A young man in the early days of the AIDS epidemic holds a man as he shakes, weeping because the man he loves is dying. An old man is watching the woman he loves gradually forget him. And in a world that can prove vast, hard and ungovernable, lovers are sharing closeness on a clear, quiet day near sunrise.
‘… dark coffee
bathed in sunlight
in fresh snow …’
Rage Hezekiah writes in her newest book, Yearn — on October 28 at 3 p.m., she will read her work with Robert Carr, Richard Hoffman and Heather Treseler, all nationally acclaimed poets gathering with Voices of Poetry at the Stockbridge Library, with a guest appearance and reading by international opera and concert singer Benjamin Luxon.
“It all comes down to expression,” says Neil Silberblatt, founder and director of VoP more than 10 years ago. “You can have great experiences, watching a sunset, tasting a cheesecake, and think … ‘I need to share this.’ I think that’s what propels me with VoP — that feeling of ‘you’ve got to hear this.’”
He knows many poets writing beautiful work, he said, known and respected in their field, who have few ways to share their work, to meet readers and each other. So he set out to bring them into places where they can meet people on the ground, in their communities, in their daily lives.
In the past 12 years, he and the poets he gathers have read poems in a boxing gym in Jew Jersey, in a bowling alley. At the Rubin Art Museum in New York, among international artwork from Tibet, he walked in a wading pool over shifting stones.
And in the oldest library on Cape Cod, veterans from Vietnam to Afghanistan read together to a standing room only crowd, and he heard someone muffle their tears. Poems read aloud have an immediacy, he said.
They can express intense feeling, Carr agreed, speaking on zoom from his study in Maine. In a poem he may move deeper than in prose, maybe not in one clear line, maybe in almost surreal flashes — into the experiences of being in one time and place, sometimes in the most intense times in his life.
‘That is at the core of what I’m trying to explore in my writing — not to shy away from any element of the experience … but it’s also affirming, and it’s tender, and it’s human.’ — Robert Carr
He wrote his first book, The Unbuttoned Eye, after more than 30 years in public health, and out of the energy to understand that experience, he said, and his new book, The Heavy of Human Clouds, immersed in the observation of nature and the aging human body.
“I come to poetry in a kind of an odd route,” he said. “I started studying literature and philosophy as an undergraduate back in the early ’80s and graduated from Bates College. And that was the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
He became the first HIV testing counselor with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, beginning in the earliest years — when the illness was new, when information was scarce, when people did not believe that they could get sick, when he had to tell so many people that they had the virus.
He would go on in the field, eventually to become Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. And now, a generation later, he has turned to poetry as a path through these encounters with the limits of human bodies, and at the same time an affirmation of love and intimacy.
His new book has grown out of the shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, centering around his family, his mother and father. He recalls his mother and her death some 20 years ago, and then the woman his father loved later in life, in her last months. His mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he said, and between diagnosis and death she had seven weeks.
“And she was the busiest woman on the planet for those seven weeks,” he said. “She wanted everything to be resolved for her, including sitting my dad down with her best friend and saying, ‘when I’m gone, you two need to get together.’ …”
In time they did, he said. They were together for 16 years. And then his mother’s friend and his father’s love, Rosemary, died two years ago, after developing Alzheimer’s.
In memories of these times, his poems can hold sadness and a deep closeness, and at the same time zeal and pleasure as clear as sunlight on a harbor seal.
‘In the field beyond the window, my father gathers milkweed pods, motionless wings, brown as seedpod thrush. From his bared chest an inky question reaches out to paint a cloudless dark …’
“It actually is moving me in an interesting way,” he said, reflecting on his first poems and his new work — “for me, that connects the first book and the second — because, as a young man, I was experiencing every day the intersection of intimacy and death.
‘In the field beyond the window, my father gathers milkweed pods, motionless wings, brown as seedpod thrush. From his bared chest an inky question reaches out to paint a cloudless dark …’ — Robert Carr
“… That was one of the frames that I had to understand and explore. And so the writing of the poems is also about forgiveness. It’s about gratitude. It’s about acceptance of saying, okay, You survived this, you’re writing about it. You want to honor those experiences and the people that you encountered. But it’s by no means straightforward.”
Questions in ink and blood, light and shadow intrigue Treseler too in her work — the touch of a loved one, the loss of a parent, movements in a larger scale of time.
In her own newest work, Auguries & Divinations, coming in April 2024, she too turns to a coming of age, she said (by email as she raced a deadline) — she follows the life a young woman in the Northeast, drawing on traditions of love lyric poems and the classical practice of observing the patterns of birds to forecast human fate.
Her lines hold a sense of seeking knowledge or of foreknowledge, a connection between intense present moments and ways of knowing that she feels older or larger or deeper than a human conscious mind.
“(The book) explores the suburban underworld,” she said, “the strictures and freedoms of women’s lives, as well as the possibilities of tenderness and agency.”
‘The book explores the strictures and freedoms of women’s lives, as well as the possibilities of tenderness and agency..’ — Heather Treseler
“My college mentor, the late Michael S. Harper, had told me when I was 20 that it might take me twenty years to write the kind of poems I was trying to write: poems that implicate ‘History’ within personal history. If Michael were still alive, we would share a laugh because he was right — it took me 20 years to write this book.”
In the past few years, she sees all too many surges of epoch-making history, she said. Like Carr, she is charting the clear, hard impacts of national decisions on people’s most intimate daily lives.
“While I was working on the book,” she said, “the pandemic and the Trump presidency upended life as we knew it.
“And as I was finishing the book, the Dobbs decision was announced, confirming the persistence of patriarchal forms of power and the ongoing challenges posed to women’s rights, including the right to be free from violence, the right to reproductive health and decision-making, and the right to … be compensated for proven capabilities and labor.”
Heather Treseler, Professor of English at Worcester State University, and international opera and concert singer Benjamin Luxon will read with Voices of Poetry in Stockbridge.
In the face of tides vaster than one person, she too looks toward passion and strength, love and creation — as Hezekiah does, watching a deer drink freely from a summer pond, and Carr shares lobster on the docks with a young lobsterman, aware of his calloused hands.
“That is at the core of what I’m trying to explore in my writing,” Carr said — “which is not to shy away from any element of the experience, of what this experience is, to acknowledge, yes, that moment of my father’s lover not recognizing him is heartbreaking. But it’s also affirming, and it’s tender, and it’s human.
“And I think particularly as a gay man, not letting the voices around me silence anything. To keep sharing the joy of our experience. And it is complicated and sensual and erotic and confusing, and also full and joyful and healing.”
“I am interested in eros,” Treseler said, “in artistic making, tenderness and care as energies that counter violence and despotism, and as ways of knowing and experiencing the world.”
And she coasts in deep water …
“… a lover’s unguarded breath as a series of
undulations, waves with slight variation,
a gull dipping south as the water crests
“… what would cradle us
among sponge and anemone, stone made
sand then stone again
… I study your eyes, tides …”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle’s weekend feature section — my thanks to features editor Jennifer Huberdeau.