Last night here at the college, we hosted Derrick Austin, who gave a marvelous reading and conducted one of the best Q&A sessions I’ve ever seen. He encouraged our students to experiment with forms (sonnets, sestinas, villanelles) to help then get out of their one way and allow a poem to become what it’s trying to be. Of course, the writer is the maker of the poem, as he said, but there’s something to the idea that the poem has its own dynamics, and the writer’s ego can prevent the poem’s growth. He talked about his devotion to art, language, and history.
His first book, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions), was chosen by my wife, Mary Szybist, for the A. Poulin Poetry Prize. In her introduction, Mary wrote that in these poems, “spiritual salvation is not imagined apart from physical salvation.” Indeed, we find here that the vicissitudes of the body are very much those of the spirit. As another critic remarked, Austin’s “approach to the world is at once deeply embodied and drawn toward the transcendent, with an equal love of austere beauty and of bodies in their messy frailties and appetites” (website of Image: Art, Faith, Mystery). In other words, the struggles of the spirit are very much those of the body. What the German theologian Karl Rahner called the Vorgriff—the fore-grasping, reaching into, or preapprehension—of the divine is the yearning of the whole person, the embodied consciousness or self-aware body.
Derrick Austin himself has commented, “As a black queer writer, I’m attentive to the ways in which bodies and images are read; the tensions that exist between my sexuality and a spiritual tradition I find deeply enriching and frustrating at times” (website of Image: Art, Faith, Mystery). These tensions come to the fore, for example, in “Catacombs of San Callisto,” where he writes, “I’ve walked alone with a man in the dark // and made much of his body— // you’re with me now, touring the nests of the dead. / We’re told by books old as these walls: // Filthy, our bodies, yours and mine. Not so.” This quick survey of an old theology of the body, which sees it and its desires as suspect at best, culminates in the emphatic, two-syllable refusal—“Not so”—that echoes throughout the collection as Austin undertakes his strong revisions of this tradition he finds both enriching and frustrating. Or rather, it’s not so much the negation that echoes as it is the creative energy that this refusal opens into. In this he performs a tremendous service to the very tradition he challenges, for without such disruptive energies, any tradition is subject to its own stagnation.
The speaker of this poem goes on to say, “I would be the good shepherd / above your body in its cold, stone niche / not only because I believe / / in the resurrection of the body, but because / I want to be the face that welcomes you / to that inordinate dark.” The traditional belief in the resurrection is in fact belief in the resurrection of the body. It was fairly early on, with the movement of Platonism into theological and spiritual thinking, that a tendency to think of resurrection as leaving the body behind began to emerge. Of course, what a resurrected body might be remains mysterious, as does what it means to be a self-aware body making one’s way in the world of everyday experience. With his awareness at once expansive and subtle, Austin guides us through this mystery of embodied life—with the desires and fears and awkward moments that go with it—as he contributes to the healing of our dualistic wound. The poem’s journey into the catacombs suggests a recovery of older and forgotten possibilities that have been left behind, bringing them into dialogue with our present moment.
Derrick Austin is currently a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, sponsored by the Lambda Literary Foundation, dedicated to advancing LGBTQ literature. Clearly he is off to a very impressive start. I’m eager to find out what comes next.