The Flâneur of the Castro

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Deal: New and Selected Poems
by Randall Mann
(Copper Canyon Press, 2023, 193 pp., $20/paperback)


In Walter Benjamin’s exposé of early-modern Paris, he connects Charles Baudelaire’s melancholy genius with the flâneur’s allegorical gaze—Baudelaire’s talent for absorbing the city’s attractive and repulsive elements while still remaining on the edge of things. For Benjamin, the flâneur feels both at home in and estranged by the crowd, which he hides behind like a sooty veil. The flâneur can’t resist the city’s diorama of chthonic seductions because the human crush, from which he cannot extricate himself, nudges him ever onward towards the next brothel, dancehall, café, arcade. The flâneur is a living incongruity: asocial yet unable to escape any of the crowd’s vices or virtues except, perhaps, respectability; as Benjamin puts it, with neither approval nor reproof, “His only sexual communion is realized with a whore.”

Throughout Randal Mann’s Deal, which combines a book’s share of “New Poems” with selections from Mann’s five previous volumes, the poet flaunts his own brash flânerie. A biotech medical writer by trade, Mann has managed to thrive outside of “po biz” academia, garnering such honors as the Kenyon Review Prize, the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from Poetry, and several Lambda nods. Having lived for the last twenty-five years in San Francisco, Mann has adapted a phantasmagorical, Baudelairean ethos to suit a twenty-first-century, queer, US-American context. Deal, with the title’s transactional implications and idiomatic ring, catches the poet mid-life and mid-career, oscillating between competing extremes such as praise and lamentation, clarity and ecstasy, boredom and danger, liberation and constraint.

In his best poems, Mann holds such forces not in check but in tension, turning his craft of serious play toward the fleeting, contingent urbanity of the Castro’s grime and glitz while he continues to cruise, as he put it in a 2018 interview, for “the possibility of a new way of seeing.” It’s important to note Mann’s focus in this phrase on the provisional—not “a new way” but the possibility of it—which begins to explain this poet’s formal restlessness, a quality that has yielded his work’s most conspicuous gains and its most alluring failures.

Here is a poet distrustful of the mediocrity of poetry that “asks only that we coo into our microbrew,” which is exactly where most twenty-first-century US-American poems leave off. Rather than narcissistic identity-hawking, soapbox pandering, lazy epiphanies, or flaccid free-versifying, Mann demands “risk,” as he explains in a recent essay: poetry’s beguiling way of making both reader and writer “slightly uncomfortable.” Yet this squirm goes both ways. No cringe in the writer, no cringe in the reader. With this “pleasant unpleasant” rubric in mind, Mann’s greatest accomplishment may be his uncommon capacity to invoke the confessional mode without actually confessing anything—the way his formal poems draw blood while still retaining an appealing surface-level artificiality.

If my Baudelaire comparison strikes some readers as too much of an angle, I would hasten to add that Mann at his most audacious bears a striking family resemblance. Like Baudelaire, who for all his modernity never abandoned rhyme in his verse—acknowledging the prose-poems of Paris Spleen are something other than verse—Mann utilizes poetic forms of the past as a way of confronting the raucous turmoil of the present. Drag nights, “earthquake weather,” HIV/AIDS, police violence, office work, rent boys, hapless sex—these are the subjects that lodge in Mann’s imagination, enlivening his pantoums, sestinas, abecedarians, palindromes, sonnets, and villanelles. Mann also shares Baudelaire’s obsessions with promiscuity, drug use, disease, raunchiness, and camp, though without the earlier poet’s religious convictions to the demonic or the divine.

More latitudinarian in matters of the spirit, Mann displays a democratic flair for shamelessness that Baudelaire would’ve recognized. Both poets make the aesthetic choice to embrace what others might consider too low to inhabit the heights of Poesy; in “Anecdote of an Ex,” for example, Mann’s narrator admonishes his lover (whom readers are invited to consider Mann himself), “You should really use an enema. For once, / it might be nice to avoid your shit.” This notion that poetry not only can but must accommodate the most quotidian, humiliating, and outrageous materials serves to validate Mann’s poems as urgent, authentic, and honest depictions of life. Yet “intimacy,” as Mann writes in the preface of his 2019 volume of critical prose, “is perhaps poetry’s greatest illusion.” While titillating in its presentation of lurid tidbits ostensibly offered as autobiography, Deal provides intimations of the intimate, achieving a private register without resorting to the indecorousness of personal spillage.

