Jun 19 2023
Poetry review – PERIODIC BOYFRIENDS: Charles Rammelkamp considers Drew Pisarra’s unusual borrowing of Dmitri Mendeleev’s chemical classifications
Periodic Boyfriends Drew Pisarra Capturing Fire Press, 2023 ISBN: 978-1-7328759-6-8 152 pages $20.00
Structured around the Periodic Table of elements (formulated in the nineteenth century by the Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev and tabulating 118 chemical elements by atomic number) each of the 118 sonnets in Drew Pisarra’s clever new collection remembers a gay lover or encounter. And what better poetic form than the sonnet, the 14-line form that celebrates love? Though they aren’t exclusively dedicated to feeling and passion, sonnets have always been associated with desire. For centuries poets have employed the sonnet to explore the complicated human experience of romantic love. Pisarra writes in this tradition. The poems in Periodic Boyfriends – the title suggests the transitory nature of love – all have the titles of the elements in the table – most of which I was unfamiliar with.
The Periodic Table is divided into four roughly rectangular areas called blocks, and while Pisarra generally goes from atomic number 1 (Hydrogen) to the end, Oganesson (118), like the Periodic Table itself, he separates out the Lanthanides (57 – 71), which deal with dead lovers and friends, and The Actinides (89 – 103), which deal with men met exclusively online. These two series follow Oganesson like appendices. As I say, many of the chemicals are not familiar to me beyond their names, but Pisarra adroitly alludes to properties, characteristics or associations of the elements that particularize each. “Lithium,” for instance, deals with depression (“You’re depressed. I get it. The meds have made / you fat.”); “Nickel” cleverly riffs on coins (“slot machine / past Mr. Right”; “swoon for a dime-thin-Italian”; “the underweared / sidekick holding a nickel-plated gun”); “Silver” is in honor of the second-place finishers (“You were not my first choice. I was not yours. / So what? A runner-up merits respect.”). “Darmstadtium,” which was discovered in Darmstadt, Germany, ends: “I don’t miss him. I miss the passing bliss. / I bet there’s a word in German for this.” “Neon” alludes to Las Vegas (it’s the perfect symbol of Las Vegas, after all – the modern age, glitz, glamour, entertainment): “Sin City is one hot mess
of cheap brunches, rushed weddings, stained box springs, slot machines, false teeth, fake breasts, and faux bling.
Oxygen? We can’t live without it, right? “In bed, I once dubbed you necessary.” And “Uranium”? Well, maybe you don’t want to know about that one.
Actually, there are 119 poems in Periodic Boyfriends. “The Periodic Boyfriend” introduces the sequence. Pisarra writes:
No one claims Sex is Love nor Love is Sex, the properties of each are quite distinct.
And the poem concludes with the game plan to follow:
Still, Love and Sex possess like chemistries when I survey my carnal history…
Surveying his carnal history, Pisarra begins at the beginning of the Periodic Table with “Hydrogen” – a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas: “You had no scent or maybe I smoked / way too many cigarettes at the time.”
The principal tone of the poems is comic, farcical, even the fifteen poems in the Lanthanides section, which is elegiac, fondly remembering dead friends and one-night stands. “Lanthanum,” which opens the section, is a double-sonnet for his uncle Jimmy and his dad. Jimmy brings his boyfriend to dinner with Pisarra’s family. Jimmy and his lover appear to contract AIDS; it’s unclear because Pisarra had moved to New Orleans by the end, but the two men get thinner and sicker. Pisarra, meanwhile, has come out to his dad on Father’s Day. When Jimmy dies,
His Irish wake was sparsely attended. The obit was terse. No one spoke or cried. My father grieved at this tearless event. Was the cause of death really suicide? (Later that fall, my dad wrote in a letter he hoped I’d find a man – like mom or better.)
Pisarra is a skillful sonneteer. Generally writing in the Shakespearean style, which comprises three quatrains and a concluding couplet – ABAB CDCD EFEF GG – Pisarra mixes it up. “Neodymium,” for instance, another of the Lanthanides, in memory of a male flamenco dancer, begins with the couplet (“We hung out at Dick’s when Dick’s was a thing. / Poor Dick’s went the way of the signet ring.”) and four three-line stanzas follow, the rhymes weaving in BCBC, etc., style. The first and final lines of “Lutetium,” last of the Lanthanides, rhyme, while the two six-line stanzas between go ABBACC. Sometimes, as in “Europium,” the rhymes are all couplets – AABBCCDDEEFFGG. Other variations occur, demonstrating the poet’s skill with the form. (His previous collection, Infinity Standing Up, is likewise composed of sonnets.)
The final section of Periodic Boyfriends, The Actinides, reflects the lockdown world of Covid we endured for several years. It’s devoted to men Pisarra has only known online. Ever heard of SCRUFF? It’s “the top-rated and most reliable app for gay, bi, trans and queer guys to connect with each other.” It makes an appearance in several of the Actinides sonnets. Pisarra also highlights OKCupid, not to mention “profile pics”, “apps”, “ghosting”, “avatars”, “surfing the web” and other online lingo. Ever heard of the element, Nobelium? It’s an element that was made in a lab with a half-life of 58 minutes. So naturally the poem begins:
As regards the gents of the interwebs he was a relatively stable bloke. (and wary of stickin’ ‘round more than 10 minutes tops.) Unfailingly jolly in our e-chats, spotlighting the thot in me by playing dumb to my bawdy jokes…
(“thot,” fyi, is short for “that ho over there,” a slut. Lol.)
Rabelaisian, witty, wistful and intelligent, Drew Pisarra’s poems are a delight to read. The very conceit of this collection – atomic love – is slick, brainy, and inspired. As Clarinda Harriss, herself a respected sonneteer (Hot Sonnets), notes, “it’s an elegant whore of a form, bending graciously to the whims and passions of a canny writer.” Which describes Drew Pisarra perfectly.