“Wilderness of Flesh,” which appears in HFR #49, was a strange poem for me to write—the beginning, in fact, of a somewhat formally experimental (at least for me) period I’m only now beginning to make more sense of. The stacked lines that begin a few of the stanzas were, to me, sort of daring to set down. In fact, writing any lines that do not conform to the left margin still carries an interminable spark of the transgressive for me, a sense that I am doing something bad, making a mess, challenging the status quo (even if the status quo is me, and all the writing that led up to the poem.)
Something I’ve been doing a lot lately is recycling titles from earlier failed poems, and “Wilderness of Flesh” is an example of this. Originally the title of a poem I wrote as an undergraduate, just as I was beginning to find a foothold in my sexuality (and, by proxy, in the bodies of the men I was beginning to know), I decided that the title still had some venal charge to it, and so it fit well with this poem about the body of a man transfigured into a forested landscape.
Wilderness, as a concept, is key to my understanding of the male body—with its smells, its hair, its roughness—in my poem, and so part of my goal was to bring some images to this wildness. I wanted to explore parts of the male body, or aspects of sexuality, I find alluring that aren’t typically written about in that way; images of armpits and shit soon followed as I pushed along this track of expression.
The shit, or “scat,” as I call it in the poem, was one of the riskiest images I’ve ever written, because it has the potential to be extremely off putting to a squeamish reader, or seem like too much of a gesture—that is, repulsive for the sake of only being repulsive. I think these concerns were resolved by incorporating the image into a catalogue of other body-as-landscape images, and by using the syntax of the sentence (I’m a little surprised when I realize I managed to write the poem with just two sentences) to transform the speaker from an external observer to a part of this erotic landscape, to a humble union of two bodies, in a lone, dark space, into one union.
I often write about the erotic power of the male body, but rarely do I write about love. Maybe this is due to an aversion toward sentiment (something bred out of me by both my workshop mates and the gay bars I’ve frequented), or maybe I’ve not experienced much love in my admittedly short life. Somehow, this poem came to me, a poem that seems rough and tender, that seems rooted in the body but reaches beyond it, as Jack Gilbert says in his remarkable poem “Tear It Down,” to “the body within that body.”
Briefly, it seems, I touched it.
Tory Adkisson is a Los Angeles native currently residing in Columbus, Ohio, where he attends the MFA program in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, and serves as Poetry Editor of The Journal. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Potomac Review, West Branch Wired, CutBank, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Find him on his blog and Twitter.