We welcome the publication of In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton, a posthumous collection by a wonderful poet who died in 1994, entirely too young. The publisher is Nightboat Books, and the work of editing it was shared by Philip Clark and the late Reginald Shepherd. I knew Donald well; he is represented in an anthology I edited, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, for which he wrote a statement about the occasion and objectives of one of his poems. It may be the only critical statement that he ever published. Three of Donald's poems appeared in a low-circulation magazine I edited, Poetry in Motion, in the late 1970s. There will be a release party for the book at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City on Friday, May 20, at 6 PM.
In he picture above, Donald is the fourth poet from the left. To his right is Tim Dlugos, with Dennis Cooper standing on the other side of Tim. Amy Gerstler is second from the right. Also in the picture are Michael Silverblatt, Bob Flanagan, and Ed Smith. The venue is the Ear Inn and I'd have to guess the date as early 1980s.
Here is the first paragraph of Douglas Crase's afterword to the new collection.
<< The appearance in print of the selected poems of Donald Britton is an affront to cynicism and a triumph over fate. When Donald died, in 1994, it was sadly reasonable to assume that the influence of his poetry would be confined to the few who had preserved a copy of his single book, the slender, deceptively titled Italy, published thirteen years earlier. As the few became fewer it seemed all but certain the audience for his poems would disappear. Donald never taught, so there were no students to mature into positions of critical authority. There was no keeper of the flame to incite publication, no posthumous foundation to subsidize it, not even a martyrology in place to demand it out of sentiment. The survival of his work would have to come about, instead, as a pure instance of “go little booke”—an instance that must now warm the heart of anyone who has ever believed in poetry. It was the poems in Italy themselves, free of professional standing or obligation, that inspired the successive affections of two remarkable editors and the confident publisher of the present selection. Donald, who despite his brilliance was a modest and self-effacing person, would be surprised.
Crase's afterword concludes with this thought about the "longevity" of poetry as opposed to a "career" in the field.
<<< Donald’s posthumous success in inspiring the publication of his selected poems, coupled with the undeniable failure in worldly terms of his career, is occasion to wonder if the career is ever the same as poetry itself. From time to time a critic will observe that Hart Crane’s suicide, for example, or Joe Brainard’s decision to stop making art, may be regarded as proof the artist realized what his admirers don’t, that the work was a failure and the career could not be sustained. The critic doesn’t quite dare to draw the same conclusion from the abjuration of Rimbaud or the suicide of Sylvia Plath, which reveals of course that the logic in the first case was as opportunistic as it is preposterous. Someday a critic will do us the service of disentangling poetry from the standard map of a professional career. The map is a convenience to committees but meaningless to the future reader—the twelve-year-old boy or girl in San Angelo—the very reader poets must hope to have. What is useful to that boy or girl is sometimes no more than a phrase, perhaps a book or poem, amounting to a style of mind in which to escape or dwell. I recognized such a style of mind in Donald Britton and it made us friends. The first time I heard him read his work in public was at the Ear Inn in New York, the afternoon of March 7, 1981. Blond as ever, he was in that environment an apparition of nervous grace. I can’t say he connected with the audience; he certainly didn’t flatter it. He conveyed, perhaps too clearly for the occasion, his sense of an audience beyond the room. One got the feeling he expected to reach across time and elicit a response composed of the same respect for intellect and desire that we had there, in the Ear Inn, that Saturday afternoon. Donald's poems were not lessons or anecdotes. They are invitations to the unending contemplation of ourselves, and things beyond us, that makes the human species a window on creation.
Here is a poem by Donald Britton from the new volume:
Notes on the Articulation of Time
It becomes a critical account
of all that’s spoken, done:
the drawing in of breaths, even,
these nights whose atmosphere
reminds us of mountains,
white volumes of air. We need
these narratives, we want them:
the city lies before us
and some one person in the sleeve
of a streetlamp awaits
our enraptured attention
as we await the concept of the city
which tells us how we move
in the particolored geographies
about us. We can’t be certain
we are moving toward this person
nor do we require certitude.
It is enough to acknowledge
the movement itself, shavings
of light inscribing a circle.
Our childlike sense of the other
bears these forces toward
completion and renewal,
a lexis of infatuated sounds.
-- Donald Britton