The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven
In The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, Brian Teare explores paradox. Teachers are sought and rejected (the Buddha, Christian thinkers, an Abstract Expressionist painter); illness is at once personless violence and a means of perfection; the body, both physical and a nostalgic memory from the days before sickness. There is also heaven itself: something Agnes Martin’s Buddhist readings would insist is possible and current on earth, but a notion that the sufferer ruptures by existing. The space of the hospital—designed to be as utilitarian and perfect as graph paper, filled however with blood tests, nausea, vomiting, weeping—becomes a palpable hell. Teare’s title is in this way wishful thinking, a goal prayed for: perhaps the form of the body, emptied of the illness that entered it uninvited, can attain heaven, though altered by messy suffering. Indeed, the calmed body may be a new object entirely, as void as it is beautifully scarred by its new understanding: “form empties itself / on its way to heaven.”
“Titled with Agnes Martin’s singularly flowing lines, these poems weave phrases from writers as rangy as Larry Eigner and Rosalind Krauss, Antonio Damasio and Maurice Blanchot together with an evolving examination of the immediate experience of illness and pain. In The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, a kind of stillness gradually builds through these carefully-shaped pieces, a distilled poise in which one comes to hear Agnes Martin as one simultaneously sees the Zen koan that the collection itself slowly, precisely forms.” —Cole Swensen
“To live we must bring perception and proprioception into alignment; outer and inner must correspond. Disease threatens this correspondence. Teare, struggling with illness, searches for lost balance through an intense engagement with the painting of Agnes Martin. These achingly beautiful poems demonstrate the ways that, as Dickinson puts it, ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes.’” —Rae Armantrout
“After centuries of poets and painters collaborating comes this very different and remarkable integration of artistic forces. Brian Teare placed his body and poems into the Agnes Martin grid for a holistic magic that, as he writes, ‘I couldn’t tell / until I held it’ and we feel all the unloved places of our world rise up with him. It is rare to bear such change with the poet. Do not pass by this book without grabbing it.” —CAConrad
When pride in some form is lost, we feel very different.
illness means a lot less
self which isn’t so bad
hard to say what else
the healer uses needles
to calm like revision
might make the poem
less stupid as the body
is likely to throw up
re: ultimate authority
what kind of body
forgets how to eat
hot with hatred
a minor literature
I needle each word
until it bleeds
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Teare.
“Written during a period of chronic, debilitating illness, this powerful fifth collection from Lambda Award–winning poet Teare chronicles his struggle ‘to learn to think with pain’—to not only endure ‘days of headache,’ but to make meaning of those days. Observing hospital visits and ‘events/ like the calm after vomiting,’ his lyrics are austere but also deeply affecting, intellectually generous, and formally dazzling. Inspired by the minimalist compositions and metaphysical writings of abstract painter Agnes Martin, Teare treats each poem like a ‘field of consciousness.’ Arrayed across the page, their parallel stanzas sometimes coincide; like Teare’s undiagnosable sickness, they invite multiple readings. At other moments, their arrangements are akin to spikes of pain, interrupting ordinary syntax. Indeed, Teare's suffering is such an overwhelming presence here that he sometimes ascribes it agency: ‘What is the ideal/ state of illness,’ he wonders in one poem, ‘does it want/ to attain anything.’ Regardless of its purpose, Teare manages to wring some wonder from his suffering. ‘Illness,’ he writes, ‘shares/ its few virtues/ with art... in not being “of”/ or “for” anything.’ Teare’s virtues, on the other hand, are undeniable; these meditations give rare voice to an experience for which humans have little language.” —Publishers Weekly
I was born in Athens, Georgia in 1974. When I was two my family moved to the rural outskirts of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is where I remained for the next two decades. Pertinent details: a devoted but ambivalent relationship to Catholicism, an equal love of reading and of being outdoors, and an adoration of classical music. I would go on to study the flute and music composition as a young teenager, and after I dropped out of high school, music is what I eventually studied at the University of Alabama. Though I’d liked reading poetry in high school, it wasn’t until the summer before my junior year that I formally studied creative writing. That summer class literally changed my life, and eventually I switched majors, graduating a few years late with a BA in English and Creative Writing.
In 1997, I went to Indiana University as a Lilly Fellow, and received my MFA in 2000. In 2000, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in order to begin a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry. I remained in the Bay Area for the next eleven years, perhaps the most crucial time for my poetry and poetics. At Alabama and Indiana, I had dutifully studied Confessional and post-Confessional poetry and poetics, and even though I’d been more excited about experimental aesthetics, I’d largely had to teach myself how to read truly postmodern poetry. In the Bay Area, however, I found communities of practicing poets actively engaged in postmodern poetics, spirituality, and gender politics, and though my work was slow to change, I spent my first years there reading and absorbing the work that would come to inform my poetics most deeply: Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, Kathleen Fraser and Brenda Hillman, Nathaniel Mackey and Aaron Shurin, Robert Glück and Bruce Boone, among many others.
In 2003, I received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the NEA, and published my first book, The Room Where I Was Born, which won the Brittingham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press, and later the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry from the Publishing Triangle. For the next eight years, I hiked the Northern California coastline, learned to write on foot, and taught as an adjunct in the Bay Area: California College of the Arts, New College of California, University of San Francisco, and Mills College. During that time I also trained as a letterpress printer and bookbinder at the San Francisco Center for the Book, and in 2008 started my micropress, Albion Books. And I finished and published my second and third books: Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009) and Pleasure (Ahsahta Press, 2010), which won the Lambda Award for Gay Poetry. In 2011, I moved to Philadelphia to begin a tenure track position in Temple University’s MFA Program, and in 2013 I published Companion Grasses (Omnidawn Publishing), which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Lambda Literary Award.
