Winner, 2011 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry
Like Tennyson’s In Memorium, Teare’s book sees within a personal loss evidence of an epochal shift at work, a shift at once historical, political, and cosmological. Asserting the lover’s body as a lost Eden, revisiting again and again the narrative of “the fall”—its iconic imagery as well as Gnostic reinterpretations—the book also records the eventual end of mourning and a return to the ecology not of myth but of the literal weather and landscape of California. The book is haunted throughout by the task of “writing the disaster” of AIDS; its lyrics link emergency to inquiry in an attempt to make a memorial “in language sufficient/to pain : not in itself the world : the thought of it.”
“The painful rip of the body away from a state of erotic joy to one of stunned aloneness is here explored in a garden of strange and thorny flowers, a garden in which the poet is tempted by the gnostic vision of reality, because it is so cruelly true to his experience.” —Fanny Howe
“Brian Teare is a master poet. He can ‘write rain into the picture’ and make the written word seem real. But here, in Pleasure, he refuses to do so. He resists the way the lyric attempts to lull us or protect us from pain. In these poems language fails. The form, the poem, paper, the lyric—even pain fails. And in this failure I am moved beyond words, through words, and brought back to pleasure, to freedom, to the perfect weather of true grief, to the spectacular disaster that is life. I have not read a book like this for a long time. It is painfully good.” —Rachel Zucker
What damage desires
Text, suffers surface
To abrade, puncture,
acerate? Here white thighs
And the poem[ here
The paper deteriorates ]
And the body of the poem
[ The paper gets worse ]
Having what mouths
[ Holes ]I cannot forgive
him the elegy[ but here
The paper is torn ]mending
The kiss, sewing cuts inside
Copyright © 2010 by Brian Teare.
“The deeply moving poems in Pleasure eulogize the lover Teare lost to AIDS in 1999 while they engage in—to quote the author in ‘An Extended Bio’ [see Author Bio on this site]—‘a dialectic between autobiography and the languaged page.’ In their search to stay grief, they confront, parse, rail against, and indict death and dying as framed by a par- ticular juncture in contemporary American history. The rub of lyric form against the cruel indignities of the lover’s dying generates a volatile verbal energy that has for me no contemporary equal. Teare writes of growing up with the prosody of the King James Bible and a Southern speech that ‘gave the vowel pride of place.” Hopkins, among others, has added muscle to his consonants. His words proliferate, self-aware, material in their sensuality, encountered, like Stein’s, on the cusp between sound and meaning. . .” —Lee Sharkey in Beloit Poetry Review
“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. . .” —Natalie Eilbert in The Rumpus
“There’s a fine line between inhabiting Eden and becoming an exile of Eden, between pleasure and pain—the ‘luciferous kiss’ of touch and neglect. Teare’s elegies are elegant and startling, they almost make me forget the grief that inspires them: ‘When I write butterfly, it’s not ironic. It’s a sweet name for a needle.’” —Rigoberto González in Critical Mass
“The poems that Brian Teare writes always seem restless with language itself: the words to say what as much as not being able to find the words at all; poems that exist, in a way, between language and utterance that makes them strangely formal—although I wouldn’t call him a formalist, strictly speaking.
“His newest book, simply and ambiguously called Pleasure, reveals a world in which grief and remembrance have made the world pastoral but difficult and, at times, like Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates (a book of poems based, in part, on the Gnostic gospels which literally interrupted another book she was writing), practically occult.
