The Only Immortality Is in Not Dying
Donald Britton would hate this story if he were alive. He wanted to be a great poet, but he never wanted to be the center of attention. He let his work speak for itself and rarely spoke about it. Writing a profile of someone who aspired to be separate from his work feels counterintuitive, maybe even disrespectful. But like so many gay poets and artists of his generation, Britton died too young, of AIDS-related complications in 1994. He was only 43, and he and his work had not fully bloomed. He was a great poet already, but his friends believe he could have gone further if he’d only had time. Let this be an epitaph for both Britton and the poems he didn’t live to write.
Britton’s single volume of poetry, Italy, was published by Little Caesar Press in 1981. The book probably wouldn’t have reached beyond Britton’s small coterie of friends were it not for support from a few devotees of gay poetry. As it was, his friends recall that Italy sold only about 750 copies and got a negative review in the Village Voice. In the early 2000s, the poet Reginald Shepherd began collecting Britton’s unpublished works, some of which existed as letters to friends. When Shepherd died in 2008, leaving the book unfinished, poet and editor Philip Clark took up the project. In 2016, he published a second volume of Britton’s work, In the Empire of the Air, which includes Italy and dozens of unpublished works. The book is slim, a little over 100 pages, and most of the poems in it are less than a page long.
Britton’s poems are tight and neat, as if edited with a scalpel. He told friends he wanted his work to be universal and to speak to anyone. In contrast to the sometimes flamboyant self-disclosure of many of his contemporaries, his poems offer little insight into his life, who he was, or what made him tick. The only thing Britton wrote about his own work was a few paragraphs included alongside his poem “Winter Garden,” published in a 1987 anthology, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms.
An excerpt from “Winter Garden”:
A permanent occasionKnotted into the clouds: pink, then blue,Like a baby holding its breath, or colorlessAs the gust and pop of conversationsUnder Water. You feel handed from clasp to clasp,A concert carried off by the applause.Other times, half of you is tornAt the perforated line and mailed away.You want to say, “Today, the smithereensMust fend for themselves,”And know the ever-skating decimal’s joy,To count on thin ice.
Choosing an excerpt is hard because, like most of Britton’s work, the poem creates disparate scenes rather than a cohesive narrative. Quoting only part is like displaying a David Hockney painting that’s nine-tenths covered. (To me, Hockney is the artist Britton most resembles: polished but a little whimsical, with more said by what’s not in the frame than what is.)
As to how Britton saw “Winter Garden,” he writes in Ecstatic Occasions, “If ‘Winter Garden’ has any claim at all to formal rigor, it would have to lie in my attempt to ‘non-personalize’ or psychologically denature the poem—to detach it from any single speaker or communication context, yet maintain the illusion of a coherent, at times even elegant, discourse.” In other words, Britton isn’t concerned with telling a story but with offering readers an aesthetic moment. He wants words to “cease to comment on any experience, but become an experience in and of themselves.”
When I read “Winter Garden,” it reminds me of being on a short vacation with a former lover I now dislike but whom I still sometimes pine for. That’s what a lot of Britton’s poems evoke in me—romantic longing cut with pain. I have no idea what other people get from “Winter Garden,” but I think that’s OK. I think that’s exactly how Britton would have wanted it.
Donald Britton was born in 1951, in an unremarkable Texas town called San Angelo, roughly 200 miles northwest of Austin. His father, an insurance salesman, was often on the road, and when he was home, he fought with Britton’s mother. Britton’s sister, a decade older, was away much of the time too. Britton was left alone to care for his mother, who had a history of mental breakdowns and was institutionalized several times during his childhood. They watched soap operas together, and when his mother began to act erratically, Britton called the hospital to have her taken away.
Anger about his childhood recurs in a few of his poems, including “My Mother’s Afternoon Nap,” one of his previously unpublished works, in which he writes of his mother,
The stillness is a bullet in her brain.Upon the stake the ivy curlslike infant Jesus bloody on the grass.The countertops are polished brightand blue-veined as the mirrors.Clouds stroke the sky into autumnWhile Mother sleeps and hatesthe life that hurt her into sleep—bound to one so much not herself,she his body’s inarticulate host.
His home environment was oppressive, especially for a young, creative boy coming to terms with his sexuality. The performance artist Terry Galloway, who knew Britton for almost two decades, believes that the reticence in Britton’s work stems from a childhood in which the poet suppressed himself and his language because he was closeted.
