Tenderness by Derrick Austin (BOA Editions, 2021).
A funny thing about reviewing a book that’s been out for a while is whether and to what extent to consider the critical consensus that has taken shape in the intervening months between book launch and the appearance of a review, such as this one, more than a year later. In the case of Derrick Austin’s Tenderness (2021), the poet’s second full-length collection after Trouble the Water (2016), critics at Rain Taxi have praised the powerful deconstructions of homophobia, gender, and patriarchal masculinity, as well as the vital role that close friends play in fostering a “casual intimacy” that “extends to the reader as well, often with a direct, soul-baring” effect. Phillip B. Williams, writing for NPR, argues that Austin’s candid, contemplative speaker is “sustained by friendship unlike any I’ve ever seen in poetry,” in a way that Megan Fernandez adds, “suggests our friendships are our most constant and least performative intimacies.” Certainly, the circle of friends introduced in Tenderness, which includes Danez, Morgan, Marcelo, Vanessa, and Suzi—fellow poets, perhaps—expands to welcome readers into the easy intimacy afforded by the speaker’s genuine vulnerability and forthright reflection. Indeed, “To Friendship,” a poem that opens with a stress dream and hallucinated tarantulas, concludes with the speaker’s unabashed admission that he had never envisioned the kind of gratifying fulfillment that can result from otherwise everyday, collective activities:
My friends sleep in other rooms.
We pooled our money for a weekend cabin.
We breathe together.
On our trip, we ask for what we need without fear; we refill each other’s cups—
I didn’t know I could choose any of this.
Another aspect of Tenderness that has earned acclaim is the way in which Austin effortlessly references and remixes works of Western art, most notably Romantics like Lord Byron and Caspar David Friedrich (“Distracting myself, / I photoshopped you into Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”), but also iconic contemporary pop, such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Maybe more remarkable than any allusion or citation is the way Austin architects an experience of proceeding through Tenderness. It’s as if the book presents itself as a series of rooms to be toured, each one rendered in refined detail, their guide a speaker with no hesitation to divulge the most intimate machinations of his personal life. But the museum of Austin’s Tenderness is a hall of mirrors, and around every turn the speaker must face another facet of himself. See, for example, the breathtaking poem, “Taking My Father and Brother to the Frick,” which relates the speaker’s relatives’ boredom inside the galleries, but turns on an unexpected, searingly direct question:
Even the loaned, marble busts
of kings and soldiers fail to arrest you.
It’s nearly closing time. The elderly linger,
rapt. Who has looked at you lately
with such tenderness?
Unlike the pensioner patrons, Austin’s speaker doesn’t linger on this moment, and instead moves swiftly past familiar paintings: “I ignore my favorite portraits [...] afraid to share my joy with you.” In the end, the speaker writes off the indifference of his father and brother, but the poem retreats into an unspoken secret, one that draws readers perhaps even closer than blood:
You are both good men.
Walk into the Fragonard Room. You both seem bored still.
It’s fine. Perhaps we can progress like these panels,
slowly and without words, here—the city
where I first knew men in the dark—
in this gold and feminine room.