‘Striking Surface’ by Jason Schneiderman
Author: Christopher Schmidt
June 9, 2011
In addition to being a tireless booster and critic of gay literature (on these pages and elsewhere), Jason Schneiderman is also a poet of deep wit and mercurial grace. His recently published second book of poems, Striking Surface (Ashland University Press), extends the pointed charms of his first volume, Sublimation Point, while developing a subject that at first glance seems distant from queer issues.
Certainly gay love and desire make notable appearances in Striking Surface, but the volume is mostly concerned with the moral and existential dimensions of what it means to be a child—that impossibly freighted symbol of innocence and hope—in a culture bent on seduction and damage.
We all begin our lives as children. But it is only after we leave childhood that it becomes invested with sometimes dangerous yearning. If childhood is a lost paradise, it is also a paradise constantly under threat—by abandonment, by age, by generational extinction. Everybody is somebody’s child. But how does our identity as the “good son” or “daughter” change when a parent dies?
It is this last question that Schneiderman takes up memorably in the volume’s ambitious showstopper, a sequence of elegies for his late mother, who died in 2007. These lively and surprising poems leave behind the pieties that make elegy a genre to be avoided. Instead, Schneiderman uses this sequence to showcase the most engaging (because imperfect) aspects of his own voice: sardonic anger, exhibitionist shame, and wisdom verging on the overweening:
I couldn’t believe you let yourself
be filmed for the video they showed at your tribute,
and I wanted to tell everyone, That’s only her voice
when she’s nervous. That’s only her face when she
has to be on display and she doesn’t like it.
Perhaps the best way to compliment Schneiderman is to say that his mother would have recognized herself in these poems, and respected the truths they tell. Their sedimented tones of jokiness and recrimination reveal a relationship that has survived over-familiarity and strain. Schneiderman writes:
I asked if Dad knew
you were punishing him, and you said, No,
he just thinks I’m lazy. And I said, How’s
that working out for you, and you said, Just fine.
If the use of the second-person pronoun is a way of ensuring the mother’s presence, it is an unstable effect: “Whatever you there is now, / she hates this work I do, this sorting of closets, this giving / of clothes.” The you Schneiderman addresses—his mother—too quickly slips away into a distancing third person: she. Equally unstable and subject to revision is the meaning of self in the wake of the mother’s death. Is Schneiderman still a “good son” if he is doing the work she hates? If the mother gives her children life and—at least partly—an identity, does her death rob them of it?
This sense of anger at the parent’s ability to undo the child is expressed even more directly in “The Book of the Boy,” a brilliant poem whose title could easily serve as the entire book’s:
The boy asks, “Why was I made?”
and the answer comes: “Because we
wanted you,” which puzzles the boy.
“But there was no me to want,” the boy
protests, and the answer comes: “Well,
we wanted something like you.” And the boy asks
“Would any small person have done?”
and the answer comes: “Any small person
we made. It was critical we be the ones
who made it.” The boy hesitates.
The answers are getting angry. At last:
“So I was interchangeable? Then?
Before I was made?” The answer comes:
“Yes. Then. And now. We had hoped
you would be more specific by now.
All these questions.”
I recently heard a story about distant acquaintances—a young straight couple—who admitted “buyer’s remorse” after becoming new parents. I was shocked at this bald sentiment but also impressed by the couple’s candor. In the excerpt above, Schneiderman assumes a similar position, exposing the unexamined selfishness motivating many parents (“It was critical we be the ones / who made it”). But he does so playfully, not out of malice. Using the launching pad of humor, Schneiderman somersaults us quickly into a profound riddle of self and existence, minus the pretense that often attends such questioning.
More directly “gay” subject matter also appears in Striking Surface—a title that refers to instruments of violence used in torture (even against children), but also describes a kind of Wildean attention to the “superficial” that critics have used to attack gay culture throughout history. Yet even when writing an ode to rough trade, Schneiderman takes unexpected positions. The poem “Sailor at Nostrand and Bedford” subverts the Genet-like scenario promised by its title:
If you think that what I want
is to touch that sailor, to pull
his liquid body from those
polyester pants, you’d be
After this too-certain rejection of the desired object, the poem’s coda admits the erotic shortcomings that inform the speaker’s defenses: “There was a sailor once. / What we wanted / was the same, / and each other / was the last place / we’d looked.”
Another standout poem, “Pedophile,” introduces the question of queer desire into the adult-child relationship explored elsewhere. Schneiderman writes:
I mention the thirteen-year-old boy with a life sentence,
tried as an adult, and Kevin says, “If he’s being tried as an adult,
I don’t see why I can’t have sex with him.”
In this poem, unlike in “The Book of the Boy,” Schneiderman takes the conservative position. While the speaker realizes Kevin is being hypothetical—there was no actual sexual relation between him and this child murderer—the perverse and sometimes counter-sensical leaps of theory (queer or otherwise) should never be allowed to violate ethical relation. The speaker concludes: “There’ll be no more coffee dates to discuss Derrida, / at least not with Kevin.”
The entire volume, from its rehearsals of the doomed Children’s Crusade to the seductions of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, takes what could be described as a queer perspective on the child. Yet Schneiderman has little patience for the romanticized figure of the “queer outlaw”—the pedophile, the murderer, the artist without limits—who uses society’s rejection as an excuse to perpetrate further crimes against the unknowing. It is always the child who must be protected. More than anyone, queers may understand what it means to be damaged in childhood, often by the conventions of the parent-child relationship. Consequently, queers may be especially careful in respecting and nurturing the child—particularly in our love for the inner child, perhaps the queerest relation of all.
by Jason Schneiderman
Ashland University Press
Paperback, 9780912592701, 64pp