By Aaron Hicklin
Illustration by Lisel Ashlock
Jonathan Galassi is what you would call an old-school kind of guy. For a start, he is president and publisher of one of those venerable publishing houses -- Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- that still prints books; for another, he is a translator of the work of the abstruse Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, a volume of whose works you will find on a coffee table in Galassi’s book-lined office (there’s also a framed Western Union telegram from Robert Frost, dated August 27, 1929). Galassi, himself, is a poet, working in the trenches of his noble and antique art. His latest collection, Left-handed, draws on his late reconciliation with his homosexuality—a familiar, if waning, subject made fresh and acute by Galassi’s ruminations on love, regret, and mortality.
It’s a late February day, and Galassi, 62, is feeling reflective. “My first love was in high school and was probably the most intense, deepest love I’ve ever felt,” says the poet, who divorced his wife of 36 years in 2011, after struggling with his competing desires for the sanctuary of married life and the imperative of his sexuality. “If I’d had the courage to actually experience physical love with a man, I may have had a very different life.”
Divided into three sections that broadly catalog Galassi’s idealized-but-conflicted youth, his happy-but-conflicted marriage, and his liberating-but-conflicted actualization, the cumulative effect of Left-handed, like all great poetry, is intimate in its particulars, but universal in its sweep. The story of gay liberation, after all, is the story of repression giving way to expression, and Left-handed charts that voyage with elegance, tenderness, and, oftentimes, wit. In “Freedom” he writes, “They can cancel every flight/ as long as I get to watch you/ read your brief./ They can run out of chicken/ stuffed with shrimp if I/ can slurp my soup with you/ and sit through the worst/ movies ever made with my/ hand where it doesn’t belong.” It’s an evocative poem—that slurp is tangible—but the joy of Galassi’s newfound sexual freedom is undercut with trepidation. Another poem, “Radical Hope,” concludes, “The landslide has happened/ the bridge is unsound;/ there’s no backing up now/ no turning around.”
The landslide that swept Galassi away from his previous life -- or swept his previous life away from him -- turns out to have been neither quick nor painless. He found himself falling in love with a younger man in 2005, a crisis that stirred up boyhood memories and brought his marriage and family (he has two daughters) into conflict with his secret yearnings. The crisis was foreshadowed in North Street, Galassi’s previous volume of poems, published in 2000. Reading it, you hear the whispers of what was to come. In one poem, “False Memory,” the tendrils of an old crush reach across time: “I have this power: I can conjure you,/ I can put you here. But what I can’t/ do is find the buttonhole, the tear/ that opens on the universe next door./ The dream is what it is, not what I want.”
How you respond to his new poems will depend on your perspective, but, reading them, I was reminded of David Leavitt’s 1986 novel, The Lost Language of Cranes. In it, a wife has to deal with the revelation that both her son and her husband are gay, and her impotence to change the facts is heartbreaking.
One of Galassi’s own authors, Michael Cunningham, explored similar territory in his 2010 novel, By Nightfall, in which a man falls in love with his wife’s much younger brother (Cunningham has said any similarities are coincidental). “Some people think I was planning this all my life,” Galassi says. “No, you wake up one morning and you realize you are feeling things you shouldn’t be feeling, but they don’t fit into the life you are leading, so what do you do with that? Some people might believe you should bury them, but once you acknowledge them, once you let them in, you can’t bury them—that would be death.”
In an age when Modern Family is the most-watched show in America, and Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres among the most-popular entertainers, it takes a stretch of the imagination to recall a time when homosexuality was categorized as a mental illness. For Galassi, the son of a small-town lawyer in Plympton, Mass., that was the world he grew up in. “I’m 62 now, so when I made the life choices that I made, it was the mid-’70s, a very different time,” he says. “For one thing, this was The Boys in the Band era, and the image of the neurotic, self-punishing gay person was not a very attractive role to aspire to.”
Like many boys sent to boarding school, Galassi’s education at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1960s was underpinned by the tumultuous stirrings of love and desire that he learned to repress. “It’s a stage of love that’s often very pure and true, and it’s selfless and idealizing, and I had that experience, definitely,” he says. He fell in love with a boy who resembled his father; the two still talk. “He’s not gay, but I think he was in love with me, too,” he says. “Actually, I do feel regret about that. I regret that we weren’t able to fully love each other, because that might have opened me up to what I really needed, helped me see that there was a solution.”