Mediterranean Serenades

Beautiful Signorby Cyrus CassellsCopper Canyon Press$14, 120 pp.Cyrus Cassells' third book of poetry, Beautiful Signor, is an unapologetic paean to the romantic impulse modeled on Dante's relationship to his muse, Beatrice. Set among the evocative villages, ruins and monuments of Spain, France, Italy and Greece, these 20 love poems lovingly invoke the Greek and Roman celebration of the body and its pleasures.These are brave, conscientious poems, offering themselves neither as an antidote to the AIDS pandemic nor as an anachronistic defiance of a heterosexist world. Rather, for Cassells, as for Dante, eros is unimaginable without agape (altruistic love) and philos (brotherly love).Given, then, that Beautiful Signor may be read as one long love song, it's not surprising that Cassells' central metaphor throughout this collection is the serenade, emblematized in guitar-driven Spanish-Moorish love songs. Thus "Guitar," the very first poem, serves as an apt overture to the rest of the book:At a peace-granting, indigo hour the Andorran moon blanches, through the parted shutters, your spatulate fingers, the feminine shape of the guitar.The mesh of masculine and feminine inspires Cassells to meditate not only on similarities between the sexes -- a man who can say to another man that he wants to feel his "blissful lips,/(his) breath at my nipples" -- but also differences:Once in a placid dream, I lay in merciful grass and a lissome colt curled at my chest, as if to suckle there -- as you did, opening my muslin shirt in the midnight cool of the field beside the Villa Flury:I have no milk, only tenderness.In short, Cassells will have nothing of disbelief, pathos or world-weary resignation: "I hear a callow,/incredulous student:/no woman like Beatrice/could possibly exist!/ Beatrice exists." Fidelity to an idealism moored to this world defines love for Cassells, while its opposite is the province where love dare not speak its name. To refuse to name one's love is the equivalent of accepting love as an abstraction, a disembodied possibility.But there are no out-of-body experiences for those anchored to this world, for better or worse:It can't be winnowed from the world this heart marauding frenzy to be linked, this passion, though, over and over, the round earth's infinite wardens have tried: we're immersed in trenchant time and yearning flesh -- For Dante, the Beloved is beloved because of her absence. For Cassells, the Beloved's absence is linked to his sleeping, his dreaming, while the narrator remains awake in his waking dreams:After love, it's soothing to let you sleep, to stroll unvexed into the village É to slip into perfumed or acrid streets indistinguishable from Arab men.Of course, the ultimate figure of the Beloved, for Dante, is Christ. Cassells takes the obligatory medieval figures of Christ seriously enough to both critique "his shrillness and squalor" and to invoke his message of agape, by which all human suffering is a suffering Christ and vice versa:and our friend murmuring, plague-wracked, gallant, jettisoned from youth: "I am not disease only; hold me as you would hold the body of Christ" -- For Cyrus Cassells, it is the inescapability of human suffering, that foreknowledge that "life on earth is/brief, keen, incendiary -- " that entails we embrace life, accept and give love, especially, if not only, for "spat-upon lovers," those "pledged men."Cassells sees in his beloved, beautiful signor, as Dante saw in Beatrice, the trace of pleasure's inevitable fall, a body which bears its memory and anticipation of pleasure in song, in poetry, in the mouth that sings, speaks and kisses.Tyrone Williams writes about poetry and fiction for the Metro Times. E-mail him c/o

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