Early Exits: New Books from Two Poets Lost to AIDS
By Mike James
Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader
Edited by Jamie Townsend
Nightboat Books, 2019
Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney
Edited by Jim Cory
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019
One of the reasons Steve Abbott is so refreshing is because he takes his lusts the same way he might drink orange juice: straight up. There are poems and essays about queerness and AIDS (his ultimate killer), but also ones about transcendence, poverty, and fatherhood. This collection pulls together essays (including a stunning piece on Bob Kaufman), fiction, poetry, cartoons, letters, and memoirs across a wide range of styles. His work reads like a mind never at rest.
Abbott was part of the generation of queer poets who came of age in the 1970’s. This generation, which included Tim Dlugos, Kevin Killian, Steve Carey, and Jim Brodey, did not hide their sexuality even if some did not make it the center of their work. (A freedom taken for granted by heterosexual poets.) Prior to the 1970’s, most queer poets who took sex as a subject were either outliers (Harold Norse and John Weiners) or artfully oblique (Hart Crane and W.H. Auden.)
Abbott’s work has a freedom and casualness not found in many poets prior to his generation. He’s able to toss off lines like, “The sky is so full / you hear footsteps on the roof” or drop in a line like, “So far as I know / Chairman Mao never wore a dress.” It’s his knack for not taking the world too seriously which makes Abbott such an endearing writer. His work is casual, but never sloppy. He’s always precise. Check out how he starts this poem.
It’s A Strange Day Alysia Says, A Green
“It’s a strange day,” Alysia says, “a green
bug in my room & now this mushroom growing in the car.”
She’s right. Under damp newspapers & cigarette
butts, from the floor, protrudes a slimy brown thing.
Maybe I should get a new car or at least
clean it up, fix the window like the kids say.
But how can I do this & still talk to angels?
Poets get absorbed in strange quests,
question not the creative regimen of poverty.
I wanted to meditate on this but before I could
a hitchhiker we pick up crushes…
The poem continues in side-chat fashion, but this gives an idea of his voice. Tucked between the cigarettes, the ampersands, and the hitchhiker, this poem belongs to the 1970’s as surely as shag carpet, disco balls, and Pontiac Firebirds. And just like those well-remembered items, it’s tactile and timeless. The poet records a conversation between his self and soul about parenting, poverty, and poetry and lets the reader eavesdrop along the way.
Because of Alysia Abbott’s fine and tender memoir, Fairyland, Steve Abbott is better known as a subject than as a writer. Beautiful Aliens should start to correct that oversight.
Despite some obvious similarities (queer and San Francisco based) Karl Tierney was a different sort of poet than Steve Abbott. The new collection, Have You Seen This Man? illustrates that point.
First, it must be noted, this collection was a love labor from Jim Cory, Tierney’s friend and literary executor. Tierney committed suicide in 1995 after an AIDS diagnosis. Cory spent the next 20 plus years submitting Tierney’s poetry to magazines and trying to gain interest from publishers for a collection. Cory, a wonderful and heart wrenching poet in his own right, kept the focus on Tierney rather than himself. This collection is a testament to Tierney’s talent as a poet and to Cory’s skill as an editor. Cory’s insightful introduction is worth the price of the book.
But poets have to be judged by the quality of their work, not by the sadness of their lives. So, what kind of poet was Tierney? In a word: lustful. As Cory correctly notes, Tierney seems to channel the Roman poet Catullus in both his direct, almost comedic, style as well as in his subject matter. Like Catullus, Tierney writes like a man on a mission. The mission is getting either a or b or both into bed and the best poems (there are numerous gems) concern fleshly wants or their aftermaths.
Here’s are a few lines from a typical piece to shows what he does well.
Part-Time Whores In Doorways
Some of them are handsome,
even if two sheets to the wind
shaking skin and bones.
Little meat upon them
except between the legs
meticulously exposed when rising
towards tweaks, Johns, or numbers.
There is no need for pity.
They milk even the bosom of Mary
The poems continues and catalogs Tierney’s world of wants, fulfilled and unfulfilled. His characters go to every party and hate to go home alone. Tierney’s characters, are like so many party hungry, lonely people. As a poet though, he is unique. His poems are postcards of fanciful directness, finally delivered after so many years.
About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has been published in numerous magazines throughout the country in such places as Plainsongs, Laurel Poetry Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. His fourteen poetry collections include: Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He has served as an associate editor of The Kentucky Review and as publisher of the now defunct Yellow Pepper Press. More information about him can be found on his website, mikejamespoetry.com.
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Image Credit: World AIDS Day Ribbon. Public Domain