Review of David Trinidad, Dear Prudence. New and Selected Poems. New York: Turtle Point Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-933527-47-5. 495 pp. $19.00 paper.
“As a straight male, I read David Trinidad’s poems with admiration for his technique, coupled with the wish that he’d get serious and the nagging suspicion that he already has.” That sentence came from a review I wrote ten years ago for Trinidad’s book Plasticville. I was coming to terms with the hallmarks of Trinidad’s writing: an impressive technique, whether in rhyme and meter or in syllabics, used in the service of campy subject matter drawn from popular culture that seemed beneath such painstaking care. Imagine a villanelle, for example, with lines consisting of sentences a talking doll said when you pulled her cord or a sonnet consisting of the names of 1950’s movie monsters.
You don’t have to imagine, for “Chatty Cathy Villanelle” and “Monster Mash” are reprinted in Dear Prudence, Trinidad’s new and selected poems. The boundary between high and low culture, already the faintest of lines, is trampled into oblivion in Trinidad’s work. This is partly the result of Trinidad’s gay-and-proud-of-it aesthetic. He doesn’t back down from dealing with any aspect of his experience, whether it’s his sex life or his collection of Barbie Dolls. You think I’m swish? he seems to be saying, I’ll give you swish – here’s a poem which lovingly details Barbie’s wardrobe.
While I was reading Dear Prudence, I happened to read a piece in The New Yorker by David Sedaris, one of his essays based on memories from his childhood, and I was struck immediately by the similarities between the two Davids. Each of them grew up in a middle-class family headed by a hard-to-please father in denial about his son’s sexuality and an unhappy mother who took refuge in alcohol. Both boys later faced major problems with substance abuse before finally getting clean and finding their places in the world. Sedaris, however, chronicles his childhood with mordant humor; Trinidad’s pain is never far from the surface. His poems constitute a Bildungsroman of sort, a perfectly realized depiction of his difficult struggle, growing up in the San Fernando Valley in one of the many suburban developments that sprang up in post-World War II Southern California. Making a soul was a formidable activity for someone who was in but not of that culture.
Dear Prudence has its share of poems inspired by camp culture. “Peyton Place. A Haiku Soap Opera” consists of 31 haikus, each poem inspired by its corresponding episode of the 1960’s soap opera. Each line in “The Patty Duke Show: The Complete First Season” is a summation of that episode’s plot. Other poems have darker themes drawn from sensational stories of the decade, such as Sharon Tate’s murder or the eight student nurses killed by Richard Speck. Eleven poems deal with the most famous poet who emerged in the 60’s – Sylvia Plath, along with Ted Hughes and their son Nicholas.
Through it all, Trinidad’s tone is elegiac, his new poems those of a middle-aged man looking back over his life and trying to make sense of it. He remembers dead family, friends, and lovers and looks up his childhood home on the street view of Google maps. Remarkably, Trinidad manages to craft a literary personality that approaches the universal, a rendering of emotions we all can share. The camp obsessions – Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo – and the collection of Barbie Dolls come to seem mere identifying features, individual as a mole on the cheek but unimportant to the general humanity of the author.
Two poems in this collection stand out for me. “A Poem Under the Influence” is astonishing, a 48-page poem written over seventeen months which gambols through Trinidad’s life, past and present. He throws in both fluffy and horrendous material, the one flowing over the other: his current lack of a partner, the two types of tiaras that come with the Sophisticated Lady model of the Barbie doll, disturbing movies seen in childhood, his rape as a teenager, a road trip east from Chicago, scores to be settled with other poets, a visit in the early 1980’s to Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, you name it. Memories trigger other memories, and Trinidad goes with the flow. It’s a remarkable depiction of the poet and how he came to be.
The other poem, “The Past” is subtitled “After Neruda.” “Why do low moments / have more staying power / than happy ones, / some downright refusing, / though the theater is dark, / to vacate the stage?” Trinidad wonders, as he remembers his breakup with his longtime partner. He discusses his queerness and the pain it caused him while growing up, realizing, “There would be no peace / until I accepted / each wound, each loss / as necessary for my growth, / and ultimately right / and good.” Trinidad’s hard-won self-knowledge echoes Aeschylus, who wrote, “Against our very will, even in our own despite, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.” There is stone underneath Trinidad’s fluff, and these poems reveal it.