November 1, 2019KR Reviews

On Doomstead Days by Brian Teare

New York, NY: Nightboat Books, 2019. 176 pages. $17.95.

I walk out of my house after reading Brian Teare’s sixth full-length collection, Doomstead Days, and see them everywhere—rainbow slicks on the road. Newly aware: that my seeing the slicks does not make them new, for they were already real, apart from my perceptions of them. How can it be that the happy-go-lucky rainbow, of day care signage and Elizabeth Bishop’s canonical fish poem, is what the pollutant puddle flags? They are—yes—beautiful, but beautiful oil spilled. The poem “Clear Water Renga” draws in part from Teare’s visits to oiled beaches. It makes me think: when is the last time I travelled to look, as a poet, there—“put [my]self in the open” as Charles Olson wrote. When I close the browser tab, the seabird still “preens its greased wings helplessly, / the ordinary // gesture gently carrying / toxins from feather to beak.” Images unfold one after another as birds, fish, water, and land absorb oil to deleterious ends, and Teare renders the reality of it in vivid detail. For example, how a cleanup crew tries to clean oil from wildlife with a children’s toothbrush. “I couldn’t get over it, // how the real couldn’t / refuse,” he writes.

Doomstead Days is written in eight sections: “Clear Water Renga,” “Headlands Quadrats,” “Toxics Release Inventory,” “Sitting River Meditation,” “Convince me you have a seed there,” “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian,” “Sitting Isohydric Meditation,” and “Doomstead Days.” A range of principles arrange the extended lyrics, from the renga, alternating three- and two-line stanzas, to the “Headlands Quadrats” blocks of text floated in the middle of the page, drawing from the ecology and geography practice to isolate and study small rectangular plots as samples. “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian” is written in three-line stanzas, with six syllables to each line; “Sitting Isohydric Meditation” is couplets, five syllables per line. Subject matter of human and landscape follows Teare’s fourth book Companion Grasses, but the work also builds on the involvements of Teare’s most recent, The Empty Form Goes All The Way To Heaven, which mapped questions of illness, shape, perception, and porousness onto visual artist Agnes Martin’s grids and writings.

Here, Teare puts queer mortality and the environmental crisis in the same song; a formal feeling contends with risk and loss. Instinctual acts at the edges of each others’ edges can infect, cause disaster, “the toxins piggybacking / on reproduction to turn // life against itself :: .” It is not the speaker’s first time living during and beyond an end: “I’ve kept track of // other disasters,” he writes in “Clear Water Renga,” and I’m reminded, yes, of Bishop, and also of Teare’s earlier book Pleasure, elegies tracking the loss of a lover (AIDS) and the fall from erotic joy to aloneness. How rude it is that disaster spreads through gratification of pleasure. These poems wonder about sexuality and gender, image and the real, touch and barriers, in the face of global climate change.

But who has the attention span for slow violence, what Rob Nixon has called “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight”? Clickbait hooks my lip, but Teare’s extended lyrics reel me by the ear:

                                        I touch through rhythm,
            notebook open as I walk,
                                                         stride inflecting script.

They resist the instantaneous, the spectacular flash, in favor of that rarer labor of sustaining a song. Teare confronts the ecological crisis of our time, but he also models textual pleasure. Each syllable, line, and stanza leaps to the next, building an interconnected lyrical mesh, flexible and dense.

In these poems, nature is relentlessly real, porous, subject to consequences of human action and inaction. An iceberg melting is not even a generation of gay men dying, or vice versa. They are each their own different calamity, real as oil-slicked birds and piss steaming in a cup: “yes, I was thinking / we live without a future :: / that’s what’s queer.” I came up on José Esteban Muñoz’s idea that the future is queerness’s domain, but Teare’s steady breath is enough to call me back to the present. Over and over, the speaker “walk[s] on” and “walk[s] out,” evoking both A.R. Ammons’s poetics (“tomorrow a new walk is a new walk”) and the feeling of a general strike. The breath of these poems is the breath of labored walking, meditation, penetration, and the breath required to sustain a song. And Doomstead Days is all of these things.

Walking through the field of the real, we’re reminded,

my body’s a conduit.
. . .
all of my fluids
pollutants cycling
back into my own
watershed toxins
& heavy metals
bonded to blood

The breath, also, is literal and real, subject to human action and inaction, even as it passes from the heart to the syllable. On exhale, we release, sure, a poem, and also greenhouse gas. What does it mean that the same breath which dreamily powers our poems, songs, walks, and sex, is polluted with carcinogens such as paint fumes, tobacco smoke, auto exhaust, and other toxins? In his essay “Textual Preference” (Harriet), Teare wrote that he “need[s] to feel the impress of the poet’s touch on each syllable of the poem—that is the site of bliss for me as a reader.” The care and attention to each syllable of Doomstead Days is a source of pleasure for the reader. Syllables land as droplets. Breath after all is still a shared erotic possibility. Even as Teare builds an ethic of apocalypse, he also builds an erotic of it. And who isn’t compelled by the edges of danger and desire—where those fields meet?

I keep thinking about
the man who asks me
to visit his doomstead
which seems kinky
for a first date

Doomsteads or poems, we arrange built structures to reckon with loss. Some hermetic dwellings, invitation only. Others are for whoever finds it. The speaker declines the invitation to visit the doomstead. Fantasy of self-containment is just that. Why rush to a lonely end? Come back to the real, is what I hear. Come down out of your barn door mind and look around.

the world is awake
be careful my dears
it is the gender
that remembers

I’ve read and re-read those final lines. The slant of “gender” and “remembers” soothes me even as my brain scrambles to understand the warning. The ambiguous referent of “it” produces such friction in my mind. Here, “it” is the world, but earlier in the poem, the Anthropocene was a gender. Like every other syllable, I know “it” was touched. I guess there are no take-backs, and I see there are no shortcuts. How do we live among the wreckage of what’s been spilled? Syllables hum with the felt sense of the poet, whose sweat wets the notebook as he walks. Teare has composed lyrics as formally meticulous and sonically aware as they are expansive, pleasurable, and unforgettable.