Review by Reuben Gelley Newman
Consider Milton. Consider God. Consider Descartes and Doty, Orpheus and Whitman, St. John and Eve and The Virgin Mary. Consider Persephone and Scheherazade and Lot’s wife—consider how, as Jacques J. Rancourt writes in his stunning second collection, “six hundred thirty-six. / thousand of us died & I did not. / know a single one.”
A stark vision of 21st-century gay male life from a speaker born the year AZT was released, Brocken Spectre burns the brain with the ghostly fire of memory. Drawing on a myriad of religious and mythic touchstones, Rancourt walks through the world attuned to the nuances of representation, whether discussing scripture or sex. His poetry prays for a queer future after AIDS, but any such future remains haunted by the past; the poems veer between yesterday and tomorrow, searching for a place where a gay man can land safely.
“I was careless, yes, and spared,” one speaker muses, while the next declares: “I want something timeless.” In these poems, Rancourt cannot wholly find a queer haven, because, as Rancourt writes in the religiously inflected “Western Wall,” “our utopias have all been urban.” Yet risk and refuge dance within every utopia, manifesting in the strangely gentle voyeurism of bathhouses or the thrill of living “like in Jerusalem right before / or right after the siege.”
Nowhere does desire and danger mix more poignantly than in “Triptych of Our First Date in Which a Man Dies from Cardiac Arrest,” where the speaker watches his lover—a key character in the collection—perform CPR. “It’s wrong, // I know, to fall in love / with someone while someone else is dying, // in a park that’s turned its face to spring,” admits the speaker. Yet falling in love, in a San Francisco where gay men have found a home, provides a bedrock for a speaker who constantly questions themes of faith, sex, and history.
These overarching themes become transmuted through exquisite, almost symbolic imagery. One poem reflects on a comet’s “star-smear” above “a corrugated sea” in the Bayeux Tapestry; another makes elaborate symbols out of freshwater eels; a third chronicles a partridge, then a snake, then hornet, spider, salmon, boy. The idea of a “brocken spectre” itself refers to the mistborn illusion of one’s shadow floating in the clouds, haloed in rainbow, a vividly resonant title image. This imagistic precision combines with a clarity of voice that reminds me of Mark Doty and Richie Hofmann, other white gay poets who treat history through varied lenses.
Structurally, like Doty and Hofmann’s work, Rancourt’s poems often feel spare yet intricate, composed as couplets or tercets with interwoven indentation and slant rhymes. The brilliant first poem, “In the Sheep Gate,” exemplifies these strategies. Ornate wordplay frames the poem, with the speaker first “reconsidering” “two slugs / slung around each / other, organs // exposed & hanging / from an outdoor / lamp.” After he meditates on how he and his lover live “in the easy century”—free from fear of death by AIDS—the speaker turns to the double-edged symbol of a bathhouse pool near the sheep gate, a fountain of angelic healing. Then, in a devastatingly direct turn of phrase, he reflects:
I once believed
faith to be a place
I lived inside myself
where the prayers
for the sick did not
for the dead.
Heartbreakingly, the speaker of Brocken Spectre does have to pray for the dead: for bodies that “reeked heavily like chocolate” witnessed by his grandfather during World War II; for saints in Montréal whose corspes “still reek sweetly of roses”; for how, when he kisses an older man’s throat, “I kissed in that column / a columbarium // for the dead men” of the AIDS crisis. In these poems, the dead “summon the living” repeatedly, and the living grieve, remembering, but they also live within and beyond their grief, hearing how the bullfrogs’ “humid chorus swells” at night, “a cantor to what isn’t dead.”
Rancourt’s relevatory chapbook In The Time of PrEP (Beloit Poetry Journal, 2018) focused more narrowly on remembering the AIDS epidemic, and the poems that carry over to Brocken Spectre, such as “In the Sheep Gate” and “Western Wall” (here revised with a new title), ring true here. Yet I am especially enthralled by how questions of faith, suffering, and history resonate more broadly.
“In Fátima” recalls the story of Lúcia, a Portuguese woman visited by the Virgin Mary in her youth who doubts her visions after seeing history’s wreckage. Rancourt structures the poem in numbered prose stanzas:
That God existed—she never doubted—
But that he watches over us like a meteor in orbit—
Or the large, sad eye of Jupiter.
The lowercase “he” signals a profound uncertainty over God’s power, and eventually Rancourt turns to poetry as a saving grace. The late poem “As Weather” engages further with the memory of the speaker’s grandfather. The older man’s love, sorrow, and terror as he recalls his war service “must evaporate like sweat off skin / & return, eventually, as weather,” the speaker reflects, before turning to the image of a burnt forest where he finds “screams pressed like petals // between the pages of history.” The virtuosic twists of “As Weather” point toward the pervasiveness of history and memory, yet within history’s pages the poet has “tried to write some lines / in an attempt to save my life // which, having done so, I could not forsake.” Like weather, Rancourt’s poetry becomes an indelible force of nature, one which may not save lives but which we cannot forsake, which thunders and sings, lashes and lingers.
It bears reminding that “the time of PrEP” does not yet extend everywhere in the US—much less around the globe. Black gay and bisexual men in the South remain at incredibly high risk of contracting HIV, and dying from it, as this New York Times magazine article describes heartbreakingly. Race is often unspoken in this book, and the San Francisco setting of Brocken Spectre—largely white and Asian demographically—is far removed from the current centers of HIV infections in the US, even as it was a locus of the epidemic of the past, a tension that might have been productive to explore.
But a book, even one as beautiful and ambitious as this one, cannot do everything, and Brocken Spectre does so much so well. Some—and only some—gay men of my generation have a choice to live “as if none of this / ever happened,” where “this” is everything, an overwhelming everything: the AIDS epidemic, rampant homophobia, the fight for gay marriage. Yet we can also see the ghosts of the past blurring in our peripheral vision, emblems of otherworldly holiness and queer faith. In shimmering verse, Rancourt reminds us to look to these ghosts as we enter the future.
Reuben Gelley Newman (he/him) is a writer and musician currently based in Williamstown, MA. His work is available in diode poetry journal, DIALOGIST, and Hobart Pulp, among others. A recent graduate of Swarthmore College, he was a Fall 2020 intern at Copper Canyon Press.