“Cloud-bellies Full of Virgin Birds”: Arturo Desimone Reviews TENSION : RUPTURE, poetry by Cutter Streeby, paintings by Michael Haight

In the prologue to Tension : Rupture poet Cutter Streeby admits to the unpredicted challenges of collaboration between two artists who, while using different media, deal with strongly interrelated autobiographical leitmotifs of substance abuse, resulting in a requiem for the past. The Tension :  Rupture of the title seems to refer, therefore, not only to the extreme situations and inner experiences of those who have lived through metabolic addictions to substances—the title also attests to the dual process, the dialogue during which an artwork emerges, dictating surprising new paths, doorways, and dead ends to their co-creators: “We were different. My addiction was different. My friends that had OD’d and died where not his friends. The bedrock of my identity was different, so I determined to allow Haight’s visual works to hold the narrative line and I selected or wrote new poems that I felt offered a more individuated rendering, poems that set me apart from his narration,” recounts Streeby’s exegesis.

The warped and hazy, sleepless world of the dependent user becomes apparent in a numbered series of watercolors and gouaches (each bearing the title “Alcoholic Crepuscule”) by Michael Haight, reflected in the opening poems by Streeby which at once conjure up the boulevards of Californian and Mexican cities, which exhibit their black-market offerings to self-destructive drifters.

Streeby intersperses these episodes of sensualism and indulgence by seeking the opposite of the more expected drained-numb, or grungy, aesthetic of many notable previous authors’ chronicles about addiction. Rather than the stereotypical “cool junkie” bragging about being apathetic and dead to the world and to inner events—an attitude perhaps seldom compatible with the poetic vocation, though prominent in prose about addiction—Streeby’s poems reach in the opposite direction of the desensitized realms of such past works as William S. Burroughs’ famously callous prose, or Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. The poet’s confessional offers, to those who prefer it, the swelteringly emotional, the repressed tender vulnerability of the dependent user, the conventional desensitization already undone—the man no longer turned to stone by the spell of addiction’s warlock, rather becoming a man once more, or even a child again. Haight’s work, on the other hand, comes closer to a rock-and-roll exploration of disorder and desperation, mirages that pop up in drab urban settings rather than in deserts. The synergy delivers well, in how the canvases, gouaches, watercolors, and tempera function as the flesh of the substance-abuser, the abandoned armor, the disheveled outer-world collapsing into the inner—the paintings are less inhabited by characters, an invitation to the poet who populates these phantom rooms, adding new, warmer lights, and all the people and objects that the cool but damaged user denies. This is a dialogue between friends, who guide one another through darkness, all the while resisting the urge of playing savior, avoiding ventriloquisms or sanctimonious urges—as resisting such tempting activities (which prevent truly seeing the other) remains one of the perennial challenges inherent to friendship itself. The warmly expressive and confessional interaction between poet and painter shows that these artists have ceased to be fully foreigners—whether to each other, or to the aesthetic influence and force of Mexico, which was the poet’s adoptive heartland during a period of his life.

In his medium of poetry, Streeby still at times seeks to work as a painter, so it makes sense to endeavor such a collaboration, forcing the poet to see in new ways—“:: yes:: I’m looking for a word that tastes like your red :: sandarac, vespertino: the music of red: heat from the sun dripping into the river,” he declares in the collection’s third poem, “Ela.”

The widely-travelled poet and translator in Tension : Rupture breaks into bilingual territory throughout the manuscript by mixing in Spanish. This foray establishes a clear, refreshing break with a pre-existing Anglo literary tendency of using typical spots like Tijuana, Acapulco, and Latin America altogether, as mere backdrops for narrating a descent into decadences—Streeby prefers to more fully inhabit his surroundings and second language, allowing these to inhabit the exposed inner world of a diarist who speaks on the painful realities of addiction, and of a thirst for love and redemption—he succeeds at finding the former more often sated than the latter.

