(REVIEW) Tenderloin, by Al Anderson
Lou Collins and Caspar Bryant converse over email about the slippery surface of Al Anderson’s pamphlet Tenderloin (Blush Press, 2021), unpacking the baroque, queerness, horror, beauty and anxieties of affectation held by the poems.
LC: I’m so glad (and a bit relieved?) that you agreed to write about this pamphlet with me. I’ve had a review copy of Tenderloin sitting beside my bed for months. Every now and then I try and sit down to write a review of it, but I just can’t. That might be because I’m a bit confused about the book – I don’t quite get it, and my opinion of it keeps changing every time I read it. After a couple of months I started feeling guilty about not having written my review so I started showing it to men after I’d had sex with them, like ‘oh look at this, isn’t it curious what do you think?’ I was sort of hoping one of them would say something interesting that I could put in the review but they never did. So then, I started taking the pamphlet with me in my backpack: I’d bring it out at dinner parties and show it to friends and ask what they thought. Aside from one slightly drunken argument about Caravaggio, nothing much came of this. But then you and I were talking about some recent poetry and I thought, maybe Caspar would understand this better than me. Maybe? How did you find it?
CB: I’m glad to be here – I keep thinking of oysters, and being vegetarian, Tenderloin may be my only outlet. I’ve been reading this pamphlet consistently over the past few days and I sympathise with ‘confused’. It’s a book with a sheen, a slippery surface that makes it difficult for me to compartmentalise poems and images in the auld literature-studenty way. I wonder if Anderson is alluding to this resistance to critical analysis™ with the poem ‘On the Baroque’, which opens: ‘you don’t yet fully understand / what it is you’re looking at’. A seeing-eye image as the point of access, a poetry that demands you squint. It does make a kind of sense to describe the pamphlet as ‘baroque’, if we take that to mean engorged, ornate, overflowing. But perhaps you see this differently?
To unpack the ornate, overflowing description, take the poem ‘Trash Twink God’, which involves a rapid-fire slew of images: ‘I was chopping wood in a forest the size of a quark / beneath a roll of cheese instead of a clock’. Then a man on a chariot with horses appears, the horses declare: ‘I am the day herself creeping into the garden / fifteen years old at my first funeral’. Anderson describes how something ‘feels like / foulness of swimming pool tiles’, and ‘years pass thru you like / a pill in some stranger’s bathroom’.
I find ‘confusion’ to be a pretty measured response to all that – probably the intended one? How do you feel about this use of the non-sequitur? At times the work in Tenderloin is describable as list poems, images shored into threads of thematic wholes. I’m not sure myself – there’s a lot of value in disjunction & surprise, and I think the ‘list-poem’ can be brilliant. Maybe hunting for a cohesive ‘thread’ is the wrong approach. Still, I think ‘baroque’ implies exuberant, not confusing. But with such a constellation of parts, the process of reading Tenderloin meant I often felt like a toddler who’s taken it upon themselves to paint the walls with jam. What sticks?
LC: Definitely baroque! Out of the confusion of this pamphlet the baroque really does stick out – both as an aesthetic impulse but, also, as a thematic concern. Poems like ‘On the Baroque’ have an almost stagey relationship to this – I can practically hear Anderson egging us on, waiting behind the curtain, hoping someone’s going to say ‘oh these poems are so baroque’. Which is nice but also – perhaps – a little frustrating. Like: we get it! Chill out! Then again, the desire to be baroque seems pretty baroque in itself.
The other day I was watching Sebastiane – a gorgeous and sensuous film scripted entirely in Latin – and there too I felt attuned to a contemporary (and queer) baroque. It’s funny, though: I’ve never finished watching Sebastiane. It’s so full of everything that it almost gets too much for me and I have to turn it off. I get a bit of the same feeling reading Tenderloin – there’s just so much (it is, as you put it, ‘engorged, ornate, overflowing’). Maybe my confusion – and, indeed, my resistance – towards Tenderloin isn’t all that bad after all… Then again, those techniques you pick up on in ‘Trash Twink God’ and elsewhere – the (over?)abundant use of the non-sequitur in particular – also jar a little bit against my own, personal taste. There is, as you say, ‘a lot of value in disjunction’ – but I have my limits with it, and I guess my threshold is quite low. That might be what irks me about Tenderloin – more than anything else in the pamphlet. (Now it’s me who’s playing the toddler: I just want my poems easy-to-read.)
