Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday December 14, 2010

Jeff Mann says in the course of one the selections included in Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South that he is "polymorphous" and "promiscuous," a "hillbilly Byron" determined to celebrate, rather than suppress, his appetites for food, music, literature, and men.

Mann might have added that he is a polymath, talented as he is not only at essay writing but erotic fiction (always of a BDSM genre and sometimes with a supernatural bent) and poetry (his next book of verse, Ash: Poems from Norse Mythology, is due out early next year). These essays reflect Mann's other literary abilities; the language is poetic, and the erotic passages burn hot: they are relatively few, but they are highly charged.

The most striking, and consistent, element of this collection is how honest and open Mann chooses to be with his readers, not only with the fetishes and obsessions he's already thoroughly documented in earlier works (his love of Appalachian language and cuisine, his infatuation with country singer Tim Mcgraw, his love of bladed weapons and the heroic stories, ancient and modern, in which they so often play a part--not to mention his deeply ingrained appreciation of Southern manners and his kinship with nature, especially the beauty of mountain terrain), but with the course of his own life.

By "ursine essays," Mann is referring to his identity as a bear. He relishes the vocabulary of strength in discussing this most central aspect of his identity, calling himself "husky" and "burly," describing how he "growls" in response to a broad palette of emotion: appreciation, lust, anger, resentment. More: Mann lets us know more than once that he's a "leather bear," and his love of bondage--mostly as a top, but occasionally as a submissive--plays as essential a role in these selections as do any of the other themes Mann explores, including relationships, travel, and cultural heritage.

Mann has a special talent for bringing extremes together and harmonizing them. In laying out a bondage scenario, for example, he takes the time to find the right words and phrases to convey tenderness and aesthetic fulfillment, not simply the heightening of passion. A strong man, these essays tell us, is something wonderful to behold, but a man strong enough to let himself be trussed and gagged is a rarity akin to godhood.

Another example: in a couple of his essays, Mann reveals the delicate line of give and take that he and his life partner, referred to only as "John," tread, and often dance, along. Jealousy flares as John witnesses Mann's bondage play with a handsome Hungarian as two vacation abroad, but closer to home--at a Tim McGraw concert--it's John who cups Mann's wild enthusiasm with a firm, yet gentle, grip, both restraining and honoring his mate's mad passion. Who, these passages suggest to us, can best appreciate, assess, and (when necessary) forgive us our sins and our faithless yearnings, if not a special person with whom we choose to share our lives... those very yearnings included?

Mann is a political creature, but he refuses to be politic. That is to say, his rage at the legal inequities gays are forced to endure is as hot and overt as any of his other passions, but Mann won't stoop to appeasement in hopes of acceptance. He isn't about to be neutered, censored, or silenced. He'll have no truck with craven assimilation: it's his right to be exactly who and what he is, and if he's going to be denounced by the fundamentalists who populate his beloved mountains, then let them denounce him for his complex, often conflicted, entirety.

It's the complexity--and those conflicts--that allows Mann to blend such disparate strands in his writings and in his life. Rather than set two diminished concepts against one another--say, sex and spirituality, with the nuance and nourishment boiled out of them by facile posturing--Mann looks to a broader focus that allows all of his aspects (and, by extension, all of the elements of any human being) to jostle, compete, reinforce or cancel out. Thus, he can contain a poet's fragile heart within a joyously hot and hairy chest, and allow himself to look for the same in others.

These essays are full of humor, anecdote, political fury, and sexual frisson. They also contain a deep and melodic religious resonance. This burly leather bear poet brings word and flesh together in the most compassionate, if underserved, sense of untrammeled faith.

Publisher: Bear Bones Books. Publication Date: December 1, 2010. Pages: 232. Price: $15. format: Trade Paperback Originals. ISBN-13: 978-1-590-212-196

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.