Sex in a Straightjacket: Randall Mann’s Proprietary
Robert Lee Thornton
Self-described on Twitter as a “queer mutt poet,” Mann’s poetry tangles with corporate culture, queer identity, and ownership. His new collection, Proprietary (Persea Books, 2017), treads water familiar to those who have followed Mann’s work in his previous collections Straight Razor and Breakfast with Thom Gunn. A hate-love letter (or perhaps a “hate-fuck” letter) to gay culture, corporate structure, and Mann’s adopted home of San Francisco, Proprietary takes its title from a word that is itself “of multiple origins...partly a borrowing from French...partly a borrowing from Latin.” This word denotes ownership, and Proprietary calls all ownership into question, especially ownership of the self: of one’s time, body, and identity. Even proprietorship of the language used to describe (and thus “own”) experience is undercut by Mann’s trademark, subversive use of poetic meter and form.
“Flagging” exemplifies this aesthetic. The speaker finds himself whirled to a fetish bar, “in the hands of a loaded man,” with bathroom fisting and back-room gangbanging on the menu. Menacing overtones are undercut by the speaker’s own admissions: “The entire place is down-market— / and so am I. I love it” and “I fake a fight but let them drag / me to the corner.” An incomplete sestina, “Flagging” uses form to ratchet up this tension between assent and assault. The received structure reflects the rituals of coded behavior where colored bandanas advertise specific sexual desires and where resistance can be code for consent. At the same time, the missing tercet stanza knocks like a flat tire behind the stability. Is all is as it should be? Or is something much darker going on?
For the poems found in Proprietary, either take is valid. Degradation and desire are codependent, from the “self-abuse, going blind” in “California” to the alleys of Kuzguncuk in “Secondment”: Walking in Istanbul after a tryst gone wrong, the speaker encounters “a matted cat crawled out of filth / just to nuzzle me, my face. And I let it.”
Mann’s speakers often find themselves wandering, either in the literal sense (as in “Secondment”) or in more abstract ways. Take these lines from the rap-verse poem “Horizon”:
if not real,
It’s a wandering provoked by the speaker’s submersion in corporate identity, a theme of Proprietary that is introduced in the titular poem and carried throughout the collection. In “Proprietary," the speaker talks of CFOs and animal experimentation of which he is “legally obligated / to spare you the particulars,” asking “How could things be any different?” In “Proximity,” Mann introduces an org-chart, the most loathed way to measure plot corporate hierarchy, and a speaker with an office “that faces a hallway” but wishes to face “the bay.” Sex often enters the equation, as seen in “Renewal”, reproduced here in whole:
Like patent protection;
like an erection.
Or the temp-controlled dead,
my mortician said.
The famine in our eyes;
The spawn of franchise
Mann grapples with other kinds of identity dissonance as well. One of the most compelling poems in the book is “Young Republican," in which the speaker delivers a carefully-studied impression of Ronald Reagan during a mock debate that veers hard-right into affect: “Oh Walter, there you go again / I smiled and vainly said.” While the speaker of “Young Republican” is never explicitly identified as queer, readers make the connection themselves from the poem’s language as well as its position late in the book.
“Young Republican” is written in common meter, with quatrains adhering to a variable meter: iambic tetrameter for the odd lines, iambic trimeter for the even ones:
_ / _ / _ / _ /
and so | was mine | in mid|dle school
_ / _ / _ /
throughout | the mock | debate.
Instantly familiar to anyone who grew up listening to “Amazing Grace,” common meter un-subtly frames what is written as verse. It’s a wry choice for a poem about Reagan-era America. In addition to placing lines like “I never mentioned AIDS” in devastating counterpoint with the relentlessly upbeat form, the common meter’s patriotic pedigree ironizes the entirety of “Young Republican” and the mid-80’s jingoism it purports to express.
And whose language is it, really? Is this the speaker pretending to be Reagan, using form to lampoon the “family values” crowd? Or is this the form that Reagan himself would want to write in? Who is at fault for amateurish rhymes such as “Reagan” with “ray-gun” —an unimaginative Teflon Man or his adolescent avatar? The lines blur; Reagan starts to look “a little fey” himself, and the speaker steals some of the President’s power, throwing “benign grenades” in his own middle-school debate.
Watching a young, gay man try on affect—possibly for the first time—is messy. Fueled by “Mother’s gin,” he explores an identity through mannerisms and patterns of speech. True, nobody gets out of this unscathed, with both speaker and Reagan shouldering guilt for “never mention[ing] AIDS.” But none of the poem’s formal irony or arch hindsight make “Young Republican” any less touching. And it is this common thread that ties Proprietary together: the tender act of arriving at earnestness through insincerity.
It is what makes “Young Republican”—like the rest of Mann’s new collection—so good.