For a few brief years in the 1960s, Harry Fainlight was a shadowy prince of the New York underground. Though he published only one book in his lifetime—Sussicran (1965), narcissus spelled backward—his poetry is an incredible record of queer desire and visionary aesthetics formed through a unique mix of avant-garde and lyric sensibilities. “GOD IS PHOTOGRAPHING ME UPSIDE DOWN,” he writes in “Mescaline Notes,” indicating a focus on the visual and mystical that runs throughout his work. This poetic aperture developed in the experimental crucible of New York City in the early 1960s, situating him in a literary and sexual milieu packed with readings at Café Le Metro, avant-garde films by Andy Warhol, and cruising Times Square. His poems were published alongside those of Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones), and John Wieners in magazines such as Ted Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry and Ed Sanders’s Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. When Fainlight died in 1982, Allen Ginsberg memorialized him as once “the most promising new consciousness poet in [the] English tongue.”

However, this American context has never been the only frame for Fainlight’s work. A British poet born in the United States who spent most of his life in England, Fainlight—perhaps surprisingly—also garnered praise from establishment British poets such as Ted Hughes and Stephen Spender. A world away from Ginsberg, Hughes and Spender elided Fainlight’s sexuality and situated him as a lost voice in the British lyric tradition, describing him as a poet of wrought personal anguish and pastoral revelation. Though Spender celebrated Fainlight in the introduction to the latter’s posthumous collection Journeys (1992), he also cast him as one of the “poets of the abnormal,” noting how Fainlight’s “decadence” or “some sickness perhaps” infected the poems with “some peculiarity of the poet’s own personality.”

The sensational image of the poète maudit—Fainlight was actually carried in a coffin through the streets of London in 1967 as the human reincarnation of the suppressed underground newspaper International Times—is accurate to a certain extent. When Hughes stewarded his friend’s work to the publisher Faber and Faber, Fainlight suddenly withdrew permission and allegedly pushed a burning rag through the publisher’s letterbox. Spender’s euphemistic language of “abnormality” shows the extent to which Fainlight’s mental health—he was hospitalized repeatedly in the last 15 years of his life—is a foundational, largely unexplored, aspect of his work.

Fainlight spent his final years in a remote cottage in Wales, a landscape whose isolation and beauty are tinged in his poems with ire, paranoia, and hope. When his parents died in 1976, he saw signs and symbols in their passing, noting repeatedly that the date of his mother’s death was the same as W.H. Auden’s and his father’s the same as Arthur Rimbaud’s. Materials in Fainlight’s archive at Indiana University are full of evidence of his increasingly paranoid relationship to the world. In a document titled “The Budapest Lecture,” he describes a government conspiracy in which “telepathic erasure signals [are] sent out by aircraft passing overhead” to eradicate “thoughts displeasing to the regime.” These “demonic instruments” of the state were not abstract to Fainlight. In 1971, he was arrested (the charges are unclear) and sent to an asylum in Scotland, a place where his poetry, as he wrote in “Craig Dunain,” was limited to a “manual of prison sunlight.” Fainlight was submitted to electroconvulsive therapy and medicated with antipsychotics “to the point of being rendered comatose.”

The next decade was tumultuous but did offer brief periods of relief or what he described in the early poem “Juvenglandia” as a “Pure upheaval into / peace.” An unpublished late fragment sums up his weary optimism: “I will accomplish a minor miracle of survival.” He did for a time. Fainlight’s body was found outside his home on September 11, 1982. He had been dead for up to two weeks, his lungs full of fluid from bronchial pneumonia. He was 47 years old.

Reading Fainlight’s poetry closely, it’s clear why both the avant-garde and the establishment championed him. His poems from the early-to-mid 1960s vary between maximalist accounts of psychedelic exploration and tense lyrical narratives, often of cruising, marked by transformative images of sexual gratification and undoing. Focused on the tension between anonymity and selfhood, as well as language as material, they echo Beat writing and the expressive strains of Black Mountain poetics.

