Suspirias: Kevin Killian's Argento Series -- Jacques Khalip

What kinds of massacres lead to poetry? And are massacres poetic? Whatever else one might say about Kevin Killian's Argento Series (which borrows its title from the Italian horrormaster Dario Argento, and its inspiration from a slew of his films), the pulsings of bloodlust and loss of bloodcount—of animation and decreation— palpably inscribe his poetry as a distinctly anatomized practice—a form of bodily thought that dismembers as it remembers: "The poetry was in the gore; but in the American version the gore was cut out. Flat" ("Tenebrae"). The author's blurb on the back cover of the book provides a brief description of this process of memorial-through-forgetting: synoptically collating personal moments in Killian's life ("first boy Kevin ever loved dead Richmond VA, 1991 Kevin frozen, unable to think of a way to write about AIDS crisis") with broader cultural events ("death of Rock Hudson, 1986 Grammy award Song of the Year 'That's What Friends Are For," 1987, reign of terror, AZT approved by FDA"), Argento Series is "placed," as it were, within disruptive contexts that shake the line between the private and the public. Taking his cue from Kathy Acker's suggestion that the "films of Dario Argento [become] a prism through which to take apart horror of living and dying in AIDS era," Killian's poetry seeks, on the surface, to offer a kind of lyrical equivalent to the horrific choreographies of Argento's cinema. The Italian director's poetics of violence provide a paradigm for Killian's filmic poems. Such equivalencies, however, shouldn't be confused with a blind investment in a culture of "living and dying" that redeems illness through art, replacing cinematic gore with poetic violence. Rather, Killian explores personal experiences and histories at a distance by looking through Argento's lenses, as if gaining enlightenment through refracted shards. Massacres in Argento Series remain at the periphery, just beyond sight yet never out of mind. The serial killings of Argento expose the body to the plagues that come from without; illness, decapitation, stabbings, shootings—all of these desecrations literally unpeel the self from the inside, turning the body's organs against itself: "The boy, dead on the forest floor:/rough tongue of deer licking his face, salty as sugar./Spindly legs of deer, spindly as origami:/his body, wasted and angry in death" ("Udo Kier"). For Killian, the processes of horror cinema seem to unravel, like a Moebius strip, the contours of the body's memory bank, until the cadaverous flesh of personal history is laid out.

Killian locates a cognitive agility in the interstices between bodily transgressions, disruptions, fluids, and violations. Though AIDS guides Argento Series thematically, what is interesting about Killian's work is that AIDS literally engenders a new aesthetic practice, a new form of poetic attention enormously attuned to sensual amplifications and disruptions:

Don't make me over, I don't want to lose this strange power of mine
I talk to insects
Arranging trains of locusts and spiders

I take AZT, what's with my complexion, or am I shorter
am I losing
my power of command over insects

The kinds of sensitivities unlocked by Killian do not poeticize AIDS as a paradoxically salvational event. Identity's loss of blood count—its inability to stay accounted, quantifiable—dissolves the page of subjective guidance. Killian's verse resists mimetic representations and sober, sentimentalizing narratives. Like Acker's work, Argento Series is most remarkable for the fact that it seems so utterly external, exuding comical feelings and sensations that cannot be traced back to any one mind because the poetry is a hallucinatory tapestry of others' thoughts and lives. In this sense, the book's seemingly perplexing cultural response to the AIDS crisis lies in pitching the lyrical voice entirely outside the worlds of the poems themselves. AIDS resonates with histories and (after)lives that cannot be properly accounted for by anyone in particular—it haunts the poetry like an unrecognizable otherness. Indeed, the book conjures numerous seances that plot out a rival, poetic historiography: "Robin, it would be a great thing if you, me, and Jack Spicer/Were taken up in a sorcery with our mortal heads so turnd/That life dimmd in the light of that fairy ship/The Golden vanity or The Revolving Lure" ("The Inn of The Red Leaf"). Invoking friends (or fictions) dead or dying within the pages of his book, Killian listens to the dispossessed voices of Argento Series which resonate as infinite ventriloquisms, asides, mimicks, and plagiarisms. Killian's poetry perpetually seeks connections that move beyond simple identifications with social reality, and towards more extensive, multiple relations with a culture of imaginative dispossession— a culture ecstatically assonant and yet vibrant because it is awash in difference: "If I had a lira, beyond the Aegean/as you were floating on a dolphin's tail,/salt, silver, your eyes closed to the heavy sun/and I were a transvestite, wearing/the clothes of a woman and the red high heels of death—" ("Daria"). The moving target of identity shifts in these lines with almost dreadful beauty, indicating that the speaker has embarked upon a horrific fantasy structuring, rather than merely exaggerating, the world's gruesome momentum.

The bricolage techniques of Argento Series, moving almost cinematically through references, memories, and figures, enumerating everyone from Wayne Koestenbaum to Neil Jordan to Charles Olson to Frank O'Hara, evoke a lyricism pushed to the limits of propositional logic. Self-representation is "prismatically" dispersed by Killian throughout his volume: "I'm caught between two stools/power to live/power to talk to the insects and they will obey me on trains" ("Phenomena"). On the one hand, the book's elegiac tone seems to gather up these remnants of persons and scatters them like disposable character actors; on the other hand, there is a distinct eroticism in Killian's poetry that seems aggressively concentrated and surreal:

Give me back her floating eyes
I'll put them in my shadow box
and build a new face around them
smiling and screaming
mouth open, apple blossom falling from it
come on and let it snow
("House of Wax")

It isn't hard to think of Killian's volume as playing upon the multiple affective registers of trauma, melancholy, or paranoia: "There are six of us on this tram/before we get to Minna Street/one of us will be murdered!" [Il Tram] ). Emotions careen throughout the book at a breakneck speed, each poem an atonal song of contemporary disaffection and almost punk-like energy in the face of its elliptical narrations: "Cut to theme music: brass, strings, zither, giallo/the word bursts in red spectacular fire, soon/muted to a dull yellow like mustard/It's the angle, it's the hook they keep telling me in the front office, in New York" ("Giallo"). One cannot help but read Argento Series as inaugurating a truly paranoid poetics: Killian's use of Argento seems to suggest that there is a fascinating horror in our interactions with and knowledge of other persons. It is this exaggeration—indeed, hallucination—of sympathy into lyrical paranoia that advances a kind of negative poetics in Killian. His poetry seeks to reclaim and reassess the most intensely feared of affects as the mode through which AIDS, identity, love, and memory can be felt and retained with a critical ambivalence, eschewing soft memories for combative perplexities. In this sense, Killian's work achieves a kind of queerness that might be likened to the experiments of Robert Duncan or Jack Spicer, or more appropriately Frank O'Hara, in that the deliberate elasticity of the expressive self is pushed to a kind of abstraction where thought and voice explode in a buoyant sexuality, at once Whitmanian and Decadently splendid.

The visceral imagery that haunts Argento Series draws us to consider the possibility that we are complicit in the very thoughts and events that attract us by virtue of their shredded, carnal beauty. If Killian's cinematic poetics of AIDS cannot ever entirely indulge in mere confessions, portrayals, narratives or vignettes, then it is because AIDS, like dead friends, lovers, and acquaintances, lies on the other side of knowing, on the side of a world that has already been culturally transformed by a virus that destroys as much as it recalls: "Dennis writes 'AIDS ruined death,' 1990...1997 death of Acker, 'I saw something important I can't remember."

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