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Narcissus Resists Paperback – February 18, 2009
About the Author
Matthew Hittinger is the author of Pear Slip, winner of the Spire Press 2006 Spring Chapbook Award. Shortlisted for the National Poetry Series, the New Issues Poetry Prize, and twice for the Walt Whitman Award, Matthew's honors include a Hopwood Award and The Helen S. and John Wagner Prize from the University of Michigan, and the Kay Deeter Award from the journal Fine Madness. He lives and works in New York City.
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The very title of this brief but magical collection - NARCISSUS RESISTS - suggests more than the initial response indicates. In this collection of fourteen 'sections' of one long poem about the mythical Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in the water, Hittinger provides five breathing spaces (Metamorphosis of Narcissus I - V apparently 'meditations on Salvador Dali's 1937 oil painting METAMORPHOSIS OF NARCISSUS) in the manner that visual artists use jade or resin resists to coat a surface with a substance that protects certain areas of a work from holding pigment or image, a delicate technique that results in seemingly multiple layers of visual information. OR the poet may simply be offering us fourteen manners in which the narcissist hero approaches verges of temptation and seduction and encounters with the strange new world of now so different from the world and time of Narcissus' origin and time.
Hittinger opens his collection with questions: 'Am I the favor seeker, or the favor sought? Why seek at all, when all that I desire is mine already?' He then weaves this confident muse through challenges to his ownership of beauty - in movie houses, clubs, websites, brawls and wonderful plays on words and ideas from mythology. In 'Clubbing' our hero of sorts experiences '...A quiet/ night at the Inn, the air clear, prismatic,/ dance floor empty save for a reflection/ caught in a mirror. His eye knew beauty,/ knew his body but not his body, the face/ that lasts as long as one spun lozenge.' Or in 'Cover Story', 'Water cut a deal with the tabloids:/ catch those cheekbones, parted lips,/ the ice blue star in each eye, a simple/ first assignment. Narcissus never/ showed, so Water froze a faux snap-/ shot, afraid of editorial wrath.'
Exactly what Matthew Hittinger intends with this multilayered and timeless survey of Narcissus may elude us all. But what does pour out of these pages is poetry of biting satire of our preoccupation with surface beauty or self or delusions of other's perception. And beneath the graceful humor and multiple layers of meaning lies the secure 'verbal resist' of an eloquent poet's mastery of his medium. Hittinger grows in importance with each new publication of his work. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, February 09
The original Narcissus provides a readily queer-accessible myth, and it has certainly been used by gay artists for inspiration in the past, most notably in Bidgood's classic erotic art film. Hittinger does not fail to pay tribute to this film, using the poem "Celluloid" to encounter it like a porno theater hookup: "...The marqee read COME/ LIE IN HIS CAMPHOR AND NITRO-CELL-/ U-LOSE SHEETS..." This is the second of the fourteen sonnets, and the first major event after the titular character tires of his own beauty.
After "Celluloid," Narcissus goes "Clubbing" and "Cruising," suffers a "Concussion," and has lots of "Cybersex." He also lends his voice to a dubbed pop star and writes the tell-all, I Am the Narcissus Virus, which results in a blogging war with the transsexual Tiresias. Hittinger takes Narcissus on a journey through the contemporary melodrama of fame, all while exploring the gay version of Mulvey's male gaze. Even Narcissus' reflection (named appropriately and simply Water) gets his fleeting tabloid notoriety.
As a chapbook, Narcissus Resists works. Across nineteen poems, a conceit such as this can get old, but Hittinger keeps his book compelling and engaging. The glimpses of Dali's painting, interspersed with the snapshots of Narcissus' misadventures, provide the momentum necessary. Momentum alone would not be sufficient, but the language is clever and luxurious enough to keep one reading.
This desperation to capture a fleeting image is more explicit in the sonnets, as Narcissus resists his own reflection only to entrance his onlookers. He dances "with a silver ball's thousand rhombs," tantalizing those watching (including, unavoidably, himself). After he begins to gain notoriety, "gossip sought to unzip/ the uncut rumors (he was Euro after all.)" When approached, "Narcissus replied I'm a rare flower and left/ to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony/ in honor of the Narcissus Institute of Skin/ and Water." The poet is winking at us through these poems, yet there's still a real pain at the core of the character, seen through the violent imagery that interrupts the language of beauty and gazing. For instance, in "Corporeal,"
My scars are beautiful, deep pink. Listen
to their echo--which sounded like the red
blotch of a slap, the thick calm of palms
Narcissus finds that "his nemesis was not at a clone/ or evil twin, but that gap in a two way/ mirror." A being of light and shadow, flesh and water, body and reflection, there's a distinct and ever-present emptiness. Narcissus is vapid in several ways. He exists as an idea or untouchable image, only becoming flesh when he's wounded.
Whether this will add a layer or two of context to your own reading of Narcissus Resists, I can't say. It certainly bled into my reading of the chapbook, but that didn't detract from the cleverness, pathos, and richness with which Hittinger composes this ode. Narcissus may be vapid, but these poems certainly aren't.