The Flesh Between Us
reviewed on March 30, 2023
“Upstairs I hear them snoring, // masturbating, watching old war movies,” Tory Adkisson writes in the delightfully abject “Ode to Sneakers,” “while I lean low & lift a shoe to my nose.”
One of the strongest poems in The Flesh Between Us, and one of the collection’s most striking images, the moment iconifies Adkisson’s over-arching investment, across this debut, in the almost animal embodiment of human—and especially gay male—sexuality. As here, there exists a pungency, an earthiness, in Adkisson’s notions of sexual experience, what blurbist Kathy Fagan calls an “adjacency to wilder world.” “Down here,” Adkisson writes in that same poem, using setting to brilliant effect, “I’m facedown in the chasm / between shame & denial, my erection // a bridge to a better, more sensual world.”
The Flesh Between Us imagines such a world into existence.
Influenced by the work of Jacques J. Rancourt and Greg Wrenn, and formally by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, The Flesh Between Us immerses itself in the materiality—sometimes even the abjection—of the male body. As it does so, it limns the differences between intimacy and sexuality, the former a more elusive and, for Adkisson, more ambiguous objective. These differences are brought out starkly in the beautifully ambivalent poem “Figure Study”:
I lied that it was possible
the instant a man’s lips
circled my own
for the very first time
in an O that dissolved
quick as a ring of smoke
to love a man & not fear
the pebble of his body rippling
through the shallow pool of mine
how I want to tell them
everything changed when I closed
my eyes & nothing happened
For Adkisson, the body here is both awesome and underwhelming—portal and shallow pool, beatific and banal; sexual experience in “Figure Study” opens not onto some transformative intimacy but onto a silent and stymieing “nothing,” not a bang, we might say, but a whimper.
Throughout the collection, in fact, The Flesh Between Us meditates on the limitations of embodiment and of the erotic in particular. On one hand, Adkisson suggests, sexual experience exists merely as a kind of animalistic “violence,” characterized by “the same tugged-on / hair, […] the same empty stream. // Hunt, rut, hunt.” On the other hand, Adkisson’s speaker never relents on his desire to be spiritually and emotionally “present” in the animal body, a presence—maybe even a co-presence—made possible for Adkisson by the mysterious yet sustaining procedures of love. At the core of The Flesh Between Us, then—and one begins to appreciate, perhaps, the many resonances of that title—lies a profound mystery, that paradox that exists in the linkage between love and sexuality.
These are ambitious ideas, but Adkisson handles them with great verve, thinking through imagery in sophisticated ways.
In the poem “Adam’s Apple,” for instance, another brilliantly titled piece, Adkisson writes that “the kink of your tongue / will always be like a word // of prayer against my palate.” In “The Problem with Wings,” he admits that “[e]ven if it’s cliché, I want to be / a bird, unable to walk / the earth because my wings are / in the way.” As Adkisson suggests, The Flesh Between Us walks right up to the edge of cliché but repurposes it in arresting ways; sex is sacralized here—as it is, if less adroitly, by many other writers—but it is also insistently rematerialized, grounded. The Flesh Between Us draws its power from the oscillation between those two modes, as if pinned between two magnets.
An impressive and original debut, the collection marks as well the latest in a long line of first books from graduates of the MFA program at Ohio State. Fagan, along with Henri Cole and Marcus Jackson, have done much to ensure that their students succeed in the poetry marketplace, to my eye one of the most important measures of a program’s strength. The Flesh Between Us embodies that strength.