David Craig, Britton’s former lover, agrees, pointing out that although men abound in Britton’s poetry, there are almost no references to gay sex. “He was very worried about his parents reading his poetry,” Craig says. “He only revealed certain things about himself.”
Britton attended the University of Texas Shakespeare at Winedale program, where students performed Shakespeare in a huge barn with a dirt floor on a hayloft-turned-stage. There he fell in love with a straight man who, although he politely rejected Britton’s advances, helped the young poet realize that he craved love from other men. Britton also met Galloway, and the two closeted queers became best friends.
Britton was silly, Galloway remembers. He’d drop his pants or stick a bar of soap in his mouth to get a laugh. One time, he and Galloway pretended to be Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea (the man who buried Jesus), and Britton helped Galloway pinch her lips and nose so she’d look more like the religious icon. According to Galloway, Britton could also be cutting about other people’s physical imperfections. She sometimes feared he would make fun of her outfit or a partner she was with. That acerbity is evident in his poems, along with the inhibitions of his childhood. It’s unclear why his absurdist humor so rarely is.
Britton wrestles with his perfectionism in “Here and Now,” one of his formerly uncollected poems:
It isThe amusing notion life might somedayNot be confusing that coordinatesOur award-winning sentiments these last daysOf summer, preparatory to the paint-by-numberRush of autumn, the colors balkingWithin their lines, which as a kidWas the hardest part and apparently still is.You must do something, though, not caring,What it is, so long as, when the day ends,You’re able to claim that this thingHas been accomplished, brought nearerThe perfection toward which it ludicrouslyAspires, then put aside to be resumedAt a point just over the next rise yonderWhere suddenly pertinent trees now loom.
After Winedale, Britton moved to Washington, DC, where he was a doctoral student in literary studies at American University. He wrote his thesis on Hart Crane, the gay modernist poet who committed suicide at sea in 1932. At the university, Britton met writer Bernard Welt, and the two frequented gay bars together. Britton still wasn’t out but gradually became, in Welt’s words, “gay by association.”
There was a strong DC–New York poetry connection in the 1970s. Poets from New York, including John Ashbery, traveled to Washington to see people read at events such as the Mass Transit reading series. “They might come down for a place to stay and the price of a train ticket, or because people in D.C. had better weed,” Welt says. During his time at American University, Britton also met the poet Tim Dlugos, a renowned fixture of the New York poetry scene in the 1980s. Dlugos worked in direct mail advertising in New York to pay his bills, so Britton got the idea to move there and do the same.
The New York of the ’80s teemed with queers from all over the country producing poetry, plays, parties, and activism. Britton longed to be a part of that artistic gay underground even more than he longed to be an academic or a performer. On New Year’s Eve in 1978, he attended a Tribeca loft party where he saw the poet and critic Douglas Crase. Crase was leaving the party with his boyfriend, and Britton ran up to them.
“He wasn’t beautiful or handsome in a movie star way,” Crase says of Britton, but with his blonde hair and high forehead, he was striking nonetheless and “looked like a poet.” Britton told Crase he didn’t want him to leave. “You’re the reason why I’m moving to New York,” Britton said. Crase took the exchange to mean that Britton was moving to New York not specifically for him but for it—the scene, the city, to be in that world.
The New York that Britton idealized doesn’t exist anymore. He lived on the Upper West Side, which was then much grittier and artsier than it is today, rife with gay dive bars (the last of which closed in 2015) and home to more drug dealers than stroller-pushing parents. Britton spent much of his time downtown in a shabby apartment on East 13th Street, where he crashed with his lover, the journalist David Craig. Their rent was about $400 a month—hard to fathom in a neighborhood now overrun with fancy ramen shops, banks, and Duane Reades.
Craig met Britton in early 1983, and the latter’s inner critic, the side of him that scared Galloway, was in full force. Craig mentioned that he couldn’t watch hour-long TV shows, to which Britton replied, “Well, that’s just because you don’t have the attention span.” Craig thought they’d never be friends.
But late that summer, they met again at an East Village party hosted by the writer Dennis Cooper, whose Little Caesar Press had published Italy two years earlier. Craig was dating Dlugos at the time. Nonetheless, Britton asked Craig if he wanted to share a cab uptown, so they did, making out the whole way. They fucked before they got most of their clothes off. Britton essentially stole Craig from Dlugos, and Dlugos never forgave them.
Britton rarely talked about his poetry to Craig—or to anyone. All Craig knows about Britton’s process is that he hated a scene in the 1978 movie Interiors, in which Diane Keaton tries writing a poem and scratches out the words over and over again. Britton was more purposeful and less dramatic than that, at least in his poetry.