The briefest poem in Deal, an epigrammatic narrative-lyric from A Better Life (2021), features a distanced narrator characteristically unwilling to remove the mask:


The scribbled Bible verse in lieu of tip; the table talk that grins and lays the blame; the rubber on the bed, its little rip. The numbers in your phone without a name.

This miniature depth-charge of a quatrain, with its latent Todestrieb, ripples with accusation, swapping overt disclosures for tantalizing hints. Though the precise details of this love-triangle exist just beyond the poem, the Bible verse offered “in lieu of tip” in close proximity to “the rubber on the bed” suggests that the “you” has brought home a stranger, perhaps a sex worker, in the temporary absence of the implied “I.” “Blame” and “table talk” indicate a morning-after scene in which the narrator politely begs the “you” to répondez s’il vous plaît to his invitation to confess. But, even if the “you” counters with more than a “grin,” the poem’s final sentence fragment (“The numbers in your phone without a name”) makes clear that the “you” will continue to stray, and that the narrator will tolerate these habitual infidelities, even at the risk of contracting what has been, until very recently, a deadly disease.

Mann achieves this intimacy-at-a-distance at least partly through form. Private incidents like infidelity, breakfast-table chatter, and a torn condom are mediated by Mann’s use of strictly iambic pentameter. Mann’s invocation of the elegiac stanza and his mention of a Bible verse perversely insinuate a country churchyard into this floundering couple’s morning coffee, suggesting that “blame” has consequences greater than either party would care to admit. Yet these deathly, religious implications are only half-serious, as is Mann’s sexual pun on “lays.” Manipulating sound and sense, the poet plays stiff formality against an intimate setting, and fidelity to form against a lover’s disloyalty, clenching the poem with Mann’s choice of “rip,” a noun that ingeniously calls to mind an acronym more menacing than “RSVP.”

Such evocatively self-conscious formal play characterizes Mann’s finest work. Particularly apropos of Deal’s prosodic approach is Benjamin’s aphorism: “The illusion of novelty is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the illusion of perpetual sameness.” Literary fashion represents false consciousness, an aesthetic ideology difficult if not impossible to avoid because even consciously rejecting fashion becomes a reflexive act. As such, any reaction against or evasion of validates whatever trend or tradition the writer sets out to eschew. This is how fashion ossifies into convention. Mann’s decision, in many of his poems, to acclimate forms of the past to present concerns is one way of confounding Benjamin’s glassy deadlock.

Like Wallace Stevens, Mann recognizes that “all poetry is experimental poetry”; Stevens did not need to qualify “poetry” with good or great because he already understood the term to be one of prestige. Behind Stevens’s adage lies the awareness that formal proficiency antecedes formal innovation. As with Stevens’s increasingly loquacious blank-verse line, Mann’s manipulation of traditional elements, especially rhyme and closed forms, can yield fascinating results.

Even Mann’s first book, Complaint in the Garden (2004), makes several noteworthy departures from genres like dramatic monologue and the love poem, and forms like the villanelle and sestina, while still observing more conventions than Mann rejects. Unlike many contemporary first books, Complaint assimilates and hybridizes traditional forms and genres rather than abandoning them. The dramatic-monologue villanelle “Complaint of the Regular” is a particularly delicious example in which a bar patron criticizes “Lady Pearl,” a drag performer, for “ruining my favorite song.” The homage “Poem Beginning with a Line by John Ashbery” marks Mann’s first experiment with the line-by-line palindrome form that he later perfects in “Order” (2017) and especially “Beginning and Ending with a Line by Michelle Boisseau” (2021), a moving elegy to a former mentor.

One of Mann’s most successful experiments, and one of the most elegant lyrics in Deal, tweaks the ekphrastic genre to make a general statement about art:


A pond the color of oolong teas. A heron refusing to look anywhere but east.

Mangroves flecked with a fire, deep-set birches rife

with the wait for the night. In stone, the heron stares: the stoic tones

of the sky a storied procession of palms; their red-tipped fronds, overhanging lamps.

Water-bird, it has been centuries since I felt anything for you. You have been left:

look around. Why does the owl rest on a goddess’s shoulder while you wade so low?

