Ass as Raw Heart
Section of the Once Upon A Time mural, Keith Haring, 1989
From The Sewanee Review:
The space around Haring’s penises is filled not just with his usual wavy lines signaling motion or vibrating energy, but with drops of semen, which shoot out of cocks maybe a little like machine gun fire (though are those bullets or hearts?), and by gargantuan tadpoles of sperm, at least one of which has a single X for an eye, that stick-figure sign of death; a sign too, surely, of the viral load it bears. The human figures are ecstatic, bacchanalian, enraptured; they’re also, at least some of them, sacrificial, as agonized as any lost soul in Bosch; whether they’re suffering transfiguration or disfigurement, it’s hard to say. A work of joy, yes, and also a work of rage, at the fact of AIDS and at America’s criminal indifference in the face of it, which would ensure, which continues to ensure, the deaths of hundreds of thousands; and also, it has seemed to me, a work of terror in the face of desire itself, which both exalts and deforms us. As one stands in the little room they adorn, the initial shock Haring’s images may cause is replaced by a profound feeling of awe, of being face to face with something bottomless, overwhelming, infinite, something that at once dwarfs us and shows us the immense scale of ourselves. Many gay men I know call the bathroom at the LGBT Center our Sistine Chapel, and that seems to me pretty much right, both in the company it claims for Haring’s genius and in the sense of the sacred I feel there. The terror Haring’s mural captures is a religious terror, I think, its joy a religious joy, by which I mean that they respond to forces that exhaust our reason and master our will.
Over more than three decades and thirteen books of poems, Carl Phillips has been conducting an inquiry into intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, that is as daring, as wild, and as reverent—as unflinching—as the inquiry I read in Haring’s mural. Central to this inquiry has been an analogy drawn repeatedly between what one might call marginalized sexual practices, especially cruising and gay male promiscuity, but also sadomasochism, and religious devotion. This analogy is made in several ways, at least three of which are evident in a famous early poem, “Hymn,” from Pastoral, Phillips’s fourth book. The first mode of analogy is the drawing of what we might call imagistic likenesses, which I think we see in the sixth and seventh tercets: “the stranger’s // strange room entered not for prayer / but for striking / prayer’s attitude.” This kind of likeness appears often in Phillips’s work. “If / I go down on whoever tells me to, is it prayer, / isn’t it, did I pray // enough?” a man asks in a much later poem, “In This World to Be Lost.” The tone is starkly different, but this kind of metaphor is of a piece with a certain strain of gay male vernacular, the camp idiom of worshipping at a handsome man’s church or clutching one’s rosary or wearing out one’s knees with prayer. The impulse in such gestures is always double: an assault upon convention, maybe a little blasphemy, on one hand, but also an arrogation of value, an assertion of prestige. Even in very early poems, Phillips was able to make this familiar gesture revelatory. In “King of Hearts,” from Cortège, for example, there’s a passage that still occasions wonder: “as // you lift his ass toward you, as your hands / spread it open until it resembles nothing // so much as a raw heart but with a seemingly / endless hole through it.” Phillips’s writing of the queer body is remarkable for many things, not least his lack of squeamishness when it comes to anal sex—to what remains, even in our age of marriage equality, the unspeakable fact of the penetrable male body. And here, in a bravura figure, Phillips finds in a man’s ass a mystic’s vision: the raw heart he compares it to is Christ’s sacred heart; the alluring, perilous entranceway of the anus is made the infinite hole torn by Herbert’s “Christ-side-piercing spear.” This gesture still seems bold in 2019; but Cortège was published in 1995, at the height of the AIDS crisis, in those panicked years before the development of protease inhibitors, and in that context Phillips’s poem seems to me astonishing, a heroically defiant claim of sacredness made on behalf of demonized bodies.