Poetry Review

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.



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.

One Man's Surface

Book Review

Poet Mark Dow, from Houston, Texas, has an ear for tricky syntax, making his sentences read with what seems a unique logic. His poems abound in embedded rhymes and echoes, creating a dense texture of effects that becomes more fascinating with each reading. And as collections of sentences, each poem—some are verse, some prose—plays with expectations, creating an individualized, highly concentrated language that can be quite beautiful, as well as philosophical, funny and, at times, baffling. As one poem states, “One man’s surface is out of another man’s depth” (p 33).

What’s going on here?, you might find yourself asking as you dip into this slim volume. It begins with a poem invoking a mother’s consoling presence and “the pity of one / who could see in another what / the other had yet to discover or forget” (“With,” p 13), then moves onto a father beating his son (“One Fell Swoop”) that contains a glimpse, by the child, of the parents having sex. It would seem we’re deep into Freudian family romance territory, a view born out late in the collection by a long prose poem—partially a narrative—called “Water and Light.” There, Mama and Daddy are joined by Handyman, a lover figure who may be an archetypal stranger, contributing an estrangement that gets taken up by the son—“He and I and she and I were a perfect mishpack until I was born” (p 46). Both mother and father tell tales of their encounter with an other—an angel, a hobo—stories that arrive as “The overheard version was handed down in a spiral of tell-and-no-telling” (p 52).

Indeed, the genius and the genesis of the tale, as we hear it, is in the telling and not telling. Dow has arrived at an elliptical manner of storytelling that compels us to receive the story as we might a dream, but a dream borne by the way sound and sense never quite mirror each other, but act more like light on a stream: “I had a story to tell but the edges were blurred. Instead was a song which your ears might have heard. The hard horizon stops short of the sky and what slipped into that gap was the I” (p 54). What’s clear is that Dow is contemplating origins—of the person of the speaker, of his poetics, and of the creation itself. This is not so tendentious as it may seem because Dow’s poetics, a combination of craft and vision, make us feel presence as a certain kind of being-in-the-world, and that world is itself a linguistic conception. In the beginning was the word, and “Water and Light” ends with the Hebrew characters for “one term for / the one considered One, / big O, a.k.a. the creator” (p 56). The story resonates as foundational myths do, as the kind of tale, metamorphosing as we read it, that one finds Joyce mining so richly in Finnegans Wake.

The key poem for Dow’s poetics in Plain Talk Rising, it seems to me, is “Between the Lines and Above the Gaze, Which is a Phrase of Mallarmé’s,” its title a good example of the way Dow plays with rhymes and patterns throughout the collection. Early in this eight and a half page poem, we encounter what struck me as a key statement: “It may be that you’re the window and the / being seen through it at once and between” (p 33). The notion that language is a mirror, able to render reality with always a degree of distortion, is almost commonplace. Language—where the eye and the I combine, fortuitously, in English—lets us contemplate a window we see through that is also us being seen through. It’s our only means of consciously “seeing” the world, “at once and between” because we know that, even if we want to believe our perceptions are nothing but a window on the world, there is something “between” us and the world—consciousness itself, or, as some philosophers and poets would prefer to say, language. Mallarmé, of course, is the supreme poet of language as game, a kind of hide-and-seek of meaning where the slightest departures from the norms of syntax create gaps and slippages that almost suggest an alternative way of seeing and saying. That too is the province of Dow’s best poems.

This is not to say that Dow is never simply a poet talking about the prosaic world we generally, or generically, live in. He can be marvelously apt at converting something real into grist for his word-mill: “In the pool in the crownshaft fifty-some-odd hard candies with tiny tongues attached are snails. Mouth is filled with teeth the tongue touches” (p 31). That short prose poem—“Double Lull”—is little more than a tone poem creating an analogue for “Middle-night rain with two voices.” The next poem, titled “Partial Inventory of Immediate Surroundings Omitted from the Preceding Poem,” gives a litany of mundane objects to let us know that, yes, Dow is aware he’s not often using language to take pictures, but then, when he does, watch out: “Wall calendar from last year / with photographs of national parks, / six or seven toilet seats, a sombrero. / Cigar boxes covered with glitter and glue. / A Wiffle ball, sunglasses, / the Los Angeles County / Driver’s Education Handbook, / mouse droppings, mouse traps, / signed pictures of ex-presidents, / pinball machine, crucifix, / small bronze Buddha, / and about a thousand cheap spoons / of every conceivable size” (p 32). Detritus, random junk? Specificity, we’re often told, is the mark of the true writer, able to banish abstractions to the void and give us “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, its box “covered with glitter and glue.”

Dow’s playfulness is often the point. His mind, it seems, tends to be alert to the kinds of linguistic conundrums that need a sharp eye to divine, but he lets that challenge buoy up his imagination rather than drive him into doldrums about meaninglessness. The poet is the one who gets to define things, after his own fashion: “For years one mind, or so I thought, it part of me, but recently, / that world complete in terms with which we’ve yet to come to terms, / secession starts, autonomy yet wholly me” (“Interim Agreement, p 17). Coming to terms with the terms one’s mind—in its autonomy which is also the “me” of the speaker (perhaps his defining characteristic)—invents? arrives at? while witnessing its “secession.” This could be something like a dissociative personality, or it could be a creative crux, a moment when one is aware that the writing has its own logic, its own way of getting at the world, creating a world with which the writer must “come to terms,” in every sense of the phrase.

And that phrase—“every sense of the phrase”—is something Dow is ever alert to. There are more senses in most statements than the speaker ever senses, and a poet like Dow is apt to find that that’s where, as Emily Dickinson might say, “the meanings are.” Perhaps the best place to end, giving you a sense of the self-consciousness that Dow mines so effectively, is “A Poem by Mark Dow.” Here, the poet looks askance at himself, not in a mea culpa way, but rather in the way we might contemplate a photo of ourselves, recognizing things we dislike and things we must admit, all the while asking “is that really me?”

Before he’s lost or bored you through the door you’re
headed for and Mark Dow looped around to head
you off at so that he could open it in time if he can
find the handle, he’ll try to make up for that fact
he’s always been unable to make things up

and turns, in fact, to find my breath leads back to
back to him and then the outside’s renewed as if
windows had been washed in Mark Dow’s absence.
His poems are nothing but I enjoy saying them to
you or reading them to myself to see if I’m here. (p 27)

The pleasures of following this corkscrew syntax are great, letting us feel “looped around” indeed, even as we can sort of glimpse “Mark Dow” trying to get us to the door, as he gestures to the “outside” we can see through those newly washed windows whose presence recalls his absence. An absence that is present whenever he reads his own poems to “see if I’m here”—he and his own breath somehow “back to back.” The feints and bobs aren’t distractions to throw us off the scent but are instead the main game, keeping in play a way of being in the world of language like “involutions in the corner of some empty warehouse / elaborating as they aspire to their own proud demise” (p 27).

Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising is a vivid performance of a self-aware poetics, able to make us feel our lived-in time and a kind of eternal time, addressing the world as a state of mind and a land of language to be mined for what value we can find. Dow’s brilliant wordplay is equal to the stringent—and playful—task he sets himself. His themes, of creation, identity, and the mystery of our sex-engendered existence, reference a possible mythos while always keeping poesis as the wildcard up the sleeve of meaning.


Plain Talk Rising
By Mark Dow
PTR, 2018


Before being "self-published," Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions; it was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.

Dow's work (poems and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Paris Review, Pequod, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, Threepenny Review and New Haven Review.

Plain Talk Rising can be found for purchase here: IndieBound