As with Stevens’s jar and Keats’s urn, Mann’s stone heron provides the poet with an occasion to meditate not only on the tenuous relationship between life and art, but on the reciprocal, enabling interdependence among works of the imagination (Mann’s take on T. S. Eliot’s historical sense). Within the scene Mann depicts, a stone heron faces east within a Floridian swamp-scape of mangroves, palms, and stale pondwater as the poet observes the “fire” that sundown appears to light. These flames, of course, are an illusion, a trick of art that also serves as wish fulfillment for the unfeeling poet whose emotions have remained cooled, as he hyperbolically claims, for “centuries.” Only the beautiful illusion of art (the poet’s rendering of what he sees in rhyming anagrammatic couplets) can reignite the poet’s feelings for both art and nature. In a Frostian gesture, Mann’s poem begins in the delight of observation and ends in the wisdom of Athena’s owl.

“The Heron,” however, offers more complications than this tidy paraphrase would suggest. Rather than depicting a rural scene in one of the many protected ponds or lakes in north-central Florida where Mann grew up, this ekphrastic poem describes a painting of a scene, placing the poet at an even further remove from the world he already admits to feeling cold toward. As a student at University of Florida, Mann discovered the painting in question, Herman Herzog’s oil-on-canvas Forest with Heron (1899), in the Modern collection at the Harn Museum. Though arrested in oils, the titular heron of this painting is animate, not the stone heron we find in Mann’s poem. Another difference is that Herzog’s heron faces the sun, the source of Mann’s “fire” illuminating the surrounding vegetation, which means that Herzog’s heron either faces west during sundown or east during sunrise, both of which contradict Mann’s description of a heron facing east during sundown.

I point out these discrepancies not to quibble with the poet but to focus attention on Mann’s preference of one kind of truth over another. First, there is the hypothetical truth of an observed scene, whether real or imagined: a figurative painter’s allegiance to heron, foliage, water, shadow, and light. Next, there is the secondary truth of the poet’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) to the painting: how Mann depicts Herzog’s depiction. Then there is the ultimate truth of Mann’s loyalty to his own vision: how Mann’s imagination, memory, sensibilities, and materials work in concert to create an original work of art based on another work. This ultimate truth is where Mann’s heron lives, and where several of his most successful lyrics operate, as we shall see.

“The Heron” also utilizes anagram couplets: slant rhymes that transpose the letters of paired end words; so “rife” rearranges “fire,” “palms” shuffles “lamps,” etc. As Mann stated on the Kenyon Review blog in 2017, he borrowed this form from J. D. McClatchy’s “The Landing,” the poem that opens McClatchy’s third book The Rest of the Way (1990), which Mann had been reading when he drafted the poem in 1993. Mann comments that this poem “both mirrors and rearranges the details” of Herzog’s painting. One might press this observation further by arguing that Mann’s poem mirrors by rearranging, a procedure that accurately reflects the way the perceiver’s eye, imagination, and memory play with and play upon perceived objects. Incidentally, as Dora Malech points out in the same blog post, interested readers can find more examples of anagram rhyme in Richie Hoffman’s “Illustration from Parsifal,” Lewis Turco’s “A Midsummer Night’s Partsong” (which Turco defines as “a terza-anagram-rima sonnet”), and Philip B. Williams’s “A Spray of Feathers, Black” (another terza-anagram-rima sonnet).

In Mann’s second book, Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), the poet continues this practice of formal mashups. These poems include a pantoum that yokes sexual deviancy with the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (“Politics”), a sonnet consisting of slant monorhymes (“Rain”), and a love lyric of three quatrains reminiscent of A. E. Housman’s mournful ballads, though Mann uses an ABBA rhyme scheme which Housman avoided, perhaps because of the scheme’s association with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (“Bernal Hill”).

Most of these poems succeed in adapting challenging forms of the past. “Queen Christina,” a Shakespearean sonnet about the “final Pride” of a friend dying of AIDS, is a particularly moving example. In addition to Mann’s emotional restraint, gallows humor, and tragic efficiency in his depiction of a friend’s heroism, Mann manages to rhyme “Greta Garbo” with “hobo- / sexual in heels,” an enviable sonic pairing new to English-language poetry.

