Reviewed by Hannah Bonner
In Darius Stewart’s first book-length collection of poems, he plumbs both the light and darkness of love, desire, illness and addiction with adroit lyricism and narrative aplomb. Stewart’s poems illuminate stories of family, friends, and lovers with the kind of candor one might expect in a confidant. These poems pulse with ardor, expectation, and the possibility of touch’s physical and affective potential.
Touch can be kinetically erotic, as in “Self-Portrait in a Thunderstorm,” where Stewart writes, “I’ve been brooding in the swelter, / awaiting a tremendous downpour, for // thunderclaps to shudder the still / air the way a man’s thighs // flex & tremble / during sex.” Many of these poems revel in the ecstasy of sexual coupling as a necessary intimacy. The title “HIV Blues” recurs throughout the collection to not warn against such physical communion, but to destigmatize the narratives of those who love deeply and expansively. As Stewart’s ekphrastic poem “After Rene Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’” reminds us: “Love through touches.” In each of these instances, physical and emotional closeness are as charged as an electrical current. Yet, touch also can hurt, as in “My Mother’s Hands,” which underscores occurrences of domestic violence and its aftermath. “She shielded her,” Stewart writes, “with hands a latticework so tight / no light could enter through.”
Many poems include the word “portrait” in the title, evoking an additional theme and tension of self-depiction, looking, and being looked at. “Self-Portrait at Eight” grapples with seeing the body of a sleeping mother and recognizing, in hindsight, one’s sexual identity as gay in childhood. To regard others sometimes helps us better understand ourselves. In “A Tryst” it is not the gaze, but its lack that undoes the speaker, who attempts sex with a stranger. “I wanted to fuck him then & there,” Stewart writes, “just thinking about it. & I tried, & I smiled at him, but he turned away / refusing even a glimpse of me, // & I’d never felt so unconsidered, / as if I were a bench on which he could rest // his disregard.”
In each of these instances of possible connection, whether on a bus, in a hospital, at home, or in bed, Stewart reminds us that to be alive is to ardently seek out intimacy with empathy and eagerness. A former lover reflects that “the opposite of love is not hate / but apathy” and in each of these poems, Stewart brings us closer and closer to the primacy of lived experience and embodied knowledge so that it is not just in one of the final poems where he hopes to set out “a WELCOME / mat large enough for as many / visitors as I can stand” but in this very book where we are welcomed and warmed in the borrowed light of his words.
DARIUS STEWART is the author of The Ghost the Night Becomes (2014), 2013 winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, and two titles selected for Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series: Sotto Voce (2008) and The Terribly Beautiful (2006). His poetry and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Review, Callaloo, Cimarron Review, Fourth Genre, Gargoyle, Meridian, The Potomac Review, Salamander, storySouth, Verse Daily and others. Stewart received an MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin (2007) and an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (2020). In 2021, the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame honored him with the inaugural Emerging Writer Award. He is currently a Lulu “Merle” Johnson Doctoral Fellow in English Literary Studies at the University of Iowa, where he lives in Iowa City with his dog, Fry.
Published Date 07/19/2022
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