From the series Light Leaks © Andrew George
WE KNOW FROM EMILY DICKINSON that true poetry is painful. A real poem made her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” which by all evidence she took to be a good thing: “I know that is poetry.” If it is, then so much the better for Harm, Hillary Gravendyk’s first book of poems, whose descriptions will disfigure sensitive readers much more than commonplace poetic lobotomy. Her book is full of pain: a “skein of plastic braided into the mouth,” “organs flat as mirrors,” a “throat closed by what opens inside it,” “[t]he kind of hunger that swallows you,” “[b]reath, threading its tiny needles,” and a “bright needle, punched through the neck.”
While at times she can be lightheartedly funny – “I was promised only good things,” Gravendyk writes in “Appetite” in the voice of Appetite itself, petulant and credulous like a child – mostly she is out to evoke serious pain. Gravendyk’s work isn’t dramatic, but it evokes drama; she doesn’t despair, but she offers few of the usual hopes. A sufferer, mentally as well as physically, she speaks from the edge of coherence, removed from normalcy but lucid enough to know her remove, as when, in “The Seven Sins of Memory,” she leaps from bed linens and hospital records to “[l]inen-thin scenes, stacked like records,” and after them
my forest becomes a set of angles
a murmuring that betrays its worry
kaleidoscope panther on the black mountain
bright needle, punched through the neck
someone brings in another chair
The poems read as though spoken by an exceptionally intelligent, imaginative person moving in and out of general anaesthetic, passing from nothingness to reverie to nightmare.
There are times when the world Gravendyk perceives blends together with the pain she feels. “A machine gasps in surprise,” air stutters with leaves. “The hour” is “a deflated body,” as if its lungs collapsed, or as if it lost its soul. “Medicine” is a “handful of explosions down the mouth’s hatch.” The body may be a temple – “pain glued to each window” like blood-stained glass – but it’s also a house of pain, with “a long staircase of wounds,” “rooms shadowed with harm,” “harm flat as a swept floor.”
Gravendyk wrote these poems in “a great burst after [she] underwent major surgery,” according to the preface to Harm by poet Brenda Hillman, and the book is a kind of memoir of Gravendyk’s surgery and its aftermath. The poems don’t have a conventional memoir’s conventional beginning and ending: which detail, what happened to the writer, and then how she changed herself in response. The beginning, the “what happened,” is implicit in Gravendyk’s descriptions, of, say, her lungs (“Every time I breathe it smells rusty, like blood / and when I breathe there is blood in the air”). And the end, her response, just is the language she responds with. Harm is about suffering and the ways language can embody responses to suffering. It’s a memoir about the means of memoir, about how to talk about pain.
Often, the book tells mashed-up, inconsistent stories, such as those in the prose poem, “Ice Appetite,” whose strands of narrative you can trace out and stack like penciled sketches on a backlight:
A hot room where nothing was wasted. I ate what had been relayed. Can’t have said more than take care. Everyone under the same spell. A fervent goodness, a melancholy leave-taking. After all there was darkness before there were shards of mirror. Enchanted. The cold queen makes a brief appearance. Robe of furred snow. Someone unlocks the cracked-ice lake. Hands black with cold. Someone plucks the nugget of glass from the eye. Or it is a reflection. Or it was made of ice. Or it was forgotten.
Here is one story the poem tells. The speaker is in a hot hospital room, eating food someone brought her. Someone tells her to “take care,” and she wishes that the words were a spell (an enchantment) to heal her spell (her feverish illness). Perhaps she wishes that she herself could cast the enchantment, take care of herself. Perhaps she is the “cold queen,” and the mirror she faints into is a “cold lake”: the pain she was forced to suffer is a secret she unlocks. Then someone pulls the mirror’s glass from her eye, and she comes to.
The second story is a quarrel. The speaker was in a heated room with no words “wasted,” forcing down the barbs someone “relayed.” That someone – “X,” let’s say – X leaves with only “take care,” but wants to see herself as fervently good, as melancholic, wants to see herself as giving care she doesn’t give. Language is a shattered mirror, reflecting X’s self-impressions. X is the “cold queen,” haughty and self-important, the sort of person who’d see herself as fervently good and melancholic despite her actual emotional coldness. The cold queen is self-protectively robed in “furred snow,” falsely warmed by her own lack of compassion and deluded enough to think that it’s warm, that snow is fur. Then the cold queen falls into the lake of pain, and her robe, her self-delusion, melts away.
There are more stories and no best way to fit even these stories together. Perhaps the speaker recalls her conflict while she lies in the hospital. Perhaps the conflict made her sensitive to the pretenses the phrase “take care” can convey, and the ways it can be a poor response to pain, and her hospital stint helps her to imagine what the phrase had made her hope for. The stories build on each other, not so that you can find just the right interpretation, but so that you can imagine different stories about language that responds to pain, with trust or without it, and gain a perspective that understands and feels both attitudes, from Gravendyk’s capacious dream.