One thing we haven’t mentioned at all – and it seems pretty integral to the pamphlet – is the pictures. In the middle of the book there are several paintings by Caravaggio, printed across four pages. They just appear, with no credit and no mention in the text as such. What’s that all about? What is Caravaggio doing here?
CB: I’ve been trying to puzzle out the paintings too – the middle spread is Judith and Holofernes, and the paintings before and after it are depictions of John the Baptist. I was caught up in symbols, trying to tie these together – severed heads perhaps? Anderson refers to a ‘ram’ in the latter half of the pamphlet, the ‘Oyster Sequence’, and I’m not clear whether ‘ram’ is a proper name (‘as ram refers to it / an Erotics of Regret’), a more specific symbol (the ram featured in Caravaggio’s Johns the Baptist; ‘all the quiet things / between Ram & God’), or something else entirely (‘Ram parts forming on / the balustrade’). Maybe it’s an in-joke, maybe it’s obvious and I’m just not making the right connections – and ‘ram’ could mean multiple or all of these possibilities. It pains me to say it, but I want one of these possibilities to be a little more fleshed out, to feel that I can lean on it.
It’s bold to plant three Caravaggios in the middle of the collection (also recalling Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986)). In doing so, Anderson punctuates the contemporary-queer baroque with the traditional (though certainly still queer). The paintings interrupt the poem ‘My Movie’ like a commercial break. It’s a little sacrilegious, but it reminded me of your point on the contemporary (&) queer baroque of Sebastiane, a Baroque that one switches off, surrenders reading. It got me thinking about how attention and sensory input has changed over time – we love Caravaggio but we’ll scroll past Judith and Holofernes in the detritus of our feeds. Maybe a (subconscious?) purpose/effect of this contemporary baroque is to ‘break into’ rhythms of attention.
LC: Bold, indeed, to drop three Caravaggios in the middle of a pamphlet. I like what you’re saying about rhythms of attention – it’s something I’m attuned to in the work of a poet like Maria Sledmere, too. Anyway, I was digging about today and came across a quote from John Ruskin – the Victorian critic – describing how Caravaggio’s work shows ‘definite signs of evil mind, ill-repressed, and then inability to avoid, and at last perpetual feeding upon horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin’ (Modern Painters Vol. II, p.137). A few thoughts stemmed out of this. 1) Even if I am a bit of an ass, I’m not that vicious a critic. 2) Was Ruskin gay? He seems to be overcompensating a little here re: moralism in a way that I can’t help reading that way, but I think this is just a fabrication of my mind. 3) Was Ruskin hot? I’ll have to google him. 4) This critique of Caravaggio winds up as a moral (rather than aesthetic) criticism. If we have different morals from Ruskin (and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I probably do), then his critique of Caravaggio could be twisted around into a positive. I kind of like this idea of Caravaggio ‘feeding upon horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin’ (I don’t necessarily think it’s an untrue observation) and the inclusion of Caravaggio in Tenderloin starts to make a bit more sense when we view his paintings through this lens (because there’s an ugliness and a horror and a filthiness to the poems themselves). I’m thinking especially right now of how literally ‘filthy’ the pamphlet can be: when I was reading it, I kept underlining sections that refer to stains and fluids and malodours. There’s ‘perfume smelling of faeces’ (‘Common Tendencies’); there’s ‘stained underwear’ and a lingering ‘foot smell’ (‘On the Baroque’); there’s a ‘cum stain’ (‘My Movie’). Of course, many of these details are underpinned with a queer eroticism, but maybe they also end up leading us back to a certain feeding-on-filth-and-horror – something Caravaggio does in places, including in Judith Beheading Holofernes, the pamphlet’s centrefold. It’s at least a slightly deeper connection than the simple Caravaggio = ‘queer’ +‘baroque’ equation. Anyway.
