“Who Are Your Dead?”
Robert Carr Talks to A&U’s Noah Stetzer About His New Poetry Collection, The Unbuttoned Eye

Photo courtesy R. Carr

“Who are your dead?”

Asked and answered in Robert Carr’s poetry collection The Unbuttoned Eye (Three Taos Press, 2019). More than a collection of poems, this debut full-length includes not only over fifty poems but also a number of black and white photos taken of the author in his younger days. In a delightful and moving interview, the poet Robert Carr describes it this way:

“There were some connections through the writing of the manuscript and with the publisher that brought work together…not just the poems but also the combination of history and images and poetry….Three Taos Press produce books that they consider works of art…and they approach them in that way.”

Poet Robert Carr was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1959. He graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he studied philosophy and was an active member of the Bates Dance Ensemble. Following his undergraduate work, Robert moved to Portland, Maine, where he pursued a brief career in the arts as an actor with the Children’s Theater of Maine and as a model for local visual artists including K. Max Mellenthin (who photographed the images found in The Unbuttoned Eye).

In discussions with his publisher about choices for cover art, Carr had in mind a specific black and white image that wasn’t in the kind of condition needed for reproducing. After a search for the photographer, Max Mellenthin, Carr not only tracked down a usable copy of that image but also negatives from the entire photo shoot from thirty years in his past.

“[The] book is so much about unpacking those thirty-five years of experience as a gay man; it was as if another frame of who I have been arrived to be part of the book…it was like another Robert had come on to the scene…was inviting himself into the book.”

The Unbuttoned Eye is divided into three parts, each section opens with a piece titled “Letter to Mapplethorpe.” In these prose poems, Carr begins a dialogue with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989):

“That really became one of the most challenging elements of writing the manuscript because where I started out thinking that I was reconstructing history, my actual experience of the book is that I was deconstructing myself…the name Robert became the vehicle for deconstruction: Robert the speaker, Robert in the [recovered] images, Robert Mapplethorpe, [along with] memories of lovers that I had lost to HIV who became an extension of Robert.”

In 1984, Robert moved to Boston, volunteered with the AIDS Action Committee, and became the first HIV testing counselor with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In response to the HIV pandemic, Robert engaged in a thirty-year career in public health and currently serves as Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences in Massachusetts.

Photo by K. Max Mellenthin

Carr sums up writing The Unbuttoned Eye by saying, “It was a really complicated process to find all the ways in which to express that thirty-five year history but at the same time hold on to myself as who I am now.”

Carr’s poems tackle all aspects of gay life and love in this collection but some of the most powerful poems are those that respond to HIV and the AIDS pandemic: “So many of those poems tie to the very first years of HIV” when people believed that “this was only happening in New York…that this is not coming here…. so many of the poems tied back to men I had relationships with then or men who ultimately would die in the epidemic.”

About one of the many memorable poems, in this case the poem “Font,” Carr shares some background:

“[Back in the early eighties] when I was in Portland, Maine, one of my first encounters with someone who had been touched by HIV disease was at a bar called The Underground… it was a young man I found very attractive. I was in my early twenties and I started talking to him. The heartbreak was so there, he just spent three days at Maine Medical Center in Portland with his partner who was dying and he described what it had been like in the recent weeks….I brought him back to a hotel room where we had sex…I was simultaneously wanting him to feel better but on some level I had the instinct that all he wanted was to feel intimate with someone who was not sick and at the same time it was as if I was daring the virus, just try to get fucking close to me——just try it.”
That poem ends with two figures in a slow embrace/almost dance:

“Put your feet on mine. Arms / wrapping shoulders, cheek against chest, I walk us / to the motel window, listen to your jag of breath, / whimper of weeping for a man I’ll never meet.”

Carr’s work has appeared in numerous journals including this one (“Bed Making After the ER,” December 2017 issue); those poems and his chapbook Amaranth (Indolent Books, 2016) certainly promised what this full-length collection delivers. Some other places you may find his Pushcart-nominated work include Bellevue Literary Review, Rattle, Sonora Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Massachusetts Review. In all his work, you will find that Robert Carr is a poet who works deftly with form and language to go beyond nostalgic reminiscing into brave and artful renderings of a life in and around HIV.

Photo by K. Max Mellenthin

“I felt like I was compelled to respond to the epidemic in my community that led me into a thirty-five-year career in public health and that has always felt like a career that chose me because of the events of history…but now I came back to writing…the poems have become a vehicle for unpacking that thirty-five years of history…I have felt compelled to write these poems.”

For more information, log on to: robertcarr.org.

Noah Stetzer grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His book I Can See Needing a Knife was published by Red Book Chapbooks in 2016 and his poems have been featured at New England Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and at various other journals. You can find out more about Noah and his work at www.noahstetzer.com.