Jeremy Halinen’s debut book of poems, What Other Choice, is an urgent collection of poems, driven by acknowledging the physicality of being gay in spaces that do not always allow for it. Exploring bodies—“as if my body // had been the trap,” Halinen writes—through sex and through violence is a focus throughout the collection. Halinen writes the body as a thing understood and alien, as something presented and interpreted, as something that is not necessarily but also necessarily representative of the self: “If…this body / a magnet, // would you understand / why I was here?”
Halinen plays with dichotomies: between inside and outside, between private and public, between religion and sexuality, love and violence. He sets up a delicate balance in his poetry, using crystalline, almost innocent, language often immediately countered by a following image of savagery. As if daring his readers to turn away, he flashes harsh, “ugly” words—cock, fisting, fuck, ejaculation—words of overbearing masculinity, words that threaten, inviting them into the poems at unexpected moments. But within the context of what surrounds them, these words that menace violence are almost tender. They are painful reminders of what is demanded of being out and gay, of how a gay man is defined and interpreted, by others, by himself: “So I missed my ex-boyfriend’s // funeral. I was busy fisting my current / boyfriend, his first time, if you must know.” The bravado masks sadness, and the sadness provides strength.
One of the most powerful poems in the collection, “The End of Time,” shows Halinen’s control of narrative and line:
After church, the older boys
chased me. I was all tongue and lifted
lips, thought they wanted to wrestle
me down and kiss me.
One returned and muscled me down.
He sat on my chest
and, before I could get a hard-on,
lifted my head toward his
and smashed it down on the sidewalk
again and again, like an innocent cock
forced to try to rape the cold, hard ass
of a statue…
The poem explores the conflation of arousal and violence and the dehumanization of the “I” through the parallel simile of raping a statue. A mere two words—“after church,”—gives the reader access to the personal guilt and social condemnation of the speaker’s feelings. And yet the innocent desire, the frustrating hopefulness present in the speaker’s narration is beautiful. To experience Halinen’s poetry, is to accept that brutality shares much with beauty, and to know we are rarely able to have one without the other.
In the last poem of the collection, Halinen writes: “I know no other way / to say this, so I’m waiting for the world / to make me new, suitable words.” In What Other Choice, Halinen takes words that are available to him to build a story of heartbreak and resiliency, of how to turn questioning into determination. Yes, these are poems that live on the edge of a building, one minute from drowning. And yes, there is fear but there is faith as well, love poems folded into elegies, fond remembrances and perhaps shameless recollections. The urgency arising in the poems is an urgency to live. As Halinen tells us: “Sometimes beneath me / buildings rise and I don’t // want to jump.”