CB: Filth, horror, & queerness – delighted. Julia Kristeva describes how bodily fluids and transgressive, queer desire expose what she calls ‘the objective frailty of the symbolic order’ (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, p.70). With this, I’ve been thinking of Anderson’s most prominent symbol – the oyster – which dominates the latter half of the pamphlet. The poem ‘Oyster’ is my favourite of the collection. It’s my ‘jam’, a more ‘conventional’ love poem: Anderson makes it ‘stick’. The poem opens, ‘never mute the histrionics, O / all I want to write about is myself thinking / of you’, but Anderson doubles back on himself, we are also told ‘I want to call you baby all the time sans reassuring sweetness / of affectation’, ‘we get so used to mourning sometimes it helps to get it out the way / first’. Is excising mourning, or affectation’s ‘sweetness’, not a kind of muting? Perhaps Anderson stifles his own histrionics to hear those of ‘O’. This tangle – the wrestling between muteness and histrionics, baroque overflows and anxieties of affectation – cuts to the heart of Tenderloin. As you say, the desire to be baroque can itself be baroque. I can almost sense this desire being scrutinised in ‘Oysters’. It feels like Anderson is teasing Kristeva’s ‘symbolic order’ by using a relatively established poetic symbol to explore the baroque excesses, the ‘filth’ of queer desire.
The last three poems (each entitled ‘-‘) seem to me more ‘settled’, more lucid narrative ‘units’. Less wrestling. Clarice Lispector asks, ‘Does the oyster sleep?’ (trans. Stefan Tobler) – perhaps they do here (‘soft slumber of a dead town’ in the first ‘-’ ). As I mentioned, oysters are relatively canonical symbols – Anderson’s aware of this. Tenderloin’s back cover (and inside front flap) is a 1664-5 De Heem still life depicting oysters arranged cheekily with fruit. There’s a Seamus Heaney poem named ‘Oysters’, and I’m reminded especially of the film Tampopo (1985) (a still from which appears on the inside back cover). Maybe this last section ‘feels’ different because I have that symbol to cling to. Do you consider it a collection of two halves? Do you like oysters? How did you respond to the ‘Oyster Sequence’?
LC: I’ve been a vegetarian, too, for the past five or so years and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten an oyster. It’s funny, though – I’ve always thought they looked like the most revolting things. People, however, eat them as an aphrodisiac. As a result, there’s this strange yoking in my mind of the grotesque and the sexy that takes place when I think of oysters. That seems pretty fitting for this pamphlet, too: there’s a sexiness to its grotesqueness. Maybe I should eat some oysters.
I agree with you about a slight shift in this later section of the pamphlet – both thematically and technically. I’m in a bit of a slushy period right now (I read Normal People for fuck’s sake), and I find myself particularly taken in by these poems. Look at the ending of the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘—’:
you bought him a postcard left it under a pile of dvds met his mother just once when she found you both curled up he said, don’t worry rolled a cigarette took it out to her left the door ajar dark gold light on your chest took your hand you dreamed of dignity more than posthumous c’est ok.
I feel a strange love for this poem – for its queerness and its beauty and its enjambment. For its tenderness. Even its inscrutable elements are moving me. I guess I’m coming round to Tenderloin – to its resistance to meaning and its knotted symbolism. It’s still not entirely to my taste – but I appreciate it nonetheless.
CB: I’m really glad you pulled out this poem. I believe in the weight of it, the tenderness is true, unforced. I think it avoids lurching into sentimentalism as a strategy, the cynical heart-grab which I feel some collections do. For a pamphlet that, as we’ve mentioned, is constantly overflowing, a slushy end is fitting, almost inevitable. Tenderloin exists to be messy, to flood your sense of the symbolic, meshing, and mashing together the sexy, the strange, the slushy, the sordid. In every sense, sickening.
You can grab a copy of Tenderloin by Al Anderson directly from Blush Lit here. ~
Text: Lou Collins & Caspar Bryant
Image: Lou Collins