Faggoting an Ars Poetica: Jon Riccio’s Agoreography

Achilles Tending to Patroclus’ Wounds, Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix

“I’m faggoting / an ars poetica,” Jon Riccio tells us in his collection Agoreography, released this year by 3 : A Taos Press. The line startles as it insists. What does it mean “to faggot” as a verb, and what does it mean to faggot a poetic methodology? Often “faggot” is an epithet hurled by the cis-gendered to wound. By claiming it himself, Riccio sets his work amidst the confessional poets: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, certainly, and more recently, Diane Seuss and Kaveh Akbar. We expect neurosis and addiction, trials and attempts at overcoming. Whether or not they succeed, the process won’t be pretty. At the very least, these confessors will be ambivalent—like the insecure person who runs herself down first to prevent another from injuring her with the same dismissive or derisive words.

“Who wants to be soft? I don’t,” Seuss admits in a poem of the same name from frank: sonnets. “As a kid I fed my big baby doll’s foot / into a rotating fan blade. I wasn’t mean, not at all. Inquisitive.” How much can you trust such a voice even as it pretends to be baring all? Akbar echoes Seuss’ reluctance to be weak, when he writes in “Forfeiting My Mystique”:

It is pretty to be sweet
and full of pardon like
a flower perfuming the
hands that shred it, but
all piety leads to a single
point: the same paradise
where dead lab rats go.

Better to shred than be shred, no? Better to be conducting the experiment than wasted with the rats. We adopt a dual stance, accepting the poet on their own terms while testing what they say against our own perceptions of the matter—for after all, what could be stronger than publication, broadcasting one’s shameful secrets to the four winds. Despite the title of his book, Agoreography, perhaps Riccio is not as agoraphobic as all that since he’s willing to bare his inner geography in the agora itself, the poetic marketplace.

The opening poem of the collection, “Jedi Kiss,” proposes a traumatic origin story: “Another male, his fingers / on me. If enmity were a fork tine, / I’d be a silversmith’s drawer.” Past violation makes the poet bristle. In “My Handwashing Explained,” Riccio writes: “If life gives you lemons, render into cleanser./… / If the brain /gives you leopards, atrophy with faucet.” Is the narrator a pathetic victim in his double-gloving, masking, and sanitizing, or is he a valiant survivor, taming his inner beast with little more than cotton, latex, and soap? Perhaps more tellingly, in “Outmagicking,” Riccio calls his OCD “a bildungsickness.” The boy who experiences his body being sexually invaded by a brother’s friend seeks, over a lifetime, to construct a perfect membrane to render himself inviolable. The poems indicate a metabolic process, a coating, a protective shield, a purifying exudate.

Despite this attempt to claim the space by confessional poets, the difficulty remains that mental tics, quirks, and obsessions are so very personal. Even if one’s fellows recognizes one’s affliction through one’s non-standard behavior, they might still not get why. And even if explained to the point of understanding, one’s behavior might still repel. We might see why the person with OCD refuses our touch or sterilizes himself after it, yet can still feel slighted at the suggestion that we are dirty. Thus, at the very least, the confessional poet has the duty of making his foibles interesting. This, Riccio does, teasing them out in their stubborn and varied minutia.

Riccio calls his style the “Confurreal, or Confessional Surrealism.” “The Confurreal,” he declares as a bullet point in a longer manifesto, “is a two-way mountain for any aesthetic centered around the belief that the jaggeder the experience, the more it belongs in a poem…Surrealism forms an accommodating safety net.” By carefully catching himself in lines spun from his own body, the poet can leap into the scary blankness of an unknown reader’s witness without dying. He decides how strange / strained the contraption, how many stanzas are needed to bear / bury the theme. “Confessionalism,” Riccio claims, “traverses Surrealism’s wavelength when soulbaring is your intent.”

However, the process of soul baring isn’t a given. The surrealist runs the risk that the oddness, the quirky turns and leaps, will obscure successful communication and connection. In his poem “Introducing the Confurreal,” Riccio admits: “My downfall is micro-imagery: / I give you the snowflake’s papilloma but not the snow.” In his work, we often get the leaf-scale of the single pine needle, but not the forest. Here is the title line again, set in its larger context, from initial capital to period:

At my basest, I’m faggoting
an ars poetica, brittling in reverse,

heatwaves and a hatchback
had I moved to Arizona

a decade earlier, sideburns mottled
by cellphone static when I ran

the artisanal caprice: bow
tightened, viola unzipped,

the crosswalk an Ohioer Mesozoic,
nothing like today’s cinnamon

among snaggle teeth trying
to out-wrangle the sun.

