Jim Cory

The Posthumous Publication of Karl Tierney's Castro Poems, 1983-95

Review of Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney

“I’ve a knack for attracting the supercritical like flies,” Karl Tierney writes in his poem “Vanity.” Perhaps so, but there’s no reason to be supercritical of these poems—called “The Castro Poems”—compiled by editor Jim Cory as Have You Seen This Man? and published, at long last, by Sibling Rivalry Press as #2 in their Arkansas Queer Poet Series.

The press is based in Arkansas, where Tierney, who originated in Westfield, CT, earned his MFA at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; the poet found his voice, his métier, perhaps even his raison d’être, in the Castro section of San Francisco, where he moved in 1983. As Cory writes in his useful introduction: “Starting in the mid-‘70s, thousands of gay men . . . moved to that corner of San Francisco at the far west end of Market Street” and created a “vibrant ‘out’ enclave, with its own politics, institutions, media and vibe.” The milieu became vulnerable to the scourge of Aids throughout the period Tierney lived there. Tierney became the area’s fascinated, fascinating scribe.

 The streets clog with the usual Leftist litter,
sidewalks with shorts, sunglasses, the smell of pomade,
sewers with the beady-eyed scurry of plague.
Still what’s left is most attractive to me,
which means I’m horny, which is most dangerous
these days, in this era of No One’s Choosing.

“June 21, 1989”

In poem after poem, Tierney shows off his knack for pithy, aphoristic asides, but he also gets at the brittle feelings below the surface—“The character’s revealed, smoking after each kill” (“Bed Making”). His is a world where seductive appearance is almost everything but where morning-after regret inevitably kicks in—“It’s all a chore and less than uplifting” (“Act of God”). We hear the suppressed despair under the irony in his view of his peers—“Still, isn’t leaving your sexual fantasies on answering machines / these days more desperate than the traditional lavatory walls?” (“Café Hairdo”)—and see the poet wink at his coping mechanisms: “But when I feel like writing fiction, / I just take a nap” (“Suicide of a Video Head”). Tierney’s trenchant commentary is the stuff of poetry because only poems can be so elliptical, able to veer from wry to melancholic—"I slip into something more comfortable. / Then the real discomfort begins” (“Dating in a Thinning Field”)—and from acrid to sweet in the same verse: “You cost twenty bucks and lie and cheat / and have the most darling feet” (“White Trash”).

Tierney ended his life in October 1995 after living for a time as what Cory calls “actively AIDS symptomatic” and being denied entry into a trial program for protease inhibitors. (As Cory reminds us, the diagnosis “positive” was a death sentence at the time, with a life expectancy of, at best, a year and a half with horrible symptoms.) The book takes its title from fliers bearing Tierney’s image posted in the San Francisco area after his disappearance. When Tierney’s family members listened to his phone’s voice messages they found—in one of life’s appalling ironies—one from his doctor saying that a mistake had occurred and that he would be able to begin the treatment after all. Sadly, Tierney had, it seems, already jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Fortunately, shortly before that he had had the good sense to enlist Cory to be his literary executor. Honoring that request has led to the publication of this always engaging volume. And one can’t really better Cory’s pronouncement on Tierney’s verse: ‘It’s frank rather than confessional, since confession is a sentimental manipulation of frankness.” Tierney, even with us knowing his tragic end, is not a poet of sentimentality enlisting us to feel sorry. The frankness is the frankness of the need for pleasure, for thrills—which may come from risk, from sexual excitement, or from being an eye and an ear on a scene—and for truth, no matter how grim.

The book is not unlike a time capsule: we see and hear and feel the times as Tierney lives through them. The sense of a diary or journal, recording what Tierney found worth noting, is aided by the fact that the volume follows his poems in chronological order, and each is dated by month, day, year, from his first Castro poem, “Dressing,” October 29, 1983 to his last, “Poem for Neil,” May 13, 1995: “The poem’s for you. / I’m not.” Those familiar with the Castro area at the time may encounter people they will recognize. But even someone like myself—a few years Tierney’s junior who never set foot in his beloved city—can find in the book’s movement through time a way of reliving the spectacle as the lumbering self-satisfaction of U.S. culture frays and flakes, relishing potshots at “Jackie O.,” Madonna (“Female Impersonator”), Elizabeth Dole (“My Alma Mater Honors a Whore of the Republic”), and “talentless pretty- / boy actors who become Presidents after losing their looks” (“Boundary”).

As Cory discusses, Tierney’s manner at times puts the reader in mind—easily—of Frank O’Hara (to whom Tierney dedicates the poem “Arkansas Landscape: Wish You Were Here”) and, a bit more uneasily, of Catullus (whom Tierney invokes in the poem “Whore”). Tierney often aims at and mostly hits the kind of immediacy O’Hara achieved so memorably, a feeling that the poet is simply confiding poetic thoughts, bon mots, aperçus, and, yes, catty jibes in a verse that seems almost artless in its ability to move from thought to thought, regarding the world with just the right detachment and engagement. As we read, we come to know the poet as a personality and, while we might not wish to be the object of his acerbic attention, we appreciate a wit that is always equal to the occasion, such as recalling Nixon’s departure: “three guards roll up the red carpet / as if we’d never invited him into the palace / in the first place” (“Caligula or Nixon Leaving”).

