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"Unimaginable Grief, Unexpected Joy": AIDS in Poetry

April 2001

April is National Poetry Month. Once again, Body Positive acknowledges the role that poets play in shaping, defining, and expressing the vast emotional tableau arising from our response to HIV/AIDS. There is not so much a "poetry of AIDS" as there are voices and distinct personalities -- poets bringing the overwhelming down to size. There is nothing that you have felt, feared, or imagined about HIV -- indeed, about life -- that has not been expressed in poetry. Unimaginable grief. Unexpected joy. Anger and despair that somehow transform into great strength. This is the stuff and fiber of poetry.

We present to you the work of five excellent poets: Alfred Corn, Walter Holland, Rachel Hadas, Dean Kostos, and Gerry Gomez. Readers wishing to further embrace our rich poetic legacy will find much satisfaction in these two books: Things Shaped in Passing: More "Poets for Life": Writing from the AIDS Pandemic, edited by Michael Klein and Richard McCann (Persea Books) and The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave, edited by Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou.

Dennis Rhodes
Poetry and Fiction Editor
Body Positive

P.S. Please try to join us at Provincetown Poetry Festival 3, April 13 to 16, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Featured poets will be Eileen Myles and Rafael Campo; for more information, see:

Prescriptions By Walter Holland 1.
Remember to take enough
more than the little --

double what you desire
to fortify,

to balance the happiness you need.
These grains,

As potent seconds
are all that can be offered,

time enough to take
and hold in a hand.

It is a given that we self-

is more than any book can tell,
formula predict --

drink of laughter

finish it completely


stick out



On my way to work every morning I see a poster by the bus stop advertising various HIV medications.

Walter Holland is the author of Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992 and a novel, The March. He holds a Ph.D. in English from The City University of New York. In 1999 he gave the keynote speech at the first annual Provincetown Poetry Festival. His work has appeared in many periodicals and anthologies. He teaches at The New School. A second book of his poetry is forthcoming in November from Painted Leaf Press, New York City.

To a Lover Who is HIV-Positive By Alfred Corn You ask what I feel.
Grief; and a hope
that springs from your intention
to forward projects as assertive
or lasting as flesh ever upholds.

Love; and a fear
that the so far implacable
cunning of a virus will smuggle away
substantial warmth, the face, the response
telling us who we are and might be.

Guilt; and bewilderment
that, through no special virtue of mine
or fault of yours, a shadowed affliction
overlooked me and settled on you. As if
all, always, got what was theirs.

Anger; and knowledge
that our venture won't be joined
in perfect safety. Still, it's better odds
than the risk of not feeling much at all.
Until you see yourself well in them,
love, keep looking in my eyes.

This poem came as result of belonging to what is sometimes called a "sero-discordant couple," one partner HIV-negative, the other positive. It's not a difference easy to negotiate, as perhaps the poem makes clear. Early on, Rich, my new lover, offered me the choice to avoid commitment, citing his condition; but I chose instead to go forward with the relationship -- a decision I don't regret. I believe that medical research will find a fully satisfactory treatment for HIV and that this epidemic will come to an end. When that happens, what joy it will bring. -- Alfred Corn

Thrush By Gerry Gomez Pearlberg The Central Park Rambles
rush with bird songs
trickling through pines,
a kind of uncovering, a lifting off of stones.

Last year Jay was harassed here,
for cruising, by an officer of the law:
"What's the matter, pretty boy -- AIDS got your tongue?"

Jay held his ground in silence,
Projecting himself into the unexpected music
of a distant hermit thrush,
a rare bird rarely heard to sing.

This year, Jay is in St. Luke's
with a case of thrush that makes it
hard for him to speak.
The yellow fungus on his lips
makes him look like a fledgling,
open-mouthed, awaiting the arrival
of a saving grace poised in the air
between talons of light.

Propped up in bed, between sips of soda
from a straw, he rambles about "apocalypse ecology,"
gesturing at the evidence, a nest
of Newsday clipping: dogs
leaping from high rises, disappearing frogs,
and the drastic decline of song birds in America.

Throat swelled with sphagnum,
legs cracked to the texture of red birch,
head increasingly in the clouds --
so he is becoming the tree of his own falling life,
a favorite of the minor gods:
north side moss,
south side hardened bark,
sensation unpeeling from his limbs like leaves.

