A Fine Gray Seething

Brian Teare's Poem Bitten by a Man is a hybrid book that presses language into and against visual art.
A grid of inky gray letters.

Every morning I walk past the New York Stock Exchange in the Financial District, deep in downtown Manhattan, where I spend my days not working in finance but sifting through and organizing the archives of a long-running literary nonprofit.

Each day is a study in contradictions. A new IPO or corporate-sponsored event for the opening bell brings out food trucks and buses, or SUV limos and a red carpet in a roped-off area in front of the Exchange. Crowds of tourists snap pictures outside while commuters such as me filter through. But before and after this midpoint on my walk from the train down Nassau Street, I also pass, in a succession of blocks, striking workers with their giant inflatable rats, passing out flyers or blowing whistles outside corporate towers, making their demands known.

In the conference room that serves as my improvised office, I look out toward the East River, south of the Brooklyn Bridge, and think of the artists who worked there, down below, some 70 years ago—people such as Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney at Coenties Slip, or Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s, during their intense relationship, when their studios were on top of one another on nearby Pearl Street. Immediately across the way from where I sit is Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington bid farewell to his officers at the end of the American Revolution in 1783. Beyond, nearest the waterside, helicopters land on and take off from a dock stretching into the river. I wonder where they are coming from, where they are going, who they are for with their torrent of noise that my window reduces to a throbbing tremble.

Most days since starting my new job, I experience this archaeological compression of history—a layering of art and war with commerce and labor organizing—after reading Brian Teare’s Poem Bitten by a Man (Nightboat Books, 2023) on my train ride in from Brooklyn. Its phrases and mood saturate my experience like a headphoned soundtrack. The work—Teare’s seventh full-length book of poetry—opens not in New York but in a gray San Francisco winter, during the first of what will be a series of doctor’s appointments. Chronic pain and precarity—“debt again settles in my body next to illness”—coexist with the romance of a city shared with a lover—“our new blue bedroom like the prow of a ship headed into the Pacific.” Symptoms are described, but the illness is never named or satisfactorily diagnosed.

The poet’s own body is at the center of the book. Although the narrator is Teare, it’s a constructed former version of himself, cut up and collaged from old notebooks. This narrator becomes a vivid protagonist, his self-examination clarified through the distance of time. Another more contemporary version of Teare is also here—shadowy and less clear—his presence closer to the surface but felt largely through the cutting, collaging, and occasional asides that gesture to and acknowledge the reaching back across time.

Teare is particularly interested in and attuned to writing as a process, including the preparatory work of writing. In an early passage titled "In the archives of abstraction,” he studies and contrasts a notebook of Agnes Martin, the minimalist painter, with a sketchbook of the artist Jasper Johns. He loves Martin’s handwriting for “its adjacency to drawing.” And he admires how Johns “truly tries things out” using the sketchbook to prod and experiment with ideas. Teare looks to visual artists, especially to Johns and Martin, as guides for making a life in art while remaining cognizant of the fact that poetry and painting are not the same. “The painted line differs from the written line,” Teare suggests. “The difference has something to do with time, the way I open the notebook then the laptop years later, write then type, fold seconds into each syllable, minutes into each sentence, the selves of each moment cool & creased as they collapse into pleats.”

Poem Bitten by a Man isn’t a collection of poems, though it does collect a series of Teare’s ekphrastic poems after individual works by Johns. The book consists mostly of prose, but this prose regularly erupts into line breaks and typographic play that creates cuts, rhythmic sequences, and concrete geometries of text in blocks or grids on entire pages. It’s akin to the poet-critic tradition—if we can call the motley examples a tradition—that includes Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (1985) and Eliot Weinberger’s book-length essays. It’s a hybrid book, both poetry and essay, as well as an attempt to press writing into and against visual art: to plunder a visual artist’s tactics, wherever instructive, and import them into a poetics. 

A central question the book raises: What is abstraction? How does the expression of poetic abstraction relate to, say, abstract expressionism in painting? These questions provide a start, a door into a more complicated and embodied inquiry that avoids becoming academic or bloodless. Teare’s abstraction isn’t about vagueness or language’s detachment from the material world. Instead, his concern is about style, method, and conceptual rigor with an insistence upon materiality, very much in line with William Carlos Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things,” a phrase from Paterson (1948), Williams’s contribution to the poet-critic genre, and another ancestor to Teare’s project.

In an interlude of broken lines near the book’s start, Teare asks

                                                         between invisible & visible
          the ineffable & the clinic
                                                         what’s considered to be the “material”

This insistence on materiality often centers on the body, particularly that of Teare’s narrator as he struggles with illness and a familiar sort of Bohemian poverty while being ever compelled toward art. The poverty is linked to medical debt from illness and the eventual shuttering of a Bay Area college that employed Teare as an uninsured adjunct:

Overdrawn on the 11th of the month. The check from the college comes late, with a note not to cash it for two weeks. Hand to mouth, I laugh as I cash it. Then checks stop coming. The administration asks us to continue teaching as they sell off the assets[.]

