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Michael K. Gause

I Want to Look Like Henry Bataille

Michael K. Gause, 2006
Little Poem Press
Falls Church, Virginia
Chapbook $4.50

Looking for Henry in Michael:
A review of Michael K. Gause's I Want to Look Like Henry Bataille

        I Want to Look Like Henry Bataille opens with two untitled poems. These headless vignettes introduce readers to brief, judgmental convictions experienced inside the head of the point-of-view character, who we discover is a passenger on a bus. We readers find ourselves along for the ride.

        These sorts of judgments are regularly interspersed between titled poems – liquer-style aperitifs to full-blown cocktails with umbrellas – for, although we begin the trip onboard a bus, we are bound for side stops, including a tavern, along the way. Indeed, there are a lot of alcohol references laced into the poems, which makes sense when you learn Gause is also the author of a chapbook titled: The Tequila Chronicles.

        The poems in Gause's new chapbook (Bataille) are not about Tequila, but rather are loud, sardonic refrains about loss and pain that steal into the growing dread of the middle-aged— that remind empathetic seniors who have known this dread, and addressed it with their own brands of acceptance over time. Anger, fear, resentment and authenticity are all represented in this collection of truths and suppositions. The speaker's tone is consistent throughout, using introspective analysis, and – due to that very nature – also outwardly observant.

        It becomes apparent, when readers first arrive at the café, that the point-of-view character seems to be wandering his route. We follow him inside to note more of his cynical observances, remembrances. What's striking about the speaker's observations, is that they penetrate below the surface of objectivity. Gause is to be admired for his ability to pierce the superficial, spear a choice morsel from the depths and bring it up to readers' lips for a taste.

        But does Henry Bataille show up somewhere along the bus route? I found myself wondering, partially through the collection, whether my questions about the chapbook's title would be answered. Who is Henry Bataille, and why does Michael Gause's main character want to look like him? Bataille does not appear by the midpoint, no. But other curious thoughts are wrought on top of previous:

        Most of the poems reveal a nature of sexual covetousness – an honesty that must beg for commiseration – and a sense of self-perceived inadequacy in the speaker that many men are loath to admit. There's also a constant recognition of what other people, characters, may be thinking and feeling – again, that foray below the exterior of observation.

        I'm not convinced the speaker's attributions towards some of the female characters aren't skewed, but certainly the observations are valid, in that he perceives these women to hold particular viewpoints. And because he can't really know for sure, some of the speaker's statements beg doubt, despite being intriguing.

        For example, in this introductory poem (untitled), which appears just before Gause's The Closest Thing, we get a taste of the speaker's omnipotence:

                "I once watched a pulce-drinking contest in
                Mexico. Jalapeños . . . important
                to change your physical makeup through
                strenuous endeavor. Afterwards I wanted to
                tattoo the winner's name on my arm. It was a
                woman. My wife would have been jealous
                in secret."

        Jealous in secret. Yet he would know the secret.

        In The Gift, the speaker – now in an Asian restaurant – fancies a young waitperson, who he imagines despoiled by someone's impending seduction, if not his own. The poem is openly masculine, tense with the conflicts of desire and restraint. Again, the omnipotent relationship appears when the speaker interprets his observation of a simple action she repeats:

                "I will not look at her;
                I do not need more questions in my life.
                It perpetuates the fantasy, I think,
                as I pick the young leaves of holy basil from the stem,
                drop them into my soup.
                Her power will be pilfered soon enough
                with curves like that, those eyes constantly glancing down
                unable to ignore her own growing succulence."

        Women, unlike men (who are often made to feel inappropriate for openly looking at women's bodies), typically do not need to hide the glances they make to inspect or examine their own bodies. When wanting to admire their own looks, they rely upon mirrors. I've known few women so stimulated by the sight of their own breasts (in work clothing, no less) to entertain such narcissistic fantasies.

        I can picture the girl's eyes glancing down repeatedly, yes, but I'm more likely to accept it's a natural coping mechanism for breaking eye contact and unwanted attention. Shyness and cultural behavior patterns are yet more likely explanations for such gestures.