I was very into bird watching as a kid, and being a native New Yorker, that meant spending time in the Central Park Rambles, a secluded, heavily wooded area frequented by shy birds and gay men. The memories of gay men cruising and of bird-watching are forever entwined in my mind. So when I heard the story about a gay man harassed in the park during the height of the AIDS epidemic, this meditation on gay men, birds, immune systems, ecosystems and all things beautiful, fragile, and temporal seemed a natural and inevitable response. -- Gerry Gomez Pearlberg

Gerry Gomez Pearlberg's first poetry collection, Marianne Faithfull's Cigarette, was a 1998 Lambda Literary Award recipient. Her second book of poems, Mr. Bluebird, is forthcoming from Painted Leaf Press in April 2001. She teaches a poetry workshop at the AIDS Service Center of Lower Manhattan and is the author of Women, AIDS, and Communities: A Guide for Action (Scarecrow Press).

Arguments of Silence By Rachel Hadas

Do you wish people to think
well of you? Don't speak
-- Pascal

Silence is death.


Silence as friend. For what can grow without it?
As enemy. For we know what it is said to equal.

If silence equals death, does death equal silence?
Necessary condition, not sufficient.

Only in the charged silence after death
are certain voice heard, while the chat of the living

dwindles behind an invisible veil or glaze
or curtain that may rise to further speech.


Silence as style, as stubbornness, as stoical
courage, expedience, patience. Or as fear.

"There's nothing more to say," and walked away.
But how do I know what's there until I say it?

The impulse swells, as fountains do not stop,
as pressure building causes corks to pop:

new takes, new combinations. Or not new
but as my lips interpret an old law.


I salute you, friends who would not button
your lips but kept them, chapped and bloody, open;

who refused to huddle caged as in contagion,
forced to find your balance from between

the horns of the dilemma how to live
at once outside and inside of your bodies

and dance and balance not struck dumb by fear,
your voice a thread, your proper layrinth's clue.


That certain words are tinny in our time
(recovery community denial

culture diversity even maybe silence
even dare I breathe it sometimes death);

that speech is not always heroic, not
always interesting or necessary;

that silence is as likely to mean sleep,
exhaustion, or discretion, as death

doesn't release us from the same of language.
True, wives and husbands, children and their parents

know without speaking what is wished or meant --
the curse of family life, and the reward.

Habit, telepathy, passion:
nothing exempts us from our chatty birthright.

The danger's hardly tyranny by silence.
It's hard to shut us up while we draw breath.

If anything can guarantee our silence,
death can. But silence doesn't death.

Some of the AIDS-spurred debates of the 1980s about silence vs. speech, their urgency tinged by mortality, inform the dialectic of my poem. "Arguments of Silence" attempts to capture and even to extend, though certainly not to complete or resolve. -- Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently Merrill, Cavafy, Poems, and Dreams (University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry Series, 2000). Currently a Fellow at the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers, she teaches English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

A Pompeii of the Arm for Shepperd Wahnon
By Dean Kostos


When midnight peeled back Manhattan,
revealing a world of self,

your room blurred with vapors. The scald
of fever thrashed you to the smack-

hard swirl of floor. Delirious,
you writhed, a night, a day: your weight

shut circulation into a permanent V.
You never heard the sirens. . . .

Doctors loomed; their moon eyes probed
it: grayed in shades of smudge

and mold. Like performing a Caesarean
section on a cadaver, a nurse cut

a slit in it: infection oozed.
She 'debreeded' the wound,

soaking, suctioning. No use.
To rescue you, it had to be sawed

off. Doctors rasped,
"It's your choice."

Painkillers conjured showers
of sizzling, volcanic ash,

jagged stones rained, the sky dusked
with poison gases, agony etched

faces with the permanence
of Was . . .

Recovery room: The Phantom hand felt
grafted to your gauze-swaddled stump;

crab fingers crawled in the air. But
your right arm sank in death's debris

while doctors clamped your stub
with a plastic limb, its cables and gears:

Deus ex machina, inverse.
Devil's doll-flesh device.

Though you'd look like some ruined
statue, you chose to go armless:

re-entering the world, broken.


In the cells of your brain's gray hive,
the Phantom Arm retains the bend it held

the moment you fell, the way
body shells of Pompeians

hold their last poses, cast
in pumice stone, in saecula

saeculorum: codices to be cracked
open, hacked by archaeologists' picks:

Arms throw pots on a wheel, hands
paint gods on the milky skin

of wet plaster. Midnight
peels back time, revealing a world of self,

of outliving AIDS. Your room
blurs with vapors; buoyed

there, the Arm reappears,
bronze emissary

between the realms Was and Is.

Dean Kostos is the author of The Sentence that Ends with a Comma.

All poems in this section reprinted with permission of the authors.

Back to the April 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
See Also
More HIV/AIDS-Related Poetry