When a poet like Derrick Austin (Cave Canem fellow, Lambda Literary Award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award finalist) comes along, it isn’t so much about picking one poem or one line to write about it; it becomes a search, an attempt to capture an aesthetic. To be honest, it was easier for me to pick a single word that encapsulates my experience of reading him than to pick a single poem. Nothing fits so well on Austin as the word luscious.
Austin is a poet of pleasing richness, a full-bodied talent, embodied and emboldened in sensuality. Lyrical and complex, his prize-winning debut “Trouble the Water” is filled with gorgeous lines and imagery. I once described reading this book as akin to visiting a museum, exploring various pieces of art and bodies (of people, of water.) It is a blossoming of flowers and rivers, all the while this most gifted guide walks along with you, narrates with insight and intelligence.
Austin manages to stave off viscous density with beauty, graceful turns, and a light musical touch when needed. His poetry, a place “where cypresses and oaks play / shadow puppets on sawgrass,” is elegiac, yes, but with such careful craft it simultaneously becomes poetic worship. Austin allows that balance, that “tenderness and brutality” to come out, which makes the ugliness of the world bearable, helps us witness without withdrawing.
One of the joys of reading Austin, besides the delight and ache of the poems themselves, is the ekphrastic nature of his work.
No space for swallows between lances
in The Battle of San Romano. So much tension
in all that Roman stillness: the banners
of nations and gold-plated weapons free of the gore
vultures will eat when they come
like grief and art from somewhere just outside our vision.
— from “Paolo Uccello’s Birds”
I am often awed, educated in art, in history, in video games and movies, in food and drink, other writers. He is worldly, world-inclusive. Again, his work is luscious, succulent in details and knowledge.
“We could live deliciously,” he writes and I believe him, and say yes.
Which spell of Austin’s do you find yourself under? What feast do you find in front of you? And once you take a single bite, could you ever stop?
Yours in words,