May 25, 2012

Review by Ellen Miller-MackA Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos

A FAST LIFE: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TIM DLUGOS
edited by David Trinidad

Nightboat Books
P.O. Box 10
Callicoon, NY 12723
ISBN 978-0-98445-983-4
2011, 632 pp., $22.95
www.nightboat.org

G-9

I’m at a double wake
in Springfield, for a childhood
friend and his father
who died years ago. I join
my aunt in the queue of mourners
and walk into a brown study,
a sepia room with books
and magazines. The father’s
in a coffin; he looks exhumed,
the worse for wear. But where
my friend’s remains should be
there’s just the empty base
of an urn. Where are his ashes?
His mother hands me
a paper cup with pills:
leucovorin, Zovirax,
and AZT. “Henry
wanted you to have these,”
she sneers. “Take all
you want, for all the good
they’ll do.”

A major poem of the AIDS epidemic begins with this dream. Many of us still dream funerals of those who died from the virus in the 80s and 90s. I was a primary care provider for people with HIV in the 90s. Until 1996 (when a class of antivirals called protease inhibitors began to transform HIV into a chronic disease) virtually everyone with HIV died. To see people ravaged and killed by this disease was devastating, coupled with an overwhelming glimpse of the incomprehensible magnitude of grief brought on by the epidemic. Indeed, the medications Dlugos lists in “G-9” were hopelessly limited.

As Dlugos’s dream is interrupted by a nurse’s aide, we discover that he is in the AIDS ward of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The poem is 18 pages long, slim and clinging to the left margin, without stanza breaks, alive with a bright spiritual aura and a cast of characters (other patients, cultural figures, Dlugos’s friends and former lovers) and sickness. “In 1992, a wooden lectern with brass plate commemoration to Tim Dlugos was installed in the patient lounge on the G-9 (AIDS) ward at Roosevelt Hospital, and copies of TD’s “G-9” were made available to patients and visitors” (from David Trinidad’s notes).

I feel like I knew Tim Dlugos–or is it my emotional response to his poetry, resonating with the love I felt for so many young gay men I knew? He was born in Springfield, where I still work at a community health center. He spent his childhood in the neighboring suburb of East Longmeadow. The phases of his life include: born in 1950, a “Leave it to Beaver” childhood (as he described it) with adoptive parents, joining the Christian Brothers after high school and attending LaSalle College in Philadelphia, anti-war activism, writing poetry (1970), coming out (1971), leaving the Christian Brothers, moving to D.C., moving to New York City, getting sober (1984), testing positive for HIV (1987), dying in 1990 at age 40. The chronology created by David Trinidad at the beginning of the book is rich with details of a writing life.

As Trinidad recounts in the preface, Tim asked him the week before he died at Roosevelt Hospital, on December 3rd 1990, to “look after his work.” Trinidad subsequently received “4 or 5 boxes” of work, including 2 unpublished manuscripts and 600 poems written over 20 years. Trinidad chronologically catalogued 579 poems, typing each one himself, ultimately choosing the ones he felt were the most accomplished for this “collected” as opposed to “complete” volume.

Had I not been introduced to “G-9” and Tim Dlugos by my poet-mentor Joan Larkin in 2008, I would have encountered him in The American Poetry Review, July/August 2010 issue, along with many other readers. “It Used to be More Fun,” one of Dlugos’s later poems was included. It begins:

It used to be more fun to be a poet
start the day with coffee and a sense
of bowling over people in public space
with words that tell how I’m bowled over
this minute by the light

…and later comments on political poetry (its limitations), what he did not appreciate in the poetry world, as well as:

I liked what poetry could do
to street life, even and especially
when it came from the streets I liked
the poise and energy and grace
of black poets and gay poets and Dadaists
and unschooled natural artists
fell into the workshops through the open doors
“Last Letter”, so tender and sweet (1972), begins:
This will be the last time I set down
in writing a request for your watery
gaze. I want it to be there, mostly;
not to set it on my dresser next to
the cactus and the telephone, nor to save it
for the year you will spend in the mountains.

Dlugos could write a masterful litany or list poem. Amongst my favorites are “East Longmeadow,” “Sometimes I Think” (which is very funny), “Music That Makes me Cry” and most especially, “I Remember Spinner.” And he could rhyme and write perfect sonnets with the best of them.

Dlugos wrote moving elegies, like “Radiant Child” for Keith Haring, an ingenious and loving poem using imagery that successfully conjures the artist. He wrote poems for his friends, like “Your New House” for poet Eileen Myles which he recited at her 40th birthday party. She, in turn, read, along with many other poet friends, at his memorial service on February 3rd, 1991 at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.

What is this beautiful and brilliant body of poetry about? In what you could call Dlugos’s manifesto–“About My Work” dated April 10th 1975–item number one is: “I try to write out of the time and space I find myself in.” It is such a joy to read these poems which chronicle a time and a number of places most vividly, but mostly there’s the pleasure of reading artful poems that embrace you with love and deep feeling. In ‘King of the Wood,” a long acrostic poem, the “N” section ends:

As the planet warms, I heat
coffee for the ten-thousandth time.
words alas, aren’t music. I’m
glad to be here all the same.

Thank you for being here, Tim Dlugos, and thank you, David Trinidad for compiling (and weeping, typing, gathering; all you did) A Fast Life.

Ellen Miller-Mack has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University. Her poems and reviews have appeared in 5A.M., Affilia, Bookslut and the Valparaiso Poetry Review. She co-authored The Real Cost of Prisons Comix ( PM Press) and is a nurse practitioner at a community health center in Springfield , Massachusetts. She can be contacted at: ellenmiller-mack@comcast.net.