Exit Pastoral by Aidan Forster. YesYes Books, 2019. 32 pages. $12.
Bruce Snider, writing on his experience as a queer poet, recounts how he began writing poetry: “The earliest poems I wrote,” Snider reveals, “about gay love or desire were set in vague unnamed cities with subways and skyscrapers, club-going drag queens, strangers cruising in dark, cavernous bars” (Snider, 2017:166). Snider, who was born in Indiana, struggled with including in his poems the rural landscapes that were his boyhood. Central to his struggle was the predominance of the city as a landscape in the queer poetry. Reflecting on the queer poets he had read—a list including poets Frank O’Hara, Mark Doty, and Tim Dlugos—Snider concedes that he struggled to write in their shadow, to work against “the language of ‘legitimate’ gay culture” (170). It is evident, then, that the idea of the queer urban, as much as it is a mode of celebration for queer identity, acts as a stereotype or mythos for the community. Snider, among other queer poets born in rural landscapes, must work against this mythos of urban desire to uncover other possibilities of being queer.
One poet whose work explores the queer rural is Aidan Forster, whose debut chapbook, Exit Pastoral, was published by YesYes Books in 2019. As its title suggests, Exit Pastoral is not only interested in the redemption of the pastoral as a space for queer longing, but also in the critical interrogation of the pastoral’s usage in literature. This includes the cultural shorthand of the Southern and Midwestern as stereotypes of masculinity and heterosexuality, which the collection invokes in poems such as “On Stag”:
The bullet sped toward the animal
before I could name it.
Grandfather palmed the hot gun
& now the bone twist of the stag.
He guided my hand
through the sinew, the body
so delicate & terrible. I wanted
to wear the animal’s skin like a dress.
The dramatic tension in Forster’s poem hinges upon the hunt—the masculine struggle between the hunter and its prey. However, even though the opening three stanzas of “On Stag” set up the structure of male fraternity and bonding, as the grandfather inducts the speaker into the role of the hunter, the poem subverts that transfer of masculine roles in the fourth stanza when the speaker reveals his desire to wear the pelt of the stag like a “dress.” This queer desire, when confronted by the consequence of masculinity, triggers a transformation which the poem describes as an unlearning (“I unlearned my boyhood: // forced bones clean into the earth, / peeled skin from the stag”). While the poem leans into the rural, it does not uncritically accept the lessons provided by that landscape. As “On Stag” implies in its second half, the speaker rejects the very qualities championed by the masculine hunt: a mastery of the world, the simplicity of taking a life.
Much of Exit Pastoral is written in the past tense, framing the collection as a retrospective examination of boyhood. This allows Forster to introduce readers to formative moments of his speaker’s life, at points of introduction to hurt and pain:
I didn’t go around ruining things—
when he punched me I never bled,
just let him spit in my face & call me faggot.
In truth I knew nothing of wounding,
couldn’t even punch to crack a jaw,
the beautiful sound of hurt leaving a body.
— “Faggot Practice”
In the realm of memory, the very act of physical violence acquires a symbolic lustre. Queer writing has never shied away from this tension between the ache and desire, a crucible of passion that finds resonance in works such as Physical (Andrew McMillan), Crush (Richard Siken), and Silverchest (Carl Phillips). What is unique about Forster’s work is how the landscape of the rural intersects with queer identity. In “Faggot Practice,” queer desire occurs against the backdrop of nature and masculine identity, which is often assumed to be the product of growing up in rural environments. As the poem shows, the pain of being queer is not inherent to the identity itself, but is inflicted upon by others. It is not that the rural landscape rejects expressions of queerness, but that it is made inhospitable by others.
Is it any surprise then, that Forster’s language envisions nature as a sort of refuge? In poems like “On Trauma,” Forster’s speaker conceives nature as a separate space from human society, and expresses the wish to enter it and never return (“Dear pond: I want to enter you / knee deep. Watch my body go glisten // & bud…”). A dichotomy of society and nature is formed: with society representing social and gender norms, while nature represents the absence of such conventions. A similarly themed poem, “Bildungsroman with Distant Nation,” references the literary genre of adolescent growth and journey to adulthood, but complicates its structure. While a bildungsroman typically structures itself as a search for maturity and ends with the protagonist finding their place in society by accepting certain truths, values and rules, Forster’s speaker desires an escape from society into “a land with no homes, no fathers or women: / a lush swath of forest, its wrens nesting like wrens.” Taken together, the two poems suggest that nature provides a space for acceptance, or even validation, for queer boys that is difficult to acquire in a society based on heteronormative ideals.
