Poem Bitten by a Man (Brian Teare)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

Teare describes Poem Bitten by a Man as a “book-length collage” (85). It draws from Teare’s journals, unpublished works, and published poems as well as from the writings of several queer postmodern painters. The title alludes to Jasper Johns’s Painting Bitten by a Man. The 1961 painting, created a year before the end of one of Johns’s major relationships, includes a thick, gray surface and Johns’s actual teeth marks. Poem Bitten by a Man, in turn, was inspired by the end of one of Teare’s major romantic relationships. However, this chapbook’s poems cover a variety of subjects including the visual arts, queer life, institutionalized racism, chronic illness, and chronic debt. The chapbook is an eclectic conversation about and between these topics.

Readers may relate to Teare’s descriptions of a life with chronic illness and with a teacher’s salary that does not seem to include health insurance. Throughout the chapbook, Teare discusses our culture’s ties between health and economics—and on the additional stress that thoughts of money cause during illness. As Teare puts it:

After the emergency
memory begins again behind a privacy curtain. Esophagus raw, each
minute I spend here is literal money, the single tense in which I live.
I hear a distraught man weeping. I can’t sleep thinking what
this costs. (40, emphasis in original)

I suspect that many readers have similar experiences with debt and illness, particularly if their illnesses are recurring. Teare later adds, “I just don’t want anything expensive to happen,” and readers may also relate to this plea (46). Many of Teare’s poems discuss his wish for everyone who needs care to have it, and the stigmatization experienced by those who need care. As Teare points out: “From the sickbed where I seethe with grievance, invalid & invalid look the same” (50, emphasis in original).

Unfortunately, many people—including healthcare workers, insurance agents, and Teare’s significant other—view those who are poor and ill through the same diminishing lens of culturally-determined symbols. The result is a world where people must accept numbers “in the name of care” (44), a world where the state may cut ties between people and services or people and their own agency. It’s a grim world and one that very much needs to be exposed. Readers will thank Teare for adding his voice to the ongoing discussion of modern healthcare’s fatal flaws.

Poem Bitten by a Man also contributes to an ongoing discussion on the form and purpose of art. Teare suggests how art can queer the culture. Art creates unanticipated, even subversive, associations. Art makes feeling both tangible and beautiful, and it creates an unlooked-for intimacy with an audience that is suddenly invited to share the artist’s feelings. As Teare puts it:

what’s the word
for this unanticipated gift? What’s the word for this queer
technology of association, this intimate contact site charged with
sensuality? The poem! (80)

Early in his chapbook, Teare suggests that this subversive intimacy can also be linked directly to disability through its illicit associations. Teare asserts that art can provide the artist with narrative distance and can represent a variety of experiences. In this sense, art provides what Robert McRuer (and others) have called a crip perspective, one informed by the myriad physical experiences that our culture either fails to account for or uncritically labels abnormal and unimportant. As Teare states:

Being ill in my thirties is like certain paintings from the 60s, …
Like any sign, a symptom becomes
abstract through repetition until illness too seems double-voiced, a
materiality that says yes to what, that says no to what, is what I ask,
negotiating (2)

It is not surprising then, that, despite its often-grim subject matter, Poem Bitten by a Man ends on a remarkably uplifting note. Teare ultimately suggests both that care, including both healthcare and emotional care, is intrinsically linked both to art and to survival. He further suggests that art can mend artists, audience members, and the world. As Teare states:

though Johns eschews interpretation
– “I don’t think you can talk about art & get anywhere” – & Agnes
insists on her own – “These paintings are about freedom from this
world” – I believe care’s the core of interpretative work, fragment
of an immense form of mending together. (84)

The Johns and Agnes mentioned above are Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin, two early postmodern painters.

Teare’s Poem Bitten by a Man is a poignant and surprisingly uplifting meditation on queer life, disability, queer and disabled art, and economic marginalization. Many poems comment on the subversive power of art or art’s power to create unexpectedly intimate connections. Many others comment directly on chronic illness or on the experiences that our culture makes inevitable in features of chronic illness. The latter include economic anxiety, depersonalizing healthcare services, and rejection by intimate partners. The chapbook is simultaneously an interrogation and a celebration of several queer or disabled artists including Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin. Readers will find a great deal to consider here, and they will also enjoy the poems’ complexities.

Title: Poem Bitten by a Man
Author: Brian Teare
Publisher: Nightboat Books
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.