In “Pastorale,” for instance, the first poem in Sussicran, Fainlight shows a deft awareness of how to move between a traditional poetic music, what Spender praised as “the ravishing beauty of language,” and forceful images of disembodiment paired with pleasure. Describing the ethereal contours of a late-night sexual encounter in a public park, “Pastorale” begins with a striking image of “The spoor of heartbeats / left by an erection.” This gives way to a lyrical passage in which the speaker feels “A breeze so full of paths our world seems passing through / some other / so amorous and yet / so helpless.” Less idyllic than displaced, surrounded by the aching “weight” of “windfall and rot” in the wooded park, the poem ends by playing the lyric against the explicit: “Ah faun / the bitterness of sperm / swallowed or spat out.” Scenes of cruising appear throughout his early poetry, such as in “Echo & Co” in Sussicran:

Beneath a dripping cistern, eyes


Dart like rare fish; each making off


With snapped-up morsels of surmise.


What brings me there? A polite cough


 


Must be my answer here, dear readers.


Like them, to try and make the stupid


Thing remember, I shake my piece


Of raw, unsipped-off navel cord.

Though Fainlight’s later poems carry these same complex lyrical textures, images of sex and the male body that are so revolutionary in Sussicran are largely absent from the rest of his available work. Fainlight’s Selected Poems (1986), edited by his sister, the poet Ruth Fainlight, presents an oeuvre that emphasizes the pastoral lyrics Fainlight wrote in the last years of his life. These are vivid, often visceral poems of psychological isolation and perceptual transformations, such as “Dawn Description, 8/8/1978,” in which the poet observes “The milky before-dawn’s / First Easterly congealing slowly / Separating out into opaque and clear; / Opening the drowsy wounds through which / Its knowledge of the light must come.” Set in the transition between night and day or between seasons, these poems track a solitary attention that finds the symbolic in the everyday.

In a poem from 1981, “Walkers Crisps—Thurmaston,” Fainlight observes “The cows dutifully / Lumbering beneath the exquisite autumn boughs, / Chewing, digesting / These discarded orphic messages.” This is the work that Ted Hughes celebrates in his elegy “To be Harry,” the poem that appears as a preface to Fainlight’s Selected Poems, in which the then-poet laureate honors Fainlight’s “great eye, unchanged,” the lyric vision that drove a poet “Trying to get it right, just how it felt.”

What readers risk by focusing on the inspired “feeling” in his later work, however, is the marginalization of what is most disobedient and radical in Fainlight’s poetry. Poems that contain direct images of sexuality and sexual encounters, such as “Pastorale,” are largely excluded from his two posthumous books. Some poems appear in modified versions, such as “City Park,” which, in Sussicran, brings readers into the “adolescent dusks” of an urban landscape, cruising for sex. The poem animates ritualistic messages from “fire and drums” that permeate the eroticized city, seeping up “through the ground as we lay there, / deep beneath its crotch dark fragrance.”

That same poem is cut in half in Journeys, presenting an abbreviated lyrical scene that ends on the image of “the weight of Night / its giant carnivorous flower.” What is lost in the latter version is not only the more explicit sexual imagery but also a sense of queer community gathered against a restrictive social order. The original “City Park” ends with Fainlight lying in the park with his anonymous lover, hearing “undertones of engines launching us already on / what journeys, / lives?” As the night world of queer autonomy transitions to morning, the noise of car engines signals a return to the demands of a socially legible life.

A former student at Cambridge, Fainlight had already been through this transformation himself, abandoning a career as an executive at an advertising agency in London to move to New York’s literary underground. His questioning of what constitutes a life is equally important for being plural, describing an “us” brought together in this limited yet mystical sexual utopia. A rationale for why “City Park” is so dramatically changed is not offered in the posthumous edition.

Fainlight himself made even more pronounced revisions as he negotiated how openly the poems could disclose his sexuality. One of his most radical works, the 12-part “O London,” was first published in Fuck You in 1963. Mixing desire, humor, and abject self-dismissal, sections such as “Cocksuck’s Song” and “Gay Bar” offer a montage-like portrait of sexual encounters during a time when sex between men was still illegal in England. When Fainlight published Sussicran in 1965, “O London” was scraped nearly completely except for a short excerpt titled “A Bride.” Though still clearly about the aftermath of a hookup, “A Bride” is divorced from its original context, including sections such as this from “O London”:

He took me to his room—a box,


Three cases stacked up on the wardrobe;


Said that he was moving soon;


 


Made unsuccessful love; gazed at me;


Said I was just the sort of person


He would love to live with;


 


Told me at the most I looked eighteen.


We dressed then, straightened up before the mirror;


He an ageing failure, I a faded queen.

