Noah Ross’s poetry collection, Active Reception, is a sprawling work. It teaches us a hole is more than a void looking to be filled. A hole is more than a placeholder for what is missing. Published by Nightboat Books, this cross-pollination of hybrid forms and smutty renderings stages the lyrical honesty of a ravenous poetry bottom both engulfing and transformative.

A hole is not, as Ross writes, a “presupposed, relation to an interior, an opposition, to action, agency, a dwelling on want, for its sense of lack.” Rather, a hole is dank and deep, full of exploratory modes for what play and poetry can look like. A hole is an unabashedly ill gossip who delights in saying “it’s about time to take the sickness serious”! Let’s get deep. A hole is an abolitionist and anti-capitalist who struggles to understand pleasure as a set of practices historically built upon the colonial vestiges of white supremacist capitalism. Let’s get deeper. A hole wants to be fucked over, and over.   

Active Reception articulates the disjointed pathways of queer kinship which lead to one unifying goal: bottoming as a model of liberation worth fucking and fighting for. Throughout, Ross’s poetics is informed by the material conditions of an overstimulated, stimulating world. Clashing scenes, sounds, and images are adorned garishly, fabulously, in queerness. Utility is a maximalist creed.

In What’s the Use? Sara Ahmed writes, “Perhaps the potential to queer use might reside somewhere between our bodies and our worlds. Queer use might require a certain willingness to be perverse; to deviate from the straight path, the right path.” Like Ahmed, Ross is invested in writing towards perversity, which is simply real life. In other words: as queer people, we take up perversion not because we are deemed perverse by society; we do so because we believe that our perversion of normative behaviors, modes, and meaning-making can lead to more inclusive formations of social living.

On the page, lyrical interplay stretches the poem into altering positions which subsequently induce transformative revelations. For instance, Ross writes:

“a novel opening / of the bow / els of the bottom / of the page / of the syllable / of the punctum / of a presence / in my mind / in the language / of the thing / itself / an agency of / thingness / being ridden / being written / across the bottom / of the page” 

On other pages, poems shoot up and down columns. You turn the book upside down, reading right to left, then zigzag backwards in half steps. A poetry of bottoming is interested in communicating an explicit desire for mutual orgasms. In the book’s three poetic sequences, Ross offers an expansive array of anecdotes, hearsay, theory of ideas, and guttural noises in support of this argument. His citations range from Guy Hocquenghem, the French queer theorist, to Doug on Facebook to gay hustler movies like Midnight Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Any notion of curation is inherently middlebrow. Ross’s lineage is shaped as much by platonic ideals as it is lived through catty whispers and buttplugs. 

This interactivity unlocks the book’s offering: What might queer liberation feel like under capitalism? Can it feel good? In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, I’ve been alternately struggling and striving to answer these questions. Ross identifies a lexicon which I’m eager to learn so I can share my findings with my friends and lovers. Its keywords: sweet, sweat, detritus, long-distance crushing. Friendship is mediated by the presence of political and immunological borders. 

Amidst the realities of pinkwashed commodification of queer identity, Ross understands that sexual freedom alone won’t end political violence. Individual acts of cumming don’t dissolve national histories of animosity, and they definitely don’t resolve war and peace. Instead, think of it like: War//Peace.

Is this what it means to take the lyric leap in late stage capitalism? Under Ross’s treatment, philosophy is meaningful insofar as it is coated in the shit-stained dregs of its material living. When you are working on the clock—you are a waged worker who enters a PIN to clock in and out for your shift—you are writing against the clock. By taking the time to write you incur further costs. As a food service worker I’m constantly waging my energy to create against my ability to earn income. I choose writing and I might end up losing shifts or even my job. I choose working and I return home drained of all will to read or write.

Theory is cheap. Living is costly. Ross writes: “there’s something, to be said, about the flow, of energy, of the emotional, like the gut transfers, its bacteria, across stomachs, across housemates, lovers, friendships, I pick up, my bacteria, willfully, from the people, I love most, it slowly, kills me.” Ross reminds us that life is inconvenient and complicated, dirty and disgusting. It’s easy to feel like a good person by virtue of who you could hypothetically be. It is much harder to recognize the limitations of your good intentions. Active Reception creates a poetic space where you don’t have to be a theoretically good person because goodness is, at its base, a morally fucked ideology.

Active Reception expands the limits, the cavity, of liberation. The hole of the poetic bottom grows wider. Commas, slashes, gesture in and out; they apparate across the page and wildly hurl you towards another space, which is a room for aftercare. Syntax is wildly promiscuous. These are the conceptual renderings of a gay choral orgy versed in language poetry. The release of rhythmic momentum is a delightful journey we follow to completion. A sonic pulse, a generously erotic beat. The past is something that isn’t over. Like heirlooms, bottoming is passed down from one generation to the next. Intergenerational pleasure is a modular form of queer kinship. “I bottom, fucked, over, and over, again, fuck, over, and over, again, extending what is felt, to an audience, in this case of one, in this case, of many, sewing us, together, binding us, together.” Come in me. Come on me. Are you legible or are you horny? Ross says Yes.

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Catherine Chen
Catherine Chen

Catherine Chen is a poet and performer. They are an Artist-in-Residence at the LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island.

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