The Poetry Project

Pricks in the Tapestry by Jameson Fitzpatrick

Review by Alina Pleskova

“The resistance of the wood varies depending on the place where we drive in the nail: wood is not isotropic. Nor am I; I have my ‘exquisite points,’” wrote Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “The map of these points is known to me alone, and it is according to them that I make my way, avoiding or seeking this or that… “

Barthes’ “exquisite points” can be understood as the speaker’s vulnerabilities, old wounds, and all else that one covers in defenses, for fear of being seen too completely. The experience of reading Jameson Fitzpatrick’s absorbing new poetry collection, Pricks in the Tapestry (Birds, LLC), feels like tracing a map of exquisite points—the parts of us that are most tender when pressed.

Fitzpatrick’s poems regard the sites and sources of hurt, desire, and disturbance with evocative candor. The collection moves through intensely intimate scenes and themes: sex with various lovers in various stages of knowing, coming-of-age memories, discussions of mental health and trauma, emotional upheaval, personal and collective grief, immoderation of all kinds. The poems cast a revealing light onto these experiences—not to pathologize certain behaviors or situations, but to consider them with a wry and introspective sensitivity.

The opening poem, “Scintilla, Star,” reflects on identity formation and the sense of alienation that comes with growing up queer:

“Wherever I went mothers whispered
about me like a Greek chorus:
‘I heard that boy….’ I heard that.
I was just a boy.”

Another lesson carried forward from adolescence: desire persists despite adverse conditions. Of a boyfriend “stolen” from a female classmate, the speaker recalls:

“That summer
I had no taste for anything
but him. Faintly of chlorine.
When he left for college
I had no one. Sarah’s friends
stared me down at school.”

A revision or splitting of the self can serve as an amulet, a way to persist:

“I found it was better,
if I could not be no one,
to be someone….
Specified, which was an apprenticeship for special.”
Cold, another word for cool.”

The Birds, LLC website includes an explanatory note from Fitzpatrick: “This book is a record of my thinking and feeling during my mid-to-late-twenties. Like any record, it is incomplete and imperfect—I do not always identify with the speakers of these poems, even as I recognize their speech (and sometimes, their desires) as my own. I think of this collection as a bildungsroman of sorts: the story of a young poet coming to know, belatedly and with difficulty, the insufficiencies of the self as a subject and the lyric as a mode.”

Even without this primer, Fitzpatrick’s redrawing and reexamining of the self throughout the collection brings readers—even those who haven’t sat through poetry workshop discussions about the distinction between speaker and author—to an awareness that the ‘I’ in these poems isn’t always the same, whether because the speakers are meant to be different people entirely, or because the conception of the self is multitudinous.

“Short Essay on the Lyric-Conceptual Divide” plays with the conventionally accepted separation between lyric poetry (the realm of personal feelings and self-expression) and conceptual poetry (inexpressive, concept-oriented, often making use of found/appropriated material), revealing the limitations of attempting to categorize or read a poem in this way:

“Everything that happens in the poem happens to me but the me is not me or rather it is not I though I may have been me in the past.”

“If he is my first real lover from high school, now dead, this has become a confessional poem. If the gif does not exist, this is a fiction.”

As queer people and those who have experienced life-altering traumas perhaps recognize most acutely, the self is, often by necessity, in a state of ongoing revision. In considering scenes from my life, especially when writing, sometimes the only way I can reconcile things that happened, or even my feelings and behaviors, is to regard the self who was there as an entirely different version of me—another self. I wonder, too, if I’ve willfully misremembered—if I’ve revised my own history as a form of coping or reconciliation, or as part of a repressive tendency (to avoid discomfort, shame, and/or endless processing.) Or if my memory is just warped from the illicit substance parade of my teens and twenties. Or some combination thereof. Lines from the poem “Dialogue” by Adrienne Rich (who knew a few things about moving through different selves) come to mind: “I do not know / who I was when I did those things / or who I said I was.”

As I read and re-read Pricks in the Tapestry, the poems raised similar questions. “Poem in Which Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me” moves non-linearly through scenes in the speaker’s life, largely in diaristic blocks of prose, and always containing a negation or reversal: “I’m never a teenager at all, if it can be arranged. I see the car coming and don’t make the left turn. // My parents never: / keep booze in the house, / name me after it.”

The poem encompasses everything from being stoned (“There’s still pot in this poem, but I smoke less of it.”), to writing (“There’s nothing I don’t want to write / about. I love writing.”), to body image (“I love my body.”), to being outed (“…I’m not forced to come out in the sixth grade, at least—not to my parents, because I never get reported for writing something obscene about Justin Timberlake on an AOL message board, and not to everyone else, because it isn’t so apparent to them already.”), to homophobia (“Phil Bruno doesn’t write an essay for AP English our senior year of high school which is both a personal attack on me and on gay people more generally. He doesn’t read it aloud in front of the entire class and the teacher doesn’t let him finish…”) to an adolescent sexual encounter at summer camp (“I don’t want him to stop. I don’t tell / our counselors the next day because I don’t know how to feel about it but recognize it as familiar, / the first bad thing that was done to me…”)

Approaching the end of all this recollection, Fitzpatrick’s vacillation between meticulous detail and very generalized language is wielded to its greatest, most heartbreaking effect:

“And the first bad thing,
much further back than that,
is not my first memory, or
what I understand to be the first
because over time I have
smoothed and perfected it
like a stone in my palm.”

