Friday, January 19, 2007

Donald Britton, 1951-1994

The poet Donald Britton died of AIDS in 1994, after publishing one slim volume, Italy, in 1981 with poet and novelist Dennis Cooper's Little Caesar Press. That book is long out of print by now; that press, long defunct. Britton's poems are full of vivid yet subtle language and a wistful reticence, a sense of romance all the more powerfully affecting for its muted understatement. While clearly in the line of John Ashbery, who was a mentor of his in New York City, Britton’s poems have a greater intimacy even in their distances, and a verbal glamour the more enchanting for its modesty.

Donald Britton’s poems frequently explore not just what it might mean to be someone else, but what it might mean to be no one, or everyone. While there is often an “I,” that pronoun sometimes serves as no more than a point of view, a place from which the poem sets out. The “you” that flickers in and out of the poems can be the beloved, a friend, a doppelganger, or the reader, or all of them by turns. There is thus, despite the poems’ lack of a defined self, a sense of intimacy, and an emotional openness made more effective by the surface reticence.

Many of Donald Britton’s poems do not have immediately identifiable “topics”: they are not subject-centered in either sense of the word. Britton doesn’t usually write about himself, but rather about states of mind as it moves through the world. The mind which these poems explore is particular and even individual, but it is not personalized in the post-Confessional manner, but abstracted and generalized, as in Ashbery's work, which is the single strongest influence on Britton's poetry. (Ashbery wrote a blurb for Italy, as did the novelist Edmund White.) For Britton, selfhood was something best dispersed or at least shared. This refusal to hold onto the self as a personal possession may be the source of the paradoxical intimacy of these seemingly impersonal poems.

Britton is almost unknown today (he is not listed in Contemporary Authors, nor in any reference works except two for which I have written about him), but I have assembled a selected poems volume of his work titled (after a line in one of his poems) A Kind of Endlessness. This manuscript includes Italy, In the Empire of the Air, his unpublished second collection, and a sheaf of uncollected and unpublished poems. Work dies if it isn’t read (though like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White it can be awakened by a reader’s kiss), and I would like to keep Britton's work alive. I am currently seeking a publisher for this project.

White Space

Beginning where words drop off
In a remnant of music too simple
For speech. I walked back and forth
Across the park as between two worlds,
Neither of them mine, like one
Emerging from one dream into another
Dream, and so on and so forth;
Autumn arriving with heavy breathing
And giant billboard apples
And a kind of built-in auspiciousness
Threshing the air like applause.

The austerity of the setting
And the mind’s horniness might produce
A fresh coordination of the accents,
As though a behind-the-scenes
Explanation of their workings were
Possible if not forthcoming. Horns,
Timbrels, harmonicas, flexatones:
These could contribute to the din
Even now loosening robes of silence
Over Mouseville, pouring into a pause
Endlessly prolonging itself

Out of the time that used to be
Left over for the give-and-take
Of ordinary life, mowing the lawn,
Polishing brass, etc. Now “earth
Blankets herself with the sea
After mating with the sky and the sons
Of earth penetrate the mother in death.”
From this, a museum must rise,
Flawless and inevitable as the snow
That chills the feet of walking statues:
Receive a horrible birth.

Capital Life

Too much like one who bears a resemblance
But is not who he is taken for,
As in dreams the ideal is written in every line.
Or as one roaming hither and thither

Across the surface of the earth seeking
Perfect and autonomous quiet in which
To pronounce those syllables he knows: that
There are endless styles but only one subject

And this is it. Yet blankness still invades
The side of a wall, nailing you hypnotically
To a single course of action
Whose consequences spangle prematurely

Like morning vapors washing their burden
Of light through bamboo shades. Perhaps.
But does the ability to count presuppose
Some grander, intuitive understanding

Of mathematics, or does one just get by
With plain addition and subtraction
And the sang froid of one’s convictions?
Or are these numbers like signs from God,

Clear yet inexplicable, denoting the in-between
States of being and aspiring to the condition
Of a bookmark, dividing the known
From the unknown, neutral with respect to each?

When the time has come to speak, with what
Excuse will we deny ourselves the opportunity,
Choosing silence rather than an inferior
Blessedness, as if we might never grow up,

But extend the prologue so long that it becomes
The tale itself, as so much cautious preparation
Leading to a description of breathlessness,
White porticoes? A kind of endlessness.

In Ballet, You Are Always a “Boy”

In ballet, you are always a “boy,”
Growing up into unmade suits
Whose sleeves will deny
Any knowledge of you. For the day
Is wide, yet fixed, a stream
Eddying into smudge mist,
Seemingly pencilled in
Beneath the sky’s magnesium flash,
Though more real than the grief
You cannot yet have remembered—
Whistled or hummed. Later,
When we have less time, we may know
What we know now in an altered light
That bleeds from below, stairs
Burning above, passing a wintry dusk
In the ordinary way,
And feel reappear in a breeze
Floating about a column
The close, the familiar moisture,
The unheeding fluidity
Of the old days and years.


Lawrence LaRiviere White said...

Reginald, thank you for sharing. & thank you for keeping an otherwise lost voice alive.

These poems remarkably combine a modest tone w/remarkable turns of phrase & thought. They're not clever to be clever. No snark.

Bloodbelter said...

I remember Donald Britton's death vividly because he died in the same year as Assotto Saint and several months before Essex Hemphill. After David Wojnarowicz's death two years before it seemed that all of the brilliant gay poets and writers that I admired since 1986 were passing.

Perhaps these presses may be interested (and forgive me if you already know about them):

Suspect Thoughts Press

Melville House Press

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks for these suggestions for presses to contact regarding my Donald Britton selected poems project. I will definitely follow up on them.

KevinD said...


Thank you for the post. Donald Britton was an incredible man of great talent. His was my friend in college and he shared his earliest poems with me for which I still feel honored. I am saddened by his death albeit 14 years removed and wish you the best in your efforts. KevinD

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post about Donald. I knew him growing up and became close friends with him in college (the University of Texas at Austin) where he was my brother's roommate. He was a wonderful man and one of the funniest people I have ever met. We both moved to NYC in 1979 and I saw him occasionally there, but lost touch after I returned to Texas.

He was always passionate about his writing and I am thrilled to find that others are keeping his poetry alive.