August 23, 2019KR Reviews

On In the Time of PrEP by Jacques J. Rancourt

Windham, ME: Beloit Poetry Journal, 2018. 36 pages. $12.00.

In 2012, the FDA approved the use of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, a daily pill that reduces the chance of HIV infection for at-risk populations. The pill revolutionized preventative healthcare for the LGBTQ community, but it also altered the way queer people think about, talk about, and even partake in sex. Jacques J. Rancourt’s chapbook, In the Time of PrEP, examines some of the nuanced interpersonal and cultural effects of the groundbreaking treatment. In particular, he explores how the queer community is now loosely made up of two distinct generations: those who have been spared the (immediate) trauma of the HIV/AIDS related-deaths in America in the ’80s and ’90s, and those who have survived it. This foggy territory—the space between worlds, really—is where Rancourt’s collection takes up residence.

The poems are prefaced with an epigraph from Jose Esteban Muñoz’s queer theory text Cruising Utopia. It reads: “My approach to hope . . . can best be described as a backward glance that enacts a future vision.” Like Muñoz, Rancourt’s poems are interested in building a collection that is cognizant of an individual and collective history of queerness—and uses lyric, documentarian, and personal narrative as devices. In “At the Place of Bathhouses,” Rancourt weaves these approaches together. “Who would I have been back then?” the speaker asks, while rendering the bathhouse’s gritty characteristics in the mystical past-tense. But the focus jumps forward: “Thirty years later, / a  man who lived on the other side of catastrophe / tells me he worries over everyone / he fucked.” The poem, and the men that populate it, could be thought of as living along two timelines. “Lust’s fog lifts in 1987 or 2017,” Rancourt writes, as if the men of the present are reincarnations of the men of the past. And, likewise, the man’s expression of fear takes on a sort of residuality: “Nothing has ended; what happened before / will happen again—the fog belt will roll in with the chill / of the dead. . . . ” The fog, like trauma, can both roll in and dissipate—but the elements that allow it to manifest are always present.

In the collection’s title poem, Rancourt imagines two young Berkeley students “taking each other raw.” “They are learning,” he writes, “as If they alone are discovering / something new, as if none of this / ever happened.” In contrast, the speaker’s knowingness wades heavily through these poems. Later, in “Golden Gate Park”—a common location for cruising in San Francisco, the speaker “know[s] / not to make eye contact, / not to stop.” But he does. There is a conflict always, between desire and fear, and our speaker is translocated to his youth where “the past still persists / sinister as a forest,” where men are killed for their queerness. This conflict is not only of queerness, but also of faith. “I try to unlearn / the language of back then . . . ,” Rancourt writes, evoking both the speaker’s religious upbringing—the collection employs a variety of religious symbols including Eve, Noah, and Jacob—and his early memories of the evening news where “homosexuals unstitched / their skeletons.” This learning and unlearning, the space between “paw[ing] over what / we already know,” and “insist[ing] / Deeper without / an edge of fear,” fortifies the anxious theatre where our speaker stages his attempt at transcendence. Is it possible to be both knowing and faithful, careful yet liberated?

On multiple occasions, the collection suggests if it were possible, it would exist in San Francisco. But even as the speaker attempts to idealize this “holy city,” he cannot ignore the visible marks of history. In “The Wake,” Rancourt makes poignant use of the period to embody the way HIV/AIDS has punctuated the city:

What seemed necessarily bleak became.
Two wet cormorants filling the branch of one tree.
More than just wading birds, more than just.
A lake, a dark scar at the center of my city.

The birds seem to fill a space that vibrates with its own emptiness—a metaphorical departure of people, leaving everything in their wake soaked with the memory of their having-been-ness. Rancourt goes on to make the poem’s essential turn toward the untranscendable reality of the situation, that is, the impossibility of a full comprehension of the city’s loss, while maintaining an acute awareness of that loss being part of the landscape. The poem goes on:

When I checked the records I was relieved.
That no one shared exactly my name.
That migration might mean the birds won’t.
Come back. That six hundred thirty-six.
Thousand of us died & I did not.
Know a single one.

The final lines hit hard, exemplifying the effectiveness of the formal approach. “The Wake”—to my mind, one of strongest of the collection—highlights the nuanced perspective from which these poems are written: as a non-participating participant; an observer, once-removed, attempting to come to terms with the history that informs the city he now inhabits. But he does not inhabit that space alone.

One of the recurring figures in the collection is the speaker’s decade-older partner—an endearing, scientific type who gets excited by light particles. But more important than his particularly charming qualities is the role he plays in Rancourt’s contemplation of what love looks like and requires in “the easy century,” where “our T-cells dot / the airstrips of our veins.” Because of their generational difference, the speaker wonders what their relationship might have looked like in an earlier time: “Would I / have kept by your side, faithful // as night, while you dwindled / into bedsheets?”

The questions of faith Rancourt presents throughout the collection are, then, not merely in relationship to God, or a higher power, but flesh-bound belief in love, friendship, community. In “Golden Gate Park,” the speaker walks the AIDS memorial, thinking about “the man who hydrated / his partner by offering / him ice chips with his / mouth,” whereas earlier in “Near the Sheep Gate,” the speaker acknowledges that “faith was a place / I lived inside / myself.” It seems that, as the collection progresses, this faith becomes more tangible and forward-looking, less bound by time and space.

This bound/unbound dichotomy is demonstrated—not only metaphorically, but literally—in “Tonight I Hang Suspended,” where “two men take turns” on our speaker, “while his husband watches from the door.” Afterwards, he “swallow[s] a pill / that blacks out the past from reoccurring.” The speaker exudes a kind of visceral sexual liberation that also demonstrates a vulnerability and honesty that the collection sometimes lacks elsewhere. Here, the imagery and the thematic concerns come together to paint such a vivid portrait of how the past and future meet—how the sexual liberation we imagine to be of the past plays out again, but with the security of PrEP treatment, takes on a new life. One where legal husbands can both partake in all kinds of love as they see fit (enacting a future vision), while still remembering and honoring the past (backward glance).

In the final poem of the collection, this play of temporal voyeurism comes to its appropriate conclusion. In the bathhouse, our speaker remarks on an observable segregation—“the ones who remember,” and the ones who “came out after.” Men soak, and lean, and lie in wait, but it is the unexpected voyeurism of our speaker—who watches the older men, rather than the younger—as they share a kind of intimacy that seems unreachable: “They lean their heads against / each other as water falls in pearls / from their soft arms, half / in this world, half in another.”

In describing these men who straddle worlds, we can plainly see Rancourt’s own preoccupation with the intersection of past and present. The various anxieties that drive the collection—fear, faith, desire—are all bound by these pre- and post-epidemic worlds. In the Time of PrEP strives to be—and, at its best, gives a glimpse at—how we transcend these temporal, experiential, and traumatic realms between generations to get at something if not quite utopian, then perhaps sacred.

Daniel T. O’Brien is a poet from New York. His critical and creative work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Foundry, and Vinyl.