Ekphrasis as a genre usually implies intellectual distance, almost a form of art-historical pietistic meditation by poets; but this is not the case in Tension : Rupture. Rather, the collection puts normal notions of ekphrasis into question, as the subject-matter for both artists—such as trials and tribulations of chemical dependency, loss of friends to overdoses, memories of intimacy—remains so personal and intimate, that it would render the presumably colder, traditionally more distant and observational museum-activity of ekphrasis nigh impossible.

“Seaside Graffiti” a poem of elegy to a friend who died young from overdosage, comes framed in experimental text, which flickers like one of the neon signs glimpsed in “JuaREZ / Bosnia” the warzones mentioned in the page’s margins. (The emphasized “REZ” brings to mind talk about “the rez” slang for the Native American Indian reservations, famously referred to in popular novels by Sherman Alexie, also often dealing with addiction.)

Poems by Streeby, riffing on the painful wasteland-images by Haight, pierce into the unconscious, into the psychological, the sexual, sometimes bordering on the pornographic. (“Kneel down there, look up; now show me those eyes” goes one line in “Detail: Liber Monstrorum,” a poem suffused with leitmotifs of love, Oedipal madness, and substance abuse.)

Despite that Streeby’s debt to his Beatnik predecessors is clearly owed—and a debt paid well by indirect rather than explicit homage—Streeby’s craft, as in usage of structure and punctuation, remains in places strict, and neat, except where the poet chooses release into deliberate free experimentation and neon-lit alchemy-of-the-word. In that employment of counterpoint, we have tension and release, rather than the general aloofness more typical of the loose Beatnik ancestor, which would prove a less acceptable aesthetic to contemporary editorial judgment.

Haight, meanwhile, earns his surname recalling “Haight Ashbury” the notorious San Franciscan neighborhood that hatched the 1960s psychedelic movement. Haight’s expressionistic urban phantasmagoria floats, juggling between images of a personal hell, and characters that look like recognizable rock stars, in paintings which could also fill the CD-booklet of a music album. At other points, Haight’s imagery brings to mind the LSD-influenced years of Robert Crumb’s cartooning, as well as expressionism, illustrating a contemporary infernal circus, in which the artist executes a balancing-act, mapping a disordered and desolate world which nonetheless does not break off entirely with reality or veer into the realm of the psychotic—too tenacious, perhaps, to slip into that particular fall.

Tension : Rupture recalls a potential Beatnik ancestor in the way the poems speaks not only of the implied mechanical release, but of a lingering belief in redemption—an aim that may very well have transported the poet as a pilgrim to Mexico, land of virgins like the Virgin Mary of Guadeloupe, or Coatlicue (mother of the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl)—in whose skies he sees:

Garnet bellies coalesce in pregnant clouds
Clouds, their bellies full of virgin birds;

The use of drugs belies the need for salvation, not by a human lover, so much as by the archetypal divine feminine, as seen in poems such as “Florilegium: Voynich Manuscript”: “manuscript undecipherable and she is my joint and my anatomy : the text so smoothly written the ductus is fluid and does not appear enciphered: and we can never know who we will be.” The addict, whose disease typically forces him into acts of disloyalty, seeks the experimental and visceral expression of bloody rites of piety, in order to find loyalty and innocence again—the monogamous virgin birds.

Streeby is an empathic-ekphrastic, meditating on each of his collaborator’s watercolors like he were divining a Tarot card in a not-for-profit reading.

Vulnerability prevails as the most obvious, yet still most interesting aspect of addiction, and the daily struggles of addicts—and these poems do not disappoint, in accepting that condition of nakedness, fully, to the degree of confrontational intensity generated for us—which is at least part of what poetry should do.

Tension : Rupture, by Cutter Streeby & Michael Haight. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, November 2021. 61 pages. $21.95, paper.

Arturo Desimone is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist. His articles, poetry, and fiction pieces previously appeared in BerfroisNueva York Poetry ReviewCírculo de Poesía (Spanish), Island (Tasmania), the Drunken BoatAnomaly, and in the poetry collections Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock) and La Amada de Túnez (Clara Beter Ediciones), a bilingual edition of his poems and drawings published last year in Argentina. He has collaborated as a translator on the book Land of Mild Light, a translation of poems by Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, released by Arrowsmith Press during the pandemic.

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