Casey Charles’ new chapbook of poetry, Controlled Burn, unconventionally plumbs the emotional depths of the scenic West
Poets both celebrated and novice hone their craft every day in Missoula. Graduate and undergraduate students gather to workshop their poems in a classroom on the University of Montana’s campus where a framed black-and-white photograph of Richard Hugo looms over their discussions (glowering eyes and a highball in one hand); poets discuss their work and the implications thereof in downtown coffee shops or on hiking trails; spring evenings are often punctuated by poetry readings; and, several times a year, nationally recognized poets visit Missoula as guests of UM’s MFA program.
It is not every day, though, that a former attorney, gay rights activist and literature scholar (one unassociated with the more established poets in Missoula and one usually not known for his creative work), quietly publishes his own chapbook of poetry. What comes as even more of a surprise is that, unlike many other poets’ take on our regional literature, Controlled Burn by Casey Charles, chair of UM’s English department, directly confronts both the emotional and actual landscape of the Western literary tradition without romanticizing or deifying it.
“So much of my poetry,” says Charles during a recent phone interview, “stems from what it’s like to live in a place that is extremely patriotic [and] focused on the ideology of the West, but where some of that patriotism and ideology is steeped in homophobia.”
In “Roadkill, Wyoming,” a poem dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard, Charles illustrates scenery haunted by contrasting images of natural beauty and the wasted remains of roadkill: “Miles south of the Powder Horn River/below the Middle Fork of Crazy Woman/shriveled now to a trickle, what is left/of white bellies are strewn across 287,/blood-stuck. The Department of Transport/shoveled what they could, but fur and skin remain, …”
The poem, which recently won third place in the National Writers Union contest (judged by Adrienne Rich), resulted from a drive Charles took through Wyoming, when he palpably perceived a dichotomy between the natural beauty and, in the case of Matthew Shepard, the terrible crimes for which it sometimes provides a setting.
“I was driving back to Missoula from a conference and [the road near where Shepard was found] seemed like such an incredibly beautiful place,” recalls Charles, “but it was so desolate and there was all this roadkill. I suddenly felt what it must have been like to be left there to die.”
In other poems, Charles continues his reflection upon, he says, “what it’s like to live in a state where homophobia is very rampant.” For example, the chapbook’s opening poem, “The Place He Came From Made It Hard,” doesn’t mince words: “He was born in 51./Kalispell, Montana/grows the kind of queer kid/who kills himself or gets killed.”
One sonnet lucidly describes a love scene between two men, then pulls outward toward a broader context by invoking the landscape—for both its beauty and an ideology steeped in masculine ruggedness. As a result, the poem exposes both the intimacy of the love scene as well as the self-consciousness, bordering on fear, felt by the speaker and his companion: “I turned and touched your eyes. Felt you hard and willing./for the first coming in my hand./The second in my mouth. Third and fourth inside each other/…Then on to the White River./to cutthroats native to the Western Slope. We hiked,/ on the lookout for grizzlies. You had your bells. I the spray.”
Charles himself candidly admits that homoerotic poetry is nothing new in the literary world: “If you’re in New York or in Seattle or in L.A. and you write about being gay, people are like, ‘Get over it.’ And, I want to get over it too, but the fact of the matter is that this geography isn’t over it.”
For many regional poets, the signature of a Western Montana poet comes in the form of a reflection upon the beauty of the vast wilderness, however nuanced by the complexities of language. Charles, though, who has played an active role in the fight to get domestic partner benefits from UM, takes that traditional treatment of landscape and pushes it further, placing it into a context where it’s forced to reckon with itself.
“I reflect upon the geography of where I live,” says Charles, “but my perception of my poetry is that it focuses on an emotional landscape, always seeking out an emotional depth and asking ‘What’s at stake?’ in this geography.”
Casey Charles reads from Controlled Burn Monday, May 14, at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third St. W. 7 PM. Free.