From Frank O’Hara to Tommy Pico, there’s a long history of gay poets using pop culture in their poems—as a subversive technique, as coding of cultural experience, and more. Poet Eric Tran adds to this diverse lineage with his debut collection The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer, winner of the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. Mining nerd culture—from science fiction to comic books—Tran uses pop culture as a launching point to process the death of a close friend and explore the grief that comes after.
The collection starts with a poem that begins with a line by Joyce Byers, a character in the sci-fi horror TV series Stranger Things. “You’re talking about grief,” the poem begins. What follows is a series of metaphors for grief: “the sky lost/a single stitch,” “nickels bruising/the summer fruit,” “trains/collapsed into prayer,” a “river” that “spat up/its mudbed.” The images speak of apocalyptic violence. Not only are things destroyed, but they become “sterile,” losing their ability to create new life. Yet none of this, the speaker contends, compares to the lost at the end of the poem: “still/ my friend is gone.”
From this starting point, Tran extrapolates pop culture’s role in the aftermath of a beloved’s death. At first, it is very much a type of escapism. In “Recommendation,” Lois Lane, Catwoman, and Midnighter “give me a fantasy hour//where my friend is alive.” The world of comics is a world of infinite possibilities—there are “time-traveling//teens” who can skip through any hardship to “visit their future/selves: happy;” a “sorcerer supreme” can be rescued “by an ancient tree;” and “the ominverse” is filled with “immortal beings.” It becomes no wonder, then, that the speaker turns to these forms of magical story-telling and inhabits them.
Moving beyond grief, Tran uses comic book conventions to give form to his own narrative as a gay Asian American man. The gay body is cast as misunderstood (a la X-Men) in “Explaining Again Why I Can’t Give Blood:” “I’m told my veins are plump with death,” says the speaker, “I’m told//I am full of danger.” Meanwhile, in comic book form, via Amadeus Cho, the Asian American Hulk created by Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa, the Asian American body is a “trailblazing Asian hunk” who is multi-faceted: “toothy, artful, heroic” and “toxic, angry, hellish.”
Like comics, these poems have the ability to be playful and Tran shows his range in poems like “I Wrote a Poem With Faggot” where, through ridiculous repetition of words rhyming with faggot (“flaggott…celebraggot…I am Eric Traggot”), the word becomes silly, ridiculous, and neutralized. Such linguistic playfulness is seen in “Treatise on Whether to Write Mango,” where nearly each of the ten stanzas ends with “mango,” or as an adjective: “my grandmother’s/gums, teeth lost to the war,/ her skin hued and mangoed.” Even as Tran addresses dark, serious themes, his language remains exuberant.
Still, through this talk of superheroes, where comics take on a holy sheen (the collection is sprinkled with “Lectio Divina” or divine readings of comic books), Tran stays grounded in the irrevocable fact of death and grief that can’t simply be undone or made beautiful with literary devices.
In a nod to creative writing of all kinds, the speaker in “Revision” begs the universe to revise his friend’s death: “Redact the news…Dear god, make him open his eyes.” Likewise, compressed prose poems like “Starting with a Line from a Minor Character in Fury Road” and “Alternatives to Saying It” move quickly in clipped, slippery language that evades clear meaning or gives ghosts of meaning. In the former poem, each phrase starts with “can’t” followed usually by a noun that breaks conventional syntax (“Can’t skillet, can’t flicker, can’t goddamn can opener”). And in the latter, the “it” is never said but rather described by adjacent sounds and texture: “Sounds like a bay door yawning open, bottle cap popped with iron rail. Sorry, sounds not like cancer. Nothing like sorry.” This indirectness is echoed in “If You Had Asked What a Poem Meant,” which builds up assonances, enjambments, and rhythms (recalling Gwendolyn Brooks’s famed poem “We Real Cool”) to a single simple yet heartbreaking line—“I miss you”—as if the poem has given up on its structure, its devices.
Many times these poems suggest that art is not as powerful as we think: it can be a balm or a bandage (something that heals or something that hides), but this is “too easy a metaphor.” A person, resurrected in word, will not be resurrected in life. The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer rejects the narrative of healing after the death of a loved one, of getting over grief. Instead, one learns how to “hold the grief//like an attic of heirlooms” or set it down “like a parent does an infant.”
Yet this is not to say that words don’t matter. It’s a metaphor but it’s a metaphor that gives us a way to make sense of the world and empower ourselves as the speaker in these poems is empowered. In this “guide to prayer,” words are incantatory, a religious practice—not religion as in an institution but a way of understanding and coping with the unknown.
In this way, a collection that starts with images of a ruined, sterile earth can end with a well-tended garden. “Then let’s plant a garden/with the memories that keep/me awake,” says the speaker in the collection’s final poem. This planting is a difficult task—“I am allergic to everything green,”—made seemingly impossible in “our desert soil.” Still, this garden miraculously grows.
A collection full of tenderness, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is a smart, hopeful mediation on art, death, and, ultimately, life.
The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer
by Eric Tran
Autumn House Press, $16.95
Eric Nguyen is the Reviews Editor for diaCRITICS.