[Trio House; 2023]

To live in suspense is to live in an inherently disempowered position. Typically, if you’re in suspense, you’re waiting for something to happen that you have little, if any, control over. David Groff’s engaging new poetry collection considers a few different types of suspense.

Readers of Groff’s earlier work know that Clay is both the title of his last book and the name of his husband. Therefore, the very first line in the new collection, “I leave Clay,” carries a lot of weight. It suggests a departure from Groff’s earlier work while suggesting a literal breakup. Of course, the latter reading is quickly scuttled by the next line, “but just for a weekend. Business.” What makes this couplet such a strong opener is that the technique speaks to both title and theme: Live in Suspense. In this case, the suspense of the line break generates multiple meanings. Even if one of those meanings is just as quickly erased by what comes after, the idea has been planted in the reader’s mind, making them wonder what hidden discontents may lurk below the surface of the book’s poems.

And indeed, the resolution of the second line is quickly complicated by the elaborations of the subsequent ones:

Los Angeles, so the risk is minimal.

Still. Each parting is practice.

It’s a little death, what Donne

and the others called orgasm,

that intense suspension[.]

Separation leads to suspense. Travel leads to suspense. Unlikely though it may be, we are never completely safe from the threat of “a Lyft crash” or a “bike collid[ing] /with a truck on Route 9.” Hypothetical worries, however, can seem a bit more real to gay men who have lived through the AIDS crisis, especially those who are currently living with HIV:

Every risk is a rehearsal . . .

when I kiss Clay

I recall how HIV, unchecked,

made our every day a next-to-last,

urgent as orgasm, until

it was tamed as truth and metaphor.

Despite the grimness and uncertainty of the situation, there is beauty in this language: the mix of stressed and unstressed r’s in “Every risk is a rehearsal,” the oddly parallel cadence of “urgent” and “orgasm,” the firm t’s and r’s of “tamed as truth and metaphor.” Language is something we can hold onto (or at least something we think we can hold onto) as surely as HIV has been “tamed,” in the speaker’s eyes, by being abstracted into metaphor.

And yet, Groff knows too well that this is not the whole picture. The queerness and outsiderness of HIV/AIDS and its association with queer trauma is unavoidable. The poem “Days of 1986” begins with the sentence fragment, “My suspect blood.” Fully occupying a single line, it becomes a second title for this poem about taking an HIV test in the early days of the epidemic:

Dr. Siroty filled a vial

I had to take myself

down the grim avenue

to the Board of Health . . .

I saw hundreds of others

like me bearing their blood

but inside their bodies.

Here, the speaker brilliantly acknowledges our shared humanity while indicating how acutely aware he is of his difference as a gay man, especially a gay man in 1986. HIV/AIDS may be a disease that anyone can get, but in the mid-80s (and to a lesser extent today), it is still an illness that positions one as an outsider. And let us not forget that, prior to the development of antiretrovirals, HIV/AIDS was an illness characterized by suspense: Which complications will I experience? Will there be lesions? Blindness? How will having HIV impact my housing and employment? How much time do I have left?

To live with HIV is to live in suspense, yet Groff’s book is about far more than that. Mirroring the life/death dynamic at the heart of the HIV poems are those about the speaker’s aging father. Though many of these poems are about the end of the father’s life, they are also deeply concerned with the vestiges of his life, a life that was rich yet still feels somehow incomplete, representing another variation on the book’s central theme of suspense. “Prodigal,” for instance, begins

When we moved our father out

of his stuffed and stuffy house

 to the dark brightness of LA

and the attention of my brother,

his place lay furnished but vacant,

a memory, a hope, and a lie.

The home becomes a site of incompletion, the catalogued past hanging on uncomfortably:

The house, no childhood home,

held grief like a grudge . . .

My father’s spine-split books,

the cameras’ cracked accordions,

the sheepskin of diplomas,

the piano’s rusty intestines[.]

The distant family past has a presence as well, in the form of “the clothes his mother sewed, /the suits his father preached in,” details that echo the ghostly immediacy of the long-gone friends and lovers in poems like “Days of 1985” and ”Days of 1992.”

Even the father’s death does not bring the speaker to a place of resolution, as we discover in “His Corpse”:

This body once included a throat

used to exhale a final thousand words,

help me help me help me help me help me

in its final week, addressing sons or God,

and look at it now, scooped out,

embrined, sealed shut[.]

The seeming finality of a corpse’s sealed mouth is undermined by the speaker’s frustrated desire to “force my breath in and out /to stun it out of posthumousness / . . . to stun into life.” Fittingly, the poem loops back on itself, with the son adopting the father’s impotent plea:

the carcass good for nothing but

this expensive remembrance

exempt from its own heartache,

never inclining its ear to hear my

            help me help me help me help me help me

It’s these images of “forc[ing] breath,” a throat that is no longer a throat, and the repeated pleas for help (perhaps rescue from the brink of death?) that skillfully add texture and nuance to the suspense theme while subtly echoing the HIV poems.

Groff poignantly covers other moving subjects as well—the speaker’s mother “deprived, need[ing] more than could be provided”; the biological children the speaker “know[s] will never exist”; and even the speaker’s own reluctantly repressed femininity, beautifully expressed as “heels [that] hurt too much to bear / . . .  /and shame was the weightiest mink.” Ultimately, Live in Suspense does not provide easy answers, but its invitation that we spend some time sitting with uncertainty is well worth accepting.

Michael McKeown Bondhus (formerly Charlie) is a bigender (male/neutrois) Irish-American writer. His books include Divining Bones (Sundress, 2018) and All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), winner of the Thom Gunn Award. His work’s appeared in Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Hotel Amerika, Court Green, Hayden’s Ferry Review, diode, and Copper Nickel. He’s received fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Tyrone Guthrie Center (Ireland), and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers (UK). He teaches at Raritan Valley Community College and lives in Jersey City, NJ. More at: http://michaelbondhus.com.

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