Midlife is a reckoning with our experience of time. The past seems impossibly far away. The future feels foreshortened. This phase of life demands that we take stock of who we are in the present and make peace or changes before we die.
The 51 poems in David Groff’s haunting third collection, Live in Suspense, take such an inventory. A collection like this could only be written by a poet at this stage of his life and Groff’s level of mastery. Like a handful of snapshots, several of these poems capture formative moments in the speaker’s life: the short-lived thrill of his sexual awakening as a gay man right before the devastating advent of AIDS (“Days of 1980”), the need to hold on to hope while watching loved ones waste away in a hospital’s AIDS ward (“Days of 1985”), and the fear of testing positive for HIV (“Days of 1986”). In “Days of 1992,” the speaker recalls a seduction that begins in a Fire Island hot tub and collapses under anxiety about the logistics of safe sex. Years later, a memento—a metal heart the man gives him before he dies—marks the moment as something driven by more than lust. “William, I have questions to ask,” the speaker asserts in the present day. Are they questions about what might have been or what happens when we die?
Whether as a deer bolting in front of a car or a bird crashing into a window, death is everywhere in this collection. It clouds the speaker’s past and colors his thoughts about the future, mainly because his husband, Clay, is HIV-positive—a manageable but chronic condition. What’s unspoken is that it poses a threat to the speaker as well as Clay; the risk of transmission is low, but it exists. “I’ve never tasted the cum / of a man who wasn’t me,” the speaker marvels in “You Kids Get Off My Lawn,” a diatribe of resentment and disbelief spoken to a younger generation for whom different, unconstrained possibilities exist. The speaker in this and other poems might be shocked to find himself in midlife because he never thought he’d live this long. After all, many of his gay contemporaries didn’t.
In the title poem, the speaker runs through facets of his death anxiety like rosary beads. Leaving for a business trip, he imagines all the terrible things that could happen to Clay or him while they’re apart. Yet it’s also a kind of magical thinking—as if anticipating loss is a way to mitigate it. “Each parting is practice,” he believes.
In other poems, the speaker contends with the trials of caring for aging parents, the shock of watching them die, and his guilt over feeling like a lousy son. He recounts pivotal memories from his youth as a way to retrace the steps of where their relationships might have gone wrong. In “Write About Somebody Else’s Family!,” his father goes berserk when he finds something the speaker has written as a teenager about being molested by his uncle: “I was so wrong to / do this, to write it, / my face felt scraped / all the way down to / my felt thigh.” The speaker is made to feel badly rather than being consoled—as if the writing was the crime, not what happened to him. In “All the Nights,” he inventories how he took his mother for granted as a self-absorbed teenager, using chores as metaphors for emotional neglect: leaving unwashed dishes in the sink, laundry on the floor, and trash to take out. Groff writes, “I spun like the young in the sphere of myself, / a mother a tool, an attendant, a nuisance, a given.”
Looking back on moments like these, the speaker has a different understanding of how his parents might have felt—and why. The perspective reveals something else unique to midlife: as we age, life gives us opportunities to understand our parents as people better. When the speaker and his brother wrench their widowed father from his hoarder’s nest of a house, the speaker now understands his father’s need to be reassured that he might go back someday to a place that no longer exists except in his imagination, that the house, like “the churches he’d tended” as a man of the cloth, was “a place that could not live / without his ministrations.” Near the end of his mother’s life, the speaker convinces her, who “didn’t ‘care for’ vegetables,” to at least try one; the tip of her consenting tongue changes the story of who she is from one of unwavering intractability to poignant possibility.
This mutability is likewise seen in multiple poems that share the same titles. Three poems called “A Boy’s Own Bible Story” are contemporary takes on tales drilled in childhood: Noah building his ark to escape the floods, God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Jesus healing the leper. In the latter, the leper is a lovestruck man transformed—then haunted—by another man’s touch: “I wander like Lazarus, / alive and too well. / The teacher I love goes on / and I live in my desert / unmarked for forty years.” Two poems called “Suspense” connect time with tension. One explores the intensity of needing to know the other person in a relationship (“I listen to your eyes. / I live in suspense.”). The other is a slow-motion fantasy about death, as the speaker imagines every painstaking detail of what would happen if his car plunged off a bridge into New York Harbor (“my capsule of car and body / unsuspended and resting, / the rightful water seeping / and then sweeping in”).
While death carves out a channel of loss in this collection, the space it creates allows something mysterious to flow through—something I’ll call spirit. Consider how the speaker seems to recall an early memory of himself as a baby on the changing table, both in his body and hovering above himself simultaneously. That experience of being carries through to adulthood and gives Groff’s poems an unusual depth of perspective. Their power comes from the way Groff gently grounds them in images of the everyday yet allows space for the possibility of a more profound meaning to float through, rise off the page, and reach us.
About the Reviewer
Michael Quinn writes a monthly column, “Quinn on Books,” for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue. Learn more at mastermichaelquinn.com