Brian Henry’s poetry, which the Times Literary Supplement has described as “strange and compulsive,” takes a dark turn in Quarantine, his fourth book. Lying in a field beside his dead wife and son, the narrator of this book-length poem describes the events leading up to his and his family’s deaths. Quarantine is ostensibly set outside London in 1665, during the bubonic plague epidemic, but the motives of the narrator eventually cast doubt onto his story, as does the fact that plague victims often become delirious and may lapse into a coma before death. His story accumulates via accretion and contradiction, complicating his attempts to truthfully describe his life. Like its narrator, Quarantine turns in on itself even as it tells a story. The manuscript was awarded the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2003.
By the time the sun touched the grass
beneath my back where I lay
beside my wife and son who seemed
to be breathing a fog of breath
I thought hung above each mouth
I knew I had died and was dead
though thinking through where I was
as if the thinking could bring me
where death is not an is
instead of where I found myself
watching my wife and son without
seeing them beside me on the ground
but knowing they were there
breathing as I was the air above
the mouths there and perhaps thinking
as I was thinking to keep myself here
where I could not be dead could not be
dead could not be anything but alive
and tracking the sun coming over the trees
even though the moon had not moved
and my wife my son and I were growing
into the grass beneath us and the moon
does not care about the bodies there
in that field on the earth at dawn
the moon cannot see and if
the moon could see it still would not care
Copyright © 2006 Brian Henry
“In 40 verse sections and several brief prose interludes, Henry (Graft) portrays a nameless Englishman dying of plague in 1665. His protagonist remembers key bits of his life (in reverse order, from most recent to longest ago) as he lies in a field beside the dead bodies of his wife and son; he may have brought the disease home from a nearby river where he met young men for anonymous sex. Henry's doomed husband recalls his life in rapt, halting lines without punctuation, indebted to W.S. Merwin: his wife ‘did not scream like my son / she died just the same hot and in pain / I will die silent I will tell my story as I die.’ Though horrid vistas recur throughout—‘the bodies on fire in the river for days’—the greatest pain is inward, as he regrets a life unlived: ‘If I could burrow into the dirt / beneath my back I would fracture / the earth in return.’ Henry, an editor of Verse magazine, takes his speaker's voice to a gritty extreme.” —Publishers Weekly
I was born September 17, 1972 in Columbus, Ohio. My family moved to Richmond, Virginia when I was 6, and my parents divorced a couple of years later. I attended public schools in the Richmond area, then went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where I majored in English literature and served as Poetry Editor of The William and Mary Review (with Andrew Zawacki as Editor). This editorial relationship and friendship returned in a slightly different form less than a year after Andrew and I graduated from college, when we became co-editors of the international journal Verse in 1995. At the time, I was in my first year of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, taking creative writing and literature classes with Dara Wier, James Tate, Agha Shahid Ali, Glyn Maxwell, Martín Espada, Paul Mariani, and Peggy O’Brien. I worked as a research assistant for the Irish Studies Program for a year, and attended the 1996 Yeats summer school in Sligo. As a graduate student, my poems and criticism appeared in various journals, including Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Hanging Loose, and Poetry Ireland Review. I finished the MFA program in 1997, then moved to Melbourne, Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship. In Australia, I edited a special feature of Verse devoted to Australian poetry, edited an American poetry feature of the Australian journal Meanjin, wrote criticism on Australian and American poetry, and participated in various literary festivals and conferences around the country.
My first teaching position, at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, brought me into contact with several young poets of exceptional talent and promise—particularly Ethan Paquin, Andrew Morgan, and Jon Link. My daughter was born in November 1999, and my first book, Astronaut, appeared in England in January 2000 and was later shortlisted for the Forward Prize. The book also appeared that year in Slovenia in translation with an introduction by Tomaz Salamun. (Astronaut appeared in the U.S. in 2002 from Carnegie Mellon University Press.) In the summer of 2000, we moved to Athens, Georgia, where I worked with an array of outstanding poets—Laura Solomon, Travis Nichols, Paul Killebrew, Monica Fambrough, Christina Mengert, Sara Henning, Seth Parker, Brad Flis, Natalie Lyalin, Lyndsey Cohen, Chris McDermott, Heidi Peppermint, Lew Klatt, and others. At Georgia, I continued to edit Verse, often with student assistance, and directed the creative writing program for two years.
My second book, the multi-genre (and messy) American Incident, appeared in December 2002 from Salt Publishing. The book was intended in part to counter the compact structure and lyrical orientation of Astronaut. My third book, Graft, appeared in 2003 in England from Arc Publications and in the U.S. from New Issues. I also published two edited volumes— On James Tate (University of Michigan Press, 2004) and, with Zawacki, The Verse Book of Interviews (Verse Press, 2005). My son was born in September 2004. In 2005, I accepted a position teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Richmond in Virginia, returning home after more than a decade of living elsewhere.
Quarantine occurred after a period of silence lasting several months—the longest I’d ever gone without writing. I woke up the day after Thanksgiving in 2001 with an image of myself lying dead in a field. I decided to do something with that image and the accompanying feeling (of depression and stasis), wrote directly onto the computer (rather than by longhand, as per habit), and went to bed on Sunday night with a 40-part poem called “Quarantine” and plans to continue the poem the next day. However, I somehow realized in my sleep that the French word for 40, “quarante,” is related to “quarantine,” which made me decide (or realize?) that the poem had finished itself despite my plans to continue it.
Within a few days, I began to distrust the whole narrative—the narrator, the story he tells, the way he tells it, the way it ends—despite my attempt to introduce objectivity into the poem in the form of ten paragraphs that comment on the situation of the poem from a third-person perspective. I had intended for “Quarantine” to be set outside London in 1665, during the bubonic plague, and incorporated some details and iconography to that end. But the poem’s resonance with more contemporary events and the fact that plague victims often become delirious and/or comatose made me question the poem’s framework as well as its narrator. During the process of composition, the contradictions within the narrator had expanded into the work as a whole. The following week, I reversed the poem so the narrative literally turned on itself. In the process, I hyper-punctuated and then truncated “Quarantine,” creating with “Contagion” a vandalized mirror image of the original. The resulting text is somewhat schizophrenic: “Quarantine” was written from the nerve endings with almost no revision afterward, and “Contagion” is itself an act of revision. I hope the truth can be found somewhere between the two.
I have never written a book in this way, and never expect to do so again. This seems both welcome and disappointing—welcome because I have no desire to return to the the mental place that served as a catalyst for the poem, and disappointing because the emotional effect of the poem is (at least to me) significant, in no small part because of its impetus.
Written in November 2001, Quarantine won the 2003 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America. Excerpts have appeared in The Antioch Review, Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Fence, The Kenyon Review, Maisonneuve, Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner, Third Coast, and Virginia Quarterly Review.