“The Mortician in San Francisco,” however, illustrates how Mann’s formal experiments can wobble. A dramatic-monologue sestina, this poem imagines that a queer mortician prepared for burial the cadaver of Dan White, the closeted San Francisco Supervisor who assassinated California’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, in 1978. Though Mann’s conceit is ingenious, and his employment of the poem’s circular narrative engaging, the poet allows the formal requirements of this demanding trobar clus to dictate the progression of the poem. The monologue soon becomes driven by its end words rather than the other way around. This lapse is increasingly noticeable at stanza breaks, those crucial moments of adjacent lexical repetition that can derail a lesser poem by screaming, “Sestina! Sestina! Sestina!”

Mann’s most conspicuous stumble occurs in the break between stanzas four and five. He writes: “And Harvey Milk? // Why cry over spilled milk.” For some readers, Mann’s resorting to a cliché can be defended because the poem’s narrator is a worker, a common man. But why not find or invent an idiomatic alternative that avoids a hackneyed phrase? For other readers, “spilled milk,” in context, might sting with bitter, desperate irony, highlighting that Milk, for many straight San Franciscans, was expendable. This is certainly what Mann was going for: “undermining the given,” as he has written elsewhere. From another perspective, however, “spilled milk” feels too easy, a ready-made variation that shrewd readers will have predicted from stanza one. It’s this predictability that keeps the gesture from working as Mann intended it to.

Unfortunately, Mann repeats missteps like these in Deal’s three other sestinas. While “Eros” (2004) opens with the steamy propulsion of an erotic thriller, this momentum diminishes in stanza four, at which point the narrator, after having searched a dark sex club for an hour, lapses into a clumsy pun: “I fall into the arms of Eros” (“Eros” is the name of the club). After an encouraging beginning, “End Words” (2013), an elegy for poets Reetika Vazirani and Rachel Wetzsteon, falls back on cliches (“ghost / of a chance”) and commonplaces (“what it’s all been for”). Similarly, “Untoward Occurrence at the Embassy Suites Poetry Reading” (2013) includes such clunkers as “you saw it coming / a mile away,” “Sign of the times,” and “You can’t stop what’s coming.” Received language is available for any writer to maneuver, satirize, subvert. But so many dead metaphors can start to stink, particularly for readers who recall Donald Hall’s characterization of cliches as “unethical”: verbal slips symptomatic of linguistic corruption.

One final gripe. All four of the sestinas in Deal elide an envoi. Though one understands the inclination to resist the postscript closure to which a traditional tornada can resort, many contemporary sestinas utilize the envoi to great effect, including four of the most accomplished twentieth-century examples: W. H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralise,” John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” and Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek.” Though Mann’s choice to skip the envoi has become a personal stamp, habitual elision of this final stanza can seem at best suspicious and at worst defective. Why would a formal poet as cunningly adept as Mann keep ignoring this aspect of the form? Across six books, the omission blinks like a faulty traffic light.

Though “End Words” and “Untoward Occurrence” both appear in Mann’s third collection, Straight Razor (2013), most of the poems in this volume rise to the challenges of their respective forms. Mann shines in this book particularly with his application of slant rhymes, reveling in such evocative couplings as “Velamints” and “violence” (“My Guidance Counselor”), “mane” and “mine” (“Stable”), and “lover” and “comb-over” (“But Enough About Me”). In these poems, Mann understands, as A. E. Stallings observed in her 2009 “Presto Manifesto!,” that “rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.” Rather than prerequisites to begrudgingly adhere to, Mann treats the rhyming quatrains and couplets that make up this book as a means of accessing and uncovering often troubling psychological material.

A particularly succinct example of formal innovation can be found in the title poem of this volume:


He slid the stiff blade up to my ear: oh, fear,

this should have been thirst, a cheapening act. But I lacked,

as usual, the crucial disbelief. Sticky, cold, a billfold

wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt, I felt

like the boy in a briny night pool, he who found the drowned

body, yet still somehow swam with an unknown joy. That boy.

Depending on how one interprets the phrase “oh, fear,” this kinky twist on the love poem can be read in at least two contradictory ways. If we take it “Straight,” the poem confronts with ambiguous self-accusation the failure of the speaker to perform. The poet, having consented to edgeplay, recoils in literal “fear” from the “stiff blade” wielded by his partner. Lacking “the crucial disbelief” of internalizing the fact that BDSM is merely foreplay, he can’t suppress his body’s fight-or-flight response, thus ruining the mood for both dominant and submissive parties.

