Book Reviews · 03/28/2011

I Have Touched You by Gregory Sherl


Dark Sky Books, 2011

The “linked stories” in Gregory Sherl’s collection, I Have Touched You, actually lie somewhere between confessional thought fragment and prose poetry, but they come together to create a mosaic of Sherl’s vision of contemporary intimacy in shades of gray.

Gray because the voice of Sherl’s narrator comes to the reader from within his own private shadowland—a place of longing, frustrated apathy, numbness and sorrow, and, sometimes, the merest sliver of wonder. That sliver is where Sherl’s poetic voice expands and transcends, where it scratches against the reader’s skin, managing to raise a hairline welt. When Sherl dares wonder against his otherwise endless landscape of distress, this is the moment in which his narrator is truly brave. Take three unconnected lines from “Memoir”:

I sit in the tub with the showerhead spraying until I feel old. The water feels stale. This is one of seven times I am ready to die.

There is a poem in everything her neck might have said…

I haven’t met Girl #7 yet, thank God. When I do, she will punch walls while I am away. I will watch most of her skin leave her, but fuck if she won’t rebuild my heart on a canvas.

Around these lines are other thoughts and observations, some touching or interesting or provocative, but in these three short moments, Sherl allows his narrator to risk admitting a sense of awe with respect to his own feelings and understanding. These moments take the narrator’s fragility and turn it into an object of astonished wonder, and in that shift they suddenly become universal.

The other universalizing feature of these otherwise intensely personal fragments is the narrator himself. Whether the I of I Have Touched You is Sherl (despite the autobiographical expectation coming from the form, several pieces subtly tease the reader with the idea that this is all pure fiction) or an imagined first person narrator doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the access to this narrator proves unsettling. At first the reader is struck by the almost ordinariness of this voice—the apparent simplicity of his observations, the ubiquitous nature of his pain, his repeated material focus on couches, pillows, beds, drugs, bodies, conversations.

I like nature only when I’m leaving it. By the sixth track of Our Endless Numbered Days, I am asleep. I haven’t slept in my bed in over a year. On Xanax, my couch is a cloud. When I wake up, there are impressions of Girl #1 through Girl #4 in the couch cushions. I haven’t seen a woman I have touched in months. Girl #1 lived here once. Before her, before me, other people lived here. There is a ghost in every room. I don’t feed them.

There is a mournful tone to these lines which renders them heartfelt, but one is still tempted to make a judgment about the commonplace nature of his brokenness. Yet that very idea is where the collection takes much of its power. This sorrowful narrator could be anyone. He could be everyone. He could represent an entire generation of “stuck” young men.

Sherl invites this adjective by dedicating his collection to “everyone who has ever felt stuck.” This is a useful lens for filtering I Have Touched You, a reminder that these pieces are united not only by their attention to the narrator’s sexual and emotional experiences but also by their confinement to the narrator’s particular mental landscape. That landscape is definitely poised and immobile, bound to the narrator’s demonstrated feeling of stasis. That Sherl manages to create poetic reflection out of this mood is worth celebrating.

Despite the collection’s overall mood of “being stuck,” Sherl’s prose is not stagnant. His pieces have movement; they often feel like a stacking of interconnected bridges, one sentence crossed with a parallel thought, intersected by a tangent, re-lifted onto a previous platform, winding back to an earlier reflection. This is untidy scaffolding but it helps fight against a mood with a dangerous potential for monotony. The last piece of the collection, the final fragment of a connected “essay,” is a good example of this chaotic construction:

Stuffy. The room looks like it was swallowed by paint chips. Shitty acoustics. I am making this up. We crouch next to lava lamps to keep warm. Girl #4 says I liked you better when you were crazy. I say I liked you better when your name was _______________. We don’t talk when we fuck. We count the blemishes on our skin. We watch MTV. Someone stole all the music videos, carried them away in their bellies or something. They even swallowed the credits. Our hands cry together. There are puddles between the couch cushions. The microfiber will smell soon. Then what? Will we watch each other bathe in the sink? Will we scrub all the hands until they’re clean?

Aside from the construction, there are two elements of this excerpt also worth noting. First, how those last three questions open this fragment up with that feeling of wonder again, of bewildered awe, taking the entire piece further than the beginning suggests it may go. And second, that last mention of hand scrubbing. If the mood of the collection is about being stuck, then its theme can be expressed in an image of the narrator’s outstretched and hovering hand. Wanting to touch but frozen in fear. Sherl isn’t overly explicit about this hesitancy, but there are multiple nods to the narrator’s psychic fragility in this direction. With this in mind, the titular I Have Touched You becomes no longer just a reference to sexual contact but also a subtle confession of what it means for the narrator to even contemplate engaging his sense of touch.

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Gregory Sherl is the author of The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail, a novella in verse, and Swallow, both forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as: New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Columbia Poetry Review, Georgetown Review, PANK and New Delta Review among others.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is the reviews editor here at Necessary Fiction.