He was a secretive writer, though. He published several articles in small publications, and one in the Paris Review, but his writing process remains a mystery. Even his letters to friends seemed to be polished final drafts, according to Philip Clark. The only exception Clark has found is an early draft of the poem “Nancy to Sluggo”—nearly every word remained the same, but the order, line breaks, and punctuation changed significantly in the published version.
Britton’s and Craig’s lives were both bohemian and mundane. They watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse and MTV music videos. They saw independent movies, ate Mexican food, and, when they could afford it, sampled avant-garde cuisines just arriving in New York. Britton wasn’t anti-intellectual; he just knew what he liked (e.g., the New York School of poets) and what he disliked (e.g., most of the poetry published in the New Yorker during Howard Moss’s decades-long tenure as poetry editor, which tended to be more romantic and smarmy than Britton could stomach).
“It was a realm of poverty,” Craig says. “People didn’t have much money and there was an effort to conserve it and be careful with it … but life was also stimulating, exciting. People wanted to be [in New York], they wanted to self-segregate from the rest of the country and surround themselves with like-minded people.”
Life went on like that for a few years—a procession of gay bars, dinner parties, and writing. At one dinner, Crase remembers, Britton leaned into and almost knocked over an entire case of Fiestaware but somehow saved it, and himself, and came up holding a dish with a smirk. “He was so graceful and so nervous,” Crase says. “He had a quick grace. So many times he’d overdo it, a lurch to one side, and then he’d always correct himself. An equilibrium.”
Britton wrote with immense equilibrium too. A poem such as “A Real Life,” for example, veers between romance and longing and verges on corniness without ever succumbing to it, all in 21 words:
I awaken—a clam betweencool sheets.A nude batherlike Cézanne’s.And showeringin the darkI imaginemy body.
To understand Britton’s artistry, you must first understand John Ashbery. Starting in the 1950s, Ashbery and his contemporaries in the New York School pushed poetry from what they saw as its stodgy, overly romantic past into something dynamic, edgy, and often inscrutable to readers accustomed to straightforward narrative. Britton built on this ethos, and because so little was written about his work, it’s instructive to look at the work of Ashbery, whom Britton idolized. Interviewed by the London Times in 1984, Ashbery said, “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
That philosophy informs Britton’s work too; images clash and meld rather than flow in a logical order. The three first stanzas of “September Night,” published in Italy, jump from image to image:
Nothing told us it would work outThis way, that nothingStays put in the drawer of itself.Down by the watering canA squirrel is belief, whateverHe is thinking. And again, and atThe water’s edge, and for a long timeAfter summer vacationPieces of the wreck stabbed the shoreWhose revenue of loss engorgedThe ribboned cone of a shellAnd played the ear its thousand phrases.
Referring to Ashbery’s “The Tennis Court Oath” in the New York Times, critic Stephen Koch wrote that one can’t look for “meaning in any usual sense of the word: the montage just fades in and out, pictures merely build and then vanish, blink out. Rather than ‘understand’ the poem, one merely lets it ‘work’ on the mind, a kind of verbal movie—but an abstract movie more like music.” Such a description could apply to Britton as well.
About another Ashbery poem, “Clepsydra,” the Times wrote, “If these lines are meaningless, meaning nonetheless buzzes and flutters through them like insects flying through the evening air. Though that stumbling hum is frustrating, it seems to me to have the artistic importance of expanding the areas of human consciousness and perception over which language has a domain.”
Though Britton likely never read that Times article (it appeared in 1968, when he was 17 and living in Texas), its descriptions of New York School poems are remarkably similar to the few paragraphs Britton wrote about his own work. Ashbery and other New York Schoolers—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest —wanted readers to build their own pictures, and they wanted to stretch language to its limits so that no two readers would understand a poem in the same way. That’s what Britton wanted to do too.
Ashbery wasn’t exactly a mentor to Britton, although he was always a presence during the latter’s formative writing years. Both men were gay. They saw each other at the same downtown loft parties and at readings at the historic Ear Inn on the far West Side of Manhattan. The New York School, its ideology and its poets, mingled in the lives and work of Britton and his contemporaries. In his blurb for Italy, the writer Kenward Elmslie dubbed Britton the "super-Ashbery-of-the-Sunbelt,” a nod to Britton’s Texas roots.
