So I was moving some books around during part of this reorganization process, and I was reminded that there is another precursor and inspiration for the ongoing Letters-form poem series. I had first read and absorbed this book of poems some years ago, and it was not in the forefront of my mind when I began the current poem series last year. But I can see the similarities, now, the possibility of a subconscious influence. And I welcome that, I don't reject it, because it seems both natural and fitting. The parallels seem powerfully resonant to me, at this moment.
Paul Monette: Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988) First edition hardcover.
Paul Monette's Elegies for his lover, Roger Horwitz, lost to AIDS, are searing. They burn with white heat, bright fire. They are overwhelmed with grief, longing, anger, pain, intensity, beauty. They are one of the best poem-cycles depicting the grief of an entire generation of men lost to AIDS. Grief for the lost, survivor's guilt and pain for those who go on living.
Pulling this book off my shelf, I sat down and re-read the entire book as though it were a single work. It reads very well that way; as does Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, another book of elegies in a similar form and style. Although each poet has a unique voice. Monette's style is a similar sort of moderate-length line broken regularly as though is were a prose-poem broken into lines. What propels Monette's line is where the lines end on words that almost compel you to read on; this adds up to the breathless rush.
In the book's Preface, Monette has this to say about the form of these poems:
When I began to write about AiDS during Roger's illness, I wanted a form that would move with breathless speed, so I could scream if I wanted and rattle on and empty my Uzi into the sky.
He settled on a form with no punctuation, which also adds to the propulsion. There are no stanza breaks or commas, each poem is a block of flowing text that rushes on until it ends. "Here," the first poem in the series, demonstrates this form:
everything extraneous has burned away
this is how burning fells in the fall
of the final year not like leaves in a blue
October but as if the skin were a paper lantern
full of trapped moths beating their fixed wings
and yet I can lie on this hill just above you
a foot beside where I will lie myself
soon soon and for all the wrack and blubber
feel still how we were warriors when the
merest morning sun in the garden was a
kingdom after Room 1010 war is not all
death it turns out war is what little
thing you hold in to refugeed and far from home
oh sweetie will you please forgive me this
that every time I opened a box of anything
Glad Bags One-A-Days KINGSIZE was
the worst I'd think will you still be here
when the box is empty Rog Rog who will
play boy with me now that I bucket with tears
through it all when I'd cling beside you sobbing
you'd shrug it off with the quietest I'm still
here I have your watch in the top drawer
which I don't dare wear yet help me please
the boxes grocery home day after day
the junk that keeps men spotless but it doesn't
matter now how long they last or I
the day has taken you with it and all
there is now is burning dark the only green
is up by the grass and this little thing
of telling the hill I'm here on I'm here
I love where he breaks the line in places that almost forces you to go to the next line. This is not where most poets would break, as it is not always a natural pause for breath. Lots of boring poetry has predictable line-breaks, where you'd expect a thought to be broken, or a pause for breath to be inserted. These Elegies break all those "rules."
I've used this technique in some of my own poems. It's a thrilling technique. I feel this breathless rushing, this forward momentum, this propulsion in my own Letters poems, although more like Harrison's form I use sentences and punctuation. There are sentence fragments, but they're punctuated. My own form is more like a prose-poem with line-breaks, but I can still break the line in non-standard ways, that generates momentum.
Another poem from Love Alone can be read here: No Goodbyes.
The photo on the cover of the book has a special meaning. It is a photo of Paul and Rog together in Italy, and is the centerpiece of the last Elegy in the book, "Brother of the Mount of Olives." This is my favorite poem of the series, because it ends the book on a note of loving memory rather than rage. It heals, or starts to heal, all the turbulence that has come before. The poem begins with the discovery of the photo:
Brother of the Mount of Olives
combing the attic for anything extra
missed or missing evidence of us I sift
your oldest letters on onionskin soft-
cover Gallimard novels from graduate school
brown at the edges like pound cake and turn up
an undeveloped film race it to SUNSET
PLAZA ONE-HOUR wait out the hour wacko
as a spy smuggling a chip that might decode
World War III then sit on the curb pouring over
prints of Christmas '83 till I hit paydirt
three shots of the hermit abbey on the moors
southeast of Siena our final crisscross
of the Tuscan hills before the sack of Rome
unplanned it was just that we couldn't bear
to leave the region quite the Green Guide barely
gave it a nod minor Renaissance pile
but the real thing monks in Benedictine white
pressing olives and gliding about in hooded
silence Benedict having commanded shh
along with gaunt motto ora et labora
pray work but our particular brother John
couldn't stop chattering not fromm the moment
he met us grinning at the cloister door
seventy years olive-cheeked bald and guileless . . .
It's a sublime moment, ending when the brother from the monastery takes the portraits of the two lovers with Paul's camera. And then Paul rediscovers the photos after Rog has died, and this poem emerges. This is the genuine spirit of elegy.
Re-reading this book of Elegies reminds how powerful it is, how moving, and how much I loved it when I first encountered it. It was such a scream that it knocked me over. It's a book about life, really, not about death. Dying, pain, fury, regret, grief, all of which I can relate to—but these emotions are of the living. The dead are tranquil, mostly.