If, on the other hand, we read “oh, fear” as a sarcastic utterance, the poem flips. Because the speaker cannot bring himself to believe that his partner might actually harm him, he can’t play along. The double negative of “lack” and “disbelief” emphasizes the slipperiness of such a position; the speaker can’t even pretend to pretend he’s scared. The flâneur wants to take part in the illusion but is too circumspect by nature to commit. “Straight Razor” then becomes a strange sort of half-confessional poem: Mann’s speaker scoffs at danger—or fake danger—through a dismissive mock-Romantic apostrophe: “oh, fear.” The choice of “oh” rather than “O” is critical. Instead of William Blake’s “O Rose” or Percy Shelley’s “O wild West Wind,” Mann’s “oh” denotes an ineffectual, tepid, perfunctory gesture, as if the speaker were parodying the earnestness of his assigned role. The simile with which the poem ends suggests that the speaker, while recognizing the reality of death in the figure of a “drowned // body,” can only pursue sincere “joy” within the same briny waters of reality.

“Straight Razor” doesn’t reject the artificial, it argues for a more convincing artifice. The poem’s form, with its long and short lines and true-rhymed couplets, embodies this idea. Through expanding in the first line and contracting in the second, each couplet plays on the pairing of dominant and submissive. Long lines dominate, introducing the rhyme sound that the briefer, submissive lines subserviently echo: the systole and diastole of each couplet. The boy’s joy is “unknown” in the sense that it happens entirely within the body; sincere joy is felt rather than “known.” The conflict occurs when the speaker can only imagine feeling fear and joy; he feels like the boy while remaining “bound” to his own “sticky, cold” self. The revealing aside “as usual” suggests the routine nature of the speaker’s failure to feel.

Mann amplifies this frustration with pretense in his fourth book, Proprietary (2017), which he characterized in an interview as “a takedown of corporate culture.” Mann attempts this ambitious feat through satirizing the language of massive multinational corporations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. These linguistic repurposings become a way of recording the hollowness of corporate culture from the inside in order to parody top-down structures powered by greed. This book features Mann at his most overtly satirical as he points out the absurdities of “start-to-stop dependencies” (“Proprietary”), accidental reply-alls (“Black Box”), and executive offices in which “Calendar is a verb” (“Proximity”). Here we find the flâneur at the water cooler, condescended to by CFOs higher up on the “org chart,” and “legally obligated / to spare you the particulars.” This is the poet restricted not by meter or rhyme but by an NDA.

Though this book includes several poems in forms such as the abecedarian, rhyming couplets, and light-verse quatrains that brilliantly rhyme “ray gun” with “Reagan” and “grenades” with “AIDS,” most of the poems in Proprietary represent a formal loosening, an experimentation with various free-verse forms that continues into recent work. Though Mann credits a general frustration with “the airtight lyric” as precipitating this change (“I found too much tension to be, at times, armor against feeling”), Mann’s best poems in Proprietary, A Better Life, and “New Poems” haven’t quite shed their Kevlar.

Before I discuss Mann’s putative free-verse, I’d like to highlight one more wonderfully splenetic formal experiment by the Castro flâneur. Proprietary features the most astonishing sonnet in Deal, a poem that in any other time would become an instant anthology piece, a fitting liaison to the famous poem it “translates”:


So much has gone to shit. My hair. The state. The addicts lie on Ellis Street, unfathered. Reporters scribble synonyms for hate: the men in blue have billy-clubbed the gathered.

And then, as grisly as an accident, comes love, what feels like love. Befalls the best of us, as if the discontent of days were not enough. I make the calls,

or so I think: Desire, that heretic, is stealing, spider-fingered, all the hours. The years. My scorn, acutely politic: I peck him on the cheek, then hit the showers.

—Soapy, erect, I’ll conjure up a time when love was just a fecal, furtive crime.

In spite of Mann’s own hesitancies about the formal lyric, he evocatively utilizes Shakespearean airtightness in order to evoke the arbitrariness of the desire for order, the illusion that one has anything like control over one’s emotions and, by extension, one’s life. This poem, which “translates” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124 by playing bouts-rimés, or reusing the bard’s end words exactly as they originally appeared, embodies a complicated emotional response not only to “love” but to the official government response to that love.