The nod to Rome brings us to Catullus, and Tierney has always an eye for excesses and lapses in taste that bequeath to those high-rolling “end of history” times a certain imperial sheen: “The prosperous proletariat anxious to pump itself / into the bourgeois logjam of more upon more” (“Salò at the Castro”). In Cory’s words, “As with the Roman poet, ardor and spite, sometimes combined (‘Litany on a Perfect Ass’), animate the text.” The spite is never simply grand-standing, and the ardor keeps the poet in the game, both in the sense of seeking for something less ephemeral and of exercising his instinctive sensibility. A poem like “Import, Export”—from 1993—shows Tierney in mature form: thoughtful and insightful, irked by the trends and tendencies as “gays” become a cultural identity—“As sophisticates in matters of theater, a perfect find / in its adopted habitat! Voting, tax-paying, well-adjusted.” His keen eye veers around the available diversions, smirks at Germans and Romans, dials up Tennessee Williams’ Cat, and ends with—perhaps nodding to a flashback of Allen Ginsberg—a supermarket in San Francisco: “You squeeze soggy New Zealand melons and, / for some sort of fruit, settle for California prunes.”

Occasionally, Tierney can be called mannered in his assumption of a viewpoint that is both in and out of the scene, a perspective that amplifies, exaggerates or diminishes the flattened affect of the tawdry media with a certain baroque charm. It might be hard for those who didn’t have the buzz of the long march from Ronnie to Newt piped into their ears directly to hear Tierney aright. The chat surrounding these poems is drenched in the media-awareness of local publications, and radio and television, letting the cultural bonhomie of the gay community flirt with the anomie of the disenfranchised: “I have to have these ‘I have’ issues no one gives a damn about” (“The Trees Are Wrong: A Nature Poem”)—think how easily that statement could be multiplied into a movement today! (Brandishing exclamation marks with arch abandon is a Tierney tic—and it’s mostly earned.)

The overall impression won from this volume is of true-to-life sketches, sprung from apt occasions, and delivered with devilish aplomb. It’s a fine addition to whatever you think you know about gay poetry, San Francisco, the gay lifestyle during Aids, or life in general during Reagan/Bush. “O generation drunken and blind!” (“Whore, after Catullus”)—this one’s for you.

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Have You Seen This Man?
The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney
Jim Cory, editor
Sibling Rivalry Press
Arkansas Queer Poet Series #2
Paperback, 129 pages

available for order here

Karl Tierney was born in 1956 and grew up in Connecticut and Louisiana. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University in 1980 and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas in 1983. That same year, he moved to San Francisco where he dedicated himself to poetry. He was twice a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and a 1992 fellow at Yaddo. He published more than 50 poems in magazines and anthologies in his lifetime, including American Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review and Exquisite Corpse. In December of 1994 he became sick with AIDS and took his own life in October of 1995. He was 39 years old.

Jim Cory’s most recent publications are Wipers Float In The Neck Of The Reservoir (The Moron Channel, 2018) and 25 Short Poems (Moonstone Press, 2016). He has edited poetry selections by contemporary American poets including James Broughton (Packing Up for Paradise, Black Sparrow Press, 1998) and Jonathan Williams (Jubilant Thicket, Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Poems have appeared recently in Apiaryunarmed journalBedfellowsCape Cod Poetry JournalCapsuleFell SwoopPainted Bride QuarterlySkidrow PenthouseTrinity ReviewHave Your Chill (Australia), and Whirlwind. Recent essays have appeared in Gay & Lesbian Review WorldwideNew Haven Review, and Chelsea Station. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. He lives in Philadelphia. Cory will read from Have You Seen This Man? on Saturday, October 12, at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia at 7 p.m.

Why Am I Naked?

Review of Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems by Bill Kushner

If you happen to have a kooky old Jewish uncle who’s also a kind of poetic savant sitting around on park benches in NYC taking things in, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the poems of the late Bill Kushner. Kushner’s a genial nonconformist by temperament and Wake Me When It’s Over, Peter Bushyeager’s excellent selection drawn from the poet’s eight books, offers the seductive charm of childish candor without any of the obvious calculation so often implicit in ‘confessional’ poetry.

Kushner’s free and easy lines blithely mix questions and statements, generalities and specifics, to get at a thought the reader never sees coming:

                                                 …The trouble is
          One can understand passion, any form of it, more
          Readily than affection.

In a poem called “Goodbye,” the speaker watches “two friends who’re men who’re lovers kiss.” The casual act fascinates, prompting a meditation on the poet’s own status as a single person. What they have, he doesn’t, and he compares his status as a single person to being the first guest to arrive at a party: “...am I that/ Most awful of beings: The First One?”

