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