[Nueoi Press; 2020]
“And I miss you, dandelion / And even love you / And I wish there was a way / For me to trust you / But it hurts me every time.” — Mariah Carey, “Petals”
In the acknowledgements for his debut book of poems, Holeplay, poet Dan Schapiro (he/they) first thanks their editors, then extends their gratitude to Mariah Carey for her “sorely under-acclaimed 2014 album “Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse.” And for Schapiro this isn’t glib; wherever Mariah is invoked — in Holeplay, as in life — some wry, knowing invocation of divadom abounds (an important invocation, as the reader learns, for Schapiro). Accounting for Schapiro’s own sense of gratitude and Carey’s regular appearance in Holeplay, I read this note of thanks as an injunction to listen to Mariah Carey — first as I sat to read Holeplay and then again as I sat to write about it.
Mariah and all that she embodies is central, and never ancillary, to the collection. “Pop music slash math tells us that / a Diva Always Gets Hurt- / & I listen/ to Mariah Carey every day,” writes Schapiro (50). That “a Diva Always Gets Hurt” forms something of a backbone to Schapiro’s collection — a fifty-five page meditation on sex, the twinship of divadom and vulnerability, and life as an HIV+ person. Among the poems is a scattering of photos and xeroxed notes rendered in black and white. The scraps are occasionally obscure and difficult to connect, though such haziness is familiar to any reader who has reviewed a personal archive. And, like a personal archive, Holeplay’s memorabilia suggests the book’s origins are accretion, instinctual and organic, rather than the product of scrupulous curation.
Schapiro’s writing has been published in online journals Wonder, blush, and No Issue, but Holeplay is their first book. Published by Los Angeles-based Nueoi Press, Holeplay was released in March of this year, coinciding with the acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic and its proliferation in the US. This timing, though unintentional, can’t help but color readings of Schapiro’s poems, which frequently invoke virality through direct reference to HIV. Since the beginning of the pandemic the political classes have seized upon reckless analogies between HIV and COVID-19. The central thread of these analogies has been their focus on the individual — e.g. sexually active gay men, young urbanites at the park — each becoming a fetish object for moral panic, diverting attention from the failures of governance and the welfare that allowed such crises to precipitate. This is among Schapiro’s concerns as well, though the COVID pandemic does not make its way into the book by name.
Most concretely, Holeplay takes up the misplaced moralizing that surrounds HIV transmission in the figure of “Ms. Walker,” who attempts to trace the speaker’s sexual encounters in an untitled poem. “Where does he live, did you use condoms? Do you remember all the questions that I asked you? Please be specific in your responses if you can,” Walker demands. In Walker’s words, Schapiro reconstructs a bureaucratic brusqueness and rhetoric of suspicion woven into the fabric of encounters with healthcare workers. This suspicion becomes a concrete, outright disbelief of the speaker when they tell her “I think he [a former sexual partner] was tested afterward and was negative,” but Walker pushes on with further questions about the partner. Reappropriated from its bureaucratic purposes through its transcription and presentation as a poem, the dialogue feels particularly banal and pointless — an exercise in humiliating and shaming HIV positive individuals, rather than promoting public health. Of course, perhaps that’s precisely what is so “public” about public health, that it is biopolitics en masse, completely evacuated of care.
Elsewhere, Schapiro asks, “what is the point of Poetry— / If not to Infect—!”. Framed another way, he seems to ask: what is the point of poetry, if not to unseat suspicion and moralism from their places of pride in the present moral order? If not to make demands against the state’s fierce defense of ableist health and sexual normativities? This is grand work for a slim collection, but the weight of this task never drives Holeplay to preciosity; rather like the eponymous sex act, Holeplay is arch, surprising, and spirited.
At its opening, Holeplay presents the reader with “(POSTCARD),” a lengthy prose poem diffusely recollecting a dream that signs off sharply: “Seeking absolutely no pity—if received, it will be promptly returned to sender. / Lov, / (sic”. As the collection proceeds, the suggestion of narrative becomes loose; rather than proceeding through a conventional and heteronormative narrative arc (finding ‘the one’, falling into self-sacrificial love, breaking up, or some other variation of this tired and traditional ilk) Holeplay proceeds as if through a temporality of a queer hookup, which is to say that love enters the equation in unexpected and piercing ways. In Schapiro’s poems, feelings of love and tenderness do not necessarily precede or proceed from hookups, but instead bubble up at remote moments — “I once / Fell in love with a boy simply because of the way he would piss / In public parks” Schapiro writes.
But isn’t this propensity to fall in love so easily, to become foolish and soft, to remain open in the face of love’s brutality precisely the source of a diva’s pain? Love abounds with unmitigable risks; it is treacherous, and at times, it can be treachery — loving someone does not necessarily make the object or intention of our love honest, caring, or good. As Schapiro asks, “y should eye slash u / tell u slash me about a pain that I slash u can just hurt u slash me about?” Why should I be vulnerable with you? Why should I give myself over to you when that means giving myself over to the ways you want to wound me? This Mariah Carey-esque sentiment might seem maudlin if written any other way, but written instead as part of an imagined (or real) text to a friend, an ironic and phatic question, the line blends self-conscious irony with real, heartfelt concern about the dangers of being tender.
But Schapiro doesn’t depict himself as a straightforward victim of love and damage, instead focusing on how the powers to hurt and be hurt roil within all of us. Halfway through Holeplay, there are two facing pages — the first reads: “My whole being / sorry / mom / asks me to close / the-light.” The second reads, “Mom, I cannot close the light / the window / the flowers / as flowers hole in the dead / as flowers bore of our dead, / Deep deep lossive holes.” With these words, Schapiro calls up the selvedge of grief, its raw edge. But grief isn’t just about death; it’s also about regret, loss and hurt. “My whole being / sorry / mom,” evokes a sense of all the small ways children hurt their parents and break their hearts — sometimes as a result of having their own hearts broken, other times as some psychic displacement. At its best, being both the subject and the object of interpersonal harm nourishes a sense of empathy, but that is rarely enough to repair either the “deep deep lossive holes” or microscopic abrasions in trust that accumulate over the course of a relationship. Children, then, make a choice: to be “Ungovernable, Unmotherable,” as Schapiro writes — to dig in their heels to hurt, perhaps forsaking relation itself — or else to retreat to the comforts and precarity of love and loving.
The choice is nearly a contradiction in terms: hurt outlines both sides. But that is precisely what is so rich about Holeplay — that it continually works and reworks its own arguments about love, relation, and how much pain can be borne.
Sohum Pal is an independent scholar and writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @sgpal_.