The Sanguine Style of Kevin Killian’s ‘Argento Series’

The reissue of the 2001 collection considers the AIDS crisis through the lens of the Italian filmmaker

BY Mackenzie Lukenbill in Books , Opinion | 25 SEP 23

I can never recall the endings of Dario Argento’s films. For him, the filmic image does not present death as narrative closure: rather, in his works – Suspiria (1977), Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987), et al. – it is purely decorative. Stylishly sanguinary and in the bloodlust of an extreme close-up, it comes at any moment. A chillingly terse timeline on the rear cover of late author and poet Kevin Killian’s Argento Series (newly reissued by Pilot Press) reports that in 1991 Killian was ‘frozen, unable to think of a way to write about AIDS crisis’ and in ‘1992 Kathy Acker suggests films of Dario Argento as a prism through which to take apart horror of living and dying with AIDS.’ Argento Series, first published in 2001 by Krupskaya Books, compiles years of poems born of that prompt. ‘TODAY IT’S ME…TOMORROW YOU!’ reads the heading of the book’s final section.

Dario Argento, Suspria, 1977, poster. Courtesy: IMDb

Killian was a core figure in the San Francisco new narrative movement of queer writers, shepherded by the gay poets Robert Glück and Bruce Boone in response to the language poetry of the 1970s; a turn from a disjunctive avant-garde towards works of autobiography and collages of both high and low culture. Other new narrative writers included Killian’s wife and collaborator Dodie Bellamy, as well as poets Sam D’Allesandro and Steve Abbott. D’Allesandro died early in the AIDS crisis in 1988, and Abbott in 1992. In Argento Series, Killian presents these lost contemporaries as murder victims, like bodies lost in one of Argento’s labyrinthian plots. ‘One by one, the men I knew and loved, or disliked / leave this planet due to a rapacious virus’, he writes in ‘Four Flies on Gray Velvet’.

These references to, and reappropriations of, Argento’s filmography run counter to the typical presentation of pop culture and low art in new narrative works: as a form of refuge. Bellamy uses B-movies and vampire stories in her novel The Letters of Mina Harker (2004) to imagine a landscape where D’Allesandro is disinterred and can still respond to her missives. In Argento Series, ‘AIDS and its depredations’ consume ‘every big dream of the world’. Here, D’Allesandro’s death is depicted with finality like it is in Killian’s later novel Spreadeagle (2012) – at the hands of something monstrous. ‘Both of us have a sense of ending and that’s one of our strengths as writers and thinkers,’ Killian says to Bellamy in her most recent work, Bee Reaved (2021). ‘Sam D’Allesandro had to die.’

Dario Argento, Phenomena, 1985, film still. Courtesy: IMDb

Killian and the new narrative writers had a predilection for the corporeal abject – the ‘spewing’ of ‘shit’, as Bellamy writes in Bee Reaved. In the poem ‘Giallo’, Killian writes of pleasure and blowjobs before Steve Abbott speaks from a ‘big waste basket of white cotton’. Death and sex have become inseparable: AIDS is often mentioned in conjunction with ‘pleasure’. ‘Pleasure as a synonym for AIDS / its metonymic attachment to the body / the fringe on top of the surrey of living’, Killian writes in ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’. Secretions mar every line; there’s blood everywhere. In ‘House of Wax’, ‘drugged tubes’ pierce a throat ‘like thorns, leaky thorns, twisted brambles’. In ‘Phenomena’, the narrator frets that AZT will rob them of their ability to speak with insects – a nod to the film of the same name, in which a teenage Jennifer Connelly possesses the same power.

These juxtapositions of rot and dirtied hospital beds with gashes of giallo lighting recall Foucault’s ‘clinical gaze’ – a perspective of the body as a simple container of innards – and its haunting affective appearance in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), a precursor to Argento that was advertised in France as somewhere between an art film and a horror picture (‘la poésie de l’horrible’, or the poetry of the horrible). The film’s gruesome scenes of medical operations were censored upon its US premiere, and so too were similarly gory sequences in Argento’s films. ‘The poetry was in the gore’, Killian emphasizes in ‘Tenebrae’ (co-written with Bellamy). ‘But in the American version the gore was cut out. Flat. How could these wet souls not love seeing through the specular glass?’ Killian recounts on the back cover that in 1989 Dennis Cooper wrote that ‘AIDS ruined death’ – a reference he made in his story ‘Dear Secret Diary,’ complaining of the ways the virus has deromanticized the dangers and death drive of gay sex. These poems make a project of at least re-conjuring some allure in death and queer sexuality in the era of AIDS; deep colour and synthesizer scores, femme fatales and Udo Kier as an angel of death appearing to young gay men at an art opening.

Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face, 1960, poster. Courtesy: Lux Film 

Pilot’s edition adds a new foreword by the writer Derek McCormack. McCormack sees desiccation and decomposition in a line from ‘Profondo Thrilling’: ‘You know how you’re reading a book, / it’s good, the pages on the right / grow thinner’. The book itself is sick; not a memorialization but death in medias res. Its long overdue reprinting, then, is an exhumation – the decay and abjection conveyed within just as bold and confrontational in the present as they were upon release.

Main Image: Dario Argento, Opera, 1987, film still. Courtesy: IMDb

Mackenzie Lukenbill is an audiovisual archivist and editor and has written for Film Comment, BOMB Magazine and Screen Slate.