Picking on Papa

David Ray's Hemingway biography-in-verse sermonizes on a great writer's failings

Ernest Hemingway serves as an academic lightning rod for issues of race, class and gender. As literary critics and biographers continue to pore over his works—some timeless masterpieces, most written on deadline for commercial reasons—Hemingway's moral and creative standing fluctuates on an article-by-article basis.

The fluctuation goes like this: Hemingway is a misunderstood feminist. Hemingway is a clandestine misogynist. Hemingway is a machismo-compensating closet case. Hemingway didn't mind that his son cross-dressed (e.g., posthumous novel Islands in the Stream) and therefore was open to variations in human sexuality. His mother made him wear dresses, which means something. His decision to snuff himself with a shotgun means even more, but what, exactly, can only be determined by rigorously applying the lens of French post-structuralism to the tragic event and any of his stories that touch on suicide.

It's all bullshit, of course. But it's fascinating bullshit, since Hemingway's life is immensely fascinating by itself, minus ideological context.

Because of the thicket surrounding Hemingway's canonization, I didn't expect Tucson bard David Ray to pen a Papa bio, much less in verse. Like any first-rate poet, Ray tends to focus on his own experiences that, while nowhere near as wild as Hemingway's, are fraught with abundant grief and joy and exploits. Ray's construal of Papa is dark and deconstructive; the book's title, Hemingway: A Desperate Life, isn't one I'd associate with the greatest American author, who did more to define the surface and deeper themes of Western prose than anyone before or since. So I braced for a litany of lurid behavior placed against a backdrop of endless war, bloody bullfighting, inevitable divorce and constant drinking.

I wasn't disappointed. However, I am disappointed to conclude that A Desperate Life is a misstep, the slightest of Ray's customarily rewarding collections.

While he doesn't cite feminist theory, Marxist analysis or Edward Said's concept of "otherness," Ray's depiction is enslaved to these notions. From the start, it's clear Ray has no intention of treating Hemingway like a real human being; better to tear down a myth, to rip apart a cartoon, by addressing fallacious (but quite funny) questions of gendered hagiography such as: Why do Papa-loving biographers insist Nurse Agnes von Kurowsky humped a wounded and recovering 18-year-old Papa to heights of pleasure in a hospital bed in a Red Cross Army Hospital in Milan?

In truth, he was more like Romeo

and she was more like Juliet than the balcony

was Shakespearean. But nothing, nothing,

can stop an imaginative scholar, and Ernest

was always happy to lead them on, as he did

when he said It takes a trained nurse

to make love to a man with one leg in a splint.

All could agree on the one clear rule of engagement,

which was that the truth was a football.

It's not clear that Ray himself perceives the quarterback sneak Hemingway has pulled on biographers here. Hold his statement about trained nurses up to the light and twist it a bit, and you're left wondering if Papa is mocking prurience masquerading as scholarship, or self-deprecatingly noting his own "on-bottom" sexual standing.

Regardless, it's consistently and tediously the women in Hem's life who Ray portrays as three-dimensional, feeling and thoughtful. Ray praises first-wife Hadley for a wisecrack response to Hemingway's insistence that their marriage was never valid in the church's eyes. Women are never at fault; blame belongs to a self-absorbed artist who enforces a no-talking-at-breakfast rule with family (the poem "The Discipline"); a tactless brute who breaks Wallace Stevens' jaw (the poem "A Literary Friendship"); a muddleheaded adventurer who, planning to toss grenades into Nazi U-boats invading the Gulf of Mexico, is ridiculed for mistaking submarines for sailfish (the poem "Hunting Subs").

Sure, Ray credits Hem for spooking FBI director (and cross-dresser) J. Edgar Hoover into thinking the author hoped to strangle him in the street one day. But then Ray titles the poem "The Hemingway Bluff." Not sure it was a bluff, Ray.

You get the idea. Hemingway's life, which he lived without consequences (as another biographer puts it), is inspected for lapses, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and falsities. That it's done in verse suggests Ray imagines having a stake in the punch-up between Stevens and Hemingway. Perhaps the poet gets in a final blow?

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