As its title denotes, the poem “Frantic Efforts to Avoid Abandonment, Real or Imagined” has no interest in distinguishing the speaker’s impulses from actuality as it presents a cascade of one-line statements, including:

“I learned about sympathetic magic in class, then got his signature tattooed on my ass.”

“I told him I would die without him.”

“Sang the Stevie Nicks song right in his face. / You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you.”

(Here, I sighed in recognition, thinking bittersweetly of every him, her, and them I’ve held in my mind—and, on occasion, sang to directly, as this speaker may or may not have, and as Stevie has done to Lindsay Buckingham on stage—during this part of the song. Despite the deft steering away from the did-or-didn’t happen binary, this was so real to me.)

“I turned him into a tree.”

“I made everyone he loved love me.”

The poem seems to ask, what does it matter whether X actually happened or not? Whatever willed the urge to behave in these ways—that was real. Desire is a formidable force.

In a LitHub interview with Rumaan Alam, Fitzpatrick describes sex as “a central source of both angst and pleasure in my life—and, for much of it, one of the primary ways in which I understood myself.”

Whether or not it’s classified as confessional, Fitzpatrick’s work excels at conveying the complicated dynamics of queer intimacy. Pricks in the Tapestry regards sex and desire with a verisimilitude I rarely encounter, even in contemporary poetry. There is sensuality, and there is Eros, but sex is also rendered beyond the romantic and erotic—it’s more expansive, complicated, and fraught than that.

Which isn’t to say it still isn’t hot (sometimes.) Which is to say, sex here appears much closer to the sex I recognize from living. Take the poem “The Last Time I Got [ ],” which begins: “I only let him / because he was sort of famous / and I wanted to say I had.” Of an encounter with a more familiar lover, the speaker reveals, “I just finished myself off and burst // into tears. It was fine, / I was fine…”

Then, the cutting final lines: “But isn’t the mind the body. / Isn’t mine. And what has / been done to it, and how: // plucked like a flower / versus / plucked like a string”

Fitzpatrick doesn’t turn away from the reality that desire can be unsparing, that sex can involve detachment, disappointment, or brutality—sometimes begged for, sometimes inflicted without consent. You can almost hear the disaffected sigh behind the column of staccato lines in the poem “I Don’t Know Why, It Makes Me Sad,” which describes a bathroom stall encounter:

“No hello
but our cocks out
and the goodbad
smell of him, whiff
of piss.
I don’t
know why it makes
me sad, his dirty
t-shirt and his ring,
the labored grunt
before he cums.”

The poem “Selected Boys: 2003-2008”—a breathless, unpunctuated block of prose—takes a more sweetly nostalgic approach. Its catalog of quick descriptors and vignettes—“boys in tights,” “boys in back seats,” “ boys leaving / separately 15 minutes apart then meeting in the park”—closes with a gentle, elegiac “who died who’s counting.”

Meanwhile, “Craigslist Ode” is precisely what it sounds like, and you ought to read it rather than having it spoiled for you here. I’ll only say that it underscores the ways in which Fitzpatrick writes about lovers—whether anonymous hookups, more lasting relations, or the many shades in-between—with equal parts exactitude and tenderness.

Is any encounter, even the most ephemeral of cruises, truly meaningless? Isn’t anyone capable of pressing our exquisite points, not just our Great Loves? As a slut, I argue yes, and as a poet, I point to this collection as proof. The short lyric poem “Duplicity,” riffing on a John Berryman line, says it this way: “Life, friends, is whoring.”

In “A True Account of Overhearing Andy Cohen at Fire Island” (a nod to beloved queer poet Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”), the speaker contends that even so-called casual sex is not so simple: “I could never fathom / pleasure without hardship, / how men can take it in each other / so effortlessly.”

(I contend that O’Hara’s famous line, “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love,” was written with a barely concealed wink—and that he, who wrote scores of poems about love, romantic rejection, and longing—would agree with the speaker here.)

There is so much moving, formally inventive work happening in this collection. A standout is “Roughly,” a long essay-poem about the AIDS epidemic and the speaker’s uncle, who eventually succumbed to the virus, annotated by the speaker’s mother—sometimes correcting biographical details or descriptions, occasionally stating that she recalls certain details differently (pointing again to the fallibility of memory). There is also the elegy “A Poem for Pulse,” which I photographed and texted to friends, the pages dappled where my tears had landed. There are humorous moments, and friendship odes. There is a rumination on White Gays (that is to say, on whiteness). There is dancing. And psychoanalysis. And more, and more.

In “How to Feel Good,” Fitzpatrick cites a Rainer Maria Rilke line: “No feeling is final.” Here, I’ll borrow language from that same poem (“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”): “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” What particularly struck me about Pricks in the Tapestry is how Fitzpatrick’s speakers let everything happen to them—this life, in all its terror and beauty— and arrive here to tell us about it with aching precision. These poems pricked my own exquisite points, in the way that our deepest loves and most brutal hurts (sometimes one and the same) so often do.

The collection’s final poem, “Story of My Life,” asks:

“Is desire without pain possible?
Is desire possible without pain?

Really, I want to know.”

I want to know, too. But for now, having spent time with these poems, I’m content to believe that, despite everything, desire endures.

#262 — Fall 2020