Teare takes on the classic philosophical mind-body problem but shapes it, and thus makes it concrete, with particular circumstances: how to make art through pain, how to be a poet and pay the rent. The visual artists Teare circles around and returns to serve as guides and models for living, thinking, feeling, and making.

If Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or even Joan Mitchell were Teare’s central figures, this would be a very different book, one that might relate abstraction to an almost athletic form of gestural, painterly expression and, thus, to the powerful, even virtuosic, body. Instead, Teare focuses on Johns and Martin, two highly particular, queer, radically different artists whose abstraction emerges from private or highly individualized conceptual practices.

Johns, best known for his paintings of targets and US flags, serves most centrally as a model for the life of an artist and as a double for Teare himself: a queer, Southern-born man who left the American South to become an artist. The disjunctions also provide illuminating counterpoints: the almost half-century historical gap between Johns, who is now 93, and the 48-year-old Teare; Johns’s New York versus Teare’s San Francisco; Johns’s childhood in South Carolina on his affluent grandfather’s farm versus Teare’s working-class roots in Georgia and Alabama. Johns’s formative creative and romantic relationship with Rauschenberg, whom he met in 1953 and remained with for eight years, is similarly mirrored in Teare’s book by the narrator’s lover, referred to only as “R.” Teare writes, “Johns loves an R / I love an R. When Johns & R break up, its’s with admirable severity & what follows are years of the work I like best. A fine gray seething.” Poem Bitten by a Man is a book-length study of this “fine gray seething,” where pain and desire may find a new object in art. 

Johns stands beside Teare himself at the center of the book; Martin hovers over the text as an ever-present specter or angel. Her legacy—she died in 2004—isn’t dissected like Johns’s. The Canadian-born Martin, famous for minimal paintings of lines and grids as well as for eventually abandoning the New York art world for frugal isolation in the desert of the American Southwest, provides a model both more remote and pure, like an example of an ascetic or a saint. Her adherence to the grid provides an idealized model for an artist distilling formal choices to a particular essence that remains open and clear. In contrast to Johns’s art, Martin’s is characterized by an almost beatific innocence (her term). Although she’s present throughout Teare’s book, she may be less central simply because Teare already wrote a collection of poems, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (2015), that uses Martin’s writing and artwork titles to structure and inform poems about chronic illness. That book should be read as a companion to Poem Bitten by a Man.

The squarish format of both books recalls the distinctive wide footprint of Leaves of Grass, which Walt Whitman self-published in 1855 and which, however odd, may have best accommodated and showcased the length of his rangy bardic lines. In the second of many subsequent editions, Whitman’s book adhered to a conventional trim size and more closely followed at least the outward conventions for a published book of poetry. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Poem Bitten by a Man is sprawling, bodily work that, in its way, is a study of the United States.

But Teare’s book isn’t a brazen enactment of a poet speaking with one voice for all. His project simply examines what it is to be a particular American artist or poet, acutely aware of his origins as a working-class, white, Southern, queer man who left the South in search of a life in art. Teare attempts to acknowledge how the calamity of slavery still resounds in American life and how, without basic social protections, precarity rules the lives of so many working poor, including artists, poets, and adjunct professors. The United States is one of the great abstractions in the book, with the flag as its icon.

Each of Teare’s ekphrastic poems, interspersed throughout, responds to one of Johns’s flag paintings. In the first ekphrastic poem, “Flag, 1954-55 (I),” Teare begins

to read a painting   to read a page   is to live overlapping moments   flattened on a plane

He then hones in on Johns’s selected subject:

            to paint a flag   means design’s taken care of   johns says in 1959   it gives me room
            to work on other levels

But Teare interjects to ask

which other levels   does he mean? 

In the poem, Teare relays biographical information about Johns, “a former soldier / with a new boyfriend,” noting also the “estranged alcoholic father” who died the day before Johns’s first exhibition in 1958. The poem concludes by considering the power and openness of the flag symbol while hinting at its hazards, one of Johns’s great subjects:

the flag’s a fantasy   of love & destruction   emblem of everything   conflicted inside him
the flag’s an affect   wide as a migraine   debilitating & interesting   to lie down inside

The succeeding poem, “White Flag, 1955” takes this last line as its first.

Although Johns is drawn to the form of the flag—fixed yet adaptable, a sort of blank that stands in for the nation—there are aspects of American life and history that he largely avoids discussing. While watching a documentary on Johns, Teare notes the documentarians’ refusal to acknowledge that they are filming in the mostly Black town of Allendale, South Carolina, where Johns was raised. Teare then examines how race isn’t generally invoked in relation to Johns’s work. “Like his sexuality, race is not something Johns talks about in public. I’m raised to believe this is ‘just’ good manners.” But Teare, mindful of the Southern-bred manners of his youth, is also attentive to the effects of pain: “A wound is a mood / if it doesn’t heal, it lasts a lifetime, like childhood or history, & occupies a body absolutely.” Teare understands the destructive power of obfuscation and erasure. When he reads Johns’s relatives described as “prosperous farmer[s],” Teare names the erasure of the Black laborers who worked the land and produced the family’s wealth.