Ashbery’s influence on Britton is undeniable but not singular. Crase writes in the closing essay to In the Empire of the Air that Britton’s work can be described, without Ashbery at all, as a synthesis of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose work was equally dark and sparse; Hart Crane; and a bit of Ezra Pound. “Britton was clearly enamored with Ashbery’s work,” Crase says. “And at the same time felt a little rebellious against it.”
Ashbery was a celebrated and prolific full-time poet. Britton held his poems close, revising them until they were perfect. “His ambition centered on each individual poem rather than a career of them,” Crase says. “In many ways, this is a riskier strategy than the mega-productive Ashbery model. What if you run out of time?”
Bernard Welt argues that Britton, like Ashbery, wanted “the fundamental momentum of his poems to come from the mere association of ideas and dramatic punch. He wanted the poems to go all over the place, but lead somewhere. He liked punchlines.” Punchlines and punches to the gut, as in the last stanza of one of Britton’s early poems, “Serenade”:
And there can be no doubt that the onlyImmortality is in not dying and not in whatI write or do, though I wish you could be thereForever, listening and accepting, as thoughNone of it were really silly or wrongheaded,But somehow beautiful, like the story I heardOnce of someone drifting out of a safe harbor,Stunned by a million lights, on the Star ferry.
There’s an undercurrent of longing throughout Britton’s work. He wanted to be polished and playful like Ashbery, but something deeper and sadder tugged at him. Craig believes it’s the longing that haunts many gay men. “Given the circumstances and time and place he grew up, there would be a longing to have your natural desires answered in a way that wouldn’t be able to become [fulfilled],” Craig says. “Anybody who makes a trek from wherever they come from to New York—that’s a manifestation of a longing.”
So, yes, Britton wanted to be like Ashbery, but as “Serenade” and many other poems suggest, “there was something grittier in Britton’s soul,” to quote Terry Galloway. “Had he lived longer, he would have explored that more,” she says.
But time was short, for Britton and for an entire generation of American artists. When AIDS began to hit New York in the summer of 1981, the previously ordinary, if sometimes bohemian, lives of Britton and his cohorts turned suddenly tragic. “It was a mixture of wildness and fear,” Cooper says about those years. “People didn’t know what was going on.”
Dlugos was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, fell into alcohol, became religious, and left New York for New Haven, Connecticut, where he died in 1990 at age 40. Poet Melvin Dixon died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. As poets and their friends became sick and died, the literature of the era became darker. Lesions, pneumonia, death, stigma, and loneliness were common motifs.
“You’d go to a bar and somebody would be absent, and if you didn’t know them well, you knew they’d gone through suffering and were gone, and if you knew them then you witnessed the suffering,” Crase says. “It was like Chinese water torture, and it went on for years.”
Dlugos’s “G-9,” arguably the era’s most famous AIDS poem, is about his time on the AIDS ward at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan:
I hope that death will lift meby the hair like an angelin a Hebrew myth, snatch me withthe strength of sleep’s embrace,and gently set me downwhere I’m supposed to be,in just the right place.
As the death toll mounted, New York’s gay scene became more somber, less wild. No one knew what to do. “Half the people I knew probably died,” Craig says. “I think there was a certain air of resignation. … It was just like being in an open field with a sniper hiding somewhere. You just didn’t know who was going to get hit.”
Britton didn’t write about AIDS, at least not directly, although some of his early poems are eerily prescient. “Sonnet,” which he wrote while still living in Washington, DC, years before HIV and AIDS were known to exist, contains the word lesions and a kind of biomedical subtext:
My unkempt mind is yours, and the purityOf my body, and the lesions joining them.
Death lurks throughout Britton’s poems, but he seems to pull away from it rather than resign himself to it. “The dark side is always there,” Crase says of Britton’s work. “But it’s never self-pity.” Sometimes, the poems can feel like Britton is trying to say good-bye to someone without actually saying it, as in the eponymous poem from In the Empire of the Air:
Think of me as three persons, and as one,But always who I am, ever changingAnd complete, in the empire of the airOr on the street, or with white sailsStiff against the wind,Whistling far out over the water.
In the winter of 1987, the heating system broke in Britton’s Upper West Side apartment, and a direct mail job that paid more money than he was earning opened in California. Britton was fed up with New York. Los Angeles, which he’d visited a few times with Craig, seemed sunnier and more appealing. He took the job and headed west.