“This is meant as high praise for a collection where the laser sharp focus falls authoritatively on the matters of the spirit and the flesh in a place called Eden which is also, like every contemporary Eden, a state of mind . . .” —Michael Klein in Lambda Literary
“In the old myth, Adam named the names in paradise—each word, in its way, created in Eden its own Eden, a word not of essence, but essential, a word as palpable as the body it called to itself, an erotic word because a creative one. But Eden is not easy. To speak of it is to cast ourselves out from it; a word is paradise, at least until our breath runs out. Brian Teare’s Pleasure takes upon itself the important work of remembering that Adam is for us still the erotic source from which words work their awful magic—a magic that can return to life a lover slowly dying, a lover lost to death, the page as the impossible paradise of continued life. The syllable’s moment is a quick life and a carnal knowledge. But Teare sings a song that being sung comes to know itself, a knowledge that casts it out of itself, that understands that in the very midst of its audacious life lurks a darker compensation, the thought of death nearing, and death that nears. I know of no other poet right now returning his readers with such fervent beauty and stark intelligence into the very difficulty of the words in which he writes—these elegiac words that reverse death as a final consequence to life that are themselves mortal. Desolation strikes an abandoned note inside devotion, but does not cancel out the whole. The whole music is an old music, a music Brian Teare still hears, still says is our music, as Eden is but a figure of the day, and these oldest myths are but our daily life when that life by the poet—in difficulty and grace—becomes for us once again naked and exposed.” —Dan Beachy-Quick
The last of six children, I was born and baptized Catholic in Athens, Georgia and grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The King James Bible was the first poetry whose prosody I knew by ear, an ear in which Southern speech gave the vowel pride of place--even now the South remains to me as much a way of hearing my way through language as the physical and cultural place where I grew up. “…Where,/ if the world is flesh, to place the limit// between your body/ and the world?” I ask in the final poem of Pleasure, a question I lift from Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible. I could as easily ask where, if my life is language, to place the limit between the poem and my life, if only because the limit between them is so protean, and my ideas about and feelings concerning that limit likewise changeable.
On the one hand, my work often takes autobiography as its ground. My early education as a writer at the University of Alabama and Indiana University was mentored by poets for whom the Confessionals were a nearly all-absorbing pantheon, thus the first tasks I was set were to master the verse and free verse lines and the canon handed down to me: Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Berryman, Roethke, Hugo, Plath and Sexton. On the other, my work has increasingly insisted on a dialectic between autobiography and the languaged page. My self-education as a writer has led me away from a post-Confesssional practice toward the alternative traditions that emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area, where, as luck would have it, I now live. Thus Pleasure’s permissions were given variously: by Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field, Kathleen Fraser’s il cuore : the heart, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Brenda Hillman’s Loose Sugar, Michael Palmer’s Notes for Echo Lake, Aaron Shurin’s A Door and John Weiners’ Ace of Pentacles.
Pleasure’s occasion, however, is autobiographical: in 1999, during my second year of graduate school at Indiana University, my lover Jared died of AIDS after eight months of ARCs. Despite all I had read about the aids crisis, despite having volunteered at an aids free clinic, I was unprepared to witness the suffering he endured as he died. Almost as unsettling to me, however, was the concurrent realization that, when as a young gay man I left the Catholic Church, I had also unwittingly left behind a way of understanding suffering and death. A deep disorientation followed the moment Jared’s casket lowered into the ground, as though I’d buried my only map and lost my compass.
One orientation point: Pleasure’s occasion, however autobiographical, was hardly singular. I was born in 1974, midway between Stonewall and the advent of AIDS; I came out in 1992, after AZT but before protease inhibitors, a time when there was little hope for survival. Hundreds of thousands before me had witnessed the onset of aids in their communities; they had mourned the extravagant numbers of the dead; they had prepared to die and/or to live without their loved ones and/or to live with a chronic illness; they had raged against pathologizing public rhetoric, inadequate public health care, education and policy as well as political apathy; they had also made a lot of art and documented what amounted to an irrevocable change in the queer body politic. Their writing and testimony showed me a way out of silence.
Two more orientation points: Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion and James M. Robinson’s edition of The Nag Hammadi Library, texts I found by way of Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates and Fanny Howe’s essays on theology and the writing life. A split between matter and spirit, a vicious male demiurge at war with female wisdom, humankind’s fundamental alienation from heaven: in light of AIDS, Gnosticism made sense. And if the bereft emerges suddenly from mourning like the estranged Gnostic answering the call to awaken, I came to in 2001. I found myself living in Palo Alto, California, during a drought so severe it necessitated rolling brown-outs to stave off an energy crisis. Northern California is a place subject to flooding and wildfire in addition to earthquakes and drought, and my own newly Gnostic consciousness seemed to rhyme with an alien place so prone to emergency.