Hmm. “Basest” could refer to genetic base pairs AT / CG or “morally low.” Does “brittle in reverse” mean to soften or merely to move one’s prickly ass backwards in time or space? And once I reach Riccio’s Ohioer Mesozoic crosswalk, I freeze utterly.

At its best, Riccio’s Confurreal collection helps us explore his agoraphobia and OCD and see how he reframes, if not restores, his past damage. “We let bygones be dendrites,” he says of his fellow sufferers. Events and memories fracture and branch from poem to poem, straining to communicate, to touch without touching, while making sense of his chemical cacophony.

Being someone who will eat food off a restaurant floor, I marveled at the baroque structure of Riccio’s protections. In “When Agoraphobia Intensified,” he writes: “my loading the laundry after each basket was oiled / with our basement hose, a special set of towels drying little / drops on the folding table, another set placed over clothes tucked / in pillowcases laundered separately, socks on hands when I carried / the baskets to a shirt covered trunk…” My god, how exhausting! One thinks of the ancient Sumerians seeking to propitiate their huge-eyed gods. A Catholic mass-goer, Riccio knows that his rituals evoke the strictures of religion. “We stave archangels with lye, / scour the bunker than evanesce; / father, bristle, and ammonia-son.” Concomitantly, church is also where he can see his progress at battling his phobias: “when I progress from holding // a stranger’s five fingered germth / to Eucharist.” There are additional small victories, as when Riccio once again takes up swimming in public pools and even overcomes the inadvertent glugging of a mouthful of pool water. The reader has come to accept that triumph can be measured by something so seemingly ordinary as the ungloved touching of doorknobs or the eating of a sandwich prepared by a server in a food court.

A former classically-trained musician, Riccio packs his poems with composers [Bach, Saint-Saëns, Brahms], musical genres and forms [fugues to pop to advertising jingles], and sonic clusters [alliteration and assonance]. Our tongue taps its way through Haibuns, Abecedarians, Sonnets, prose poems, as well as through forms of Riccio’s own devising. Feel your way into this with the final section from “Agoraphobe’s Bop”:

Chalifoux, sequestered
on risers. Turn the door,
surmount a lyre. Shame, I
seesaw with harp technique.
Shoes and string pedal,
swansong a catwalk.

agoreographies like that.

Here is another virtuosic display of Riccio’s sonic ingenuity from “Arizona Hale”:

Poem problems? Troubleshoot with syllable septet.
Lassitude-Novisibirsk. I’m Carrot Top and
a tongue-twister’s son. Genes, I give you
lycopene and Kevin T. showing
where to tap the 57. Don’t say a poet
can’t teach preventative measures
at a bar with alligator door handles.

Surely, this scatting takes the confessional genre to a new place.

Of his queerness, Riccio reveals: “Fear of semen / remands / me            makes / loving a fluidphobe / so private.” By now, the reader understands that Riccio’s past traumas and his OCD impinge upon his ability to touch or be touched by another male body, confirming that faggoting is not one-size-fits-all. Ironically, though, by the end of this collection, we feel that we’ve been tongue-kissing him for a long time. Unbalanced by their surrealistic turns, we are compelled to use the poems’ sonic qualities to anchor us. We cannot get through these poems without mouthing them.

Agoreography traces the arc of one poet’s phobias—their inception, intensification, and moderation. The nature of a phobia is that it never fully disappears. Like Herpes Zoster, it lurks in the blood until stress begets recurrence. Still, within the confessional tradition, Riccio has found a deft way to make his recurrent suffering both original and musical, a type of psychopathological Goldberg Variations. One of the final poems in the collection ends with the proclamation: “Jon, you lifed.” In her sonnet of the same name, Diane Seuss muses: “Death does not exist in poetry. A line may fade into the silence past its breaking / but that is not death…I can describe /…but description is, in fact, a hiding place.” That remains the irony of this collection—the more that is bared through hyper-magnified description, the less is known. The more surreal the imagery, the less tangible the particular faggot.