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From the book’s opening poem, “Night Fishing,” (“Why are you crying, he asks, as the sun/like a hungry shark follows us home.”) you know you’re reading a highly original writer averse to falsehood or convention. The point of his personal and streetwise poetry is not to spill secrets but to give us life as it’s lived, without filter, as in for instance the poem “Bread,” when he recalls his father suddenly entering the room where he’s in bed with another guy (“He looked and his face just went dead.”). These narratives are variously ecstatic, funny, bewildering, fearful and above all replete with disappointments that must somehow be negotiated without losing heart.

Kushner the writer never pulls rank on his reader by telling us what to think about what he describes, which is often what he remembers about his relationship with his parents. The level of insight is sometimes chilling, and it’s the poet’s deft handling of words that enables him to pull it off, again and again. On reading the poems you may wonder how anyone ever manages to grow up.

In “My Father’s Death,” three lines say everything:

          I am in this world only because
          the first son died. He wanted a son.
          So they tried again.

But the perspective Kushner brings to this subject is never demeaning. On the contrary, these parental poems exude an affection and remorse the reader can feel. Compare these lines to the most famous lines in Philip Larkin’s most notorious poem, about how  “they fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.” Kushner recalls his Russian immigrant parents in a way that thoroughly humanizes them, rather than simplifying them into authority figures. Four of his books were dedicated to his parents, either as a couple or individually.

In falling back on memories of childhood, Kushner gives us its grim moments of emotional denial and enervating guilt along with something other poets of family dysfunction often forget: the image of the boy inexplicably bursting with so much love he can scarcely contain it. “My restless bed awake/with it, love,” he remembers, in the extraordinary poem, “When I Was Five.” Many poets mine the fears and fantasies of childhood but how many also conjure its almost embarrassing exuberance? No wonder adulthood turns out to be bewildering for this poet, and his life’s point unknowable or non-existent. Kushner often sounds like a 12-year old kid in an old man’s body yacking to his friends—us, his readers.

My guess is these poems would irritate many creative writing teachers and bring grad school writing workshops to blows. Kushner takes chances most poets wouldn’t. For instance, the first stanza of a poem with a date for a title (“5/9/87”) recollects the so, so serious sexual scolding delivered to the poet by a now-deceased friend (“Bill, I don’t understand you…”), while the second stanza describes the movies on TV that night. On first reading it’s funny. Read a second time it comes through as a reflection on fate as chance and the beguiling craziness of popular culture.

The spontaneity of Kushner’s poems completely convinces. They mix memory, dream, desire, anecdote and reflection, sometimes in the same stanza, and are propelled by the generous wisdom that comes through in the how they read, sound, are structured, and in the effects of the poet’s voice which is often hilarious (example, “UFOs,” which begins: “They come from outer space/dressed as cornfields.”). At moments Kushner seems to be talking to himself (“Narrowly avoiding gulp just about everything…”) with that bruised and lyric honesty one part of the mind uses to address another. Many poems describe, in memorable ways, the seeking, finding and losing of love, as for instance in the poem “Lee Wiley,” where the speaker goes home with someone who worships the jazz singer popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s and instead of having sex they stay up all night listening to platter after platter.

Reading Kushner sometimes feels like watching a Warhol movie. The aesthetic arises out of social awkwardness, rendered here as comedic. The poet says exactly what he feels, as for instance about a pain-in-the-ass little dog: “Sometimes I just want to kill my naughty chiwawa/but I love my little Chi Chi too much.” His dream poems prove that the rampant absurdity that takes place while we sleep is indistinguishable from what goes on in “this spinning wheel world” when we’re awake.

Never having met him, my guess would be that reading this wholly unfiltered book is pretty much like hanging out with Kushner, not only because the poems are “Written by someone who knows all about True Life” (“Pigeon”) but because of the directness and authenticity of the speaking voice. The poems change line length and form over the years, but the tone remains a constant. Kushner can be downright erotic when writing on sex (in sonnets such as “Rock” or “Hot,”), or fiercely tender on the topic of friends, parents, and other relationships.

Dull poetry can bore like no other form of literature. Great poetry, on the other hand, can electrify, which is why, like music, we return to it often. Kushner’s poems will not only light you up on a first read but also justify a permanent presence on the bookshelf. These sad, spirited, crazy and tender constructions show us a different way to look at life, and remind us not to take it too seriously. “It’s just one/old lazy day after another,” the poet writes in “We Make Plans. “…here at the/far far end of the world.”

Bill Kushner just telling it like it is makes for a poetry of strange, lyric beauty.


Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems
By Bill Kushner
Edited by Peter Bushyeager
Talisman House, 2018
162 pgs.

Available here.

Bill Kushner (1931-2015) authored eight collections of poetry and co-authored a volume of collaborative poems with Tom Savage. His work has been anthologized in Up Late (4 Walls & Windows, 1987), In Our Time: The Gay and Lesbian Anthology (St. Martin's, 1989), Out of This World (Crown, 1991), Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner’s, 2002), and Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets (Melville House Publishing, 2003). He was a 1999 and 2005 Fellow of the New York Foundation of the Arts.