Just a few weeks after arriving in LA, Britton went to the dentist for a routine cleaning. The dentist saw oral thrush, a sign of immune compromise, which for a gay man in 1987 carried a devastating implication. Britton called Craig crying. He didn’t know what to do. He knew almost no one in LA.
A few weeks later, on Britton’s 37th birthday, the official diagnosis came back. He was HIV positive. Craig was not. In February of 1990, Craig moved to LA to care for Britton until the inevitable end. “I think he really regretted moving there, but it just wasn’t possible to undo what had been done,” Craig says.
Britton didn’t write much poetry, if any, in LA. Instead, he worked and dealt with his diagnosis. He didn’t see many friends either, preferring to hole up in his apartment in mid-Wilshire, far removed from the creative life he’d dreamed of living in New York—and had lived for a few years. Looking back now, Craig says, death is nothing like in the movies. It’s not romantic and full of bravery. It is scary and sad and ugly, and that is all.
At four in the morning one week when Bernard Welt was visiting, an earthquake shook Britton’s apartment. All the lights went out. Every car alarm in the neighborhood blared. Welt found Britton in the apartment hallway and illuminated him with a flashlight. “Well, I’ve been staring death in the face for about a year, so I think I’ll go back to bed,” Britton quipped. “He got sicker, and he was in therapy, and I was trying to help him toward support groups and other places where he didn’t feel alone,” Welt says. “But he was one of those people who didn't want to surrender to the uniqueness of his position.”
He was still funny, though, and still loving. Galloway saved TTY teletype reels from those years in which they shot the shit and laughed (Galloway is deaf). But Britton no longer wanted to write poetry. Crase thinks Britton was too depressed, and too busy managing his diagnosis, to write. “Can you believe how trapped he must have felt?” Crase asks. “Those must have been awful months. Depressing and terrifying. And his ideal of the perfect poem did not lend itself to the day-by-day chronicle of symptoms, fear, anger, and imaginary spiritual triumph [over HIV] that some men were able to utilize.”
What brought Britton the most joy in those years was Disneyland, less than an hour south in Anaheim. He and Craig visited the park about five times, the last just a few months before Britton died. He loved how Disneyland combined campiness with what he saw as the darkness underlying the characters’ animatronic smiles. In 1989, Britton published an essay in Art Issues, “The Dark Side of Disneyland,” in which he argues that mortality is always just out of sight at the amusement park, which is where the thrills come from. You’re in a safe world, Britton writes, but danger is ever present, which reinforces the illusion of joy. (In describing three rides at the park, Britton also inadvertently describes his poetry perfectly: “They abandon linear plot altogether, fabricating instead a continuum of symbolic and highly-charged scenic tableaux formally more appropriate to a ride than a story.”)
The most successful example of the dark, death-defying trickery of Disneyland, according to Britton, is Snow White’s Scary Adventures, a ride in which people get to pretend they are Snow White eluding death, evil, and the Poisoned Apple and come out unscathed and alive. It’s a “re-imagining of the world as it might be if death were impossible,” Britton writes, “if the taint of our biological existence could be cleansed and replaced by a pure, bloodless, and deathless alternative.”
That’s the goal of Disneyland, Britton argues: to create a world in which we are immortal. But in doing so, Disneyland reminds us just how close to death we all really are. “This is the true dark side of Disneyland: our contact with the cartoon realm suggests that our lives are rather paltry things, inferior to mere figments—that there is something shameful about our very biological existence,” Britton writes.
“The Dark Side of Disneyland” is, in my opinion, one of Britton’s best pieces of writing, and I think it’s because he had given up on universalizing. His fear of death and AIDS is on the surface (“purity,” “bloodlessness,” “biological taint”). As readers, we experience his terror and joy too, not just our own.
One central myth of the New York School of poetry, and of much contemporary art and writing, is that its creations are somehow divorced from their creators and that it’s possible to transcend the particular “I.” That’s what Britton wanted, to “detach [poetry] from any single speaker or communication context,” as he wrote in 1987. He succeeded in creating images that anyone could access and interpret, but he resonates most when he stops trying to be universal and lets himself into the poems instead. In works such as “Winter Garden,” for example, we feel his longing for friendship; in “The Dark Side of Disneyland,” we sense his terror in the face of death.
That essay hints at where Britton might have taken his work had he lived. It suggests an artist who was still learning to balance self-preservation and self-revelation and becoming more comfortable tempering darkness with camp. As it is, what Britton left behind is gift enough: a small collection of dense, incandescent poems that didn’t fully plumb his life but that nonetheless add incalculable magic to our own.