‘A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos’ ed. by David Trinidad
During my senior year of college, as I was researching for my thesis on the poetic response to AIDS, I ran across Tim Dlugos’s “Retrovir” in Michael Klein’s anthology Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS. Immediately gut-checked and seduced by those few poems, I went searching for more Dlugos, which wasn’t exactly easy, even in the age of instant access to, well, almost anything. Through several used and rare book dealers, I found copies of Dlugos’ Strong Place (with introduction by David Trinidad), Powerless (again, Trinidad introduction), and a rare chapbook, For Years. When news circulated that Trinidad was in the process of editing a Collected Poems, I waited intently. The wait was well worth it, and Trinidad has given the poetry world a great gift—a monumental tome of nearly 600 pages, A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (Nightboat Books). I use the word “gift” deliberately, as Dlugos says, “Grace, in a very orthodox sense, is my major preoccupation.” And an orthodox understanding of grace is that it is something undeserved, a divine gift.
Trinidad’s generous introduction, useful chronology, and meticulous notes enhance our understanding of this poet’s important contributions to the poetry world and the gay literary community. Dlugos began writing in 1970 at the height of the Gay Liberation movement and continued (with a period of relative silence from 1985-1987) until his death due to AIDS-related complications in 1990. These poems, then, are not only glimpses into the poet’s psyche, but are also important records of a community ecstatically claiming its presence in American culture and then struggling to stay alive when besieged by plague. Dlugos himself is truly a fascinating character—bon vivant and Renaissance man, who gets sober and devotes himself to a religious life. His range of experiences resonates in his poems’ range in vocal and tonal registries.
The portrait of his friendship with Dlugos that Trinidad weaves in his introduction is moving, a testament to a devoted literary community, and an insightful look into the editor’s craft and calling. As this is a “collected” and not “complete” works, it represents about half of Dlugos’s total output and, according to Trinidad, “has the feeling of abundance I’d hoped it would.” The collection is organized in four sections based on geography and chronology: Philadelphia: 1970-1973; Washington, D.C.: 1973-1976; Manhattan and Brooklyn: 1976-1988; and New Haven and Manhattan: 1988-1990. These sections map Dlugos’s development as a poet, according to Trinidad, from “youthful romantic, burgeoning artist, urbane New Yorker, vigorous supplicant,” respectively.
It is impossible to reduce these poems in such a way to generalize about a “Dlugos poem” because of the range and variety of the work. These poems are culturally literate, evidence of someone who actively engaged meaningfully with the world around him and attracted groups of friends and lovers with relative ease. He writes litanies amazingly well, has lines that run from margin to margin, poems that run pages and pages, but also employs short, exacting lines, stanzas, and poems as well. The emotional responses these poems elicit range from the laugh-out-loud to heart-rending; they appeal to the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of our experiences. The directness with which he appeals to his audience is refreshing. Take this simple poem from the third section.
deadlines long past
all that I’ve been
in love with a boy
The clarity and directness that eschew the overly poetic ring true and vulnerable. A similar poem, which both explains and illustrates his desire for clarity:
I want my writing to be
like Christopher Isherwood:
clear as his eyes
and short as his height.
That desire for clarity, which he often achieves, engenders closeness to his audience; the intimacy with the reader that he builds and builds throughout these poems makes the heartbreak of the final poems even more stunning and even more beautiful.
On October 23, 1989, Dlugos was admitted to G-9, the AIDS ward, at Roosevelt Hospital (he had been admitted to this same place a few months prior). During this month-long stay, he wrote “G-9” as well as the title poem of the selected poems, Powerless, that Trinidad released in the 90s. “G-9” is an unforgettable tour-de-force, a single column of verse that runs for 18 pages in this edition. We see Dlugos, surrounded by death, elegize his friends he’s lost and those he’s losing. He speaks frankly of KS, I.V.s, and AZT, offering a glimpse into the rituals of trying to stay alive. Additionally, he chronicles the support of his friends, while stitching together stories he wants to remember and those he thinks should be remembered. As he considers the loss of so many stories with the loss of so many friends, he tells a hilarious one:
remember Bobby’s stories
about driving in his debutante
date’s father’s white Mercedes
from hole to hole of the golf course
at the poshest country club
in Birmingham at 3 a.m.,
or taking off his clothes
in a redneck bar on a dare,
or working on Stay Hungry
as the dresser of a then-
unknown named Schwarzenegger.
Who will be around to anthologize…
When I pass,
who’ll remember, who will care
about these joys and wonders?
This is a poem that lets everything in: it’s generous and welcoming and, in many ways, doing the work of remembering the “joys and wonders” that would otherwise be lost. Appropriately, this poem features drag names, John Calvin, Charlie Chaplin, Divorce Court, performance poets, Zovirax, Jamaican hipsters, Tara (goddess, not plantation), nurses, and priests. It’s a poem fueled by parataxis, things coordinating together to build this plenitude of memory—personal and communal. He writes all of this, knowing full-well that his end draws nearer: “There may come a time when / I’m unable to respond with words, / or works, or gratitude to AIDS.” Of course, these things, which, in the world of possibilities could fade away, are ever-present in “G-9” and all of the poems he writes while his body is under siege.
As “G-9” spirals on, Dlugos’s lover, Christopher Wiss—”my last lover, my first/ healthy and enduring relationship/ in sobriety”—comes into his room. He claims, directly, “This is the hardest/ and happiest moment/ of the day. G-9/ is no place to affirm/ a relationship.” In this place where so many men are dying, essentially, for loving, Dlugos depicts a loving relationship, difficult though it may be. They embrace each other; then Dlugos shifts into an earnest prayer:
Let him hold on, please
don’t let him lose his
willingness to stick with me,
to make love and to make
love work, to extend
the happiness we’ve shared.
Then, he imagines his death in such a way that he affirms his life, mentioning the “unexpected love/ and gentleness that rushes in/ to fill the arid spaces.” Even in a dismal place that is a constant reminder of the brevity of life and the intensity of its struggles, Dlugos’s sense of wonder and gratitude remain forceful, perhaps indicative of his fully embraced faith. He says of his “best work,” “I am ‘successful’ when the language (clean combination of words) takes me or someone else back to the original combination of feelings and perceptions.” By his own standards, by any standards, “G-9” and these final poems transcend the binary of success-failure. The clarity of this work, the honesty that suffuses it, harrows the heart; we are grateful and, hopefully, wiser for it.
A FAST LIFE: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TIM DLUGOS
Edited by David Trinidad
Paperback, 9780984459834, 632pp