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Underground Love: The Poetry of Harold Norse, Erotic and Not

Bailiwick Repertory

For the tight-assed majority, the reigning queen is still Victoria, and that's a bitch. --Harold Norse

W .H. Auden gave lousy head. So says poet Harold Norse, and he ought to know. In 1939, at the age of 22, he became secretary--and occasional lover--to the master poet. Norse might have had to suffer the tedium of middling hummers, but falling in with Auden's inner circle couldn't have hurt his career. It wasn't long before Norse's poems began appearing in all the right publications--Hudson Review, Poetry, Commentary, New Republic. Eventually William Carlos Williams dubbed him the best poet of his generation, but by the mid-60s--after a decade of self-imposed exile in North Africa and Europe--Norse had begun to fade into obscurity. In 1991, however--after 12 books of poetry and three of prose, all now out of print--the National Poetry Association gave him its lifetime achievement award.

Norse has always delighted as much in dishing dirt as in dactyls and spondees. Auden not only gave piss-poor blow jobs, Norse gleefully told the San Francisco Weekly a few years ago, he had a small penis and stole Norse's boyfriend. His 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, is packed with similarly salacious tidbits. Marlon Brando hit on him at a party. A railroad heir traded him a Picasso for a roll in the hay. A drunken 19-year-old reciting Rimbaud on the subway, who ended up in Norse's bed, turned out to be Allen Ginsberg. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti joked about Norse--a beat compatriot in Europe--"Don't forget his horizontal history. Line up all the men end to end, and they'll circle the earth."

These days the 87-year-old Norse--all but homebound after a 1996 heart attack--has slowed down considerably. But his collected Love Poems, written between 1941 and 1985, indicate that Ferlinghetti might have underestimated. In these works Norse makes it his mission to take the "tight-assed majority" on a 40-year guided tour of male bodies in various stages of copulation.

Bailiwick adapter-director David Zak draws exclusively on Love Poems for Underground Love: The Poetry of Harold Norse, Erotic and Not, two hours of sexcapades that would probably make the poet cackle. The "not" refers almost exclusively to the show's last ten minutes--until that point, Zak puts six willing and eager male actors through their libidinal paces as they attempt to dramatize the sexual adventures fomenting in Norse's imagination over four decades. Men cruise in "On Riverside Drive": "The trees & shadows give off / a sexual feeling, benches / extend a promise." Ditto in "YMCA Lounge": "In the corridors boys hop / clutching small bags with the odor of Keds. / Old men rasp to sailors stretching jersey thighs." In Tangier the poet offers a sextet of poems to a 17-year-old lover named Mohammed: "The doors of yr body flung open / we twitched in spasms / muscular convulsions / heavenly epilepsy." In locker rooms, gas stations, cafes, gymnasiums, and flophouses across the globe, the "boys in the international / underground of love" cavort with varying degrees of abandon and shame.

Part of the thrill of Underground Love is voyeuristic, and not just because the cast spend ample time undressed. Norse's work lets us peer into the heavily cloaked world of pre-Stonewall homosexuality, of secret gestures and knowing glances. We can't be sure how much of his imagery is based on fact, but given his endless stream of exquisitely sculpted teenage lovers, any claims to documentary truth are highly suspect. Still, the world he chronicles throbs with an authentic libidinal ache, all the more urgent because it must be concealed.

Zak's actors throw themselves into Norse's world, maintaining a giddy rapture for the better part of the show. And while sometimes a bit of restraint might serve the material better than unchecked displays--the memory of an orgasm might call up the experience more convincingly than the string of faked ones we must endure--the cast's sexual exuberance goes a long way toward capturing the unguarded gush of Norse's writing.

Ultimately that gush flows at too uniform a pace, however. After the tenth coupling with a perfect, hairless teenager it's easy to feel that you've tricked one too many times with the same guy. Only occasionally does the piece veer into surprising territory; the lengthy "Gone With the Wind" begins with frank portraits of racist Alabama but ends with furtive hand jobs in a boardinghouse. Repetitive sexual encounters rarely reveal anything new about erotic life; Zak could have accomplished everything of this nature in an hour instead of almost two.

Even more problematic, one begins to feel that Norse is stuck in adolescent fetishism. Defying the scorn of the tight-assed majority can be liberating, but in this production that defiance rarely moves beyond a blinkered fascination with perfect thighs. This lack of perspective is exacerbated by Zak's insistence on turning every poem into a dramatic monologue, with the actor working to get caught up in the moment he describes even though most of the poems are written in the past tense. Of course this kind of immediacy is necessary at times to unlock Norse's passion. But ignoring what a poetry professor of mine called the "lyric option"--viewing powerful events across a gulf in time--leaves the actors no room for irony, regret, thoughtfulness, or emotional ambiguity. Complexity is continually swept aside.

That is, until the last ten minutes, when Zak introduces poems about aging, gender stereotyping, and the wonder of everyday events. Finally the performers are forced to think as much as they feel, and something like wisdom begins to emerge from the show's overlong swoon, hinting at greater depths in Norse's work.

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