A Nova of Votives

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In this collection, the elegy as an idea is as much at stake as the lover in memoriam—in fact, it would seem that Teare has managed, through sublimation, to combine the passed lover with Elegy itself.

In The Gnostic Religion, German philosopher Hans Jonas writes of a world we have been instructed not to acknowledge. Counter to the Judeo-Christian image of an all-powerful, observing God, the God of Gnostic texts is enslaved; we humans the passage to His eventual release. Jonas calls the Gnostic gospels a “transcendental drama,” and the gnostic world a “cosmic prison.” At the heart of Gnosticism is the seeking of knowledge which would release us of our cosmic imprisonment. But this is a Cartesian trick, of course. To attain such degrees of sight, we’d have to live to our very limits, and treat life the way a scholar treats an endless archive—with the hope that the archives survive us and the transference of knowledge continues.

Enter the lyric. Brian Teare’s Pleasure returns us to the question of what a line can do in the face of death—what, in a world where language has been given over to zeitgeist, fear, and diffuse (140-character limited) application. What can the lyric do for loss that loss hasn’t already done? Teare writes his passed lover back into a strange existence. The lover resurfaces with unabashed sexual energy; and as Adam, maker of names. What happens in this quantum space is a dialogue that can only be signified by the elegy. We move into Pleasure with the first poem, “Dead House Sonnet,” which begins,

house of each sentence endlessly hinged, house of each phrase opened elegy entirely latches, exactly latches, hasps, proliferant, endlessly opened, of doors, termini effigies, each noun in a house a nova of votives, wicks ashen, burnt them, syntax like bark that smoldered the garden in winter, nasturtiums come summer undone verbs, burnt them, burnt tense, the present’s past, burnt that, house of ash, house a tinge, a reek of eucalyptus oil, burnt the wild,

The book opens to a salvo of words mirroring and ricocheting one another to catastrophic proportions. Hardly random, this litany on the house, more demolition than domestic, treats the elegy as a kind of atmospheric disturbance—and in terms of loss, it is. The apocalyptic note correlates the ramshackle house to language of a kind—and the tone is all the more sublime for it. Likewise, in this collection, the elegy as an idea is as much at stake as the lover in memoriam—in fact, it would seem that Teare has managed, through sublimation, to combine the passed lover with Elegy itself.

In “Dreamt Dead Eden,” the first poem in Part I, he introduces us to the deceased lover with the provocative line, “Two years you’re dead and still I write I’m Eden/entire.” The speaker, after naming himself, then renames the deceased figure Adam. There is a certain talismanic flare in these designations. The speaker couches us in his broken garden, his paradise lost, and casts us in his labyrinth “entire,” making us complicit with his ever-evolving pain. If there is gall in claiming to be Eden, it is undercut by the Eden Teare speaks to—his is a dismantled Eden, wasted long after the fall of man. The speaker has been reduced by the kingdom’s shift, and it is in this state of without that he remains an embodiment of the overcome garden.

Teare proves yet again in his third collection that he is a master of language, able to shift registers with numinous ease, causing even the word fuck to sound as fresh as his use of sfumato. And it is precisely this lyric engagement with language that exposes the wet stones of meaning commonly embedded in the vocabulary of disease. Pleasure quickly transforms into, not just a remarkable elegy, but an argument on systems. The political message becomes sacrosanct in the 12-page poem, “Of Paradise and the Structure of Gardens.” This poem deals the most frankly with a lover’s death to AIDS, but the pain of loss is felt alongside the poet’s deepest scrutiny: how to resolve the etymology of AIDS within a scornful, Bible-thumping country.

The structure of the poem, which is arranged in two columns of interweaving couplets, does a remarkable job of conveying the solipsism of loss as defined by records and as defined by memory. Its style also creates a dialectic—a device used again and again in other poems—as the poem negotiates through enjambment, sectioning, and select application of punctuation. The divide between investigation and memory delineates itself in diction as painful as it is provocative:

                                What was pleasure—

Eden’s root—later became
a hortus conclusus, paradise

a closed garden. What once was
free became form,

his death, foretold
by the history of ideas :

as paradise shifted farther offshore,
knowledge sailed from theological

kingdoms into the poetic.
Utopias flourished in the gap.

