Poet Brian Teare, whose poem “After a Long Illness” appears in NER 37.2, speaks with NER poetry editor Rick Barot about place (“For many years now, I’ve felt that where I am is who I am”), inspiration, and a time when AIDS and illness were “among the most urgent and important themes in our national literature.”
RB: Can you say something about how “After a Long Illness” came about?
BT: After finishing my fifth book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, a labor of just over five years, I found that my writing entered a fairly fallow period. Normally, when I finish a book, the seed for another one has been planted and has begun germinating, but this time the rich underground process I trust seemed simply to have stopped. For a while, I was too busy to go inward and check in on this; I trusted that when I was ready, something would grow. But when I went on a residency at Vermont Studio Center, I finally had time to put my ear to the earth of myself and listen: what I heard and felt was a lot like the landscape of Johnson, Vermont in late February. Walking along the Gihon River and observing it from the banks and from my studio window, I was largely in deep freeze, but underneath the surface, thaw had already begun. Writing my way into the earliest moment winter seems to pivot toward spring was also a way of teaching myself to release, to write my way back into writing: desire: kinesis.
RB: Your most recent book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, also has illness as a motif, in addition to being in conversation with the life and art of Agnes Martin. Is it just me, or is illness not usually a common theme in literature? Is there literary writing about illness that you admire?
BT: This is a complex question, and so my answer will be a bit long. I came of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US, and so it seemed to me for a long time that illness was an incredibly common theme in literature. For the first decade of my writing life, in fact, it was inescapable, and many of the most formative books I read concerned themselves with AIDS, illness, and mortality—Tory Dent’s What Silence Equals and HIV, Mon Amour, Mark Doty’s My Alexandria, Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats, and D. A. Powell’s Tea and Cocktails are the first books that come to mind, in addition to Michael Klein’s important anthology Poets for Life. So my immediate response to your question is that illness as a theme is not uncommon at all—indeed, for a time it was among the most urgent and important themes in our national literature.
Of course, I can also see why you’d say illness is an uncommon theme: now that AIDS is not a death sentence in the US, writing about physical illness is much less common outside of the literature of disability, which often includes writing about chronic and debilitating illness. And in looking through the contemporary canon of poetry in the US, I’d say you’re certainly right—you’d think all of our poets are stalwartly, constantly able-bodied. There has of course been prose about physical illness that’s been important to me—Sontag’s two books on illness and metaphor, Elaine Scarry’s magisterial The Body in Pain, Virginia Woolf’s lovely essay “On Being Ill,” Lucia Perillo’s harrowing and darkly humorous I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing, and many powerful books by Nancy Mairs. But outside of the formative titles I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I return to much poetry of illness other than Marilyn Hacker’s brilliant Winter Numbers and Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, which generously includes poetry about illness, written by innovators like Cynthia Hogue and Danielle Pafunda.
That said, the poet of illness I return to most often now is Tory Dent, whose Collected Poems was released last year to resounding silence, a fact that seems indicative both of this alleged “post-AIDS” moment in the US and our culture’s general refusal to allow illness and the disabled the presence and visibility granted to health and the able-bodied. But in calling Dent “a poet of illness,” I’m doing her a great disservice, of course, because though her central subject was living first with HIV and then with AIDS, her hungry furious witty sprawling poems seem to leave no subject untouched. Dent’s long lines move with outrageous, messy, restless, intelligent ambition, and they’re particularly unapologetic about delving into a life often consumed by the difficulty of being hospitalized, medicalized, stigmatized, and very often in pain. The trilogy she published while alive—What Silence Equals (1993), HIV, Mon Amour (1999) and Black Milk (2005)—tells a powerful story of being diagnosed, living with chronic illness, and coming to terms with the eventual failure of medicine to treat her and save her life. Over time, as her situation gets more dire, Dent goes full metaphysical—so much so that many of the poems in Black Milk are constructed around dialogues with important metaphysical poems in the western canon—all the while remaining resolutely atheist. I return to her work because she refuses to convert suffering into anything other than itself—the hard truth with which she (mercilessly, humorously) ends Black Milk:
All this suffering for nothing?
We need to make up something to rationalize it as worthwhile.
But the body does not.
The last sound heard will be my stomach growling.
RB: Place is often a very strong element in your work, and it’s certainly so in “After a Long Illness.” In fact, in all your books, landscape and place have been vivid presences. Can you talk about this distinct component of your poetry?
BT: For many years now, I’ve felt that where I am is who I am, place in its most material sense being a major but often overlooked aspect of our identities. We are all, after all, residents of watersheds, our bodies made up of water molecules drawn more and less from our surroundings—but there is also the intertwining of our senses, our body-minds, with the immediate surround of our environments, and so each resident species informs me whether or not I am aware of how it does so. Ribbon fern, honey locust, pigeon: with each new poem, I try to be aware of some of the ways “I” am out there, wherever that is, as well as in here, wherever that is, and I try to render some of the important ways that I can and can’t tell where to draw the line between world and self. I often think of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s remarkable poems about plants in Hello, the Roses, particularly the ways in which she courts what might seem like unorthodox relationships with vegetal beings while being mindful of the boundaries integral to self-other dynamics. “You grow through what I have to say to you,” she writes, “as a tree grows up through space, then what I have to say changes.//That’s why we need the identity of our physical forms.” In more recent poems, such as “After a Long Illness,” I’ve been trying both to be precise about physical forms (such as bioregional detail) and to allow for some of the blurriness of intertwining (changing in response/relation). There’s an important ethics in honoring difference—I am (of course!) not the Gihon River—and an equally important ethics in honoring interdependence and relation with the specificities of place.
RB: What are you reading these days, and what are you recommending to everyone?
BT: I have just finished Danish writer Dorthe Nors’s fiction in English: Karate Chop and So Much for That Winter. I enjoyed both immensely, particularly the formal innovation and absurd melancholy of the latter. This summer I’ve been reading and rereading with awe Ari Banias’s full-length debut, Anybody, which explores the intersections of queer identity, political life, affect, and poetic language with directness, tenderness, and intelligence. I’ve also been immersed in two crucial new volumes by the philosopher of vegetal life, Michael Marder: The Chernobyl Herbarium and (with the legendary feminist thinker Luce Irigaray) Through Vegetal Being. His work never fails to challenge and inspire my thinking about ethics, interdependence, and environment. Lastly, I’m deep inside both Amiri Baraka’s S.O.S.: Poems 1961-2013 and Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012 because their life works speak with such directness to the ongoing project of our violent and unjust nation. Because of their respective achievements (and flaws), they’re the elders I’m turning to right now for solace, solidarity, courage, and righteous anger.