tion to the mun­dane eco­nomic details of life (no doubt attrib­ut­able to his old school Marx­ist lean­ings). You never lack to know where his character’s meals are com­ing from and how their rent is get­ting paid. For Haw­ley it is only an untenured adjunct teach­ing job at the fic­tional Staten Island State Uni­ver­sity that keeps him afloat. In fact, when con­fronted with the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing that job, and hear­ing about the death of his Aunt Bea (who raised him after his par­ents died in a house fire), Arnold has a ner­vous break­down that finds him spend­ing four days in fright­ened, naked abjec­tion on the rooftop of his East Vil­lage walkup, not want­ing to suf­fer the mis­ery, shame, and humil­i­a­tion of being evicted from his apart­ment. Haw­ley, con­tem­plat­ing that break­down later says, “A poet under thirty crack­ing up had a roman­tic tinge. (Isn’t that what Plath and Sex­ton had lived – and died – off of?) A pudgy black man, well over sixty, los­ing his grip for a cou­ple of months, even if he had pub­lished seven books of poems, was pathetic” (53).

Dark Reflec­tions is, among many other things, a novel about the expe­ri­ence of grow­ing old. We are wit­ness to Arnold’s dete­ri­o­rat­ing body in a vari­ety of details. He is plagued with assorted pains and ail­ments, and is grow­ing more self-conscious about how his age is recon­fig­ur­ing his social life, phys­i­cal mobil­ity and artis­tic ambi­tions. We observe his increas­ing emo­tional and phys­i­cal fragility when he twice finds him­self cry­ing, once from the emo­tional sting of an awk­ward encounter with a hot-shot young poet, and once from a cough­ing episode on the sub­way that causes his eyes to water and forces him to sit down and even­tu­ally miss his stop. As he col­lects him­self and leaves the sta­tion one stop beyond his des­ti­na­tion he says, “it isn’t fair. When you get this old, every lit­tle thing makes you cry. It just isn’t fair…” (99).

Lest this all sound too somber and fore­bod­ing, there still are moments of plea­sure and joy in his life as a writer. When he is able to work on and com­plete poems it puts him back in touch with the love of lan­guage that led him to poetry in the first place. Arnold is an astute lit­er­ary scholar and bib­lio­phile, and Dark Reflec­tions is full of delight­ful moments of cul­tural and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. At the end of the day he is a work­ing poet, and despite the poverty and the paucity of crit­i­cal atten­tion, he can at least rel­ish the vic­tory of hav­ing made a life for him­self in the world of poetry, which is no small matter.

Delany’s nov­els always bear some points of con­tact with the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Char­ac­ters, loca­tions, episodes, and themes in his fic­tion often over­lap with the exten­sive and copi­ous mem­oirs, anec­dotes, open let­ters, and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essays he has pub­lished over the years. (And yes, the novel does con­tain the stan­dard descrip­tion of char­ac­ters’ hands and bit­ten nails, one of Delany’s own well-documented fetishes.) Delany’s con­stant self-representation in his work, like a lit­er­ary Woody Allen, feels wholly unique and unprece­dented in Amer­i­can let­ters. He is every bit as poignant and exhil­a­rat­ing describ­ing the quo­tid­ian life of an old poet as he was describ­ing the lives of ambi­tious young artists and intel­lec­tu­als in his ear­lier fic­tion. It is only fair to spec­u­late that he is draw­ing on expe­ri­ence in his pen­e­trat­ing depic­tions of aging, com­ing to terms with mor­tal­ity, and the sticky ter­ri­tory of “lit­er­ary reputation.”

Delany has often repeated the apho­rism, attrib­uted to Robert Graves, that “all true poems are about love, death or the chang­ing of the sea­sons,” and the quote fit­tingly re-appears in Dark Reflec­tions. Delany doesn’t offer up any easy solu­tions to Arnold Hawley’s dilem­mas. He sim­ply describes, with inten­sity, com­pas­sion and unflinch­ing hon­esty, the con­tours of one man’s life, love, pas­sions and regrets.

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