The loneliness and desolation of this scene is common throughout Fainlight’s poems, but such direct accounts of his life as a gay man, including the tension here with an imagined queer domesticity, do not circulate in his later work. The most explicit parts of his poetry remain uncollected, such as the concluding section of “O London,” which describes a medical exam in which “the instrument / Enters, expands, telescopes and withdraws.” The final couplet is a quotation directly from the doctor’s note: “‘The pathologist in his examination found / Recent indications of unnatural behavior.’”

Fainlight’s transcription of the homophobic othering of discourses that turn sex into “unnatural behavior” is a poignant critique that, like the resistant questioning at the end of the original “City Park,” does not appear again in his poems. Much is lost in these changes, though tracing their published iterations is evidence of the enormous burden—or perhaps fear—that led Fainlight, or his estate, to make such editorial choices. Fainlight’s own decisions are an understandable attempt at self-preservation, and certainly there is no shame conveyed in his descriptions of queer desire. Sussicran remains a radical queer text in spite of the limitations the poet might have felt compelled to impose. The decisions made after Fainlight’s death to suture a particular legacy are, however, unfortunate elisions.

The most prominent exclusion from his posthumous books is Fainlight’s long, LSD-inspired poem “The Spider,” which he read at the International Poetry Incarnation at Royal Albert Hall in 1965, an event Peter Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion made famous. Fainlight performed his experimental poem—with lines such as “AN ULCER IS THE BRAIN OF COMMERCE” and “whatever-I-am-trying-to-remember-is-getting-no-nearer-than-these-lips-breaking-out-on-the-backs-of-my-hands,”—only to be interrupted by someone yelling from the audience “Love! Love! Love! Love!” Clearly rattled, Fainlight eventually continued the reading but insisted on performing another poem, the short lyric “Larksong.”

Before an audience of at least 7,000 people, chaos ensued. The novelist Alexander Trocchi tried to lead Fainlight offstage, then agreed to let him read again. Fainlight continued to fumble the moment by attempting to explain “Larksong” before reading it. The audience got increasingly worked up, Fainlight became agitated and desperate, and Ginsberg shouted from the front row, “Read poem! Read poem!” Though he performed both poems well considering the circumstances, the portrayal of the reading in Wholly Communion is of a grand countercultural mess, an event in which, performing alongside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and his hero and friend Ginsberg, Fainlight was reduced to a mumbling minor poet.

Perhaps the absence of “The Spider” in Selected Poems and Journeys is an attempt to detach Fainlight’s legacy from this motley mid-1960s scene, a calamitous reading that had come to define his reception. But like the other changes brought to Fainlight’s poetry, not reprinting “The Spider” limits readers’ ability to recognize the full scope of the formal and cultural breakthroughs in his work. The visceral strangeness of the poem’s images—“testicles of spiders in drag blend into the delirium” and “SOMEWHERE IN HERE I CAN HIDE MY OWN MURDERED BODY IN”—match the experimental intensity of contemporaries such as William Burroughs and LeRoi Jones.

The poem also shows formal similarities to Fainlight’s other important hallucinatory poems, “Mescaline Notes” and “Sussicran.” Those who read these works together find an iteration of his aesthetic that blends poetry and prose, confession and collage in ways that reposition Fainlight as a pivotal figure in 20th-century experimental writing. The mystical strain in Fainlight’s work, what leaves his “lips still burning / From the angel’s brand,” as he writes in “Poor swain of muse—,” also ties him to William Blake and a radical oracular tradition, of which “The Spider” is an eccentric, disarming contemporary example. If Fainlight’s later bucolic work leads readers to imagine he is more a poet of the English countryside, the revelatory last line of “The Spider,” “This is where I always really lived,” confirms that Fainlight was equally at home in these visceral and bizarre psychedelic landscapes.

The scholar Luke Roberts recently wrote about Fainlight as an important queer figure in the context of the British Poetry Revival, claiming that “The promise of Sussicran has remained obscure: dazzled on the one hand by the spectacle of the Royal Albert Hall and shadowed on the other by editorial loss of nerve.” I agree with Roberts and can imagine that collecting the dozens of poems that Fainlight published in little magazines in the 1960s alone would allow for an exciting reappraisal of his work. All three of Fainlight’s books were published by Bernard Stone’s legendary Turret Books in London, and certainly an edition of his collected poems is long overdue. But rather than maintain the dichotomies between early experiments and later lyrics, queer desire and pastoral imagination that have organized Fainlight’s reception, I want to suggest reading across his work in new ways, particularly through images of reflection, mirroring, and the permeable boundaries between worlds.

In “Meeting” from Sussicran, for instance, Fainlight describes cruising a public bathroom, “an anonymous / darkness jostling with ghosts,” where he recognizes a past lover. The visual recognition of this “ghost” initiates a reflective fracturing where the speaker’s self and the body of his lover become indistinguishable. Seeing the man’s face transforms into seeing a reflection of his own face in “the continual / flickering” of subway cars. In this rushing underworld of doublings and unsettled chronologies, Fainlight asks “Is this, then, forcing its way back against that fierce / feature-distorting pressure, my own / real and future face thrusting itself / stiff and sodium-embalmed before me?” Suddenly individuated, the two men then “pass without greeting,” making the meeting of the poem only ever a meeting in this half-mythic past.

The poet’s desiring yet deathly face is also animated in the title poem “Sussicran,” composed in 1960, a rapturous description of masturbating in front of “the magical apparatus” of a series of mirrors “to conjure up that other self.” As if looking out to the world from the ecstasy and safety of the other side of the mirror, “Sussicran” is a queer retelling of the myth of Narcissus in which death is replaced by the release of orgasm: “My mouth on the cold glass. / My breath, endlessly, filling for the dead god hall after / hall with flowers.” Like “Meeting,” it is also an Orpheus-like plunge into a liberatory underworld where the poet is entangled with and yet completely isolated from the bodies of others, including his own.

Fainlight’s description in “Sussicran” of this mirror world “unfocusing me, slowly sliding me into selves” resonates with images of fragmentation and displacement sustained across his work. There is “The hell within the negative— / throats nostrils and all orifices / glow[ing] with an unearthly inward burning” as he writes in “Blind Man’s Movie Buff”; being “jarred against the wall of all I’d since become, / Now cold and foreign to me” from “Waking in the Night”; and, in “A moth’s wing ringing the lamp’s glass—,” a landscape in which “All thinned back into the unearthly twilight; / Drawn up into its listening inter-world tension; / Its effort of concentration to form the first star.” These poems are set in a more stable syntax than his earlier work—“the suburbs of another music,” as he writes in “Fugue”—but are no less guttural as they carry Fainlight’s internal fracturing into an external world of unbearable torque and cosmic pressure.

Fainlight acknowledged that he had always been attracted to such forms of anguish, writing in the early uncollected poem “Childhood,” “And yet it was for a stronger magic I hungered. / Alone on winter afternoons would secretly / Take down and open up like a hidden gift / long before its time, my awaiting desolation.” Ted Berrigan praised the richness of Fainlight’s poems in an obituary for the late poet, comparing his work to the equally numinous, formidable poems of John Wieners: “With Harry, too, it was in the music, and in how achingly beautiful the lyric is in the hands of someone who makes it in the throat.” Rather than abnormality or decadence, Fainlight’s presence “encouraged one to greater earnestnesses,” wrote Berrigan, “which still now do not seem extravagances, as they didn’t then.” As a poet, Fainlight was striving toward, as he writes in another uncollected poem, “Juvenglandia,” the “sharpness of the Invisible; / edge to which / I offer these furthest inexpressibles up.”

Though living with mental illness might at times have made those ephemeral offerings more indecipherable than not, Fainlight harbored a clear sense of inequity and power relations. People live in a “world of money,” he wrote in an unpublished fragment, “of bodies trained like dogs, of unlimited resources none can use but all can compete for.” In a typescript labeled “Wales 1982,” Fainlight recorded perhaps some of his last thoughts about these inequities as he experienced them in his local landscape, particularly through the presence of mines in the Welsh valleys near his home. Though his vision was filtered through a paranoia that casts these economic and environmental issues in celestial terms, Fainlight’s elegiac description of “a collapse, a subsidence in heaven; the old sky with all its deities and paradises being sawn up like marble” is a transformative act of poetic reclamation in a world where the mystical power of the unseen no longer reigned. Sliding between the reflections of himself and himself, all of which he reassembled in his poems, Fainlight was vulnerable to this magic. Among the late fragments in the poet’s archive, one note speaks to this otherworldly acceptance more than any other. Fainlight’s old friend Ginsberg is his absent addressee, the visionary poet to whom Fainlight had always expressed an otherworldly devotion. In his frantic handwriting, Fainlight’s brief message, never sent, is an invitation that balances precariously between worlds. “Allen,” he wrote, “that bliss you promised me. The door is open.”

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