AIDS as Monster: Kevin Killian’s Argento Series

Editor Evan J. Peterson, Poetry, April 15th, 2013

The particular horror of slasher films offers us an erotic and organic status quo...

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For poet, novelist, and playwright Kevin Killian, the way to deal with the AIDS crisis was to approach it through metaphor. The horror film, Italian director Dario Argento’s oeuvre in particular (Suspiria, Deep Red, Phenomena), is the, a-hem, “lens” through which the HIV epidemic is examined in Argento Series, Killians’s 2001 collection.

The double entendres, as campy as they are, are no less chilling. The poem and section titled “Today It’s Me…Tomorrow You!” remind us that this killer, mysterious as any masked slasher, strikes with no warning or mercy, and we’re all potential victims. In the 80’s and 90’s, death from AIDS was more than a potential threat—for gay men such as Killian, it was likely. He reconciles his reality with myth, a practice poets have been using since poetry and myth were one. It’s simply that the myths have changed medium.

Kevin Killian, Argento SeriesIn “Zombie,” which also references the early British slash film Peeping Tom, Killian writes, “…Jesus fucking Christ, I’ll bring/ Corpse after corpse to wash your feet with, to open a closet/ with a bullet in space…”  Many other iconic horror films are evoked, not just Argento’s work.

In “House of Wax,” Killian exhibits more of his industrial/medical imagery, which clashes boldly with images of nature: “drugged tubes piercing up her throat, like thorns/ leaky thorns, twisted brambles,/ but pure and white and red.”

The tension between the natural and the manufactured is continually brought off the screen into the poems. The particular horror of slasher films offers us an erotic and organic status quo—the soft body, the horny body—which is soon torn apart by instruments created by humankind (the rustier, the better). In “La Setta”:

Say you were in a cult as a girl

would memories haunt a woman, repressed

needles ring your face like Oberon, a tingle

your face rips off…

As Killian’s friends, lovers, and even enemies die off, one by agonizing one, it becomes very much the plot of a horror flick. Who will survive, and what will be left of them? asked The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Killian implies the same question, taking refuge in the stylized camp and catharsis of Italian horror as costar after costar, friend after friend, is smashed like a fly on gray velvet.

Likely the poetic draw of Argento’s work (and that of Bava and the Italian directors in general) is the stylization of the images. There’s the extravagance of an opera smashed together with the luridness of a comic book. Suspiria, for instance, is an art deco terror in which an entire set and murder sequence can be lit in one color. Pink, say. Maggots rain down from the ceilings, but to no advancement of the story. They’re just freakish for the delight of being freakish. With so much material, is it any wonder that the book comments on itself?

In “Testimone Occulare”: “Conventions of horror demand a nut,/ eyewitness, whose eyes can’t be trusted,/ but the life I’ve lived—gross,/ the deracinated heart, pumping dully on a lead table…”

Even the bio on the back cover is chilling. Eschewing a book description or farty quotes from other poets, Killian instead offers a bio of the AIDS epidemic as it has intertwined with his own life: “1990…first boy Kevin ever loved dead…1991 Kevin frozen, unable to think of a way to write about AIDS crisis, 1992 Kathy Acker suggests films of Dario Argento as a prism…1997 death of Acker…”

Killian’s book is arch, often zany, sometimes intentionally choppy, but it always circles back to the horror of living in a community in which people are suffering tremendously and dropping dead at a plague’s rate. We can’t pretty up AIDS, just as we can’t pretty up murder, but we can make them elegant enough to regard, campy enough to laugh at in relief. As Killian and Dodie Bellamy write in collaboration in “Tenebrae,” “The poetry was in the gore…”

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Learn more about Argento Series by Kevin Killian at the publisher’s website: Krupskaya; purchase Argento Series from Amazon.

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Evan J. Peterson

Evan J. Peterson is the author of Skin Job, (2012 Minor Arcana Press). His zines include Secular Exorcisms, The Ecstatic Tarot, and Hello Kitty Chainsaw. A poet, fiction and nonfiction author, columnist, editor, performer, and teacher, Evan's recent work can be found excerpted in the New York Times and in Weird Tales, Court Green, Assaracus, Aim For The Head: An Anthology Of Zombie Poetry. He is the newly appointed creative director/editor of Minor Arcana Press.