Queerness, Forster argues through his imagery, is something wild and of nature. Two poems come to mind: “Dear Field,” in which Forster draws upon the image of cultivating a garden to express nature and the body as wild, and “Self-Portrait as South Carolina,” in which Forster examines the speaker’s body and memories as a reflection of the world he grew up in. In both, Forster equivocates queer love with the ungovernable, meaning that that there are innate facts of the body unable to be tamed. In “Dear Field,” the speaker recalls his youth, where he gardened and “tended // juvenilia of kudzu / in my flawless plot.” While that image of the gardener may appear innocuous at first, it quickly becomes clear that Forster is using the symbol of the gardener as a symbol of discipline. The grandfather figure reappears, and both the speaker and grandfather cultivate the land to human uses. However, when the poem ends, Forster switches to a rumination of his own body:
In the end my body
was a place I visited
but did not belong to:
a bright green clearing
with a boy in its center, unable
to touch his own skin.
Unlike the rural landscape which can be corralled, the inner psychic landscape of the queer body is ungovernable. That queerness is equated to wildness is a bold claim, as it suggests that queerness not only exists in the domesticated and agrarian landscapes of the rural, but that it transcends the rural to become a quality of wildness itself. Similarly, Forster employs the natural in “Self Portrait as South Carolina” to frame the queer body and longing. The poem, interestingly, begins as a series of statements of desire: “I wanted / to drive chicken trucks… I wanted to accept / a common prayer”. The usage of past tense here opens two possibilities of interpretation— either that the speaker is speaking about his past desires, which remained true and were followed through with, or that the speaker is speaking about past desires that were then unlearned or discarded. Unlike these unstable desires, the ending of “Self Portrait as South Carolina” is certain when it turns to the question of queer love, expressing itself in the simple present: “I never feel guilty // when a boy says / your tongue is the most / beautiful animal.” The metaphor of the queer body as its own animal (and of nature) legitimises the existence of the queer boy. The body is then further broken down through floral imagery to represent desire and sex (“stamen, pistil, pollen, / meadowed, dawn-blind, gone”).
The usage of natural imagery as a metaphor for what is unchangeable and beautiful can be applied to poems where Forster’s speaker addresses his brother (“Brother” and “Sausolito”). Indeed, there is a beauty to Forster’s language when his speaker describes his brother “waving his hands like seabirds, / like a reverse tide drawing / a beauteous cold to his brow.” Where one meets difficult and potentially problematic language, however, is in the glossing of the brother’s neurodivergence with the language of “disease,” for example: “I imagined disease / had no name here—no name / for a cleft between brain halves” (“Sausalito”), or when the poem’s speaker compares disease to a flower, wishing that the brother “did not press [his] lips or swallow its bright bloom” (“Brother”). At both the metaphoric and the literal level, this language seems to be a misstep in an otherwise generous and open-hearted collection of poems.
Returning to the title of the collection, Exit Pastoral is not a complete embrace of the pastoral in its literary sense, with its focus on serenity and idealised landscapes. Forster’s poems do not deny that the rural landscapes are spaces of pain or woundedness. What they are fascinated with, instead, is unlocking the capacity of the rural and wildness to be a place of queer longing and desire; Forster’s speaker is clear-eyed when he says, “I annexed the words / for good or bad news” (“Foolish Lament with Dollar-Store Gold”). It is from woundedness that wonder appears, as the speaker reveals “what made me: // A callus, an orchid, bedlam: / any palm, open & trembling.” Portraying the landscape not just as a space in which events occur, but a character that has a formative experience upon memory and identity, Forster’s collection introduces us to a compelling voice that looks beyond the city for possibilities of queer life.
Snider, Bruce (2017). “Trouble and Consolation: Writing the Gay Rural”, from New England Review Vol 38(3). Pages 165-173.