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  • Avant-Garde Interrupted:A New Narrative after AIDS
  • Kaplan Page Harris (bio)

Of the writers who have died, whose work doyou miss the most, that is, the work that didn't get written?

Robert Glück to Sarah Schulman, "BGXOXSS"

Poet, novelist, critic, and playwright Kevin Killian watched scores of writers and artists die in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of them were his close friends. Faced with a crisis that offered no a priori writing template, no model that did not seem derivative or misplaced, Killian took nearly a decade to settle on a poetic response. He ultimately hit upon an unlikely inspiration—to allegorize the AIDS epidemic through the blood-splattered cinema of Italian horror director Dario Argento. The poems in Killian's 2001 Argento Series christened the first decade of the century with an elegy to figures who had altered the terrain of poetry—and certainly would have continued to do so had their careers not come to a premature end. For my contribution to this special issue, I want to consider Argento Series as a book that helps us to see not only a poetic history that might have been but also the genealogical rifts that continue to shape the social and aesthetic horizons of contemporary experimental practice.1 [End Page 630]

Here is the middle section of Killian's poem "Probability Zero" as it appears in Argento Series:

In America, the probability's zero,—like weather,like the inane weathermen on Tv who tell you ahot front and a cold front are moving intoa clearing, where I could be my "self,"rituation normalall fucked up, rnafu, or a "system is moving in"and we're supposed to feign interest or terror—while "watching" the "weather"as years ago Tim died, the man who, whomI once thought the FALCON MALTESE of sophisticatedand he did not love me but I was not worthyHis black glasses shiny like something alive,the way that men do,the way cattle do. He had a visionI longed to share. His body was not soprepossessing. Probability zero that I would liveand he, Tim, his student ID the cover on his book,would study death before I got to do him


Killian does not ordinarily portray popular culture and the media so bleakly. His earlier writing features a poem for Michael Jackson and an essay on Dallas and Dynasty, while his later writing includes a book of poems for Kylie Minogue and more than two thousand customer reviews on The prevailing tone in these writings is buoyant and playful, even mischievous, reminiscent, perhaps, of Frank O'Hara's insatiable enthusiasm for Hollywood celebrities.2 But the lines above are hardly in good spirits. The poem resonates more with the militancy of the 1960s or 1970s, as in Robert Duncan's "Up Rising" or Adrienne Rich's "The Phenomenology of Anger." It also calls to mind the words of Leo Bersani in a pioneering essay on AIDS: "the only necessary [End Page 631] response to all of this is rage" (201). In "Probability Zero," Killian's campiness gives way to a tone closer to that of a Language poet like Bruce Andrews, who derides the media for dumbing down to its audience. The poem's rage is directed at the haze of a twenty-four-hour news cycle where "inane weathermen" manipulate viewers "to feign interest or terror" in unimportant stories like a thunderstorm. Killian torques the newspeak so that the forecast ("system is moving in") evokes a stifling social system where "rituation normal" prevails—never mind that it's "all fucked up." The bitter lines are understandable given that the topos of the poem, as in all of Argento Series, is "every big dream of the world lost // to AIDS and its depredations" (21). "Tim" specifically names poet Tim Dlugos, and this particular poem is written in his memory. Dlugos died in 1990 at the age of forty, leaving him the "possible poet" (32) of the unconsummated romance that Killian hints at. Brief flashes of sentimentality in the portrayal of Dlugos ("He had a vision / I...


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