REVIEW: Begging For It by Alex Dimitrov

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by Safia Jama

Alex Dimitrov’s debut poetry collection, Begging for It, explores some old-fashioned literary themes—romance, sex, heartbreak, beauty, and the American dream.

Dimitrov’s America shares a kinship with American film.  The speaker of “Heartland” opens the book with the sweet swagger of John Wayne: “In America, I stopped to listen for God” (1).  But God never really answers, or not in the way a boy expects, and America steps in to fill the silence.  A romance ensues, ending with the collection’s final poem, “I’m Always Thinking About You, America.”  Here the speaker’s tone has the casual, brazen timbres of a breakup line in the Internet age: “Zero apologies today but of course, there were things we did and didn’t do” (26).

One of the delights of this debut lies in that poetical device known informally as The Great Line.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

From “Blue Curtains”: “And all I remember is how expensive it was. / Not the room, but the feeling” (15-16).

From “The Fates”: “If this was a painting and not a dream, / I’d study the surface a long time, / and wonder where the light comes from” (7-9).

From “You Are a Natural Wonder”: “Suppose I never make it to San Francisco / or stop trying to describe the light in Paris // in those brief violet hours between three and five / when we are permitted happiness” (1-4).

As the title promises, Begging for It is full of longing, and poetry is the only true antidote.  The speaker of “After Love” addresses a lover: “In the first poem I wrote after you left, I killed you” (1).  That poem was the revenge, this one the memento by which to remember (and keep) the love alive: “But this is the poem I kept—/ it’s years ago and we’re in bed” (5-6).  Time is a tool for the poet to bend and manipulate into reverie.

The encounters here are mainly between men and boys, boys being cast as the new girls.  The speaker even flirts with the reader on occasion, inviting his audience to participate.  In “I’m Lonely and I Love it,” the speaker examines the line in another way:

I’m in Paris,
sorry I can’t talk right now.
That’s a great lie, a great line.
When really, here I am boys!
On my bed and in my underwear
doing absolutely nothing.
Playing with my hair,
playing sad ridiculous pop songs. (7-14)

The poem’s title, apostrophe, and subject play like a sad, funny show tune.

Old-fashioned reverie, artifice, and careful attention to whimsy—it’s all here, and somehow it works.  Dimitrov breaks the rules, even writing a light verse love poem to James Franco: “James Franco, James Franco, I love you” (13). Seen in another way, the poem riffs on the Pandora’s box of persona and desire in a celebrity-driven culture.

Dimitrov’s America seems, at first, suspiciously uncomplicated—is this poetry celebrating assimilation?  All things American?  There is doubtless an obsession with youth, capitalism, pop culture—all from the vantage point of queer communities.  Yet the minimalist sketches of Dimitrov’s autobiographical narrative as the child of first generation immigrants grant him poetic license to fall in love with his curated America—i.e., New York.  One thinks of Jay Gatsby, although Dimitrov’s speakers also identify with Daisy, doomed to bad treatment and great looks: “It is early in the century and all the men are late” (“Self-Portrait as Daisy in the Great Gatsby,” 10).  Dimitrov’s flirtation with the American dream is a throwback to an old romance with America as something new and green.

The collection reads with the ebb and flow of a good party.  And you know what? A good party has a hallowed place in literature.  This one is haunted by the spirits of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde, as well as late arrivals Brigitte Bardot, James Dean, and, yes, even James Franco.

Begging for It is available from Four Way Books.

Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.

 

 

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