I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well
by James Allen Hall
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2017; 158 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
The first instinct will be to call James Allen Hall’s I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well brave. Resist this temptation. Brave feels dismissive of the honest, brutal work in these nine lyric essays. Brave doesn’t adequately touch the self-awareness and beauty Hall writes with as he depicts what it means and feels like to grow up queer in Florida in the 1980s. Brave isn’t the word to describe how he manages to inject humor and wit even among the agonizing details of his mother’s repeated threats (and attempts) of suicide while he struggles to find his way to himself, to the “I I am,” a construction which is both strikingly innovative and obviously appropriate.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that’s challenged me this much to find the right adjectives to describe it. Hall’s collection is artful, maybe? No, that’s not right because that would be both condescending and insufficient as we read sentences that build and build in power and heart:
The I I am recedes into the sound of snow laying down on snow. Then
even that sound starts to echo into the imperceptible
—And when I come back into my body, to my self, the episode is over,
and I am shaking from the cold that has entered me, the cold that has lived
there without warning, without my noticing. (“I Liked You Better Before I
Knew You So Well”)
These essays aren’t salacious or overly provocative. They don’t “push the envelope” because that would suggest these desires haven’t existed before, that they are taboo. Allen writes about himself and his sexuality honestly, capturing a search for love and pleasure and companionship everyone knows deep down or achingly at the surface.
Allen’s work is a study in contradiction; his is the voice that hears a man say “I love you” and can only reply, “Now you’re the enemy” (“Suicide Memorabilia”). He is the man who confides—
I tell too many stories at once. This, too, is a violence. But I want to tell
you everything. I want you to love me for it, and I want you to forgive me
after I say everything you asked me not to say—
but who knows once we listen, we will want, we will need to share his magnificent heart and mind, his darkness with everyone.