Life tends to be the ultimate game of intrigue for humans, as one can only guess when, how, or where they may end up dying. The harsh reality is that people will confront the deaths of their parents, relatives, friends, and lovers, as well as the ending of relationships, careers, and hobbies, which all serve to complicate one’s sense of mortality. Beginnings and endings are hallmarks of the human experience. As soon as readers enter into Live in Suspense, by David Groff, they are met by the epigraphs of Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde. This pair sets an ominous tone and some initial linkages between death and suspense are made apparent, but there is also a dark humor to these quotes. Even the title of the volume itself hints at some playfulness that exists with the inclusion of the heteronym live. The nuances that exist between the different ways to use the word, live, are all interrogated over the course of the three parts of this book, as well as the lack of certainty which simply is the price of the human condition.
Throughout this collection, the speaker shares his childhood and adult experiences dealing with the deaths of his parents, as well as his friends and lovers, many of whom were victims of the AIDS epidemic. His conservative Christian upbringing and strained relationships with his parents reside in direct contrast to the speaker’s burgeoning sexual identity while also remaining intimately connected. In the poem, “Days of 1980,” the speaker as a young gay man uses religious connotations to navigate an early sexual encounter: “he the striated saint / burned umber in his desert, / I the reckless explorer / plunging like sun into fog.” His lover is a landscape to be surveyed and studied, but the speaker is unsure and overshadowed by his lack of maturity. These allusions to shadow and light continue to crop up in many of the poems in this volume, as they heighten the contradictions between the speaker’s familial and personal experiences. While at home with his father, the young speaker is told to remove himself from the light of his father’s lamp, but asserts: “I thought I cast no shade, / that my body was just myself, / apprentice to his mass.” This young speaker yearns for the attention and acceptance of his father, to be guided by him, yet he is only met with indifference and often disgust. These interactions spotlight the dying relationship between father and son, which thrive on a bitter suspense all their own. All the while the religious tensions build: “I have a finite set of Sundays / and I am burning” with the speaker feeling “closer to death than I am / to the acolyte picking the carpet / clean of his father’s crumbs.” He is practically begging for teachings and a role model who will offer him the light of acceptance.
While the older speaker has a kinder, gentler relationship with his mother, there is still space between them that makes true connection difficult even when she is dying. “Still she is an other. / My fears make her / remote as a last ridge.” He longs to remember the love she tried to offer him as a child, and admits: “Still she blooms somewhat, / as if stepping forward from her body / into the character I love / with all my failings.” The stanza break between the second and third lines underscores the separation that cannot be bridged between the mother and son. Additionally, the line and stanza breaks all serve as paused moments of suspense, where “Every risk is a rehearsal” and “Each parting is practice.” This disconnection remains into adulthood when the speaker longs for tender moments: “come live with me, / hold your old son / as you did in my boy-fever” but “Now she has died and cannot be thanked.” A tinge of regret obscures the speaker’s memories of his mother and only imagined posthumous conversations can now exist.
Midway through the book, there is a freedom being shared, almost shouted from each line as the teenage speaker makes way for the adult version of himself. He breaks free from his family’s grips on him: “where the family of hiding / hides the strayed son / and strips him of / his penis and pen until now.” However, this release does not bring him joy or closure. For the speaker, life is comprised of periods of waiting, preparing, and contemplating death. The speaker grieves for the sentiments left unsaid, the regrets that pile up, yet derives comfort from them all the same: “Come home to me, grief, / in your garish, happy costume— / don’t leave me to savor the rest of my days.”
There is a peace that continues to build up between the liminal spaces of living and dying, as the adult speaker envisions a peaceful afterlife. He engages in editing to revise the shortcomings of those who went before him. The ghosts of past lovers return once more, ever present within the adult speaker, each lover intertwined with one another. “In my dreams, their gazes glisten, / the eyes of dogs at a kill shelter.” They are “the host of those we lost, / the congress of young men, / their faces faded and vivid, / their hands out.” While the speaker doesn’t trust these shades, there is a calm gained in their reappearances, as he wonders who will escort him to his own death, in the end. For now, both the speaker and his husband will have to wait, as there are no guarantees: “In the morning we lift the shade. / There’s light and there’s lack.”
Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems have been featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism have been published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, and Tupelo Quarterly. Archived writing and more can be found at www.shannonvarechristine.com and on Instagram @smvarewrites.