Like Algae on the Surface of Grace

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There is a feeling of complicity in his [Dlugos’s] best poems in that he makes the reader love the burnished, tumultuous late nights and affection for those around him.

The publication of Tim Dlugos’s collected poems should invite a reassessment of his work as that of an important American poet of the late 20th century. This is true because there are several major poems here that cannot be ignored, and despite the fact that there are many terrible or throwaway poems in a book over 500 pages long.

Dlugos was a man of contradictions. He had a short life—he died of AIDS in 1990 when he was only forty—bursting with enthusiasm and disillusion. The dual nature of his life produced a humming tension in his best work that is unforgettable: a religious Catholic (and later Episcopalian) and a homosexual; a self-destructive alcoholic who nonetheless embraced sobriety; a pacifist and a militant; a minister of education to the poor and a Republican. Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dlugos embraced rather than fled from these contradictions. Like Whitman, he was large; he contained multitudes.

Dlugos’s impressive long poem “A Fast Life” uses empty space to emphasize tension; it is used to intensify the leaps between syntax. It shows one of the best characteristics of his work: its emotional honesty can sometimes be perceived as his willingness to make a fool out of himself, but other times it can only be defined as grace:

I only was in Villanova once: on New Years
Eve with Patty when we got snowed in at
the apartment of her best friend and ex-
debate partner         I had a major crush on
the best friend’s boyfriend         we smoked
a little dope and played a board game
called Group Therapy, which measures how
honest you are         I had to make an appropriate
gesture of affection to the person I found
most attractive in the room         when I kissed
Patty she knew I was lying

Dlugos’s own life becomes a vast metaphor for the grace he was seeking in his religious and poetical endeavors. There is a feeling of complicity in his best poems in that he makes the reader love the burnished, tumultuous late nights and affection for those around him. His poems are an act of recovery for the passionate embrace of life (and those other forgotten lives) lost to AIDS.

Douglas Crimp, an art historian who advocates for culture actively struggling against AIDS said: “…violence of silence and omission almost as impossible to endure as violence of unleashed hatred and outright murder. Because this violence also desecrates the memories of our dead, we rise in anger to vindicate them. For many of us, mourning became militancy.” The poets in question were aware of the tug of silent mourning or absent language and the language in their poems as a militant reaction against silence.

The circumstances of the writing of Dlugos’s poems and the lenses by which we can read them now belong to the coexistence of two trends, the push toward a peaceful, quiet domestic life that constantly wrangles with the pressures of New York in the 1970s, and the still more urgent, ephemeral pulling away from death; a need that is communicated in the Dlugos’s relationships to language.

The poem that expresses these ideas most forcefully is the incomparable “G-9,” which was written in 1989 when he was admitted to the AIDS ward at Roosevelt Hospital. Written in a narrow, column-like form of one long gasp, the poem is political, unsentimental, unflinching, sensitive, and disturbing. The reader uses her breath and body in the present to connect to the poets’ mind in the past. The poem is the bridge between health and sickness, two points in time, the memory and its embodiment.

Poetry, because of its clarity and density of both language and form, is an effective response to the intensity of both urban life and of illness. Though these topics are endlessly interesting, they have also been elusive to write about with fresh sense impressions. The universality of these experience (even if not New York, or not AIDS) demands specific, striking, surprising, particular, and local data. Form is vital to describing the viral. Nonfiction can provide honesty, accuracy, and evoke emotion, but it lacks the passionate syntax and imaginative fluidity of poetry. Poetry often elides content in favor of form. Fiction (though Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble is an important exception) must wrestle with the imposition of a structure over impossible historical events. To resolve these discrepancies of form and content, poetry has turned to elegy, even though it becomes eminently predictable and deadens surprise. “G-9” is not an elegy, though it does treat death and memory seriously.

It is among the strongest, most profound poems on AIDS (see also: Melvin Dixon, Tory Dent, Charles Barber, Lynda Hull) because of its superior interior consciousness overwhelming everything; its elegiac qualities are intimately bound to identity, to witness, and to an awareness of the tug of silent mourning or absent language and the language in “G-9” as a militant reaction against silence. It’s a shame to only offer a fragment of “G-9”, but this passage demonstrates its power:

After he died,
I had a dream in which
I was a student in a class
that he was posthumously
teaching. With mock annoyance
he exclaimed, “Oh, Tim!
I can’t believe you really think
that AIDS is a disease!”
There’s evidence in that
direction, I’ll tell him
if the dream recurs: the shiny
hamburger-in-lucite look
of the big lesion on my face;
the smaller ones I daub
with makeup; the loss
of forty pounds in a year;
the fatigue that comes on
at the least convenient times.
The symptoms like algae
on the surface of the grace
that buoys me up today.

Here is a poem that should be studied in every MFA program to show what to do and what not to do. William Empson showed that the pastoral is always political; Dlugos was unbound in his treatment of language, of space (both on the page and in terms of connecting illness and city), and of a passionate syntax. David Groff said of Tory Dent, for example: “Her poems all were written because time was short” and this is a lesson in language as vital if not essential. Empson echoes this: “It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, so reliable a bass note in the arts, needs to be counted as a possible territory of pastoral.”

Dlugos wrote in and of the 1970s—many of these poems are a catalog of poetry in New York City in that decade and the seedy, rust and wine-colored streets. Dlugos had a hagiographic adoration for Frank O’Hara and this compulsion unfortunately produced many “I did this-I did that” lists, yet even in his throwaway poems, there is a way of revealing the human that is indelible on the reader. For example, in a preposterous love poem to teen idol David Cassidy, Dlugos manages to end with something visionary and transcendent: “When your voice quavers I want you in my livingroom / to watch yourself on television with me, / and wonder whether our repaired / surfaces will ever interlock.”

A Fast Life shows the motions of a mind—poems that live and die by their expression of a secret, yet oddly public self. At the same time, the poems are an impression of the time and place in which they were made. Anybody’s collected poems will show the inability of a good poet to write wonderful poems without writing crap. But his wonderful poems are undeniably powerful.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →