Visiting Poets

Richard McCann

Richard McCann

Richard McCann has been instrumental in making poetry that speaks to the AIDS crisis and gay relationships. His work has been included in In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic and The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. His most recent collection of poems, Ghost Letters, received the Beatrice Hawley prize and the Capricorn Poetry Award.

McCann’s poems narrate a haunted world. The titles of his collections, Ghost LettersDream of the Traveler, and Nights of 1990, point to this poignant mixture of presence and absence, of imagination and fierce, unblinking reality. Poet Jean Valentine writes, “Richard McCann writes not about, but from, his losses. We listen to his ghosts and they are ours also.”

While the evocation of memory and death fills McCann’s poems with phantoms, both personal and cultural, they are undeniably focused on the body. Fiercely passionate and deeply elegiac, his poems are, as Mark Doty writes, “posted from the zone where mortality and desire intersect.”

McCann also has a deeply rooted sense of place. He was born in Maryland and has spent the majority of his life in the mid-Atlantic region, co-editing Landscape and Distance: Contemporary Poets from Virginia. Currently, he lives in Washington D.C., where he co-directs the Creative Writing Program at American University.

Select Poems

“The sweatings and the fevers stop,
the throat that was unsound is
sound, the lungs of the consumptive are
-Walt Whitman, “The Sleepers”


What I could not accept was how much space
his body was taking with it: for instance, the space where
I was standing, the dazed fluorescence of his hospital room
where each night I watched him sleep. So this
is the spine, I thought, this articulation
of vertebral tumors, this rope of bulbous knots;
tissue, I thought, as I studied his yellowing skin-
tissue, like something that could tear.
Afterward, I waited in the corridor.
When I came back, he was alive and breathing.
Here, let me rub your back, I said.
Was it true what I’d heard, that the soul resides in breath?
Was it true the body was mere transport? I untied
the white strings that secured his pale blue
hospital gown. The blue gown drifted
from his shoulders. I rubbed his back.
I rubbed his back. Not so hard,
he said. I don’t need to be burnished yet.

From GHOST LETTERS (Alice James Books, 1994)

The wallpaper flowers
looked like foxes, sharp
noses pointed down as if
they were climbing
to the floor, although
really they were twisted
stems to make bouquets. I
pressed my hands to your shoulders as if
they might have joined there: what
did this crying sound like
in the next room? I couldn’t imagine us
past that wall. But when you embraced
me as if I were something to be carried
a long way; and when you rose
to dress in the bathroom
adjoining and the tap
water struck the porcelain
and you said
while shaving Don’t
you know I
love you, why don’t you know
I love you-I knew
what day it was; I knew
how the sleeves of my shirts
were folded inside the shirts I had folded
into my luggage; perhaps I could even have imagined
the concierge downstairs, his hand hovering
over the racks of room keys
like pawnshop watches…

From GHOST LETTERS (Alice James Books, 1994)

Tonight the Chinese lanterns along the dock could lead your ghost to water;
the departing ones need light, for their sight has already dimmed.

As for me: I’m sitting at the edge of the old canal,
whispering this ghost letter, staring at the moon. Dear friend:

There is no one pitiable in this life. No “pitiful abundance.”
If you saw back into this world, you would see me by the hydrangeas

still trained to the chain-link fence, where you first took my photo.
If you have the inclination to look back, that is; if the dead

are changeless; if the gravesite is something other than a way of having,
in the end. When you were dying, the hospital chaplain stood in the doorway:

she said we should be tending to your immediate journey; she said
we should take turns sleeping; she said the room was too cold for words.

And someone told her: Quiet! Don’t you know the dead go on hearing for hours?
What might I have said? I’d made so many promises. According to one book

I’d consulted, the autumn fields were set afire after harvest, to warm
the dying, as they rose.

From GHOST LETTERS (Alice James Books, 1994)

Poetry Center Reading

Spring 2003