I’ve always said that the greatest untold story in literature is the tale of what’s been going on for decades now at rest-areas off of every highway around the globe — and between married, supposedly “straight” men. Then in 2005, along came Ang Lee’s cinematic masterpiece Brokeback Mountain, which became an overnight cultural phenomenon — but not a Best Picture winner at the Oscars, although it deserved to be — for the very reason that’s stated above. Sure, the film was adapted from Annie Proulx’s moving short story of the same name, but few people had read her story before the movie’s release.
Leave it to a straight female fiction writer and a straight male film director to be the first people to tell this story to a wide audience and receive international acclaim for it. Such has been the homophobia of our society, and such has been the internalized fear amongst closeted (or formerly closeted) gay and bisexual men, who it seems have been unwilling or unable to tell the story themselves. Society doesn’t even remotely comprehend the depth and complexity of this subject, because society is what still forces many men to endure that difficult life of secrecy today. If the culture failed to coerce such men into covertly leading double lives, so the twisted logic goes, then the heterosexual and familial backbone of the culture itself would crumble.
Nevermind that it’s already crumbling anyway. As gay and bisexual identity has become more openly accepted in cultures worldwide, some — but not nearly all — of these closeted men have gradually ended their deceptive marriages of convenience, and society has begun to wake up to one of its most desperately hidden truths. The timeframe of Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963, and nearly half a century later, it’s obvious that we’re not living in 1963 anymore.
Eight years ago now, a little book titled The Smug Bridegroom quietly made its way into the world. It addresses the aforementioned themes more directly and more personally than either Proulx’s short story or Lee’s film. It’s a collection of poetry, so again, there’s no doubt that relatively few people have read it. This was the second book written by Robert Hamberger, an English poet who was born in East London in 1957. Hamberger, the author of six poetry pamphlets and three full-length poetry collections — Warpaint Angel (1997) was his first book, and Torso (2007) is his third and most recent — has been publishing his poems since the late 1970s. At that time he was married to a woman with whom he had three children, then he got divorced, came out as gay, and found a long-term male partner seventeen years his senior, who lived with the hardships of heart disease. Hamberger currently resides in Brighton, on England’s southern coast.
The scope of The Smug Bridegroom is vast and impressive, given that Hamberger’s book explores almost his entire biographical trajectory. Whereas many volumes of poetry loosely or even randomly link together poems within several subtitled sections, the four subtitled sequences that comprise The Smug Bridegroom tightly cohere both individually and together, arriving at a structure whose integrity feels completely solid from start to finish. The opening sequence, “Mountains,” involves commentaries on parenthood and the descent into illness of the author’s mother, to whom the book is dedicated. The second section, “Die Bravely,” closely details Hamberger’s marriage, from early courtship to the trials of separation. “The Wolf’s Tale” and “The Rule of Earth,” the latter of which was shortlisted for a Forward Prize and was previously published as a self-contained pamphlet, examine the pain of divorce and coming out as gay at middle age, alongside the poet’s figurative rebirth in a meaningful domestic relationship with another man.
The Smug Bridegroom draws its title from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear himself speaks the lines late in the play’s fourth act, once he’s suddenly realized, in his old age and delirium, that his two eldest daughters have betrayed him: “Why this would make a man a man of salt, / To use his eyes for garden water-pots, / Ay, and laying autumn’s dust. I will die bravely, / Like a smug bridegroom.” These lines also serve as the epigraph to the section that’s subtitled “Die Bravely” in Hamberger’s book. This allusion is affecting and works on numerous levels, conveying at once the deep sorrow that the poet feels about the dissolution of his marriage, the sense of deception involved in “betraying” his wife and children, and the guilty knowledge that he may have intuited he was gay all along on some level, but remained “smug” enough to avoid the open recognition of that fact. In Shakespeare’s play, these lines are also rife with sexual connotations, which are certainly appropriate to the moments of both gay and heterosexual physicality that punctuate Hamberger’s text.