        Another example of this slightly uncomfortable perception ascribed to gender is demonstrated by the classic, male misconception that "a smile means she wants you": (in Opening,) "Walking . . . / past a lovely woman . . . / it was a sudden pleasure to watch / her lip fold a smile into her ripening cheek, / as if I were still an option"— the lines made me feel a beat of sympathy for the speaker, for it's a common wish to be desirable, and that glimpse into the man's wistfulness is the poignant aspect of the poem.

        Despite finding the occasional imprecise or unlikely conjecture about a woman's thoughts in a few of the poems, I am drawn to empathize with the speaker again and again throughout Gause's chapbook. The mechanics are sometimes less than spit-polished (and as an editor, I wonder about a few missing commas), but the masculine voice is compelling, surely able to lasso empathetic male readers and hog-tie the few rough spots into inconsequential folds. Nor is the material exclusive of female appreciation.

        From one of the few list-style, single-word line poems (Point of View) I've ever been compelled to like, comes more of Gause's noteworthy, introspective honesty:

                Sold out
                inside it all and

        And while there's also a decided wash of sadness and melancholy over many of the poems, there are abundant instances of humorous irony which delight. Such witticisms may be found particularly within the untitled gems, as demonstrated here:

                "The benches here are situated in swamps. I am
                convinced once people made their ways out to
                them and were stranded. They died there,
                thinking of their families who forgot to check up
                on them. They melted and made the swamp

        Still no blatant sign of Henry Bataille, and at this point I give up hoping and decide the cover title is a device for attention, just like those untitled offerings between poems. These I gravitate towards, eager for small insights, savoring the speaker's glimpses of recognition at giving up the wrestling and naming of pains in order to accept them. One of my favorite passages puts readers back on the bus, traveling through outskirts of a town which are suggested to be less than safe and comfortable, expressed in the difficulty of naming parts in the light; "Silhouette is close. // Here tongues must curve in forgotten ways to / address them. // Nightshade is closer."

        The final three poems seem a little vague in comparison to all the previous, but they sum the direction and recursive route of the chapbook – a trip out from a man's comfort zone, confirmation of that discomfort, and back to what is familiar: anger, mistrust of people and human nature, and some despair. But for him there still exists a curious drive to go back out and experience more of what he knows or believes to be true about the state of the world. And this is all reflected in the state of Gause's emphatic poetry.

        Most readers will react: intellectually, emotionally or sensorially. Gause's poetry is visual poetry; sometimes words are lost, disappear from the page, form doesn't matter . . . you are just involved in what pans before you, scenes that are mostly real. You can imagine being there.

        Are you still wondering, Who is Henry Bataille? It so happens I can rarely give up a chase until I at least identify the ass end of my competition. After a little diligent research, I learn that (Félix-) Henry Bataille, a French playwright and poet, was born in Nîmes, S. France on April 4, 1872. Successes in theater began in the year 1900 with L'Enchantement, and continued until 1922 with La Chair humaine. Later, his works were reportedly met with less popularity, although he was also admired for his paintings, which are still appreciated today.

        It is said that his poetry was barbed, and full of anguish, that he used symbolism with some deal of "psychological subtlety." That he promoted theories of "indirect language" meant to be "capable of betraying or concealing a character's subconscious desires" (although this idea was seldom applied to his own work, according to an entry I found in The Encyclopedia Brittanica). And in this last paragraph of description, we have found Henry Bataille in Michael K. Gause's own work.

Michael K. Gause lives in Minnesota. His writing can be found in literary journals and scrawled on bathroom walls and notes hidden throughout the Twin Cities, where he has created, hosted, and participated in reading events. Currently, he hosts The Disheveled Salon, a monthly Happy Hour gathering of local writers. His first self-published chapbook, The Tequila Chronicles, received honorable mention in The Carbon-Based Mistake’s Art Exchange Program, and his second chap,
I Want to Look Like Henry Bataille, (Little Poem Press) was published in Autumn of 2006. To his knowledge, it hasn’t won squat.


                                                                By Eve Anthony Hanninen

Eve Anthony Hanninen is Editor-in-Chief of The Centrifugal Eye, writes poetry, hassles poets to write their best, reads a lot and sometimes writes about reading it. Read more about Eve on the editorial page.

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