Riffing on Shakespeare’s sociopolitical conceit, Mann wrote this sonnet during the years following the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 and its subsequent lifting of all bans on same-sex marriage in 2015. Mann conjures with ironic wistfulness the decades when queer love was literally a “crime,” a period when he never had to face the difficult decision of whether to marry because such an act was denied by law; Mann’s Stonewall allusion in line four emphasizes how hostile such discrimination can be. During the present tense of “Translation,” a progressive Democrat has been succeeded by a bullying, right-wing wannabe autocrat with designs on rolling back these gains—a fact of history that Mann rightly interprets as an extreme regression and perversion of democracy: the addicts are homeless, hate crimes abound, the justice system is corrupt, and the whole country has “gone to shit.”

Like Shakespeare, Mann wants to separate love from the beloved through the cleansing (“soapy”) fantasy of art: desire without an object of desire. This wish to disown or disavow love as “fortune’s bastard” (as Shakespeare had it) would free both poets from the obligation to nurture and maintain the thing that deprives them of self. Yet Mann also recognizes that for all his formal mastery he cannot master this; he only thinks (or says) he makes the calls. Whether or not Shakespeare shared Mann’s humility, only Shakespeare managed this unlikely severance of love from its host. Having successfully predicted their own longevity, Shakespeare’s sonnets outlived the Fair Youth by four centuries and will continue to have the final word for some time to come.

Mann’s poem, on the other hand, must settle for the delicious puns and teasing inuendoes of the merely mortal sonneteer. But what dazzling, dizzying word play Mann achieves. The phrase “fecal crime” in the poem’s last line alludes to “gone to shit” in the first, bringing to the whole composition a sense of brutal cyclicality. Mann’s characterization of love as a “grisly . . . accident” hints at the term “bear,” a designation within gay male culture for a bearded man who projects masculinity. The sentence “Desire . . . / is stealing, spider-fingered, all the hours” sets up an embedded pun on the commonplace expression “Time flies”; desire steals “time” like a spider steals flies. Even Mann’s placement of homeless, dis-patriated (“unfathered”) addicts on Ellis Street patrolled by corrupt “men in blue” recalls a whole etymological history of San Francisco: Ellis Street is located in the Tenderloin, a district that got its name for being a neighborhood that crooked police allowed to fill with vice; bribed cops could afford better cuts of meat, hence “Tenderloin.” Though I’d hesitate to place Mann at quite the level of James Merrill (who called his need to pun “a disease”), Mann is certainly contending for the crown of Double-Entendre King.

With the publication of Mann’s fifth book, A Better Life (2021), the Castro flâneur further sidesteps formal verse, joining the majority of contemporary American poets who’ve been avoiding traditional prosody since 1912: the year Ezra Pound wrongly likened versification to metronome-worship. For the first time in his career, Mann privileges a slender line reminiscent of early William Carlos Williams (“Among the rain / and lights / I saw the figure 5”) or Mark Strand (“In a field / I am the absence / of field”) over any accentual-syllabic or syllabic measure. This kind of line overruns recent collections: twenty-one out of twenty-nine poems in A Better Life and seventeen out of twenty-one in “New Poems.” Though Mann’s work in this form hasn’t lost its sonic verve, tragi-comedic zing, blistering introspection, or taste for awful-cheerful language play (“You say my gray, it makes / me look extinguished; / you make me cringe”), Mann’s new unbuttoned approach can look and sound a little thin. Here’s the first of five fifteen-line stanzas that make up Deal’s title poem:

Eating cereal over the sink, I think, this is what’s real: the urgent piss; the grout like doubt. By now, Anonymous, no gent, is in his Lyft . . .

