Acid-Wash Jeans and Handbag House Anthems: A Review of Randall Mann’s Stunning New collection A Better Life (Persea Press)

by Apr 1, 2021Book Reviews

Randall Mann is the author of four previous books of poetry, Proprietary, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the Northern California Book Award, as well as a book of criticism, The Illusion of Intimacy : On Poetry and co-author of the textbook Writing Poems. He lives in San Francisco.

A Better Life

During this current pandemic, Randall Mann conjures the ghost of the last one, thereby drawing parallels between the two. Like in the mirroring and repetitive lines of his clever pantoums and palindrome poems, he seems to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

In the economic lines of “Florida Again” Mann pinpoints a long-gone gay era by the use of carefully picked items: the acid wash jeans. So very specific. In “True Blue,” he is a trickster wordsmith who just can’t help his punning and sonic dexterity:

 

I pick out

my workout

outfit

 

The reader has the feeling that these half-rhymes, internal rhymes, and clangs aren’t sought out by the poet, but that they come to him in a flow, like rap. 

 

In “Rhapsody,” the skinny, concise verses march down the page and skitter across the ears in a methamphetamine frenzy:

 

we pause        

to disarticulate

our jaws

 

So very sharp. Mann renders the HIV-positive sex scene with minimal words (blue pills), and deftly indicates the passage of time with judicious image choice (receding hairline). This is the first and only time you will ever experience Doxycycline used perfectly as a verb, by the way.

 

“Executive Order” is a pantoum in form, and “RSVP” is just one stanza of a Shakespearean sonnet, but the reader knows that Mann absolutely has the classical chops to carry off the whole thing, if he wanted to. This poet doesn’t flash about his obvious formal poetic skills, but employs form when and where it suits, as is right. 

 

There’s nothing like a really specific tune to recall an exact point in time, and Mann does just that with Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.” The sweaty dance floor and the e-pills: 1990s San Francisco is brought to life in all its gaudy and desperate late-20th century glory. 

 

“Middle Manager” is a hymn to the closeted, but skews without bitterness, and “Extra” is hilarious in its self-deprecating humor as the poet is employed as a “hot guy” extra, then dismissed from a film set. In “Anecdote of an Ex,” the pantoum form amplifies the vapidity of the appearance-obsessed and is casually cruel in its obsessive race towards physical perfection, which is never-ending and can never be achieved. In “Long Beach,” the life of the poet’s grandfather, with all its attendant bitterness and regret over a long stretch of history, is encapsulated well in a brief, economical poem, which is one of the most successful pieces in a collection of very good poems. 

 

“A New Syntax” is a quartet or crown of pantoums, which uses repetition to good effect as it shows how the mind repeats ideas, and how history has a habit of recreating itself. The killer line in a collection full of killer lines could very well be in “Playboy”:

 

It’s always 1978 in the pages of Playboy

 

It’s always 1991 in the universe of A Better Life, but it’s also simultaneously 1981, 2001, 2011 and 2021. 

 

 

 


You can purchase A Better Life by Randall Mann from Persea Books here.

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Wow! We had the best time at this past Sunday's reading with the San Francisco Public Library Thank you so much to our fantastic readers—@emo.ocean (Lio Min), @real_james_cagney, @charliejaneanders, and Lydia Elias—for sharing their incredible writing and starting a warm dialogue on the importance of queer spaces.We'd also like to give a huge shoutout to the amazing folks who helped make our event as accessible as possible! Thank you to our ASL interpreters Heidi Woelbling and Benny Llamas, and to our live-captioner Jen Schuck. We're so grateful for your hard work!Keep an eye out for a recording of this event on the SFPL Youtube page! We'll announce when it's ready. Until then, please go follow and support these writers and their work!Image Description: A screenshot of a Zoom room with Lio Min, James Cagney, Lydia Elias, and Charlie Jane Anders. They are all smiling and listening to each other. There is some closed captioning towards the bottom, that says "I'm really struck by how much vulnerability you all shared. As a writer, I'm curious how you know when you're ready to put a story to the page?" End description. ... See MoreSee Less
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Our virtual reading with the San Francisco Public Library is tomorrow! Join us at 2PM PT for Generational Treasures: An Afternoon of Queer and Trans Storytelling.This fantastic event will feature James Cagney, Lio Min, Charlie Jane Anders, and Lydia Elias! RSVP here: on.sfpl.org/foglifterFoglifter is excited to collaborate with @sfpubliclibrary for Generational Treasures: An Afternoon of Queer and Trans Storytelling! Join us on Sunday, September 25th at 2PM PT for a virtual reading with @charliejaneanders, @emo.ocean, @real_james_cagney, Lydia Elias. In mainstream society, when we hear the word "generations" we may immediately presume biological progeniture. In the Queer/trans community, however, generations can refer to chosen family, drag mothers, drag dads, ball houses, aesthetic legacies, just to name a few. In either context, generations suggest an era. Foglifter has invited four writers—Charlie Jane Anders, James Cagney, Lydia Elias, and Lio Min—who span generations to illustrate their "era" and the power of queer/trans literature. Live-captioning and ASL interpretation will be provided. RSVP here: on.sfpl.org/foglifterSee you then! Image Description: This is an invitation for the reading, “Generational Treasures: An Afternoon of Queer and Trans Storytelling,” presented by the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center & Foglifter Journal and Press. This free and virtual reading will take place on Sunday, September 25th at 2PM PT. The photos of James Cagney, Lio Min, Charlie Jane Anders, and Lydia Elias are in the middle of the graphic. The SFPL and Foglifter logos are on the bottom. This background has a colorful gradient of pastel hues and various shapes and swirls, with a square containing all of the text and photos in the middle. ... See MoreSee Less
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