Sam Pink, in his introduction to Big Bruiser Dope Boy’s debut collection, Foghorn Leghorn (Clash Books, 2019), writes, “The voice of this book. It has everything I want and yet I can’t explain it. It’s hurt shit…funny, straightforward, absurd, sad, and, ultimately, true in the way that only art can be.” Indeed, that slim volume unleashed a uniquely hilarious, unapologetically vulgar, and achingly magnetic personality onto the poetry landscape, a “Gay Rodney Dangerfield” with a penchant for being funny and heartbreaking, often at the same moment. BBDB’s latest book – and first hybrid work – After Denver: Poems & Prose, continues along the same bleeding vein, sifting through the shattered snippets of remembrance that coalesce to form a life, courageously expanding upon a singular, no-fucks-given vision by making it all the more jarringly concrete. A hell of an achievement for a writer who’s been there and back.
While the poems in BBDB’s first book – or books, as Foghorn Leghorn was quickly repackaged last year with a couple new poems as Your First Real Boyfriend & Other Poems, ostensibly due to Amazon’s disapproval of the collection’s original cover that featured a blunt-smoking Foghorn Leghorn (the Looney Tunes character) performing fellatio – occasionally veer into abstract imagery or passably amusing, yet occasionally overlong, pop-culture-saturated listicles, there is no filler in After Denver. With a zero-tolerance policy towards cute gimmickry, the seven poems expertly sublimate the masochistic minutia of the everyday with dire feats of black humor, fantasies of one’s exes meeting at one’s funeral, scathing critiques of poetry identity politics, ruminations on what it means to be a gay artist, the tribulations of bartending at bear bars and thwarting the stalkerish cretins who frequent them, and “Daddy” issues for every iteration of that word, each peppered with hard-learned nuggets of truth – “You can’t want something you don’t deserve, and then get mad when you don’t get it. / It’s your fault for wanting it to begin with.” – and punctuated by cutthroat closing lines: “I’m going to be your first real X / You will be my last fake one.” “We get hard for our pasts, as they harden in us,” BBDB opines in “Your First Ex-Boyfriend,” a pithy, defiant sequel of sorts to the title poem from his previous work(s). It’s obvious that for this poet, that past is always acid-clear and knife-sharp.
Interestingly, and perhaps a little surprisingly given BBDB’s acumen for verse, the prose portions account for many of the most raw, cruel, and utterly compelling moments in After Denver, especially the seven vignettes called “Slabs” that together form the meat of the book (pun definitely intended). A bildungsroman dripping with the visceral sex ooze of unrequited teenage lust – “a bad, bad want, a vain groan no one can hear” – and the sad truth that “some asses were built by the devil just to haunt you,” these episodes perfectly encapsulate the consummate weirdness and alienation that often goes hand in hand with discovering who you really are when the heart is finally laid bare. Employing a seductively hypnotic, rhythmic, and dense style, BBDB’s writing is impeccably attuned to its subject matter, which runs an entire, blithely graphic gamut of formative experiences. There’s the awkwardness of navigating taboo attractions amidst the jocular normies who rule small-town America, the understatedly wrenching but ultimately necessary collision between an estranged parent and child, the secret tenderness between young lovers that can overcome even the most embarrassing situations, and the hysterically overt homoerotic aspects of football practice (you will never look at a maraca the same way again, trust me). It’s a truly impressive soul-baring crammed into such a small package, one that, like the best autobiographies (and it’s hard to imagine this book is anything else), is both intensely personal and painfully relatable.
After Denver concludes with “Doubt Doubt,” a cleverly poignant epilogic piece that functions as a sort of artist statement/personal manifesto, a plea to remove the tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious “superfluous stuff” from one’s work, to have the understand that delving deeply into one’s own inner life and past history – the “hurt shit” – will always produce the most compelling results: “When writing, it’s not about thinking of something literary to write to make your life interesting. It’s not thinking of what to write, it’s remembering the thing itself better, harder, with the full force of your mind and heart behind it…Being merciless with who you were.” What drives both the poetry and prose, and makes it so addictively readable, is the glaring authenticity and urgency of its voice. It sounds real. It doesn’t grasp for something to talk about, a fragrant scene to ponder, or an overwrought story to tell. Instead, Big Bruiser Dope Boy prefers to unravel the chaos inside himself and spew only the purest shards onto the page. And as readers, we are undeniably better off for it.
Chris Vola is the author of seven books, including the forthcoming I is for Illuminati: An A-Z Guide to Our Paranoid Times. He writes and bartends in New York.