Between the real and what’s desired;
between sickbed rags, blood-tinged

scat and colognes, sweat
and cum, who isn’t historical


Here, disease becomes a manifesto on poetry, as the body darkens, organizing what poisons it has no choice but to contain. Teare needs us to understand what the etymology of words like contamination and epidemic suggest; so too words like paradise and Eden: “The thing about the wall is/it kept sin out. The thing//about skin is it keeps/ infection out. It’s the difference//between Eden and paradise, a root/derived from pleasure and one//from enclosure.”

Literary Critic Denis Donoghue, in speaking of the effect of structure and language, says, “The test of an experience is that it alters the structure of our feeling.” We could say that Teare’s poems are a transcendental collage on loss, meant not just to offer us an apparatus of rich intertextuality, but also to provide that structure of how he experienced life after experiencing great death.

The personal experience we’ve engaged with so far has been almost entirely allegory. The second part of this collection, though, removes a veil of this metaphor and places us in the more familiar setting of California. The poems in this section are, as a result, more panoramic, flexible in lexicon, and, as a result, earthen. But like Eden, California and all of its fecundities can create other kinds of idyllic venture. The imagistic range in this new landscape feels as much in ruins as Teare’s garden—what remains is the question of how to face grief regardless of artifice.

The clear replacement of Eden for California is put into practice with the repeating title “Californian.” Think Louise Glück’s “Vespers” and “Matins” poems in The Wild Iris. But unlike the gathering discussions of interwoven interior and exterior moods one would find in Glück, Teare speaks to the absence of a companion, the pronouns rent of distinction as “he” and “you” combine into one existential vortex. These two pronouns had been, heretofore, alternating the position of the dead lover—either using the “you” in a direct address, or else the “he” in an effort to confess or disclose his convalescence as it occurred. However, the tone in the second section has changed:

It began like this: a radio
midday, heat—remember?—

a shriek on the highway, and in the yard
Steller’s jays chafing over haggle, nag, their claims

a lyric tableau—pretty for the eye—how
sun for months stuck aureoles

of chrome around everything, even
your poems, omens

so no other disaster would happen.

Still maintaining his signature music, there is almost a punchy quality to the tone. The poems in this section convey a second attempt at telling the story. This time, outward; this time, like we’ve left the dilapidated garden and the “white blur” of the hospital, and are now at the mercy of facing that absence in a busy, interactive world. As mentioned, a layer of the metaphor has been peeled away. Teare reveals this peel away in so many iterations: “finally to suffer a clarity of language sufficient/to pain” (“To Other Light”), “June, and none of it/metaphor” (“To Other Light: V. Elegaic Action: to Wait”), and finally, “a lyric has no mind//it wouldn’t barter for certainty” (“Californian”).

Throughout Pleasure, Teare declares again and again that he is “of two minds,”—but being “of two minds” also suggests the many radical dualisms that so plague Teare’s lyric. This dualism can be defined as the difference between representation and real-life consequence. Metaphor and causality. Symbolism and fact. Grief and sexuality. Dichotomies are not in short supply when one experiences loss, the biggest being life and death itself. The act of writing the elegy cements the fact (though it will not be the case for very long, ultimately) that the writer is here and the subject, gone—which makes the treatment of pronouns especially vital.

What to make then, of the most important pronoun shift in this section: the complete removal of the first person pronoun. This turn feels unlikely for a speaker who claimed once to be “Eden entire.” From this point on, a valve has closed, one which was able to apply a multiplex of parables over loss, much in the tradition of Lycidas. The reality of the loss, the actual business of coming-to-terms is being resisted yet again, this time with muted abjectness: “the real had happened once in the past (“Used Books & Records: Mourning and Melancholia”). By the time we get to the last poem, there is a new patience it takes with itself, as if the imagistic elements have, in their sequence, brought the speaker to a new yet perhaps this time more tolerable pain:

As for the rain

gulls drive inland to drop on rock—it shivers
on granite, spread silver

interior spilled. As for your mind
years now, it seems, out at sea : null spun from fog, it’s zero

to the core, shore an answer precisely beyond the limit

of vision :
it begins in regards. It hears

the white voice trolling its borders…

This is the last note in the collection. This visibility is undoubtedly a representation of a knowledge sought, the need always to see farther out. With elegy, the task is never just to write about the deceased, but to embalm also one’s own mysticism, one’s own doomed-to-fail strategy against oblivion. But this last effort in Pleasure is more generous: what Teare seeks to find is not the answer to these big questions of death, but rather, the beauty found in the limitation of that knowledge.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press's 2016 Poetry Prize, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from POETRY, Granta, The Jewish Current, the New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. She lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. More from this author →