A final orientation point: Pleasure is technically my second book, the first book I wrote during my self-education. Informed by the post-Confessional narratives of The Room Where I Was Born and looking forward to the lyric postmodernism of Sight Map, it was a transitional book, a fact that suited its subject matter, which did not seem to me to be aids so much as elegy and its relationship to epochal and cosmological change. If my sense of elegy’s formal and thematic possibilities altered between the book’s first and second halves, this aesthetic transformation depended on my turn from myth and trauma toward the phenomenological, God-haunted afterworld of grief--and reading. Deeply intertextual, the book composes itself in relation to the tradition of pastoral elegy even as it calls upon other frameworks: the literature of aids, continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and theology. Without recourse to heaven, Pleasure tries to understand death via other means.
I received these questions from Lance Phillips when he was putting together his blog “Here Comes Everybody.” At the time, I wasn’t able to answer them.
1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?
A: Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” which I first encountered in college. I’d read and liked a lot of poems before that, but it was the first experience of reading that was like my experience of love: so intense I was afraid to read the poem again. I remember the prosody and alliteration were so syncopated it was as if my head were the clapper inside of a churchbell; I held on to the desk; I was shaken with music. As with love at first sight, the poem seemed totally and strangely familiar and yet it took me a very long time to understand my experience of it--likely because of the swoon it induced. After a while the poem “untwisted” like a braid as I began to see how its syntax was linked logically to the alliterative prosody. It was my first experience of having to read initially with my ear as opposed to my inner eye or logical mind, both of which eventually caught up with the ear-sense the poem makes. It was also my first experience of reading “experimental” religious poetry--sensual and devotional, unorthodox and orthodox at once. I have been in love ever since.
2. What is something/someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers/colleagues? Why do you read it/them?
A: I’m not sure I read anything that would surprise my peers and colleagues, partly because I don’t read much that could be considered “non-literary.” Typically I read a lot of criticism and nonfiction about psychoanalysis, theology and religion, feminist and queer issues, natural history and environmental issues. I have a deep passion for the writings and life of Virginia Woolf and, to a lesser extent, the Bloomsbury circle, especially Dora Carrington and Vita Sackville-West, whose garden writings I quite treasure. I have a real love of photography and an interest in the history of photography. For a collaborative project on spiritualism and spirit photography, I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories, occult philosophy, nineteenth century philosophy and history and transcripts of séances. It’s reading that connects me back to childhood, when I fell in love with Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. I have loved ghost stories--and scary movies--ever since.
3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?
A: Like a lot of poets, I’m not really a “systems person,” but the thought and writings of certain philosophers have influenced my own writing practice since the beginning. Thus perhaps it would be more accurate to say that philosophers have been more important to my writing than philosophy qua philosophy: Barthes, Irigaray, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Butler, Derrida, Bachelard, Gates, Foucault, Cixous, Cavell, and Kristeva, for example. Each of them has written at least one book--if not several--that I’ve underlined and dog-eared and argued with and stolen from; poems have begun in the margins of Camera Lucida and On Certainty and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. In many cases—Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, Irigaray’s To Be Two, Buber’s I and Thou, Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, Butler’s Psychic Life of Power, Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy and Kristeva’s Black Sun—I have returned to the books again and again because they have been both burr and spur. Hooked deeply in the fabric of my thinking and writing, these books have acted almost as irritants that cause me to return to the site where they’ve attached themselves to my mind. Thus they inspire me, spur me on to revisitation, reconsideration, and rereading. It’s in this way that a lot of writing gets done.
4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?