Scholar as well as poet, Gravendyk argues in her dissertation “Experimental Embodiments: Poetry, Subjectivity, and the Phenomenology of the Body” that the rhetoric of disability errs for reasons that have nothing to do with sensitivity training. So-called disabilities, she argues, help us to understand the full range of human abilities: the word “disabled” predicates a category difference that obscures the insights the condition enables. Harm, and pain, help us to know pleasure and flourishing.
These beliefs echo those of a host of contemporary writers who want to understand conditions that have harmed them, and change the harmful terms in which people understand the conditions. Writers who want to be neither victimized nor tokenized, neither silent nor bitter. With these goals in mind, the HIV-positive poet D.A. Powell prefaced his first book of poems, tea, with the proclamation, “This is not a book about AIDS,” even though, in an obvious sense, it is. What Powell means by his disclaimer is that his book isn’t just about AIDS, or is about AIDS only insofar as the virussheds light on human conditions, of the “healthy” as well as the “sick.” He says as much when he ends the personal preface to tea with an intimate rallying cry: “This is not about being queer and dying. It is about being human and living.”
And is it ever lively. tea is playful and sonorous (“reveries are rivers”), allusive (Shakespeare’s “sweet birds sang”), eagerly erotic (“and I’m still real hot then you kiss me there“), melodramatic (“slow tyranny of moonlight”), provocative (“dead boys make the sweetest lovers”), and cryptically sad (“visitation is brief but exact”). I quote all of this from only one poem, the last in tea, called “[first fugue]” even though one could helpfully describe all the poems that precede it as fugues as well. The poems suspend different voices, different recognizable patterns of emotion and idiom, and stretch the lines out to include every voice, often with no clear connection in narrative or even in syntax. These emotional fugues are most affecting when they show Powell’s turbulent passion – his desire for his lover, his fear of contracting HIV from him, his wish that his lover (or his love) could protect him – and limn the depth of Powell’s hopeless devotion, as the last line of the book does:
reveries are rivers: why don’t you take me to heaven? the shiny t;
buckle unfastens at last
“Heaven … [equates] sex and death through an elaborate metaphor,” as Powell writes earlier in the book. Sex, death, and perhaps the afterlife as well? I imagine Powell wondering this as the undone buckle warns of death and shines like Heaven’s gates.
All poets write in one style or another, but Powell is especially stylish, capable of compressed opuses of titles like “Magic Kingdom Come” and “The Price of Funk in Funkytown,” and likely to rhyme uncanny polysyllables, like one poem’s “lunches” and “haunches” and “terrier” and “derrier” and other tingly linguistic aftertastes. (Powell’s palate for fine rhyme resembles Paul Muldoon’s.) His stylishness eludes the reader a little, since the poet is always a whit more witty than we can understand, running the risk of evading us by drawing attention to the allure of his poetry’s gestures rather than to the pith of its substance. At worst, his poems are glib. Powell conceals himself this way especially in his first few books, as in the second half of “[this little treatment has side effects: side effects]”:
the tablet I accept as a gift from god. must be crushed
absorbed without food. in this way it is like faith: senseless
yet entirely restorative. mind you: the urge to crap is immediate
the black and red pill comforts me. the yellow one
[I have to think: was that the one for sharon tate
in valley of the dolls?] induces dreams: I am hecuba
achilles. three ugly fates in combination: spin measure cut
This is from Powell’s third book, Cocktails, and has all the pleasures and frustrations of a cocktail party (though the title refers also to the “drug cocktails” he takes for his pain). His wit intimates open profundity – it hints at his medical treatment, unexpectedly compares it to “faith,” frames it with references to Greek myth and camp cinema – but doesn’t clarify his emotions enough to grow intimate, and it finally leaves the reader off-balance, self-conscious, as though she just doesn’t get it or has forgotten things about her old friend D.A. that he has, in fact, never revealed.
I suspect that this evasiveness stems from a deep difficulty Powell faces in his ambition to write about AIDS without writing about AIDS, to approach the disease as he avoids it. This tension plays a noticeable role in his fourth book, Chronic, whose title refers at once to the condition of his virus, to the most tempting of medications, and (perhaps) to a perpetual stylishness whose highs hide him even as they soothe him. Chronic reveals more of Powell than his earlier books and, oddly enough, reveals him most when he writes in a traditional, even elevated style:
I carry the same baffled heart I have always carried
a bit more battered than before, a bit less joy
for I see the difficult charge of living in this declining sphere
by the open air, I swore out my list of pleasures:
sprig of lilac, scent of pine
the sparrows bathing in the drainage ditch, their song…
This from a book with titles like “chia pet cemetery” – a contrast confusing enough to set even his best readers a-totter, until they own their embarrassment and ask, “D.A., are you for real?”
