Richard Tayson's The Apprentice of Fever & Paul Dilsaver's Medi-Phoria
The Apprentice of Fever is Richard Tayson's first collection of poems; it is the fourth winner of the annual Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize for a first poetry book. Tayson writes as a gay man whose lover has AIDS, and these poems convey a desperate tangle of love and deathliness. In "Prophylactic," for example, he wonders at "this trust in a millimeter / of latex" to protect him from "those thousand seeds of death." And in "Peschanka" he checks his sleeping lover's breathing with a gesture that suggests the temptation of euthanasia—
. . . I reach up, press
my hand to your mouth, as one who
wants to save another the torture
of slow death will place the pillow
over his face and press down
"Peschanka" is a fine poem, one of the book's best—but the ambivalence of that simile hints at a disturbing aspect of much of this collection. Tayson entwines eros and thanatos so thoroughly that they become not only inextricable, but almost indistinguishable. "First Anniversary," for example, compels our horrified attention as he and his lover, after downing a bottle of champagne, climb fire ladders to the top of a twelve-story building and toy with the chance of falling. Love and death blur too in frequent evocations of sexual sadomasochism; poems such as "Phone Sex" and "My Mother Asks if Men Make Love Face to Face" are marred by sexual violence "He bleeds slowly / never moans / arms and legs / splayed," etc., etc. Love appears all too often here as a matrix of sexual need and fury, rather than as any kind of faith. Tayson writes, "I cannot talk about this mystery / in any terms but the physical," and The Apprentice of Fever suffers from that basic conceptual failure. Though Tayson's treatment of his subject is often repellent, he can be a remarkable technician. He puts together a fine sentence, and he can spin out a story to impressive effect: "First Sex" and "The Chase" are riveting narrative poems, suspenseful and surprising. And "'Where Youth Grows Pale, and Spectre-Thin, and Dies,'" titled after a line from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," is full of subtle rhymes and near rhymes that work in tandem with quick line breaks to give the poem a strong sense of measure. Wherever Tayson's muse leads him next, his technical virtuosity will make him worth reading.
Paul Dilsaver's approach to illness is very different rather than dwell on real, autobiographical suffering, his Medi-Phoria operates in the more public (and neglected) vein of poetic satire. Through a large cast of patients and health care workers—some of whom he adopts as speaking personae—he attacks the state of American hospital care. Ranging from the darkly comic to the strictly bitter, from the simply odd to the ingenious, the poems of Medi-Phoria offer a memorable pageant of protest.
Among the standouts is "The Judge Ambulates," a reflection on a powerful man's surrender to Alzheimers Disease; Dilsaver concludes with a startling but marvelously appropriate simile "When His Honor faced the surreal / fluorescent bright dayroom / of the geriatric ward / sparkling like Oz," he was "like a housecat / pitched from an airplane." Another outstanding poem is the fable "Alternative Medicine," in which an archetypal hospital defends itself against a near-military assault by Christian Scientists, herbalists, chiropractors, and others. Perhaps the book's best poem is its shortest, "Physiologic," which reads in its entirety "Only in death / can true / homeostasis / be achieved/ the perfection / of inertia." The poem achieves its own homeostasis, a perfect blurring of the book's satirical voice and earnest meditation. There is plenty of dark humor here, but some poems are just dark. One such is "Overtimed," which tells of nurses who work double shifts for the money, and who get so tired they "accidentally plug plasma bags / into feeding tubes." "What better gods to serve," Dilsaver asks, "than the bountiful bedpan, / open wound, / and company clock?"
Occasionally Dilsaver loses his satirical poise and collapses into an ugly surrealism—as in "The Newborn Nanny," where the nurse pinches the brains out of the smallest premature infants. Such moments certainly work against the book's effectiveness as social critique, but thankfully there are few of them. At the end of a century full of satirical drama and prose fiction, Medi-Phoria is an notable reclamation of satire for poetry.