Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bull Eclogues: Part 6 (of 7)

In 2005, Times magazine listed Ted Haggard as one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the USA. At that time, he was the leader of the National Associations of Evangelicals and a public figure welcomed at The White House. In 2006, a scandal broke which exposed him as a homosexual— a great setback for his Evangelical homophobia. This is the context for “Bull Eclogues”, a sequence in which its author presents the spiritual crisis of Haggard and by painting a portrait of him sketches his own personal concerns, as a gay man, about Evangelical Christianity. Durer casting himself as Christ in “Sketch #1” mutates into Haggard’s tortured view of himself as Christian martyr. This sequence is a wonderfully energetic analysis of the sins of Christianity.

The “Bull Eclogues” are written with a sharp sense of irony. Nicholas Liu, with true insight, observes that Jee Leong Koh’s sonnets are Petrarchan. (They have the familiar turn of mood as octet becomes sestet). The Petrarchan sonnet originated as a priest gave up his religious vocation for love. The “Bull Eclogues” begin as Haggard forfits his Christian mission for homosexual lust. And there are further ironies. Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, are works of unrequited love. The first poem in the sequence, “Cretan”, describes how Haggard’s desire is accepted. An “eclogue” has its origins in the Greek ekloge/choice. Poetic eclogues present chosen worlds— of natural order. But the main echo here is Christian. As Milton put it in his great definition of choice, angels were made “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” (Paradise Lost, III, ll.98-99). Though an Evangelical angel, Haggard chose to fall…to become a Minotaur in a labyrinth of denials and lies.

“The Cretan” begins:

You come out of the shower, warm and wet,
and towel your head with rough deliberation.
Those wide shoulders untouched by a plough,
you wear like a smile, and the room smells right.
The poem opens with a staged gay scenario. The reader’s tongue lingers with the speaker’s on the alliterative “warm and wet”. The speaker acknowledges his physical attraction, though this man is no pastoral lad with a plough. This is an anti-eclogue in which Christian pastors are not pastoral. His instincts aroused, the speaker descends into smell. The brilliant choice of word, though, is “deliberation.” It at once describes the calculated manner of the seducer and reminds the reader that this word has its roots in liberation. Haggard is shown as sensing his own freedom, giving up his conservative theology for something more liberal. He is dwelling on a dangerous free thought.

The poem continues:

I know I should have sacrificed you to God,
I should have raised the knife despite its stone
and saved its bullion in your bull-cow heart,
I should have turned from fucking with a beast.

With a sense of his own importance, the speaker compares his testing to that of Abraham, reminding a reader in the process that he did not adhere to God’s will like that great patriarch.

At its conclusion, the poem falls into a world of violence. Haggard admits he has surrendered, almost comically, to “the altar” of “lust”. His world is pornographic melodrama…a conversion of his Evangelical world. There is something pornographic about the extremities of Evangelical language, its medieval Bosch-like obsession with infiltrating its own diseased notions of sexuality.

The writing in “Bull Eclogues” sustains the wit and energy of it opening. As the portrait of Haggard develops, layer upon layer, the reader becomes aware of the poet who put those words on the page and into the ear. A secondary sketch begins. This sketch shows a poet writing with understanding and contempt, shaking off Protestantism as Haggard protests. Behind this trangressive poem there is an ethical mind. This, I think, is something that characterises the gay poet (in the Nietzschean sense of characterisation whereby every little thing is weighed up and disciplined into a style of expression): having been wounded and pushed into exile by morality the return to health comes from establishing a counter ethical centre. It is from that centre that opposition grows. Transgression is ethical. The jokes of the trickster are serious.

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