In October of 1985, I was a freshmen in college, turning 18, and watching Rock Hudson dying from AIDS on television, his pained and depleted visage saturating the airwaves and our young souls with a cautionary message about sex and death. My view of the world, and my place in it as a young queer man, shifted irrevocably that October.
Twenty-five years later, the epidemic only tempered in the US by drug regimens, I pause to take stock of lessons learned, of the damage inflicted on bodies, minds, and souls—and of the losses that could not be postponed because governments and agencies were too slow to respond to the crisis. Such stock taking is precisely what editors Philip Clark and David Groff offer in their beautiful collection of poetry, Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS.
In it, we find voices of those early victims, poignant reminders of the impact that AIDS had on an entire generation. As someone whose adult sexuality was marked by—and in some ways inaugurated by—an acute awareness of AIDS, I found it a privilege to read through these poems and hear a previous generation’s grappling with the dawning realization that some of their best and brightest would bequeath us too soon only their voices, their words.
What do they say?
So much—so much that is both about acknowledging the terror of HIV but also about standing firm in the poets’ commitment to queerness and to loving queerly. Clark and Groff have assembled a collection that shows us these poets not just succumbing to AIDS but often rediscovering and reinvigorating themselves through it. There is rage and sadness here, surely, but also the shockingly day-to-day, the stunningly simple and intimate details of everyday lives—made all the more pressing poignant by reminders of the larger context in which these poems recount various lives and loves. Tim Dlugos, for instance, beautiful contextualizes the everydayness of a life with HIV in “D. O. A.”:
tonight for the man I love,
phone calls from my friends
and a walk to the park, ignoring
stares, to clear my head. A day
like any, like no other. Not so bad
for the dead.
Many poems articulate such valuing of simple joys. For instance, Joe Brainard, in selections from I Remember, offers a lovely list of fond memories, “first days of school,” “many Septembers,” and “very blue skies”—the irreducibly touching moments that mark lives fully lived.
We can learn much from such fullness. Steven Abbott, in “Elegy,” one of the very first poems in the book, early announces the strange wisdom offered by these poems, noting how “The dead communicate to us in strange ways, or is it only because it is so ordinary we think it strange.” That wisdom of the dead often finds itself rendered as a generalized reminder that all lives are fleeting, not just those touched by AIDS. In “The Mystical Life,” Jim Everhard speaks gently to readers, regardless of status, of the simple truths of mortality:
There comes a day when all of us
disappear as completely as
the mystic with his rope trick.
Some of us climb old sheets.
Some climb the wind. No matter
how we get there, we all end up
in the same place. We are more
rootless than life seems, except
in the All.
David Matias, in “Between Us,” registers time passing as actually time gained, the poet arguing that the ticking clock urges attention to the moment, even as one might elegize the future loss of such moments:
You are older, I am ill, and we want
someone to hold at night. We want a history.
Tree blossoms might also fall in a puddle of rain,
keeping them afloat, alive much longer.
Such meditative tones ring side by side with more insistent notes that we not lose a certain queer particularity in the passing of life because of AIDS. There’s shock and disbelief, as in Gil Cuadros’ “To the First Time”:
…a danger already prevalent, my desire to dab it on a finger
when he turned, to swallow the treat,
my belief, love could never be harmful,
that nights would last forever.
And sometimes a tang of regret as in Everhard’s “Sexual Liberation in a Desperate Age”:
i thought we were winning.
and then i remembered how many times
i ended up letting some guy fuck me
when all i really wanted
was to be held.
And in “Heaven in Hell,” Haitian born poet Assotto Saint worries over a fear that must have been shared by so many in the queer community at the onset of the epidemic:
in remembrance i slaved
headful of poppers
mouthful of cum
soulful of heaven
may i never know
that hellfire of fevers
with which your breath burned
The fear is there—but so is eroticism, a reminder of the power of sexual desire, and Saint’s erotically tinged poems urge us not to lose sight of the beauty and pleasure of queer love.
Indeed, more often than not, these poets insist that we not let AIDS—in any form, whether personal suffering or political indifference—diminish the gains of “sexual liberation,” those hard fought battles to secure some ground for the right to be queer. Prominent African-American poet Essex Hemphill writes in “American Wedding” that
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.
His words ring with truths realized by successive generations, both those who managed to love without catching HIV and those who continue to live with it. Even promiscuous sexuality is lauded here, with reminders that our right to love one another should not have to follow particular scripts, and that we can practice plural love safely. Adam Johnson, in “The Playground Bell,” concludes his poem less with a eulogy for promiscuity than a challenge to keep it alive:
Shadows of hands that flowered through the dusk:
No names, no contracts, but each parting hug
Was less a token of civility
Than an act of love.
In a way, I was surprised that the poems in the collection are not more overtly political, decrying the silences and feet-dragging of the Reagan years. These are generally inward-looking poems. Still, a stab at the political appears here and there, such as in James Merrill’s complex metaphors:
Defenseless, the patrician cells await
Invasion by barbaric viruses,
Another sack or Rome.
A new age. Everything we dread.
Dread? It crows for joy in the manger.
Joy? The tree sparkles on which it will die.
Merrill notes the passing of an age, with allusions to a creeping Christian dominance in national politics emerging (crowing?) form the “moral majority” and a prescient sense of the rise of religious right. But others remind us that our acts of love are themselves political. Donald Woods, in “Sister Lesbos,” a poem for Audre Lorde, writes that,
What we’ve shared
is the strength
to be apart
what we seek
is the strength
to be together.
Liberation to love
fiercely, in the family way.
And for what do we so fiercely fight? Reginald Shepherd proposes in “Antibody” a simple truth about so much queerness, so many queer lives, touched by AIDS:
I’ve heard that blood will always tell:
tell me then, antigen, declining white cell count
answer, who wouldn’t die for beauty
if he could?
That so many have died for beauty lends Persistent Voices great pathos. And that queerness has survived AIDS gives these voices from the past a prescient power. Indeed, amongst all these voices, what persists is the call to keep imagining—and practicing—queer love.
—— PERSISTENT VOICES:
Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS
Edited by Philip Clark & David Groff Alyson Books
Paperback, 9781593501532, 240pp