Deviants by Peter Kline
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013; 80 pp
Reviewed by Tyler Mills
Peter Kline’s Deviants tests a crucial boundary of desire. A collection that exhibits formal mastery in the lineage of Thom Gunn, these poems render sex with the indeterminacy of the self through which the speaker confronts multiple identities—lover, man, keen observer of the domestic, and Bay-area flâneur—with a logic that both invites and accepts the dangerous beauty of irresolution. “First Fig,” which draws its inspiration from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem by that title, explores the quintessential morning-after “rueful memory” (5)—re-named as “the catwalk climb” (8) and “the bad-news nightcap” (10). The poem hinges on an oxymoron, “we say we’ll pay / and are sadly happy” (14-15).
The “sadly happy” of Keatsian lyric longing is tracked by ellipsoidal spotlight through the bars, clubs, and back alleys of these poems. Deviants demonstrates that what is “deviant” is not necessarily a deviation from normative desire (though the first poem of the collection, “Swish,” cross-dresses a female lover as a man: “I want to dress you as a man, / shark you in a fitted suit, iron-lined” [1-2]). Instead, deviance can be found in the danger in a poem such as “Slow Jam,” where “It’s risky dancing with a man” (3) when the self must confront its own changing, and changeable, definition: “What am I—to have gone unseen / by those who saw me as I passed?” (16-17). These poems cross-dress the boundaries of lyric subjectivity, where the speaker’s identity can and does peel away from a fiction of stability. A poem such as “Protagonist”—which draws upon the persona poet Robert Browning in its epigraph—ends with the figure of a speaker who ends up confronting himself as a persona in an alley:
But if, one evening, stepping out from an alley
like a backlot actor who’s wandered into the wrong picture,
emerging, straggling, struggling into shape
like a long-suppressed idea, who should appear
but you, one acquainted with his private life.
Then you call him by name: I must answer. I’m always afraid. (9-14).
What most strikes me about Kline’s Deviants is its crystalline approach to form, even while the poems tilt, question, perceive, and marvel at a desire not bound by dream or body; rhyme converts the conversational into song, all the while leaving us with lines that are so pristinely edgy that they refuse the safety their design seems to promise. As “Triolet for a Bad Obsession” ends,
I only want to get until I’m got.
They hit the buzzer, then they lock me in. (7-8).