Eric Tran’s debut full-length collection, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (Autumn House Press, 2020) is at once heart-wrenching and heart-warming, an emotional experience that makes you feel both seen and able to see more clearly. This collection of poems is a wonderful and welcome introduction to a poet whose work is fluent in the emotions of anguish, joy, and everything in between.
It would be reductive, though, to say that The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is a book about nerd culture or a book about queer love, though it is certainly about both. In some ways, it’s difficult to pin this collection of poems down to a single topic, not because it lacks focus but because there is a versatility to Tran’s poetic focus. He writes about comic books, queerness, mental illness, grief, and so much more—often in ways that intersect and complicate each other. Gutter Spread feels alive, vibrant, and complex as Tran offers a guided tour through the world he’s created.
This collection seeks respite in the shelves of the local comic store and drag shows and in stolen glances of the lookalikes of lost lovers. It looks for forgiveness as regret manifests like suspects in the board game Clue. It yearns for adventure and escape in the wake of the 2016 election and is pulled into the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons—a world where anything is possible. These poems find joy in food and positive media representations in the pages of comic books. Tran’s speaker filters his experiences through Stranger Things, X-Men, and more.
Tran pens an ekphrastic poem based on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 art fixture, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), in which the floor of the museum is filled with “Candies individually wrapped in multicolor cellophane, endless supply. / Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight 175 lbs.” The artwork was created after the artist’s partner died of AIDS. I’ve seen a version of the fixture in person at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas and the grief and love are as palpable and limitless as the candies scattered on the floor. Tran’s poem transported me not only back into that moment in the museum, staring at the manifestation of sweetness turned bitter, but filled me with that same sense of grief, of love, of longing for what has been lost. Tran breaks his poem and scatters it across the white space of the page, evocative of the literal piece of art he’s imitating and the complicated emotions he’s exploring.
It’s through carefully crafted and powerful writing like this that Tran is able to create an intense emotional and visual landscape throughout this collection. Further, by filtering his poems through pop culture references and artistic allusions, Tran creates a world that is our own—not just the world we live in, but our own interior world as well. Tran takes us not only to new experiences in art museums and at D&D sessions, but brings us back to our own experiences as well. Tran offers not just relatability, but the reminder that we are not alone, and the ability to cope together as we play a game. These poems invite you to play D&D with them, to crack open a comic book and read it through new eyes. Tran offers a unique world to us, but he also offers us encouragement to find a way through ours, to cope with the pain and discover the joys there are around us.
In a particularly powerful section of the poem “Recommendation,” The speaker projects his desires — “Give me kapow! Give me shazam! Give / a one shot with perfect speech bubbles / where people know exactly what they want / to say.” Just like the colorful comic book worlds that this collection loves and admires, the world of Gutter Spread is a world of fantasy, where anything can happen and people live without want or worry, but it’s also a world much like our own, where we must seek escape within the pages of those fantasies.
The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer isn’t a quiet collection of poems. It screams its way into a room and announces itself proudly and in defiance. It announces, too, a promising career to come for Eric Tran—one I’m excited to follow.
Quinn Carver Johnson was born and raised on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, but now attends Hendrix College and is pursuing degrees in Creative Writing and Performances studies. Johnson’s poetry and other writings have been published in various magazines and journals, both in-print and online, including SLANT, Nebo, Right Hand Pointing, Flint Hills Review, and Route7 Review.