Have You Seen This Man? is the legacy of a poet disappeared by inadequate health care, and by extension, his government. Edited by Jim Cory for the Arkansas Queer Poet Series (Sibling Rivalry Press), Karl Tierney’s manuscript was uncovered long after the poet took his own life in 1995 (I will not speculate as to why).
This collection contains his writings from 1983-95. Poems like “Boundary” encapsulate the fear that queer communities faced during the AIDS outbreak of the period: “Change yourself, modulate your attitude in order to heal / the resentment which will kill you more surely.” This sentiment is a condemnation of the era’s political regime (on both sides of the pond), which famously ignored the plight of its LGBTQIA+ citizens as they slid from the grip of their loved ones or died in hospitals alone. Despite insurmountable odds, Tierney’s speaker is wistful for survival: “You won’t have to think yourself a victim of talentless pretty- / boy actors who become Presidents after losing their looks.” Survival is a recurrent theme in Have You Seen This Man?, a notion that is never quite within reach.
Tierney’s absence brings an added weight to the poems, and it’s difficult not to read between the lines of poems like “Dating in a Thinning Field,” where Tierney writes, “The good ones have died / or can’t afford a face-lift / and won’t answer the phone.”
The spirit of Frank O’Hara orbits these poems, with a flighty, pretend-to-be-unconcerned voice that is both charming and sympathetic. The poem “Vance Must Die” seems to say that everything can kill you, not just disease, or inaction. Perhaps there’s a choice in how we go out: “Oh, let’s have you hit / by a cab in a crosswalk for assuming the light / turning green meant it safe.”
Like Jack Spicer before him, Tierney doesn’t shy from male-on-male gaze, or the blunt sexual freedoms of the Castro and its queer denizens. Make no mistake this is a joyful book in many ways, not an obituary. The boys in his poems live to their fullest, exploring, and hoping to love—with an understanding that anything long-term is a pipe dream but that’s okay. “Litany on a Perfect Ass” dwells on an increasingly youthful scene (a rapidly disappearing one):
All of this is an age as terrifying in truth
as my age in contrast to your youth—
its disclosure always a mistake
despite which you come off heroic
if, or because, not absolutely pliable.
As if by leaving the lights on you can sell more insurance.
These first two lines show Tierney’s rhyme-play, adding a comical vibe to a common vulnerability in the gay male dating scene: anyone over thirty loses their visibility. Time must have been on Tierney’s mind (he was diagnosed HIV positive), and the dates listed beneath each poem serve as a countdown of sorts—of the man’s youth, his opportunity for a partner, and his dwindling health. “What balls!” shows Ginsberg-like amusement, a voice that Tierney often employs, possibly for sanity’s sake. But this voice never comes off cynical, or woe-is-me. An outstanding element of this work is the heart behind each line, one that I wish was still pumping blood. Beneath the love will always be the loss.
It is heartbreaking to think that Have You Seen This Man is likely the only collection of his work we will ever see, but do not mourn for Karl Tierney. The poet faced life on his own terms, and despite the sadness we are lucky to hold his truths in our hands. In Tierney’s own words, the world is open to interpretation, and pushing forward is key: “Tonight you put on your best leather, / go out in a mantle of masculinity. / You only know old habits. / Who can say they’re bad ones?”
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