Review of Transgay Poetics by Richard Livermore

Christopher Barnes Reviews Transgay Poetics by Richard Livermore
Christopher Barnes reviews Transgay Poetics by Richard Livermore
Published by Chanticleer Press £4 from 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh EH3 6HN
In his collection of 7 essays Richard Livermore brings disparate subjects together under an overall theme. His interest in how gay characters in poetry, photography, film and novels become more than their individual identities, become in fact universal, is subtly explained using close readings of the films Green Street, My Own Private Idaho, Pink Narcissus and The Beautiful Boxer as well as other culturally poetic works.
On E.M. Forster’s 1914 novel Maurice, Richard Livermore takes a flawed and much criticised work and elucidates aspects which give us a greater appreciation of the whole. In this essay he sets about clarifying his theme that gay characters transcend being gay as a mere personal issue. “I know of no other novel which so closely anticipates the genre of the ‘coming out’ novel”, writes Richard Livermore an odd but understandable statement given that this novel was never published in the author’s lifetime. The protagonists overcome class restrictions and prejudice from what might at first seem marginal sexual identities. It is Richard Livermore’s view that the working class character, Alec in his relationship with Maurice will not be treated subserviently. I would assert that an equal relationship between two men of different classes can only be forged by qualifying the rights and cultural respect of the more disenfranchised one. Richard Livermore thinks Alec’s views about the gentry are ‘ambivalent’. It is certainly true that Alec is unimpressed by such judgements of status. But all the same, anger at how his class is treated by men of the gentry is clearly expressed in the novel.
Richard Livermore notes that there is often ‘a mutual attraction between the classes’; I agree with him that sometimes this is what makes such relationships interesting. Richard Livermore writes of how the two central characters succeed in forging fuller human lives wherein acceptances of difference lead to a positive affirmation of cross-class homosexual love. Richard Livermore also notices how facets of the novel, inner connections of characterisation, plotting and scenes, as well as dialogue, lean on each other fusing the whole with extra ‘poetic’ significance. He goes on to discuss how Forster’s novel is a journey of individuation, how the central characters are separated from their early understandings of who they are in their ‘stuck’ circumstances which by the end of the novel leaves them with their true selves revealed.
In the essay Shylock the Extremist, Richard Livermore writes of the understated gay character Antonio from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comparing him with the more openly gay characters written by Christopher Marlowe. Richard Livermore suggests that because of Antonio’s ‘love that surpatheth that of a woman’, his actions and psychological motivations are born of a negative response to his homosexuality by members of the society which the play revolves around. It is true that this is implied though not stated by Shakespeare. Richard Livermore goes on to account how the dynamics of action emanating from these emotions of conscious or unconscious desires in Antonio lead him to set himself against the other outsider in the play Shylock. Antonio’s personal sexuality in a society which does not accept him for it, affects the other characters of the play which Richard Livermore stresses. Because Shakespeare uses the ambiguity of poetry in his writing, these issues are never fully resolved even though they lurk at the heart of the play.
There is an intentional open-mindedness too fluid or poetic to be reduced to statement in the play. Richard Livermore reminds us that Keats discussed this in his Theory of Negative Capability. This is why the structure of the play is inherently poetic. I think that statement can be simple and final but with Shakespeare ambiguous complexity is the reason he is hailed as a great writer. Though Richard Livermore also points out that particularly in this play with this character Shakespeare’s poetic ambiguity could be a conscious effort of self-preservation, after all Marlowe’s frankness got him killed. Richard Livermore also writes about Antonio describing himself in the line ’the wether of the flock’, wether being a castrated ram not able to sire offspring. In the character of Antonio this could be because he is exclusively attracted to men Richard Livermore says. I tend to agree with Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual theorists who have long held the view that sexual identities are not the same in different historical periods. Richard Livermore asserts that Antonio being exclusively attracted to men is also something which must have happened in historical epochs that are not our own, that despite the ‘norms’ of homosexuals getting married to women, like Shakespeare himself, there must always have been those would did not.
In his essay Cold Pastoral Richard Livermore goes on to discuss the photography of Pierre et Gilles. These images are not unlike poetry in that they transcend what we first think of them as being into something more resonate. There is a shallow adherence to the stereotypes of beauty which are found in many gay photographs and films, I would argue, but by the time the photographs have been set, costumed and retouched into what Jason Goldman calls their ‘unsettling perfection’ what exists is something altogether sublime. Richard Livermore notes that some people including a friend of his see these images as “typical examples of gay iconography, in which the physically perfect and youthful was considered the ideal”, in reality the artists seem to flatter models like Boy George and Marc Almond making them cuter than they ever were in reality. I think that the cold untouchability of the beautiful models makes them almost dead, or misremembered. This gives them an extra-real, haunting quality. They become gods, devils, totems or garish puppets, craven images that are symbolisations not real living beautiful people. They become myths out of the banal pop art sensibilities of the over-commercialised image. In one Pierre et Gilles photograph, the boy Neptune poses. As Richard Livermore points out we tend to think of Neptune as the old man of the sea. The poetry of this painting/photograph may emanate from the sense of youthful beauty that the boy exudes and the imagined knowledge of his own old age that is in our consciousness if not in the actual image as Richard Livermore elucidates. This juxtaposition widens the meaning of the art work. As Richard Livermore points out by the time we see the portraits they have already become as dead and as unreal as the representation of Greek beauties in Keats’s poem Ode To A Grecian Urn. In this poem young lovers in flight exist not in reality but only in Keats’ imagination, the place where time and beauty fuse and reinvent themselves.
The film Green Street, directed and co-written by Ms Lexi Alexander prompts a very interesting essay. A film ostensibly about football hooliganism but as Richard correctly shows, below the surface machismo there are hints of deeper relationships between the characters in a highly repressed sub-cultural situation which are disallowed. The dialogue in the film is homophobic and any actual homosexual advance would probably result in violence, this is like army banter and Richard Livermore points out that this mode of conversation keeps coming back to homosexuality and homophobia in a way that the talk of men who are more open about such things usually does not. This language is used to taunt but also to disguise writes Richard Livermore. I saw a documentary about recruits training on TV some time ago. It showed a trainer who got naked to teach recruits how to shower including intimate washing of his penis. I can’t imagine this scenario in any other context than homoeroticism which of course is then repressed, creating violent feelings and aggression which is also a strong theme in Richard Livermore’s essay. If they really needed to be taught how to shower at that age surely they’d be considered to have learning disabilities. As Richard Livermore reminds us, concerning the characters in Green Street the relationship they have to violence and warfare is ‘alienated’ but it is also clear that the same word describes their understandings and emotions about being men, he points out. Richard Livermore claims that the poetry of this film lingers between the outward violence and its relationship to the simmering depths of the characters that act out the violence and what these simmering depths hint at rather than state.
Richard Livermore’s essays are certainly thought provoking with some very illuminating points. His contrasts and links between one work of art and another in a different media are always surprising though apt. We go on to think again about works that we thought we knew approaching them from a different angle opens them up to be enjoyed over and over.
Link to the magazine Ol’ Chanty.

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