Through this cautionary example, Teare interrogates his own attraction to abstraction. Although one page in the book begins “I prefer code to confession,” Teare seems to actively resist this preference. He doesn’t shy away from relating even abject scenes of physical distress, such as, for example, losing control of his body in public and having to return home to clean himself up. Worse than this very human ordeal is the markedly inhumane one that follows: when Teare is in enough physical distress that an ambulance must be called, the potential cost for the uninsured becomes the graver injury.

A section on the great abstract painter Sam Gilliam, known for his large, flowing, draped works, is one of the rare moments in the book that feels tacked on, less integrated into the whole. Gilliam, a Black, Washington, D.C.–based artist who died in 2022, was a contemporary of Johns’s who received only a fraction of the attention and critical adulation. But Gilliam’s “Composed,” formerly known as “Dark As I Am,” may be the most fitting visual corollary to Painting Bitten by a Man. Gilliam’s painted assemblage incorporates a backpack, clothing, and painters’ tools on a wooden door. This display echoes the first lines of Teare’s book: “The poem begins when all the tools I use to write it break. … I open the notebook: wide graphite lines, narrow rule. … Then I what. Pick them up & move them about.” The tools for creating the work, especially notebooks, are incorporated into or partly become the subject of Teare’s book.

Painting Bitten by a Man adapts its title from a small painting Johns made in 1961, after his breakup with Rauschenberg. It’s another work painted in Johns’s signature hot-wax encaustic medium, this one made to receive his mark in the form of a bite. The piece stands in as a sort of borrowed symbol for the shift in the narrator’s life, when he accepts a more stable academic job and attempts to move on after the dissolution of his relationship with R. This shift concludes the chronological time frame of the book. But the work the book documents doesn’t end there.

Teare’s writing process, as dramatized in the form of the book itself, brings to mind the poet Bhanu Kapil’s prose works, especially Schizophrene (2011), in which she writes of throwing her notebook into the “weird blue light” of her winter garden. Her book is transformed, eaten away by time and the elements. She finally rewrites it from what remains legible come spring. Teare’s collage method of composition is like this wintering or like the generative violence of composting. His book emerges sourced from notebooks that have been cut up, broken down, fermented, and intermingled with other elements—the critical nutrients of quotation.

In the book’s concluding pages, Teare writes, “A mosaic of quotation, I lie down on the healer’s table.” Poetry is survival. The poet must persist and be nurtured to write, and the poem, as a project, must persist and be nurtured until it is shared by being read aloud and relegated to memory or, through publication, given fixed form. The book, as a technology, mirrors and replicates this intractable entanglement between poet and poem, body and mind. From a vast collage of fragments—from research and reading to documenting his own experience—a new book emerges. And it is made well.

Teare never concisely defines abstraction for readers, but this is no failing. Instead, abstraction is given a rich context. What is abstraction here? Abstraction is another person’s pain. It is also another’s desire or ecstasy. Abstraction as a mode in art may either reveal or keep hidden. Teare writes, “I want to say what looks like a delicate construct of compromise—ambiguity, code, open secret—is privacy.” Shared experiences, concerns, or knowledge is often required to crack the code in an abstract work of art. Privacy becomes intimacy. Teare’s method of collaging—his reading and obsessions, his collected biographies alongside his own intimate, old notebooks—creates an ecology of references and experiences that readers can enter and ultimately share. With this empathetic exchange, abstraction, in art and poetry, can be a mode of conveying feeling, for making felt what seems unrepresentable or unsayable. It can transubstantiate feeling into form or tonally color the expression of a thought. It can become a technique for jumping bodies.


On my way in to work today, I watched as three plush-costumed figures—Snap, Crackle, and Pop, familiar from cartoon cereal commercials—posed behind a black metal barrier in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Tourists posed on my side of the barrier as I walked by, their smiles frozen as they awaited a photo. A line of food trucks on the other side of the barrier served no one, each advertising a cereal, a snack food, or an expensive power bar. As I walked in front of the Exchange, I approached a giant oval shape that reminded me of Teare’s description, near the end of his book, of “Double Torqued Ellipse,” a Richard Serra sculpture in corroded metal. “It looks like masculine intimacy sometimes feels, emotionally distant & intense.” I realized as I approached this plastic version that it was instead a giant potato chip, and I almost laughed. An enormous banner hung in front of the Exchange. And I wondered if a poet had invented the single concatenated neologism it displayed—“Kellanova”—announcing, it seems, a new era for a conglomerate that continues to sell mostly the same products it sold during my childhood.    

I walked further downtown toward Pearl Street and Coenties Slip. The sound of the striking workers’ whistles, meant to agitate, instead gave me great solace. It was the throbbing white noise of the helicopters’ whirl that felt like a menace. I headed to a corporate plaza that overlooks the East River to drink my thermos of coffee before work. I read a Teare line that I had copied into my notebook: “I want a theory of embodied life that is also a poetics, a technique for writing without ‘violation of the central self.’”

Originally Published: November 13th, 2023

John Vincler is a writer, painter, and critic. His art reviews regularly appear in the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn and is working on a book-length project about cloth as a subject and medium in art.