- A Political Elegy
Main Street Rag Publishing Co.
80 Pages; Print, $14.00
What does it mean when a poet labels a collection of poems “a documentary”? Within the definition of “documentary,” Merriam Webster has the words “factual” and “objective” in all caps. As descendants of Socrates and the Western canon, we are predisposed to see poetry as anti-fact and therefore ill-equipped to document anything. Yet, there’s an impulse to employ documentation in poetry that desires to be read as though it has a serious grasp of the truth, especially if what is true isn’t pleasurable to hear. Think of Charles Reznikoff’s work in both Testimony (1978–1979) and Holocaust (1975). The use of documentary evidence becomes the primary material for Reznikoff, who chooses not to transform brute reality into the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker.
And yet few poetry collections announce their intention to be read as a documentary with such obviousness as Bonfire of the Sodomites by Jim Elledge. A collection of poems about the UpStairs Lounge catastrophe of 1973, Elledge’s poems move chronologically through time to give the reader an understanding of the tragic loss of life that befell the gay community in 1970s America. Despite the horror of what happened that summer in the New Orleans French Quarter, little attention was paid to the case or the victims who perished at the scene. In a “Note to the Reader” prefacing the collection, Elledge writes:
On June 23, 1973, someone set fire to the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter, killing thirty-two individuals in sixteen minutes. Considered “the largest mass-killing of gay people in the U.S.,” it was a hate crime, but a far more complicated one than the phrase might suggest.
Published in 2017, Bonfire of the Sodomites sets out to explain the complicatedness of a hate crime to a society still mourning the Pulse nightclub shooting that killed forty-nine people. Yet, unlike the mass-murder that happened in 2016 Orlando, the mass-murder that occurred in 1973 New Orleans remains overlooked or unknown. In this sense, Bonfire of the Sodomites is politically motivated and unsentimentally elegiac. It’s political in the sense that it speaks out in angst over the lack of fair and just treatment for the thirty-two individuals killed by arson: people who weren’t considered significant enough to warrant effort on the part of authorities, acknowledgement by local or statewide government, or even mourning by New Orleans churches. As such, Elledge demands that we look at what happened while reticent to speak on behalf of the dead. In a New Directions Poetry Pamphlet titled Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker (2013), Susan Howe writes: “Historical or geographical accident isolated us from the cold reality of mud and hunger.” The accidental isolation of time and space is what motivates Elledge’s reticence, without which I don’t think the book would be near as successful. What saves the book from exploiting the already exploited is its documentary structure.
Howe writes that film documentarist Dziga Vertov listed among his techniques “substituting the appearance of truth for truth itself.” This is one of Elledge’s techniques, since Bonfire of the Sodomites is mostly composed of “published documents, including newspaper articles, interviews, and police reports.” The author’s note and the bibliography at the back of the collection both suggest that Elledge is concerned with fidelity to the truth; a brief tour through some of his sources proves how close he’s remained to facts and direct quotation, which can be identified throughout the poems by quotation marks. Having read both the poems and some of their source material, I could give you most of the details of what happened, but that’s the point of Elledge’s book. Certainly a shorter story could be told, but it would be heretical, not unlike the way Cleanth Brooks disparages paraphrasing a single poem. What Elledge does is take back from the indifferent media the details that are synecdochically inseparable from...