for Robert Vaughan
I dreamed that you had died
and there would be no more from you
but that what you had given
we’d take and parse and continue to chew
passing from mouth to mouth,
as we always had done.
But you haven’t died, it was another
and I felt a sudden catch of the throat,
a shocking absence after plenitude
as if my sleeping face had flipped around
like a mask to stare at morning,
or a sleepwalk march from an empty room
into a room full of diners, breathless
after a gasp, like inhaling a morsel of food.
I wrote Breathless on Monday. I had just learned that Peter Matthiessen had died, and that night I dreamed that John Ashbery had died. I cried in my sleep, awoke and the realization that it wasn’t Ashbery but Matthiessen who had died was no consolation. I wrote the poem and only later did I realize that it had been informed mostly by reading Addicts & Basements, the first full-length collection published by the very alive and well Robert Vaughan.
Right in the heart of Robert Vaughan’s new collection of poems, Addicts & Basements published by Civil Coping Mechanisms, in the center of the “&” section, is a poem called Leaving. The first line goes: “Leaving: a cadence, a beat.” The poem is a heart murmur of a text; it feels like a moment of arrhythmia, a breath that doesn’t come, say from a blow to the gut. The feeling I have reading it is an ache, the kind that comes in the wake of a terrible wound, say from the leaving of one’s beloved. The narrator of the poem is leaving. They announce it, describe how it feels, how it fails.
Other pieces in Addicts & Basements have people incapable of leaving their situations due to addictions, or people who have left but find they have taken a basement full of baggage with them. Vaughan does not judge or even seem to pass an opinion. He illustrates in a style more sumi-e than Rockwell. Sometimes he gets so close, so intimate with the subject that one is unsure what exactly one is looking at. The book encourages much rereading and reconsideration, the way one might look closely and this way and that at a cropped Polaroid or a microscopic photograph. But there are lighter pieces that leaven the effort (one of my favorites is Sinkholes) which does not go unrewarded.
On the Wings of a Dove is a poem that I did not appreciate the first few go-rounds. It seems, on first look, like a tender tribute to Matthew Shepard, the young man who was tortured and killed for being gay, and that it is. With additional readings I saw, or rather heard, that it was a requiem in miniature. It begins and ends with sounds: wind whistling through barbed wire, ice rattling down a canyon—sounds so delicate as to be almost inaudible, but once heard deafening. We know that Shepard’s unimaginable solitude amplified the conversation on hate crime. But the miracle of Vaughan’s poem is the possibility it offers that the requiem whisper of Shepard’s dying reaches even the ears of his killers.
One of my favorites is Hummingbirds, a prose poem in four sections informing us that, “hummingbirds represent the number eight, infinity. Their wings flapping so quickly they create this symbol.” Vaughan’s poems are such hummingbirds: tiny, discrete, and sometimes hard to see because of the paradoxical and uncommon maneuver of pulling in close to spring a release onto an expansive view. The last section of Hummingbirds:
We’ve been here before, you and me, haven’t we? The first time we danced in a fist of a writhing crowd. The first time we kissed in a bowl of neglect. If we could take into consideration how many lives our thoughts and actions impact? Now I know I see you everywhere as if you’ve flown away, and looped back a hundred times.
Read my review of Robert Vaughan’s Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits