Cutter Streeby and Michael Haight by Abby Walthausen

About halfway through the text of Tension: Rupture is a painting from Michael Haight’s Alcoholic Crepuscule series that features a couch on fire. The watercolor tones are lovely, coral and translucent. The feel of this image, like many of his others, is a bit Blakean because it is delicate and tinged in glowing pastel but also because it feels prophetic: burning couch stands in for burning bush, image faces verse. But when the same flaming couch appears, enlarged, a few pages later, we know that Haight’s images are not intended to illustrate, and Cutter Streeby’s poems are not intended to proclaim. The zooming in on all that is grand and grungy, high and low, is a key part of the book’s project for the two friends and artists to drive a creative dialogue that is very much of the pandemic. This is true both temporally (their correspondence was driven by quarantine) and thematically, as the struggles with addiction that lie at the center of the work echo well the weird inside-out universe that cuts off the individual and makes memory expansive and daily life tiny.

Haight and Streeby met at a frat house during their UC Riverside days, and such a site of provisional and backwards domesticity is a fitting space for these poems and paintings to return to again and again. Haight’s paintings are full of drinking houses, and though Streeby’s poems travel across continents and back to childhood, to beaches and to mountains, the memories he explores all contain that simulacrum of coziness constantly in threat of chaos. One of the most interesting things about this book — back to the burning couch again — is to see the banal comic tropes and cautionary exposés of college excesses reframed as something worth looking at anew. In image and text, the two friends replace hazing with the hazy beauty of a high-low world, of coziness in chaos, of celestial patterning arising from youths of reckless choice.

Streeby rises to the challenge by looking at the body — the drunken body, the searching body, the body still in formation. Again and again, the body is a vessel, delicate and responsive, ready to change both form and function. Sometimes he is very direct and plain spoken — in his initial “framework” poem he writes that he “is responding to pressures from the outside in, and from the inside out equally.” While he offers good insight into his project here — to us and to Haight — his poems are more successful when these vessels are part of a remembered scene or a fragmented narrative.

In the poem “Ben’s Ranch: A Fence of Clouds,” the speaker watches his object of desire touch snow for the first time and writes “now I see his hand forming an ampoule for storing liquid : medicine : a glass carafe and i see our clear medium tinged with white and frozen clouds grown into the great nation of the sky.” There is gorgeous fragility in the moments when Streeby’s speaker is “just settling into my own body : coming to fill my fingers to the ends...” Haight responds with beings that are more homunculus than human — giant hands and feet sometimes groping around like infants, sometimes reaching from the skies with gestures of divine benediction. Streeby fills and animates his speaker likewise, with both beauty and baseness: on the one hand he is “the dew on the ground of me is pooling again,” on the other hand “after ingestion liquid is spilt.”

The even more important vessel in Streeby’s poetic universe, is the written word. “Your body on the bed as a glyph,” he writes in “Ansia,” his words existing in an ambiguous place between an observation and a command. Likewise in “One” he writes “Watch one’s body become a lambda : : look at one’s face turned up in these lines cratered by the sun of one’s eyes : blacked out : watch one crumple at one’s feet like paper when one’s done... watch one become a tau scribbled on one’s door.” Just as the limits of the body as vessels reform themselves, the meaning of body as character rearranges. Haight’s paintings respond with bottles that line up along rooftops, slumming it, and teeth that resemble neatly encrypted clouds, disembodied into lines of text.

The form Streeby uses most often, and most beautifully, which is neither part of the explanatory “framework,” poems, nor the pared-down “detail” poems, is a longer, prose-like form which  eschews line breaks but puts the colon center stage. This form, because of the delicacy of dots on the page, works visually with Haight’s delicate lines, and it also works mimetically insofar as the colons give the impression that each line of text cascades into the next, that a thought bubbles and dissolves rather than ends. In the last of the “Framework” poems, Streeby writes “And no, not like the Gesalts! I don’t think there’s a mystical, collective unconscious, something underwriting the way our brains make a triangle from a set of random dots.” Points of reference in Streeby’s best poems do always move forward at the turn of his magical dots — one line sonically echoing the last, one word morphs in into its cognate.

Also not “like the Gesalts” is the refusal of Haight and Streeby to “illustrate” one another or to try to render the other’s work into something fixed, translatable, static. It speaks volumes about the exchange between Streeby and Haight that the strongest poems are those that lie at the center of the dialogue, neither the “framework” nor the “detail.” As Streeby writes in “Salamanders,” “it’s a holy dissolution that’s why it’s so enthralling : : maybe / fire is summer’s summer : a natural hunger.” It is an intense conversation at its center, to delve into that “natural hunger” — longing for substances, for the past, for conversation. For the last at least both artists and readers find a place of both comfort and transcendence.

Abby Walthausen lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles where she guides a tour about twentieth-century printmaker Paul Landacre, and is at work on a novel, Rohmer Summers.