At first, the narrow room of this stanza makes for a tight squeeze, like several Lyft fares elbowing into the back of a Camry. Only the first line contains more than four syllables, and the repetition of lines consisting of a single iamb can start to grate: I think / this is / the grout / like doubt / by now . . . Soon, though, one starts savoring Mann’s inventive rhymes, especially the eye rhyme “cereal” / “real,” the homonym rhyme “urgent” / “gent,” and the slant rhyme “now” / “no.” Without a set scheme, though, even these can feel scattershot. Which is precisely the point: Mann’s speaker finds himself unravelling, rhyming whichever words he can, however he can, in a hopeless effort to make a connection—any connection. This is true to such an extent that the progression of Mann’s triple rhyme from “is” to “piss” to “Anonymous” reveals an almost pathological fixation. Having lost even the most anonymous “gent” (note the lavatorial denotation), Mann’s speaker tries to focus his attention on the urgencies of other bodily needs: the “now” of urination, hunger, etc.

The subconscious, however, is father to the conscious mind. Mann’s speaker feels too remote from life to participate in it with any urgency. Like cereal, he has become dry, tasteless, sensible. “Adrift,” the poem continues before arriving at its true subject: the loss of the poet’s youth (Mann rhymes “shovel” with “I shrivel”), his desire to have his vitality restored (“I want / my hair”), and his need to “Reboot / love.” The poem ends in “A hell / of / passive / investors,” projecting into an apocalyptic future of cyborg lust culminating in Mann’s most troubling double-rhyme: “The monsters. / My stars.”

With a barely audible allusion to Dante (each canticle of the Comedy ends, like Mann’s poem, with the word “stars”), “Deal” ceases without concluding. Mann both mocks and embraces the Southern colloquialism “Oh my stars,” which first appeared in print when Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was published in octavo in 1594. I dust off this morsel because Marlowe’s text—one of the earliest English history plays—follows the “homosexual affections,” as scholar Frederick Boas phrased it, between King Edward and Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall. Mann’s poem alludes to such an affair, or any number of affairs, between an older man and, in Marlowe’s language, “a lovely boy in Dian’s shape.” Mann’s allusions include the painful yet hilariously self-deprecating lines: “This fall, / all / the kids / want / to shoot / vids, / . . . little / hard / Godards.” Like Marlowe’s Edward, Mann’s speaker feels distanced from his love interest (Marlowe’s play begins with Gaveston exiled in France). Where Edward and his lover later reunite, however, Mann’s “kids” and “gents” remain inaccessible. This irreconcilable distance causes Mann’s cereal-eating, balding speaker not only to despair but to express the inability to achieve “Lyft” (an erection pun Mann drops with unassuming skill). Left to fester or falter, the lust of late middle-age soon turns Boschian (“money / dripping off / your robot / back”), twisting the poet’s vision of youth into something unreachable, inhuman, monstrous.

In a piece of laudatory prose written for John Ashbery’s eightieth birthday, Mann observes, “Everything’s suspect, and there is so much withheld.” This statement, which equally applies to Ashbery’s most ostensibly transparent poems (“Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” “My Erotic Double”), holds true in the work of many queer poets of the WWII generation. Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s self-preserving reticence, Frank O’Hara’s goofball erudition, Merrill’s burnished surfaces, Thom Gunn’s leather-clad poise. Mann has followed these forebears (Ashbery and Gunn in particular), sharpening their defenses to suit his own aesthetic arsenal. Everything in Mann’s Deal is suspect, especially its confessions. So many poems seem naked because so much has been withheld. This quality shines most brightly in Mann’s formal verse: sonnets, pantoums, and nonce forms that light the way through the present volume like gaps in a cave’s ceiling through which chinks of daylight shine.

As a queer, latter-day flaneur, Mann finds himself caught up in the crowd’s shifting perambulations, disguised in their obsessions like a drag gown, while also acknowledging what Mann refers to in an essay as “the painful difficulties of being gay.” It’s not that Mann acts as spokesperson for San Francisco’s queer scene in situ; such a role would presuppose that the city’s LGBTQIA+ culture exists as a mythographic, unified whole. But he certainly represents a voice, singing from within and without it, shrinking from official recognition.

Mann shrewdly embodies his own maxim: “decoration is nothing less than evasion.” Of course, this notion isn’t always true; one thinks of W. H. Auden’s recommendation that the poet “Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever.” But contemporary US-American poetry, with its deeply puritanical roots, equates ornament with damnation. The way Mann avoids excessive decoration is through decorum. Finally, what Deal deals in is restoration: giving back to US-American poetry a sense of the necessity of artifice, even as the poems elegize porn stars, satirize Silicon Valley, stalk the sticky floors of sex clubs, and celebrate contempt.