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This slim volume of poetry might stir up the tears you have been keeping inside you, especially if, like me, you are old enough to remember the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, the seemingly endless roll call of people you knew and didn’t know who died horribly. It was one of the many black holes in American history from which a few bright lights emerged. One of them is the publication of In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton, edited by Reginald Shepherd and Philip Clark.
Clark co-edited Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (2010), with David Groff. As he tells us in his modestly written “Preface,” when Shepherd, who first thought of putting together a volume of Britton’s poems, heard about the anthology that Clark was in the process of assembling, he contacted him to make sure Britton’s work was included. When Shepherd died, Clark finished the project. Along with their essays, there is an “Afterword” by Douglas Crase in which he writes movingly about the New York poetry circles that he and Britton moved in during the ‘80s. Crase is right when he opens his “Afterword” with:
The appearance in print of the selected poems of Donald Britton is an affront to cynicism and a triumph over fate.
Often, it is poets who save other poets’ works, at least until the writings are published. In this case, Nightboat is to be commended for publishing In The Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton, and A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (2011), a friend of Britton’s who also died of AIDS.
In the Empire of the Air was the title Britton chose for his second, never-published book of poems. The current volume gathers together “uncollected and unpublished poems” as well as all the poems from Italy (1981), his only published book, which was put out by Dennis Cooper’s long defunct press, Little Caesar. Although the collection is less than 100 pages of poetry, it adds up to a remarkable body of work; having negotiated his way through the Language poets and the poets connected with the New York School (who, under the spell of Frank O’Hara, practiced what Eileen Myles called “exalted mundanity”), Britton arrived at a place all his own by the time he was in his late twenties. He writes about himself with the detachment of a scientist who is looking at his subject through a microscope, or the wrong end of a telescope. This is the poem “A Real Life” in its entirety:
a clam between
A nude bather
in the dark
This is not a variation of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that,” because nothing happens in the poem. The poet is alone. He gets up and showers in the dark. Britton’s subject is a state of awareness that underscores his sense of displacement from himself. He neither inhabits his body nor is he cut off from it. The writing is terse and quick. Everything has been pared down, “I awaken,” he writes, and then becomes “a clam between/cool sheets.” One hears “happy as a clam” and “clammy” reverberating through Britton’s line. He may have been inspired by John Ashbery’s attention to clichés and banal chatter, but he’s the one who wrote/heard it where he did.
Britton can write erotically charged poems. This is the last stanza of “Hart Crane Saved from Drowning (Pines 1926)”:
But the naked Cubano all testicles and rod
laving amid ripe tendril of the water ridges
trumped fate with desire: so he postponed his resolve
for six years and a boat and a woman
In its momentary strangeness, “laving” carries the sonic traces of three other words: loving, living and laughing. The elemental scene of a naked man washing himself persuades Crane to change his mind about drowning himself. In his precise attention to sound, Britton is also responding to the many critics who find Crane’s writing problematic because it emphasizes sound over sense.
He can write with a cool, sympathetic detachment. This how the poem ”Amorous Day” begins:
An amorous day and not to be denied:
toothpaste coffee toast portend
the cold sea-swell of my urges.
Aromatic whisker parted,
raw and swollen testicle tamed, incognito–
and every pustule in its place.
Everything – from the “toothpaste” to the “cold sea-swell of [his] urges” to “every pustule in its place” – is treated with the same amount of attention and emotional reserve. It is like a painting by Alex Katz with a Francis Bacon painting lurking inside. One’s private moments and inner life meld with one’s presentation of the self in public. The point is to keep everything in its place without denying the “urges.”
Britton’s sympathetic detachment comes out of necessity. Even in his coolest, most measured takes, there is an urgency that infuses his poems with an emotional charge. Still, it is emotion experienced from a self-protective distance. This is how the poem, “My Mother’s Afternoon Nap” ends:
She feels the pillow crease her cheek,
uncertain in the ache of waking.
No gloss of love dispels
the image of those angels she attends,
bow-tied detectives who take her away
These four works appear in the section of “Uncollected and Unpublished Poems,” the section that opens the book. The middle section is Italy, which came out when Britton was thirty and clearly a masterful poet, able to begin the poem, “November” with this stanza:
Tonight you are privy
To the stars’ most intimate
Thoughts about you. Under
Their menace, edges of furniture
Seem like old news
As tears fall single file.
The poems he selected for his second, unpublished collection close out what amounts to a selected poems. Britton’s poems are condensed and expansive. Attentive to line breaks, he is able to move from perception to perception in a blink.
Above and beyond this aimlessness
Light in fistfuls
Scores the upside-down window on a blond floor
The skywriting’s reflected backwards in
And red buildings lop off the sky
Somewhere down near where the canal starts
Ringing like glass
To be near the flower you think is dead.
(“Four Poems” p. 43)
I cannot do better than Crase in describing Britton’s accomplishment: “The language Donald achieved in his poems was frequently so ravishing that one could feel the pleasure of his mind as it coursed over the emerging syntax, a kind of pleasure he identified indelibly in “Winter Garden” as ‘the ever-skating decimals’ joy.’” It is this pleasure that the patient reader encounters in Britton’s poems, his discovery of what can be done with language as well as what it can reveal (“as a mirror/Hides its feelings, or a photograph/Is respected for holding no opinion.”). He didn’t use words to write a poem. He wrote from inside language – as from inside a mirror or photograph – because he lived there as much as he inhabited the world. Many of the poems are haunted by Britton’s awareness that he lived on the cusp of eternity (“sadness surges in,/a passing-windshield light-effect/on the ceiling”). Little did he know that it would grab him so soon.
Recounting all the friends of his who died, starting in 1984 and culminating with Britton’s death in 1994, Crase writes: “We say ‘died,’ but of course they were killed, by a threat they could never have foreseen.” This is the fate and government policy (the “Reagan Years”) over which Britton’s poems accord a belated triumph and affront.
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.