Randall Mann, author of Breakfast with Thom Gunn and Complaint in the Garden, answers the question – what makes a poem gay? A special mix of same-sex tenderness, evasion, and lust. For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” one of my favorite gay poems. Here it is:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
I love this poem because of what it does not need to say, the modesty of “dear friend,” the way it takes its time and zooms in from the celestial to the personal. This is an evasive erotic celebration, where metaphor takes on the weight of code, and minutiae are a list of erotic lust—the syntax, the “explosions,” the “shooting.” I’m no queer theorist, but this builds mightily to the final couplet, which I find gloriously erotic after all that linguistic lathering, where the speaker asks the unnamed woman to allow the speaker to submit to the speaker’s touch and care and intensity, and does so somewhat forcefully, with an abrupt dash, sexy right down to the punctuation. This is so gay! And numinous.