Currently I’m a 2015 Pew Fellow in the Arts, and I’m also 40, halfway through my life if I am lucky. I hate that a biography like this largely leaves out the formative details: a difficult family life, the disaster of coming out in the rural South, my first love dead of AIDS, falling in love again in California, years of chronic illness, my discovery of meditation. True to my early schooling in Confessional writing, these narratives are in my books. But more importantly, my books understand autobiography to be as much intellectual as physical, as aesthetic as it is emotional. I’ve striven to fashion a poetics that can inscribe experience on all the registers on which it occurs: high to low, abstract to literal, philosophy to pornography. Similarly, I’ve striven to render the poem’s form flexible and sensitive enough to register the myriad shifts native to experience. Inspired in equal parts by Charles Olson’s essay on projective verse and my training as a letterpress and digital typesetter, I’ve recently come to believe that design is both proprioceptive and plastic, capable of carrying embodied knowledge and visual information that exceeds the semantic. The poems of The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven are the direct expression of this belief.
In 2008, I became ill. Or I “fell” ill, as the old expression goes, and descended into a combination of chronic headaches, constant gastrointestinal distress, arthritis flares, and fatigue. Because I was an adjunct professor at several schools and had “previous” conditions, I could not get health insurance of any kind. So my life fell into a pattern of coping with chronic pain and teaching poetry: a life split between hours of wordless, dissociative cognitive states and hours of nothing but words.
For about a year, I couldn’t write much, though I could lie in bed on my side and read when I wasn’t sleeping. One day in 2009 I took down from the shelf a book I had owned for many years—Agnes Martin’s Writings—and re-read her talk “The Untroubled Mind.” Something about its tone—stern but ecstatic—and its language—familiar but abstracted—comforted me. Something about its method—the feel of slight collage, the phrasing always a bit off-kilter—kept my interest. I resolved to read more of the book, and I did, obsessively. Eventually, I found myself collecting the phrases I returned to most often. Some of these phrases began to help me generate phrases of my own, and so I kept her phrases as titles—I liked their bossy, provocative, arguable logic, and I liked the way my poems moved in their own directions. The more I wrote in response to her writing, the more I began to seek out her visual art. And when I discovered her career-long obsession with the grid and the horizontal line, I began to see parallels between poetry and her brand of formal abstraction. Many examples of the traditional lyric—let’s say the sonnet, for instance—could be described as a grid: ten syllables laid out on the horizontal fourteen times, the stressed and unstressed syllables of each line falling into a rough vertical symmetry.
The more I looked at Martin’s grids—whose surface textures often resemble woven fabric—the more I thought of the poem as the sum of tension between the horizontal (the individual line) and the vertical (semantic meaning). And the more I thought about this tension between line and semantic meaning, the more I thought about the tension between my body and my language, how illness seemed to ensure that they remain incommensurate. This kind of incommensurability is intrinsic to Martin’s thinking about form. In 1972, she wrote: “My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance.” The more I thought of my own body as making exactly that sort of contradiction, the more I wrote into that gridded space of tension.
The more I wrote into Martin’s grids, the more I explored the dissonance between rectangle (line) and square (semantic meaning) by placing stanzas in adjacent spatial relation to each other, but without necessarily “squaring off” their semantic relationship. The more I explored this dissonance, the more the act of reading the resulting poems seemed to parallel my own and others’ attempts at reading my embodied condition. I liked that the most “dissonant” poems could be read multiple ways, and that the semantic meaning changed with each reading, but also that the meanings began to accrue and layer over one another with each subsequent reading. I also liked that some ways of reading yielded “better” results than others, and that others were more fraught with contradiction and frustration.
I worked on the poems for six years. Keenly aware that Martin herself avoided autobiographical narrative in her writing and representation in her visual work, I couldn’t help but think that chronic illness seemed the perfect fusion of autobiography and formal abstraction. Pain was largely wordless, but it was also my life—a somatic texture in which illness became a chronic duration and duration (time) became texture (form). And things anyways happened. Over those six years, I got access to public health care and exhausted my treatment options without getting a diagnosis, I started seeing a Chinese medical practitioner for herbs and acupuncture (which helped), and I also started a meditation practice (which helped). But I remained ill. And I kept returning to Martin and her work, even going to museums, libraries, and archives to get “closer” to her, the way young curators and artists had once sought her out in the desert of New Mexico.
Eventually I realized I’d been looking for someone or something to help me change my life. I’d been seeking healers and teachers, some of whom did in fact help, some of whom didn’t. Eventually I ended up in the hospital (again) and realized help might not be coming, at least not in the form I’d wanted. Lying on the gurney, I asked: What’s the right attitude toward suffering? An answer came: It neither lies to you nor makes you suffer more. And more than my own suffering I heard the man in the room next to me weeping as a doctor drained his wound. When I stopped wanting a teacher, when I stopped waiting for an end to suffering, my life did change. I did in fact suffer less. When I gave up the illusion of salvation, I found a modicum of rest and some room for the experience of joy. When I stopped needing Martin to help me, I could finally look at her work in companionable awe.