In 2009, my poem “Adam and Steve” appeared in Best American Poetry 2009. (Thrilled to death? you bet.) In 2010, in the middle of a rather angry review of that volume, the reviewer spent a paragraph on what was probably meant to be a searing takedown of “The Book of Steve”, my poem which had had the freak luck to appear in that volume. The only problem with all the searage was that it missed the point of the poem so wholly that it didn’t sting the way more on-point criticisms can–at best searing only the side of the pan and perhaps adding a few scorch marks to the chef’s apron.
That was nine years ago, and at the time I shrugged and voiced some 2000-oughts equivalent of “whatevs.” You can spend your life getting upset over the fact that OMG, someone on the internet got something wrong, or choose not to; too, people with venom to dispense don’t generally let a little thing like careful reading stand in their way. And one up side of being a little-known poet (yes, even after all the “material rewards” that the reviewer imaginatively ascribed to the anthology poets) is that bad reviews neither make you nor break you: so few people are reading either the poem or the review anyway.
But it’s finally begun to occur to me that if you lack a name or a network, readers don’t know what you do. And while modesty may dictate waiting to be discovered by happy chance, you can wait for that forever. So I’ve taken a vow to do a better job of explaining what I do, and let readers go from there. And there’s nothing like a review that gets what you’re doing completely wrong to serve as a springboard to explaining what you actually are doing.
So that’s where I am today. The would-be-sear—the part of it that pertained to my work, anyway—read as follows:
Catherine Carter’s “The Book of Steve,” where God makes not Adam and Eve, but Adam and Steve, signals a familiar outpost in the American poetry landscape: poetry as jokery, poetry starting from a weird/ironic/crazy premise to generate its own flabby middle and end. More and more, the poet in America is forced to assume the guise of comedian, pressing the entertainment function to its limits. It’s the Billy Collins brand of poetry, where once you establish the basic alteration among a set of existing variables, absolutely nothing unpredictable follows. … All I can say is, I’m glad God made Adam and Eve… because the human race would have died of sheer boredom with Adam and Steve in charge from Day One. The most irritating thing about this poem is its earnest political correctness—a political constituency pleased, some kudos earned, all at no cost to the poet’s soul. Pretty “lighthearted” (and lightweight!) as Carter explains in her note.
This backhand swat at the undeserving fly of my poem was right about the premise: what if, as the popular cliché puts it, God did make Adam and Steve? (Weird crazy premise? I guess it’s all according.) That is, what can a thought experiment based on this cliché show us about the roots of homophobia and the semi-compulsory heterosexuality that has characterized so many human cultures over so many millennia? Some of what the poem says about it is indeed phrased humorously, because love is like that: neither deep affection, nor being gay, nor even great sex preclude the issues that accompany cultural demands for men to be silent or the deeper struggle for control encoded in the Battle of the Remote.
The reviewer found the poem equally irritating for its earnestness and its lightheartedness, feedback which would be more than a little confusing if I planned to revise. But he was right in an upside-down way: the poem’s a lighthearted exploration at some not-so-light issues, though political correctness isn’t one of them. It turns out that Steve, and the possibility of gayness, get written out of the story because even Eden can’t change Adam’s need to find a partner he can dominate: one who doesn’t need to be on top, who won’t expect equal time with the remote control, whose chest is more like a pillow—in fact, Eve, absent from the poem but foreshadowed. The poem implies that Adam’s complaints induced Yahweh to remove the obnoxious Steve—whom I imagined asking the animals what they thought they should be named instead of imposing names on them, scratching them and pulling their ticks, entering into communion with them, co-creating the world. In this poem, as in some renditions of Genesis, Adam is the first patriarch. Steve isn’t, and that’s what he can’t be forgiven, why he has to leave. In other words, the poem links heterosexuality with the need to dominate, and both default heterosexuality and dominance with Judeo-Christian patriarchal traditions, and all three of them with the failure to connect and identify with nonhuman nature which has led us to a world of mass extinction and global climate change.
Needless to say, this poem is far from the first to point out such connections. Lynn White linked Judeo-Christian patriarchal ideology to abuse of nature in the year in which I was born, and the prior year had seen the second edition of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, which linked economic dominance and sexual repression, though I’m not sure how far Marcuse pursued the link to patriarchal dominance or to dominance over nature (it’s been a long time since I’ve read Marcuse.)
The poem, though, having done away with Steve in order that patriarchy and straightness might reign, ends with a vision of a different world—in the west of Eden rather than the east, perhaps, because Steve, on terms with the snake, wasn’t necessarily cast out of Eden with the Genesis cast. And Steve has company, “other people” which neither Genesis nor Adam consider people at all, fabulous beasts. It ends,
…in some stories it is said that Eden has other quadrants
and that Steve is in one of them.
Steve, and the snakes with feet, and other people
who missed the next book: the roc preening its iridescent plumes,
the unicorn lipping apples, the manticore having a dustbath.
They say that somewhere among the leaves of western Eden
was found a helpmeet for Steve, who was not fruitful,
who did not multiply, who had no dominion over the earth.
The reviewer considered this vision—humankind not separate from the nonhuman, narrative not founded upon conflict, love without dominance, production, or dominion—to be both “predictable” and “sheer boredom.” He also considered it hermetic, mechanical, having no reference to the empirical world. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions about that…
…because what this poem was doing is what most of my work does: in a short compass, and in the faith that a light-hearted approach doesn’t have to mean lightweight, it refuses to take for granted that the world just has to be the way a given culture insists that it must. It questions the pervasive assumption that nonhuman people aren’t people. It explores connections between systems which don’t always appear to be integrally connected, but are—like the ecosystems to which it keeps returning, the ones that sustain life in you, and the reviewer, and me, whether we choose to acknowledge that dependence or not.