A: The non-Anglo American writers I admire would constitute a long list, so I’ll choose three elder poets whose writings have been and remain especially influential: Nathaniel Mackey, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Cecilia Vicuña. I admire that their bodies of work explicitly engage three very different spiritual traditions--African, Buddhist, and, in Vicuña’s case, something resembling pagan or animist beliefs--via aesthetic practices that have arisen from and been given shape by those very traditions. And yet their work re-figures their traditions, finding new forms and new figurations that both extend and revise the tradition. In Mackey’s case, his writing takes the form of an “endless” serial improvisation on the intertwined themes of creation, death and afterlife; Berssenbrugge’s poems investigate consciousness and relationship via meditative states, collage and intertextuality; Vicuña’s poems, chants and quipu-based precarios evoke ritual and prayer alike, reconnecting and tying the reader/viewer to breath, element and earth. I admire, too, how there’s an important politics to the spirituality of each of these poets: while Mackey explores diasporic religions, Berssenbrugge evokes the fragility of gendered subjectivity, and Vicuña foregrounds our indebtedness to earth.
5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?
A: I do. Every day I read at least one poem of my own choosing--as opposed to the poems I have to read. It seems odd to me that poetry wouldn’t be important to my writing, but perhaps that’s because one of my assumptions concerning poetry is that--with apologies to Buber--All real writing is meeting. The poetry I love meets in conversation: with another person or poem, with itself, with its author, with the phenomenal world, with the poem’s cultural context, its generic history, its national and international histories, and/or its contemporary manifestations. Even language at its most private and subjective is bound in important ways to its larger contexts, and sometimes the thrill of poetry--as with Dickinson’s or Celan’s—is in the rub of a lyrical idiolect against context. One the one hand, Emily Dickinson’s personal vocabulary emerges from a heretical refutation of orthodox 19th Century Protestantism; I learn a lot from watching her invent a language, shorn of religious dogma, in which consciousness comes to terms with mortality. On the other, the multi-lingual Paul Celan deliberately chose German as a stage for his writing and thinking through historical trauma—largely because German was fatally tainted for him by the atrocities of the Shoah. Celan’s habitual recourse to the vocative makes his choice all the more instructive given the poems’ desire for a conversation with “you”: despite the barbarities inherent for him the very language in which his poems are written. His work remains for me a model of ethics: the need for “real meeting” persists in spite of history, and sometimes poetry provides the only safe meeting place.
6. What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?
A: Pleasure’s central myth is Eden, but I’ve never been able to read Paradise Lost past the third page. I can’t quite explain why other than a kind of aural discomfort that makes me tune out after a while--something about the syntax and prosody irks rather than excites me. There are a few important male canonical poets to whose major work I’m largely unsympathetic, a fact about which I used to feel a lot of shame, actually. Pound’s Cantos is one. Almost all of Stevens is two. And Milton’s Paradise Lost makes three. I keep revisiting their work in the hopes that I’ve changed with age; from time to time I’ll read relevant criticism in the hopes that the right critic will grant me new access. So far neither has happened.
7. How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?
A: It’s hard not to be precious in answering this, but I might say something like this: “It’s a recipe. Each line is a new ingredient. A poem helps you make new thoughts and feelings. And when you’re done listening to or reading a poem, the world looks and feels different. It’s a recipe for change.”
8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?
A: I’m not a “systems person,” remember? In fact, I probably believe that to systematize poetry would kill it--fast--the way systematic corporate greed is killing the Gulf of Mexico as I type this. But given that the possible number of roles the poet can fulfill in our culture is limited only by our conception of poetry itself, I’m always in favor of the poet acting in the role of the citizen, and vice versa. To do so radically changes poetry and citizenship in ways that expand and enlarge the possibilities of both art and society. I take Brenda Hillman as but one recent admirable example of this: her anti-war activism with Code Pink has allowed her a different relationship to poetry and thus to her audience. I honor the courage and resourcefulness that results in the willingness to combine our different roles, especially because the cultural capital of so much poetry today still depends upon the irrelevant distinction between “high” and “low” in their various guises. Practical Water emerges out of a refutation of the false binary of art and activism and I do think the world is better for it.
9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):
A: Lemon **Jack