1945 A ‘thoughtful … outrageous … funny’ collection
Queers Like Me
by Michael V. Smith
Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2023
$20 / 9781771668507
Reviewed by Carellin Brooks
“Is a day tormenting oneself really a day / of nothing?” observes the wry first-person speaker of “Everyday,” from Michael V. Smith’s gorgeous new book of verse, Queers Like Me. Neatly skewering the first-world problems of a twenty-first century modern, the poem also hints at the inconsistency and despair of contemporary personhood. If we are so privileged, why is it that we feel so bad?
“Anything I do often feels like too much // about me.” This confession, in “A Dream Writes a Poem About a Moose,” edges closer to dissecting such discomfort. Smith, a Kelowna-based performer whose talents include drag, film, and storytelling has more tools than most for expressing the angst of existence, especially for queers far from their families of origin and making their own way in a mostly indifferent, occasionally hostile world.
The gay kid’s move to the big city from the sticks isn’t a new story, or even one unique to queers. But would-be escapees to slicker places, one where queers are tolerated if not always celebrated, discover that such moves come at a cost: the loss of surrounding family and a grounded identity.
Still, Smith (Bad Ideas) had to leave Kemptville, where he grew up, continues the narrator in the titular poem, because queers like him “can’t stay in / their small towns.” Why not? He’d be sentenced to a closeted lifetime, one “where the fags swap // blow jobs at night.”
Our self-described sissy, known to almost all as Micky in his hometown, addresses the homophobia he experienced growing up in poems like “How Loud are Men”:
how loud are we
allowed to be
in each context
gay situation like
a library hush
One of the important themes in Queers is family, not the one we choose but the one into which we are born. The book opens with the narrator grappling for meaning in the wake of his upbringing in just such an ordinary, ridiculous family.
As he returns to sort out what, exactly, happened to “Grandma Cooper’s Corpse,” the title of this section, Smith peels back the curtain on the idiocy, menace, and surreal humour of a place where questionable behaviour is dealt with close to home. (“Grandma Cooper’s Corpse” is also a near-verbatim transcription from his storytelling show, Have I Told You the One About.)
“We’re familiar with your uncle,” the woman at the funeral parlour advises Mickey when he calls. This line, both comic and ominous, brings to life the ecosystem of small towns. Everyone is familiar with everyone else’s peccadillos and the mighty queer (in the old sense of the term) ways they behave.
Grandma Cooper’s death, for instance, is kept secret for five months by her determined and peculiar nephew. Apparently, in this family, concealed deaths are a theme: on another occasion, a great-nephew accidentally shows up the day before Grandpa’s memorial, otherwise kept secret.
The third section of Queers, “Facebook,” covers territory Smith has already written about in the haunting and lovely memoir My Body is Yours. There, Smith movingly described his father’s extended death in hospital and his own desperate sexual encounters with strangers in futile efforts to outrun his grief. The juxtaposition of the two could have been a sex-and-death cliché, but in Smith’s capable words became instead a meditation on the meanings of masculinity through the complicated relationship between an inadequate father and a sissy son.
The dispatches in Queers Like Me are comparatively spare, stitched together out of father and son’s status updates by turns maudlin (“He’s my hero”) and sharp (“The last text from my father / was a crack about Twinkies”).
Returning anew to the same material (but in a different format) allows Smith to explore once more the territory of loss and grief, this time jostling the irrelevance of much online expression against moments of profound meaning. Disjointed exhortations, as if to underline the point, form the capitalized titles: “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE/HAVE A GREAT TIME,” “GO LEAFS GO.” The device brings to mind Auden, in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” writing about how mundane events continue even while Icarus plummets from the sky, his wax wings melted and useless.
Smith is a smart and generous writer, and it shows here. His meditations on topics as varied as his childhood love for his grandparents and his tendency to speak to everything in the world (including, comically, “a squished banana” in “Braiding Sweetgrass”) showcase his humour without ever undercutting the deeper meaning to be discovered in his and others’ experiences. In fact, in “Recipe for a Queer Performance,” that meaning is mined from an actual performance which instructs “Ask the audience to write down/on a slim piece of paper/an embarrassing sexy time” and what it taught them. The results verge from hilarious (“Don’t / bang dudes with hot dads”) to insightful (“If you bleed on her / and she sticks around / she’s a keeper.”)
Some of the verse in Queers Like Me is just plain beautiful, like a line from “Aunt Debbie”: “…but true things hurt / a little more just for being so.” The true things Smith gently probes in his work fall into this category, delicately delineated by the poet in this latest mature and thoughtful, but no less outrageous and funny, collection.
Vancouver’s Carellin Brooks is the author of several books, including One Hundred Days of Rain, Fresh Hell, and Every Inch a Woman. [Editor’s note: Learned (Book*hug, 2022), a poetry collection about Brooks’ time at Oxford and in the fleshpots of London, was reviewed in BCR by Linda Rogers. Brooks recently reviewed Buffy Cram and Maryanna Gabriel for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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