The book’s opening poem, “Mountains,” situates the poet in relation to his parents and to his own children. It’s a fascinating place to stand, both as a writer and as a reader, in the middle of this generational divide. What does it mean to be a son in relation to his beloved aging mother and his absent father? What does it mean to be a father to three young children when one still feels very much like a son himself? Hamberger skillfully evokes and unfolds the intricacies of these relationships, without reducing their infinite nuances: “Looking up (say a year old, sixteen months) / she was a glacier forty foot high . . . / her voice coming from the summit down to me.” Then later:
“At sixteen months
my daughter’s at my feet: far down there,
her cries grapple-hooks pinning their hopes.
Any minute she’ll climb inside me.
I want to be ice. She can’t move mountains.
The season’s shifting. I want to give way.”
All of this is further complicated in that the poet’s mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and nearing her own death. The poem “Mother’s Son” deftly synthesizes fragments from remembered experiences throughout their relationship, from the poet’s earliest memories (“Yanking my hand to Infants that first morning, / me gripping doorjambs and radiators / while everyone gawped”) to disorientingly sad visits to his mother at her retirement home (“Taking my hand / when we walk the corridor saying ‘Allright Dad’”). Hamberger carefully arranges these potentially sentimental images and phrases with exactly the right touch of humanity and restraint, making those moments real to the reader, rather than mere cultural clichés.
Hamberger is also terrifically adept when working in poetic form. The sonnet is the most overused form these days, to say the least, but in his hands, each instance of using the sonnet structure fits because he stays true to this form’s song-like origins, while never calling too much attention to his rhyme schemes or metrical patterns. I’m moved by his sonnet “Your First Words” every single time I read it. The poem describes his initial encounter with his wife-to-be, on their very first day at university:
“‘Can I say hello to you?’ We were eighteen
first night away from home, and I said yes.
You thought I looked safe. How could you guess
in years to come I’d sometimes leave the room when
you were talking, annul you like that, how often
I’d stone you with silence. If I managed to impress
that night with quotes from Plath, it didn’t take us
long to learn no-one lives by poetry alone.”
The next few lines adroitly trace the ensuing years of their courtship, hesitant sexual exploration, and eventual coupledom, with a distinctly effective turn at the poem’s close: “Twenty years on I barely know you, but thanks for asking. / Go back to that night and I’d say yes again.” I can’t think of another excellent lyric poem that deals with this theme in the exact same context, nor can I think of another emotionally precise sonnet that employs the form quite so well in contemporary terms. Such an honest poem within the setting of a book like Hamberger’s was long overdue by the time The Smug Bridegroom was published in 2002. As one acquaintance and literary critic suggested when I asked him about it, perhaps the topic of a previous heterosexual marriage is simply too painful for most gay writers to confront in their work.
Even more admiration is due to Hamberger, in that case, for addressing the subject so thoughtfully here. While the marriage itself may have ended, the wife is not disrespected or left out of the picture. Another of the collection’s sonnets, “Five Years After,” again roused my interest when depicting an amicable post-divorce meeting between the poet’s ex-wife, her second husband, the poet’s male partner, and the poet himself, with an embodiment of elation in the poem’s final image:
“We leave them to their new home, as if we’ve granted
each other a blessing, another chance:
regret and anger trickling into grass,
or away into weather we all moved under once.
Next morning you bend to press
seed-potatoes into the vegetable patch. I balance
to paint our hall like a big yellow yes.”
The aspect of Hamberger’s poems that I most enjoy is their capacity for authentic empathy. These moments of connection manage to feel both vivid and relaxed in Hamberger’s poems, the same way that they so often feel in daily life. In each case they are emblematic, as in the sonnet “In Front of the Kids”: “When I cried in front of the kids they asked why. / ‘I’ve made you unhappy.’ That was enough. / . . . My tough / son ran for toilet-paper to dry / my eyes. He said ‘I want to see you’ / and gently held my face between his hands.” Or in the spare and direct poem “The Coming Out Group”: “He said ‘We’ve always been honest / so I told my wife I’m gay. Five minutes later / she was throwing my clothes out the window… / At work they wrote queer on my windscreen. / I’ve lost everything but it’s worth it. / I’m true to myself’, and he punched his chest / once, hard.”
