From the cover of Heavy Petting alone it is clear why women love Gregory Sherl so much: here we begin with a line drawing of a young boy cradling a cat that, while allowing itself to be held, is perhaps waiting to struggle away. It is a moment of terrible vulnerability, of opening one’s self up for love and physical connection that is, by the eyes of the cat soon to escape, terribly fleeting. It is this vulnerable intimacy which perfectly encapsulates what we learn throughout this collection: one is alone for all their love and their need to be loved.
And the loving of Gregory Sherl is a common theme in these poems, frankly and frequently sexual as they are, although often that sexuality is conflated with neurosis and pills, as in "OCD", where before We are both naked in the middle of the kitchen the narrator is found standing in / the middle of the kitchen, naked, my feet puddles / of water. There were no more clean towels, I say. It is a striking moment in the poem, lonely and helpless, that is only slightly disarmed by the resulting encounter on the kitchen floor. And this is a typical moment for the collection, although very often these conflations of sexuality occur in a more comic context.
The comedy of these poems is one of their more winning characteristics and in this way they are less, say, Sylvia Plath than they are Woody Allen. For just as Allen crafted a comic icon from his neurosis, his relationships, and his cultural heroes, so too Gregory Sherl crafts serious comedy out of his OCD, his relationships, and his own particular pop cultural heroes and villains. And as with a young Allen, many of the come-on lines in these poems are at once sweetly sexual and comically neurotic, lines like you are sexy like a disinfected doorway or the silly eroticism of "Be My Date": I want to smell the sound of you eating / my thighs, spread / like warm apple butter.
These confident come-on lines, these brazen sex acts, these disinfections and bloody rubbed hands accumulate and build in their repetition to a mock-mythology, and in this sense Sherl is a poet and a character creator and a self-mythologizer. Appropriately then some of the best of these poems blur fantasy and realistic confession, such as in "Basic Cable" where our Sherl character wakes to a live studio audience standing next / to my nightstand. The producer waves his arms and the audience / applauds and When you walk through the front door, the live studio audience applauds / When we kiss, the audience sighs. Some asshole coughs or in "Monster", which combines fantasy, neurosis, and sexuality to powerful effect: I am in love with her textured moans, her / long distance phone calls. She’s so gone they barely reach my chin. I have / cried so many days there is a river under my bed. The monster has grown / gills, webs between its toes. Pretty the monster says. How the sun creeps into a / lost heart eventually. A striking poem in excerpt but all the more striking in context, for part of the power of this poem comes from the accumulated weight of these moments, vibrating in from similar poems, similar lonely moments, and all the neurosis and personal demons this monster here echoes.
In "Master of Fine Arts" Sherl asserts his right to not be timeless, to write about Natalie Portman’s hips or Mel Gibson’s racism alongside his own insecurities and conquests, to fade quickly into the next moment, into the next poem. And, ironically, it is this assertion to individuality and momentariness that gives them so much of their power. In "Sad Love" Sherl writes of one relationship, it lasted as long as it needed to, and something similar can be said of Heavy Petting, which, while perhaps not timeless, is made weighty and strong by its own sad loves, and it will certainly last as long as it needs to.
Smoke, Steam, Dust:
by Happy Tooth and Dug