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Reader’s Diary: ‘In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton’

In-the-Empire-of-the-Air

In what is more than the affectionately memoiristic Afterword it pretends to be — rather, a fiercely searching critical overview of the New York poetry world of the 1980s — Douglas Crase evokes a lost milieu in which “criticism was communicated by an eye roll, groan, laughter, or shared enthusiasm.” I can’t tell you how nostalgic it makes me feel to read that line at a time when criticism is routinely dealt out by social media death squad. But that’s not the only thing that makes me long for times past. When I wandered ingenuously onto the scene, Donald Britton was a young star, or so I considered him, just a few years older than me (actually a bit more than a few, it turns out — he always looked so boyish) yet somehow wiser. Still I could feel that what I assumed, he assumed. He could not have known (nor could I) how apropos that “end of the world feeling” so lightly scumbled over the surface of his poetry would turn out to be. “The working surface of poetry is time,” as Doug says, and not the surface of the page; soon, several worlds did end. It might or might not be numerically accurate to say that the majority of poets one admired were gay (I believe it would), but it is certainly true that the aesthetic assumptions under which one was writing poetry — the ‘inside’ nature of the criticism that Doug describes — were implicitly rooted in a gay culture that had formed in the New York of the 1950s and would soon be transformed into something very different by AIDS, which killed Donald in 1994. Being straight in this environment was akin to being a white bebop musician: I sometimes felt the odds were really against my being able to keep up. Knowing oneself to be an outsider to what one loved the most could make, at minimum, for some interesting self-questioning. Reading again for the first time in many years the poems in Donald’s only book, Italy (1981), or the few others of his I knew, including “The Lake Evening” — the astonishing one that closes this selection (and which I’m happy to say was first published in a little magazine I coedited with a couple of friends) — brings me back to “the mooring of starting out,” in John Ashbery’s beautiful phrase. In other words, it was the point when I realized that, with his “intimate reserve,” as Doug calls it, Donald was doing something that I wanted to do but so much better. And “Beyond those bluffs, / Where we vanish, / As at the summit of a rope, / Is only wondering.” Even better, if possible, are some poems I’ve never encountered before; I am floored, for instance, by the audacity of the conclusion of the poem that gives this selection its title, “In the Empire of the Air”:

As I hold you, and the messy edges
Of our privacy overlap and then withdraw—
Think of me as three persons, and as one,
But always who I am, ever changing
And complete, in the empire of the air
Or on the street, or with white sails
Stiff against the wind,
Whistling far out over the water.

—a valedictory from a “beyond” that (not too unlike the one from which Keats’s living hand throttles us) is so much more real and alive, warm and capable, than the here and now in which the poet has left us abandoned.

In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton, ed. by Reginald Shepherd and Philip Clark (2016), is published by Nightboat Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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