The two most affecting poems in the book for me, perhaps, are printed side-by-side right in the center of the collection. “A Tree in the Wood” might be one of the most devastating poems I’ve ever read on the subject of gay men and suicide. The poem is preceded by a news-article excerpt from the UK magazine Gay Times, which recounts the story of a Conservative councillor and 40-year-old father of two in Leeds, England, who slashed his wrists and hanged himself on the same day that he was scheduled to appear in court to face gross indecency charges subsequent to his arrest for having sex with another man in a public bathroom. Hamberger courageously elects to re-imagine the man’s sexual encounter itself, a way of focusing on pleasure and desire, rather than emphasizing the social punishment for enacting that desire. The sexually charged imagery is powerfully interspliced with images of violence and self-injury:
“If it’s love I must be cut in two:
stop the body to stop its feelings.
If this sense floods my skin for minutes,
eating a man hungry into my mouth,
swallowing swords, kneading his inches,
feeling good alive together in our sweat
my neck must need rope’s love-bites,
my wrists loosening their grip as he shoots
deserve these slits. My blood can wipe me clean.”
This heartbreaking poem is immediately followed by the equally moving sonnet titled “Sisters,” a piece that’s somehow both antithetical and complementary to “A Tree in the Wood” in tone. The poem playfully recalls the poet and two of his boyhood friends, “[t]hree mummy’s-boy first years at an all boys school, / standing out like cockatoos at a wake” as they together sang and mimed songs by the famed British trio the Beverley Sisters: “We sashayed and fingerclicked thirty years ago. / Months before you died we met in London again: / you two gay, me halfway there. Brothers under the skin.”
The book’s final sequence, “The Rule of Earth,” provides a redemptive ballast to much of the darker content that precedes it in the collection. All twenty-one sonnets in this section of the book chronicle the poet’s romantic relationship with his long-term male partner, from their earliest sexual encounter after meeting over drinks at a pub, to their shared everyday domestic life. The trials that they encounter along the way — suspicious suburban neighbors, being tested for HIV together, spells of silence and depression, the older partner’s heart surgery — are all handled with resilient strength throughout the poems. “The Thought” delicately opens with a strategically repeated phrase: “If I lose you. Watch how I bear the thought: / if I lose you. Never to sense again / your palm against my face while we explain / the way this day has gone, each night / across the pillows, talking late / with kisses when we should have slept.”
There’s both an ease and an intensity in the way that Hamberger navigates these lines, qualities that one rarely finds paired together in formal poetry, or in any poetry, period. To me the scene seems perfectly situated, romantic yet down-to-earth, fully envisioned yet without unnecessary adornment. That same calm emotional exactitude can be felt in “Walking Together,” the book’s dream-like closing poem, which I’ll quote here in its entirety, in order to let the poem’s quiet impact register in full:
“I’m learning to slow my steps in time with yours.
There’s seventeen years between us: a gap
I called a challenge once, the way love ignores
any barrier, mountain, distance. I’d stop
a minute to let you catch up in those early days.
Carried away by how often we said
‘Let’s go for it’ when we met, I read that phrase
as my green light, the same light we saw ahead
walking back last night to our posh hotel.
It glowed at the crest of an avenue of trees
still young and green, while a heart-shadow fell
at our feet from a streetlamp through leaves.
We paused, and in that gap I took your arm
for a few yards of dark, with miles to get home.”
Robert Hamberger’s The Smug Bridegroom is one of the finest poetry books of the past decade. These poems are grounded in hard-won truths and are powered by humanely bracing honesty. Their bravery and expert craft deserve widespread appreciation, as well as a long-standing readership.