When poet/playwright Drew Pisarra turned his aching heart into 40 Shakespearean sonnets after a break-up in his 2019 Infinity Standing Up, he produced a noble, insightful book that did not quite provide the complete catharsis he was seeking.
In a quest to expand his romantic revelations outside this one man for posterity, Drew took his sonnet format in a fresh direction by merging it with the 118 elements of the Periodic Table. His new release, Periodic Boyfriends, is filled with witty and heartbreaking odes under the umbrella of each of the different elements to a corresponding number of men in his past. It’s a gritty, beautiful tribute to people from his distant history and onward. And it is a masterpiece of love, lust, loss, and acceptance.
Sound quirky? No use denying it. Periodic Boyfriends is a hilarious, tawdry, and humane homage to 118 men (he curated a careful list) who inform Pisarra’s partly prurient past – one-night stands in bars, fleeting sundry encounters. Some stellar experiences, near-misses, and missed opportunities.
The framework of the periodic table gave him room to take elements of the elements and use them to flesh out and clarify each encounter. Pisarra was never arbitrary with his selections but used the element titles in varying ways. Some were almost literal (the “Sodium” sonnet begins, “Yes, there was the taste of salt. Yes, you warned me it was coming. Yes, I continued because I didn’t know any better.”). Some were winking word connections – the poem under the “Germanium” masthead made a mockery of an avoidant young man in college: “You’re not gay, not bi, not in the mood. Despite your last name, you’re not Teutonic, either.” “Palladium” helms an ode commemorating a naughty encounter from the iconic ‘80s Manhattan dance club of the same name.
While there is fabulous homoerotic debauchery to go around, Pisarra also delves into other areas of interaction, with some poignant family lore and problematic friendships. Periodic Boyfriends takes unfettered pleasure in the carnal aspect of things, but Pisarra makes it clear in his narrative that this is not the only lens through which he views these relationships. Even the most transient encounters are emblazoned in his memory. He remembers almost everyone’s name (though he keeps them respectfully anonymous here), and the smallest details remain entrenched in his heart.
Some of the sonnets lean to the dark-ish noir side, while quite a few explore Pisarra’s regret at his own past behavior. Many are side-splittingly funny and all of them create, within their boundaries, a perfect idiosyncratic rendering of a life experience.
While the sonnet format is the main delivery system of these scenarios, Pisarra pays further homage to the periodic table by echoing its two breakout subsections (which are traditionally placed underneath the table), called the Lanthanides and the Actinides. Pisarra gives over the Lanthanides section to honor his gay partners who have passed away and the Actinides for the men he met online but not in 3-D.
These breakout sections are given different poetic treatments, abandoning the traditional Shakespearean rhyme scheme in the Lanthanides (which felt right to him for relationships that never got past the “virtual” stage) and dropping the end rhymes completely for the Actinides, which felt right to Drew as a way to acknowledge that death shifts us into another dimension.
Periodic Boyfriends is a delicious poetic exploration of one man’s sexual/romantic history, made all the more intriguingly framed by its periodic table substructure. We will all recognize ourselves in both the minutiae and the open-hearted revelations. Periodic Boyfriends is rather compact, but it packs a spectacular, sentimental punch.
Cover image of Periodic Boyfriends