Yes and no: Powell believes in his coherent openness and in the conventionally poetic tropes he employs, but he also suspects them. His fifth book, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys has titles like “Summer of My Bone Density Test,” but that poem has disjointed lines like, “I. Boy. Tell. Telephone. Prompt, please. Can’t.” The book also has pretty, pastoral titles like “Cherry Blossoms in Spring,” but in that poem the air “poops / dirty bats.” The book captures Powell’s ambivalence about pastoral, and about the prettiness of poetry in its title and subtitle: you could call much bad conventional poetry “useless landscapes,” and much emotionally evasive poetry juvenile, “a guide for boys.” It’s a volume full of revealing self-conflict; it includes clarity and opacity, evasions and embraces, rhetorical flourishes and potty mouths, whereas his earlier poems often withhold too much to show self-conflicts. The bulk of Powell’s new poems show him off-balance, rather than making the reader feel that way, as the older ones do. The results are largely delightful.
Powell has great stylistic range; from limpid descriptions (“the blunt blue light of morning”), to well-situated vernacular (“Love, when it’s truly sorry, is sorrier than a broke-dick dog”), to “A Brief History of Internment,” pithily encapsulated:
Hence the wild daikon.
We made the landscape mean here.
And then we put down roots.
(You harvest the cruelty you planted.)
Like most poems in the book, this poem concerns the landscapes of Northern California, west of Tahoe and east of the 5, where Powell spent time as a child. The landscape suffers and creates more than anything else in the book, along with its denizens, and Powell both praises art’s ability to render a landscape and worries that artfulness furthers the landscape’s “ravishment”:
The earth’s a little harder than it was.
But I expect that it will soften soon,
voluptuous in some age hence,
because we captured it as art
the moment it was most itself:
fragile, flecked with nimbleweed,
and so alone,
it almost welcomed its own ravishment.
This all sounds lovely until you realize that it’s a grandiloquent way to say she sort of asked for it. Powell suggests that beautiful language can help us love what it describes, but can also flatter away our injustices, a risk he implicates himself in:
I was a maiden in this versicolor plain.
I watched it change…
the shift from farm to town.
I had a man that pressed me down
into the soil. I was that man. I was that town.
Useless Landscape ranges from such sacred grounds to poems with titles like “Backdrop with Splashes of Cum on It.” I imagine that the poems would offer something of a guide toward sexual maturity for young gay men, like Powell’s former self, men whose social and physical and high-literary landscapes isolate them, leave them surrounded by lack. But the poems bear comic-erotic gold to any and all willing to get their minds dirty. The careful reader will notice something suspect about the horizontal figure-eight knot over the crotch of the boy-scout saluting you on the book’s front cover. The desensitized reader will still likely go plate-eyed when she reads the end of “Lessons in Woodworking”:
I am discreet. This time I’ll meet
him by the twilit wood. I’ll
lift the rafters up. Just let him pound.
The reader who has caught on will understand what Powell talks about when he talks about Pac Man — “Gobble the cherries. Gobble the consecrated ghost.” The reader will not overlook the homoerotic homophone in that poem’s title, “Little Boy Blue.”
Comedy aside, Powell’s sexuality is most aesthetically powerful when it confronts, in sex, both fear of death and hope for salvation. These poems are fugues of experience, like those in tea, but the new work conveys far more depth of emotion for having clearer, longer pieces, and emotionally revealing transitions, like those in “Missionary Man.” The protagonist imagines a man who’ll come to him “with a promise of books. Good looks,” a vision from which the poem moves to a deliriously desirous hospital scene:
And unmended in my bones,
I fostered such attraction to this ardent host,
himself the aseptic argent lancet
brought to pierce me in my side.
It was his first penetrating glance
that filled me with a sudden surge of blood
The young man — perhaps a young Powell after his world-shattering road accident decades ago — longs so much and so bookishly for a lover that he grows aroused at the prick of an “aseptic argent lancet,” a needle. His fantasy takes flight, framed by the 23rd psalm:
He prepared a place for me in empty houses,
received me in the shaded summer lawns,
wrapped in our own light jackets at the riverbottoms,
hid in Manzanita clumps, the brake, the brittlefern,
in the foyer of a Pentecostal church
where we took our gladness to spite the pious,
took the praise of God as an offering of our bodies,
each of us crouched in the doorway in turn,
mouth to the vine, lips to the eucharist,
flesh of my astonished flesh.
This sexual Eucharist is graphic, but not pornographic, because of how vividly the erotic spirit descends upon his religious ecstasy in a blasphemous Pentecost. In a sudden metrical feat, a sort of spirit also takes stride in iambic pentameter five syllables into the very last line of the poem:
There is no God but that which visits us
in skin and thew and pleasing face.
He offers up this body. By this body we are saved.