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Barry Schwabsky on the Poems of Tim Dlugos
In a new review at Bookforum, poet and critic Barry Schwabsky looks at the poems of Tim Dlugos, which have just been published by Nightboat Books as A Fast Life: The Collected Poems, edited by David Trinidad. Schwabsky considers the playful early work, much influenced by the New York School (“It might seem, on opening A Fast Life, that Tim Dlugos was born fully formed from the head of Frank O’Hara,” he writes), as well as its counterpoint, the poetry Dlugos wrote up until he died of AIDS in 1990, at the age of forty. Yet: “His collected poems reveal no big stylistic breaks, no eureka moment when the poet turns the corner from juvenilia to maturity, but rather a continuous deepening of a consistent aesthetic.” And beneath the “fast life,” or the tumultuous one, as Schwabsky sees it, was a religious bent. After leaving the Christian Brothers in 1971 and fully dedicating himself to a gay lifestyle in New York, Dlugos enrolled at the Yale Divinity School and energetically continued to write.
In retrospect, Dlugos may be the great poet of the AIDS epidemic, above all in “G-9,” a remarkable long poem in short lines whose meditative prosody owes more to James Schuyler, perhaps, than to O’Hara. The poem, named for the ward at Roosevelt Hospital where Dlugos was being treated, is astonishingly clear-eyed in facing the fate he shared with so many of his friends—“There are forty-nine names / on my list of the dead, / thirty-two names of the sick.” Yet he finds a sort of peace in his gratitude for the gift that allowed him to face down his illness: “the unexpected love / and gentleness that rushes in / to fill the arid spaces / in my heart, the way the city / glow fills up the sky / above the river, making it / seem less than night.”
Dlugos was, of course, not only an AIDS poet, and his early work, which he began writing more than a decade before the onset of the AIDS crisis, is characterized by gossipy banter and a playful take on pop culture (see “Gilligan’s Island”). But it won’t do to exaggerate the changes that came over Dlugos’s work when he first got sober and then got sick. Under the wit of his earlier writing—but not very far under—was always that hunger for the transcendent that had led him to the Christian Brothers as a teenager, and for which his enthusiastic assent to the Baudelairian directive Enivrez-vous was perhaps just another disguise. Although Dlugos could turn out fizzy occasional verse at the drop of a hat, his best work never lost its connection to first and last things and to a kind of austerity of spirit underlying all the antinomian self-indulgence. . . .