Light That Catches Dust
The Unbuttoned Eye
Poems by Robert Carr
3: A Taos Press, 2019
Reviewed by Reuben Gelley Newman
From the beginning of Robert Carr’s The Unbuttoned Eye (3: A Taos Press, 2019), I found myself haunted by “the piling of bodies” during the AIDS epidemic and the beautiful, disturbing photos of Robert Mapplethorpe. The notorious gay photographer features prominently in the book; letters addressed to him or from him begin each of the three sections. Mapplethorpe thus became an entry point into a book whose lens continually expanded, in continuously engaging ways
In the first “Letter to Mapplethorpe,” the speaker meditates on Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios. With the exception of Y’s portraits of flowers, the explicit photos are alluring precisely due to their sexual unpleasantness, something like Carr’s phrase “Polaroid fuck collective, porcelain models pulled from Mineshaft piss.” (the Mineshaft, I learn, was a 1970s gay sex club in Manhattan frequently photographed by Mapplethorpe.)
“What draws me back?” to the photos, Carr’s speaker asks, and says later: “Stop asking, Robert, why, when the air is still, finally breathable, and the deadeye of the world is counting blessings, I am writing endings.” But Carr — here the speaker is clearly an incarnation of the writer — is not just writing an “ending” to the era of the Mineshaft, underground gay sex, and AIDS. He draws the reader back along with him on a much more complicated journey. As a gay guy born 30 years after Stonewall, I am learning a history. I am learning about what Carr calls “the texture of possession,” a phrase made most literal by the visceral end of a first, untitled poem:
I’ve seen the piling of bodies I desire, lost my given name. An open mouth sips air, upheaval hangs in an empty highball. Stomach churn. Threads of meat between worn teeth.
This spare yet harsh tone carries through the first third of The Unbuttoned Eye. Not all the images are beautiful, and ugliness clashes with grace throughout: “Totem,” a poem that begins with the lyrical “Heel to head he’s kissing my shield / of scars” goes on to visualize the “long-healed puckers” and “animal pocked eye appendectomy” in phrases crowded with consonants. “We are the timeless fuck in skinless / dark,” declares the speaker of “Soldier and Commander.” “We slide shining-smooth surfaces / inside each other,” and then the brutality of living with AIDS seeps into the poem:
Release of shit in a death-bed, spread of blood shaken over birth. Salt of first cry, sugar of breast milk, black rattle vomit.
Is this death, then, also a kind of birth? “G.R.I.D,” whose title echoes the original name for AIDS — “gay-related immune deficiency” — addresses the disease with devastating irony, and ends with a revelation of betrayal, but also strange innocence:
Come, come to me
in the startled brow
of a lover who called me
his only one,
the small voice saying
the sarcoma on his arm is
a birthmark I’ve forgotten.
The small voice is not the lover’s, but the speaker’s, who, in an earlier poem, recalls how he “fucked in countless numbers, / blades of park grass.” The speaker — also named Robert — tries to hide his loss of innocence, but his desperation remains evident, and he is, in some ways, guilty.
I’m unclear as to who, exactly, the Robert is in the second section of the book, which begins with “Letter to Mapplethorpe.” When Carr writes how “in convex Robert / peers over a shoulder / his face cracks in / carnival glass,” it seems to be Mapplethorpe, the voyeur, except he’s watching a sick man in “Breaking the Fever,” not photographing a nude model. “Researching His Cancer,” meanwhile, addresses a Robert wearing “a white lab-coat” with cancer cells dotting his “unblemished skin.” This surreal characterization is part of the disarming genius of The Unbuttoned Eye, as I took in the poems’ wide range of emotion. Correspondingly, the poems in the second part branch out, including floral metaphors for love and sickness, such as those in “Less Light,” a gem that I’ll quote in full:
Planting a mountain laurel, I strike a root
the thickness of a wrist. Bones in my hand
buck against the splintered handle of a shovel.
a tingle watering heartwood, thick cord of spine
dropped into a hole. A tiny shoot climbs out
of my throat, reaches for the light beyond teeth.
There is winter in the angle of sunset.
There is winter, perhaps, but light does shine through. The third section opens with a second “Letter to Mapplethorpe,” the most complicated of the Mapplethorpe poems, whose speaker — always “that voice preventing and spreading disease” — once ordered Mapplethorpe to fuck “a body substitute” instead of himself. “Robert, even now, we are not lovers,” he writes, but also asks him to “please come home.” The poem becomes both an ending of the era of disease and a new beginning: at home, the speaker will only allow Robert “a bronzed urn on the mantle…You will be light that catches dust through an open window.”
Light that catches dust, not dust that catches light — it’s a striking phrase, and perhaps one that emphasizes just how much history has transpired in this book. Mapplethorpe’s photos, through light, capture the “dust” of history; Carr’s poems, perhaps perform a similar function, while creating a light for future generations. The third section chronicles an older speaker, one who’s made “the defiant transition from glory hole to Daddy”; he has a first anniversary with his husband, “a grownup son” who’s moved away. Now, the speaker, partially freed from the ghosts of his past, can let himself play, as shown most clearly by the delightful poem “Prop the Camera,” where he describes his wish that he’d taped himself and his husband making love, then would write in his will to show it “at the funeral”:
…set up a wide screen. Dim
the lights in St. Eulalia, Stephen’s family
church. Tell guests to kneel, hold a hymnal
between elbows, lean into the pew.
“A wide screen,” an “unbuttoned eye.” Puzzling over that beautiful and strange title, I remember that an unbuttoned eye also implies an undressing, a nakedness. Carr’s book, giving us “a wide screen” to view a personal gay history, is naked in the sense of being raw and unfiltered, but also in a playful sense. Both aspects are only accentuated by the nude photos of Carr’s younger self sprinkled throughout the collection, beautiful images taken by the 80s photographer K. Max Mellenthin. From Mapplethorpe’s lens to this last, propped camera, The Unbuttoned Eye is a virtuosic display.
Reuben Gelley Newman, Reader and contributing writer, hails from Brooklyn and is an English major at Swarthmore College. His work appears in Alexandria Quarterly, What Rough Beast, and HIV Here & Now, and is forthcoming in The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, 2nd Edition. When he’s not reading or writing, he enjoys singing and listening to classical music.
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