The Unbuttoned Eye
by Robert Carr
(3: A Taos Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Devon Balwit
Back in the mid-eighties, I sometimes accompanied my gay roommate to the bars of West Hollywood. A woman, I was invisible to the patrons and spent my time like an anthropologist, trying to learn the ways of gay bodies—how men signaled desire and acted upon it—so different from what I knew. Robert Carr’s poems flesh out (indeed!) these hows, unabashedly delighting in men’s desire for other men. “We are the timeless fuck in skinless / dark,” “We do not care / for sex with women, hunt // toothsome men.” Bodies and the pleasures they give are lovingly itemized— “thin men measure dark lengths against the lining of a mouth.” Sexual pleasure is taken in bars, in bathrooms, on boardwalks, in tents, in elegant bedrooms, “[c]ock dowsing the center / that sustains space.” Even knowing the threat of what was then called G.R.I.D. (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), candy-colored condoms were left by many sex-club patrons untouched in bowls: “Come into me unsheathed / strand, little death hood / between boy and man.”
These are the beautiful bodies documented by Robert Mapplethorpe—not the least of which was Robert Mapplethorpe’s own. Readers should spend time with Mapplethorpe’s photographs to catch their many echoes throughout the poems—the infamous whip in the anus, the gorgeous calla lilies, men having sex in multiples, leather-clad men, men pissing on one another, Mapplethorpe sporting devil’s horns. The photographs of Robert Carr as a young man echo some of Mapplethorpe’s poses. They are produced using the process of Solarization, which involves re-exposing the photographic paper during the development process to produce an eerie silver image that makes his young, sculptural body look electrified, surrounded by a dark halo, almost as if the fine hairs of the skin have become metal filings drawn by a magnet.
Alas, as we all know, in the 80’s, the hungry body soon became the dying body. Drawing on his long years of witness and serving the infected and the suffering, Carr writes intimately about the ravages of AIDS on his community: Kaposi’s sarcoma, thrush, incontinence, hair loss, vomiting. These bodies that were once sought out to pose in art classes, for photographs, for one another in the heat of passion, soon fail in hospices, hospitals, and on living room couches. Carr’s poems are unsparing: “Release of shit in a death-bed, spread / of blood shaken over birth. Salt of first cry, sugar / of breast milk, black rattle vomit.”
And yet the dying body calls forth compassion, as in this excerpt, from “Font”: “You whisper how he’s lost the strength to walk, so for weeks // you’ve carried him like a child learning a waltz. You tell me how, / lifted from the bed, he places lesioned soles on top of your feet, / how you walk backward toward the bathroom […]” All-night sex morphs into fear and deathbed vigil.
And yet, as the poet’s mother says to him: “Not everyone who dies / is a beautiful boy, amen.” Many of these men do make it through the crisis. Then, they have to accommodate yet another loss—that of aging, the beautiful, sculptural body morphing into the lumpy, dumpy, mottled old body, yet one that celebrates the opportunity to age. “Wrapped in a fist, I grow still—age spotted, / a lichened twist growing out of a night.” “I burrow contented in fattened fur— / learn to love loss // of lank […]” Bars tame into thirty-year marriages, husband and husband, the raising of a child, wills, and funeral arrangements. While good, the poet admits, “Life is flatter now that no one is dying.”
The reader soon notices that The Unbuttoned Eye is full of Roberts. The collection begins with a prelude: “Some names I remember, others I make up […] I am the sum of prints, stacked Roberts […]” At least fifteen poems reference the name: Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Carr, young Roberts, older Roberts, bedside Roberts, bedded Roberts. How do these many Roberts interact? Robert chides Robert: “Robert, stop moping with the dead.” Robert witnesses Robert: “Robert clings // to castles in reread picture books.” Roberts mourns (with) Robert: “Wordless, / another Robert leaves the neighbor’s house.” Robert reflects: “Robert, even now, we are not lovers. I allow you a bronzed urn on a mantle, nothing more.” Prose poem letters to and from Robert Mapplethorpe serve as section heads. The multiplication of the name, the reappearance of the poet’s younger self in photographs, shifts the reader forward and backwards in time—through avid bodies and ailing ones, wistful and grateful ones. The Roberts challenge one another and call one another to account.
Finally, the poems must stand as poems, and not just as a historical record. These do—artfully and cunningly wrought. Carr has mastered line breaks, startling us with deft shifts in direction, for example: “I sit naked with a small group / of strangers, unusually well / hung.” He plays with layout, adding space at the margins and between stanzas to allow the poems to breathe as in this excerpt from “Someone Else’s Bruise”:
a ceiling skin hanging
in heat. A never-
to-do list. Rolling
onto my back,
I find imprints
on a forearm. Twisted cotton
sheets spiraled on the floor.
Carr’s work is also full of poignant metaphor. He writes of pink magnolia blossoms, birds echoing boys: “Almost to a bird, they fell to earth / and died of fear. Blush gray wings / silent, folded on a walkway […]” Titles unfold layer upon layer. Font evokes tears, holy water, the fluid in lesions as well as the font of the Motel 6 sign. “Chocolate Box” refers to the slab of a dead man’s coffin as well as the narrator’s own anus, hiding the thong of the deceased whose funeral he is attending. Carr has a light touch with his heavy material. Never once does the reader feel that the book was written in the service of a message, and yet it traces the course of an epidemic and of attitudes towards and of those who bore the brunt of it. “Everybody leaves behind something,” Carr writes. We are fortunate that he will have left The Unbuttoned Eye.