Jack Sharpless


Jack Sharpless was born in La Grange, Illinois in 1950 and died in San Francisco in 1988. He worked in restaurants for much of his life, first as a busboy and later as a chef. Although his poems were celebrated by Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Guy Davenport, none were published in his lifetime. Presences of Mind: The Collected Books of Jack Sharpless, edited by Ronald Johnson, appeared finally in 1989, after the poet had died from complications of AIDS. Death is central to Sharpless’s poetry, and death also conditions our reception of that poetry, such as it is. It’s impossible to read his work apart from the fact of his early death, a fact we cannot help but know before coming to the poems. They all seem written in the shadow of death, just where life runs up against its end, as if severely enjambed. Sharpless’s line was always about to break, even as he lived. As Guy Davenport wrote in his afterword to Presences of Mind, “Death is never far from Jack Sharpless’s attention.” [1]

The small texts of quantum, the first of his “collected books,” are presented as “The Lost Sibylline Books,” stony inscriptions that survived the ruin of Rome. Inroads, Sharpless’s second book, articulates the vigil of the Queen Elizabeth’s final hours in a series of faceted, minimalist dramatic monologues. In A Soldier in the Clouds, Sharpless imagines T.E. Shaw’s dreams and nightmares of the early twentieth century, when civilization seemed on the edge of ruin; Lawrence of Arabia, as Shaw is usually known, also died young, in a motorcycle crash. The Fall of the X Dynasty conjures the fragile refinements of an imaginary empire as its walls fall and the fires begin. Sharpless’s last poems, “Joe Palooka” and “Graveyard Shift,” the beginnings of Working Stiffs, which he called his “big gay book,” place us in the poet’s own San Francisco of the early 1980s, as he stares down his own death and the broader ruin wrought by AIDS. [2] If this poetry is “a triumph over death,” as Davenport called it, it is a peculiar sort of triumph—one that seems to take defeat for granted. Even well before he grew ill, Sharpless wrote as if he were already dead, leaving us poems as proleptic relics.

The basic formal fact of the work is enjambment. Sharpless favored a very short line, often of only one word. One effect of such severity is to suspend syntax for a moment at each line, inducing more careful attention to each word and its resonance. Another is to heighten the tension between speech and inscription, between the ongoing mobility of breath and the clipped stasis of a written line. A few examples from quantum:



AGE [3]



& DEATH [4]



There’s a kind of formal irony at work in each of these short poems. As we pass inexorably into tomorrow, this age—of a man, of a culture—exists only for an instant but is also inscribed here in capital letters, as if on a grave marker, to last. Waves break, line over line, but they also hit the brakes with each one; a momentary crisis of mortality turns to solid matter. The act of speaking or singing becomes finished praise, the utmost noun. Ronald Johnson wrote that “Pitting ephemeral against eternal, if only a single butterfly poised on rock, was Jack’s usual attention.” [6] If speech’s living breath is what’s ephemeral, the eternity of chiseled inscription is also its own sort of death, or life’s epitaph.
            In Inroads and A Soldier in the Clouds, Sharpless’s line stays short, but his syntax stretches out and regular capitalization returns. We still feel the tension between speech and inscription, but where quantum tends toward stoniness, the poetry of the next books insists, in distinctly human voices, on living. Elizabeth’s final words:

I hear

I do not
wish to
die today [7]

The quickness of these fourteen syllables, with their lilting recombinations of sounds across steep enjambment, is one expression of the wish to outlive the end of the line. Bird and Queen conspire to survive. Shaw witnesses such persistence, too, in the ruins of Leningrad, Poland, and Germany he couldn’t possibly have seen, having died himself in 1935:

we saw courage
& the indomitable
will to survive
mornings pried
from under
oil &


ruin [8]

As survivors claim each day from death by force of will, Sharpless-as-Shaw pries five perfectly tuned words from the ruined city. The flickering interplay of their syllables makes the elegiac image eerily memorable, but rather than the permanence of carved stone, we hear here the persistence of a living, ghostly echo in the ear.
                I take “The Calligrapher,” one of the sixteen poems in The Fall of the X Dynasty, to comment subtly on two aspects of Sharpless’s work that I’ve been bringing out. One is poetry’s peculiar simultaneity of sound and inscription. The other is the proximity of the poet’s art to his own life, even as he writes about seemingly distant or fictional figures.

Wind chimes of
bamboo, brass,
shell, glass and jade
beneath phoenix eaves.

The stone which takes
the longest to grind
makes the finest line
between art and life. [9]

The calligrapher’s poem notably begins with a description not of writing but of a delicate instrument for catching the sounds of wind. By way of simple adjacency, then, the poem suggests a kinship between chimes and the second stanza’s patiently ground ink. If chimes make breath audible, ink might make it visible. And writing of such patience and restraint might make life itself newly vivid by the lightness of its touch. Sharpless maintains the distinction between art and life, but his “finest line” lets them remain in contact, each quickening the other. 
            Sharpless’s last poems are at once his liveliest and his most morbid. They are dispatches from the poet’s present, and their invocations of “you” and “we” project an exuberant sociality. Their line grows longer and somewhat looser, channeling the vernacular patter of cruising “Joe Palooka.” Contemporary casualness replaces the various historical manners of the earlier work. Yet Sharpless’s characteristic formal poise persists, even—and especially—in the face of his own death. In the short sequence “Graveyard Shift,” the small hours are both when we live most desirously and when the end comes into sharpest focus:

I will look directly
into death’s unmoved,
onmoving grin,

but will I see you
again, or remember
all of your names? [10]

Sharpless’s question— whether the dead remember the living—expresses the tenderest love for this world and the friends he knows he will leave behind. It brings me nearly to tears each time I read it. We are used to poets fretting about whether their own names will be remembered, but the question of reputation and legacy are far from this poet’s attention. That question is for us: will we remember the name of Jack Sharpless? He did not grow old, but we might carry him forward. Here I think of eleven words he speaks through Shaw:


others [11]


[1] Guy Davenport, “Jack Sharpless’s Partitas,” in Presences of Mind: The Collected Books of Jack Sharpless. ed. Ronald Johnson (Frankfort, KY: Gnomon Press, 1989), 107.

[2] These poems were not included in Presences of Mind. They first appeared, with a note by Johnson, in Chicago Review 45:1 (1999) and were later published in the chapbook Working Stiffs (Northampton, MA: The Song Cave, 2014).

[3] Sharpless, Presences of Mind, 8.

[4] Ibid, 10. and [5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ronald Johnson, “Introduction” in Presences of Mind, ix.

[7] Sharpless, Presences of Mind, 43.

[8] Ibid, 70 and [9] Ibid, 90.

[10] Sharpless, “Graveyard Shift,” Chicago Review 45:1 (1999).

[11] Sharpless, Presences of Mind, 49.

Patrick Morrissey's third book of poems, Light Box, was published by Verge Books in 2023. His essays have appeared in Chicago Review, Harp & Altar, and Textual Practice. He teaches at the University of Chicago.