Tim Dlugos is my favorite poet. This isn’t that grand of a statement—I don’t really like poetry all that much. Actually, one of the sheer joys of reading Dlugos, who is newly anthologized in Nightboat Books’ A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, is precisely that dolts like me can become so wrapped up. Throughout my life, and I imagine some others feel the same, poetry has too often been reading without immersion. Like Truman Capote’s nasty, famous distinction between real writing and what he labeled “typing” by freeform authors like Jack Keruoac, poetry has always felt like just words. Novels and non-fiction engross me, but poetry always makes me feel peculiarly like a failure, as though I was missing some part of my brain that smarter people possessed. Maybe it’s because I never latched on when I was young, when your true loves develop, but I’m left only tracing the words, never getting drenched in them. I’m always present, never losing myself, stuck just reading the typing.
Not so with Dlugos. I feel young with him, like someone wide open and available. And that’s by Dlugos’ design. He writes with the abandonment of a teenager, each poem like Cliff’s Notes for his adult development. Anxious, as so many gay men are, about losing your virginity? Dlugos renders those fears beautifully and with comfort to the reader, so sweetly relatable and honest that while reading it, you almost forget that you’re reading about someone else’s life and not your own.
The guy / who picked me up is in the bathroom, and I’m wondering / what he’ll want me to do, worrying that there’s some secret / way of lovemaking between men that I’ve never heard of / and will look foolish not doing, because it’s my first time / doing this consciously, saying It’s a homosexual act! very / clearly in my head, and saying Okay to it anyway.
If you are not a gay man, let me tell you that the anxiety in that stanza is exactly what the first time feels like. If you are gay, no further explanation necessary.
Feeling young is one of poetry’s strong suits. The most famous poets of all time mean something, most of all, to young people, like Lord Byron, Rimbaud or Sylvia Plath. There’s something about the form that appeals to youth’s romanticism, something earnest about lyrics that always seems to ruffle teenage rebellion. If you’re lucky, even when you’re not seventeen anymore, you can recapture some fleeting tastes of that sweetness. But so many of us just spend our adulthood chasing those lost moments. A Fast Life begins with Dlugos’ work in 1970, when he was only twenty years old, and so the book gives us glimpses back, reminds us of what we were like at various ages. One of his early poems is an ode to hearthrob David Cassidy. I still watch you Friday after Friday / and save your pictures, as though you came / with baseball bubblegum.
I started reading Dlugos when I turned 25 years old. Sometime around my birthday, I had to fill out a tax ID form and I noticed I had jumped demographics from 18-24 to 25-30. At that moment, it seemed like my life was over, any desirable, vibrant qualities I possessed already used up, left, instead, to chase desirable, vibrant qualities in the beauty and art and winks of that younger crew of people. I didn’t cry, I didn’t sulk, which was only a slight consolation, since I imagined that my emotional maturity in this crisis was more proof of my adulthood, and that the fact that I could handle growing old only meant that I was, in fact, old. I read Dlugos every night, though. Even that was, at moments, sad. What business did I have in falling in love with a poet at 25 years old, acting like a kid with his first pocket companion of the words he loved?
As I read through all of A Fast Life, I read with Dlugos as he got old, which helped me at a weird moment. Not very old—Dlugos died at the age of 40 from complications due to AIDS. But it’s comfort enough to read while a person whom you respect so much, whom you begin to truly love, grows up. The beauty of an anthology is watching the years go by, seeing the changes. All people should have that kind of primer as they, themselves, age. We all need a handbook, a Growing Old For Dummies, maybe. Dlugos’ poetry becomes less sweet, certainly. In one poem, he spends a sharp-edged stanza or two admonishing young people who don’t know their history. When boys of 25 explain the Sixties to me I want to rip their tongues out. He’s bitter, maybe, but I like to think he’s just relishing his wisdom that the young have looks and spunk but they actually don’t know anything, especially that they’re young. In another poem, he imagines what his apartment will look like when he’s an old man. These later poems seem deflated, less excited, but they never give in, and as is proven by this anthology, he wrote until the very end of his life. We know he won’t make it all the way to retirement, AIDS will cut that dream short. But it’s a comfort to know, at the very least, he privileged thinking ahead, and that maybe, just maybe, thinking about old age is worth the words, even if, at times, they’re not as pretty as they were in younger days.