Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews If Any Gods Lived by Michael J. Wilson. (Stalking Horse Press)
On the back cover of the poetry collection If Any Gods Lived, Michael J. Wilson writes, “This is a book for all the dead queers. … It is an attempt at reconciling growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis ….” He wants to find “personal balance in the face of the limits of gender and sexuality.” If Any Gods Lived feels immensely personable, and yet it feels like it fully encompasses a larger moment in time with a collective mindset as people tried to navigate their own sexual awakenings. The conflict I would expect between having both the micro and the macro isn’t a problem for Wilson as he’s able to thread themes of desire, fear, shame, and grief together so masterfully I found myself unable to put the collection down.
The first section is about fear, shame, and desire for sex. It meditates on the AIDS crisis, with reference to masturbation and then the risk of having sex. The subjects in these poems are afraid of what the outcome might be as they continue giving in to their lust, but I interpreted them as unable to say “no,” because to do that would be the same as denying an integral part of who they had developed into as a person. To pursue sexual desire was a way of proclaiming who they had grown into as people.
In the second half of the collection, there is a shift from lust to love. Wilson tells us “that fucking is not love – / the second you’re holding hands / someone will throw a bottle at your head / chain you / to a fence / beat you to a pulp / leave you to die.” He hasn’t just experienced pain from shame, rejection, and fear, there is also the pain of loss. This is the beginning of his grief. The further we get into the collection the more we see the open wound festering, and the talk of lust seems like a defense mechanism to try and hide how much he misses someone.
Wilson is able to thread themes of desire, fear, shame, and grief together so masterfully I found myself unable to put the collection down.
There is a poem about a dog getting hit and killed in traffic while the speaker was going to pick someone up at the airport. It was easier to think about a painful traumatic event than it was to think about a happy time with someone he loved. The juxtaposition between a gnarly moment in his life paralleled with a good memory is made more poignant within the context of the collection as a whole. We’re empathizing with him as he’s focusing on the dog because we intrinsically understand how painful even a happy memory is. The shadows of memory where our lost loves are found sting, and sometimes the only thing we can do is try and mitigate that pain.
The final poem, “The Skeleton,” has this dual purpose within the context of the whole book. He is seeing himself as a walking dead person because that’s how certain people wish upon him, along with the fear of the AIDS crisis. Secondly, it is looking at the grief of losing someone he loved very much and constantly being reminded of that person. He is simultaneously the skeleton and also walking with the skeleton as he’s trying to come to terms with his emotional and physical place in the world.
This book is a force to be reckoned with. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was going to be fully on board because I lacked the experience to connect, but isn’t that what reading is about? Books are meant to connect us to people with different life experiences and build a sense of empathy–and let me tell you, Michael J. Wilson has succeeded completely with If Any Gods Lived.