Spectrum of Flight, David Hanlon’s new collection of poems, invites the reader to occupy an interior world—of pain, of struggle, of a search for a way to rise. These poems are intensely personal, some of them raw, many of them agonizing, as the speaker turns himself inside out, asking how a gay man can live in a straight world. Not just live in that world, but thrive, prevail, be free, be completely himself. Taken together these poems body forth a painful life story.
In roughly chronological in order, the over-arching narrative takes place in settings you might expect—in public and private places where identity takes shape: the home, the street, in classrooms and stores, where awareness of the body and desire gradually dawn on one. In the first poem of the collection a dead animal is the focus. The speaker, just seven or eight years old, sees a dead fox by the side of the road. Described as “the embodiment of abandon,” he sees himself in it: “because I too only came out in the dark,” “because I too had been gutted,” “because it was stillness after chaos.” In a poem entitled “Swimming Lessons” he is taunted, told he is gay. He writes, “they bully me / they think they know / the damage—they don’t.” In response the poet sounds a positive note in this poem, an expression of strength in the face of this adversity. He wonders “what they would say now / if I told them how lucky I feel / that I became / A strong swimmer.”
Early in the collection, early in this narrative of confusion and suffering, that positive note is a rare affirmation of self. More commonly the reader senses disintegration and struggle to forge an identity in the face persecution and derision.
In many of these poems predator images recur. The poet describes “lion-boys.” Here, for example: “the lion-boys think I run like a girl / I feel their clawed-grip tighten / tear my safety net to shreds.” In the poem “If only my body was made of stone” we hear a teenage boy described as a lion safe in his den, shouting from an upstairs window, “fucking gay boy.” Again and again, Hanlon’s sense of isolation is captured in a line like this: Them / in their maned coalition / boys / Them / in their feathered congregation / girls / Me / a neither.”
Hanlon’s prosody challenges the reader. There are poems with a flowing poetic line, sentences with syntactic completeness, that he pauses, interrupts with a slash. Here, for example:
being a teenager in that sportswear store with my younger brother /
too scared to ask / the sporty / muscle-manly assistant
for the Adidas cap I wanted / on the top shelf behind the counter /
And here, lines even more disrupted, from “Inhaling the Sky”:
Battered / weary-bodied
toothpick bones / clipped wings
alarm / flapping
warm-buzz / anxious bees
collapsing into a ruinous truth
Then, as if to represent further the disjunction, the fracture of a self in a society that rejects him, Hanlon’s words appear on the page in a kaleidoscopic fashion, as something like shrapnel:
The violence in many of these poems is unrelieved. In the final poem, “Revive Yourself,” however, there is this positive note: “Remember,” Hanlon writes. Remember the pain, but remember too the possibility, “when you were a child / and you ran toward everything.”
It is an uplifting conclusion to this collection, suggesting flight not as fleeing from but as rising above.