I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs,
And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help.
-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Walt Whitman wrote those lines in the aftermath of our great, convulsive Civil War, during which he nursed and ministered to countless young men -- boys, really -- who lay maimed and dying. Caught up in his country's maelstrom of hatred and violence, Whitman spent the war years as a caregiver, but the compassionate, observing artist in him, watched, listened and later expressed himself.
Whitman serves, I think, as an exemplary role model for the writers and artists caught up in the conflicts and vicissitudes of present-day America. Especially for poets, those most sensitive and responsive of souls, who are at first horrified by the havoc wrought by AIDS, then enthralled by humanity's defiance of it.
A great army has risen to fight AIDS and it is on the battlefield around the clock: physicians, nurses, social workers, agency administrators, educators and professionals of all kinds, volunteers of every type, friends, lovers and strangers.
I am astonished at how many poets, writers and artists are carrying their share of the burden as caregivers, companions, home visitors, "buddies," AIDS educators -- whatever needs to be done, they're doing it. And like Walt Whitman, the artist within each person records, reflects -- and ultimately, reveals.
These three pages are about revelations: how four poets have responded in their own way to AIDS. But four voices, no matter how eloquent, cannot by themselves convey the richness and diversity of poetry about AIDS and the people living with it. They are single voices in a larger chorus of compassion and strength.
Unavoidably, there is pain and death in these poems. But between the lines there is life. Beyond mere words, there is hope. With each turn of the page, there is the triumph of love over fear, of understanding over senselessness.
-- Dennis Rhodes, Provincetown
Scott Hightower, born in 1952 on a ranch in central Texas, has studied at the University of Texas and Columbia University. He presently directs the poetry project at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City. He teaches writing at Fordham University/Lincoln Center and Literature at New York University, Gallatin. This summer he rafted down the Colorado River. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For some time now I have been interested in men's tears. They appear throughout The Iliad, The Odyssey (Book IV, 212), and in Dante's The Inferno (the epigraph that appears here). In The Inferno, of the old man weeping for time: "Each part of him, except the gold, is cracked; and down that fissure there are tears that drip . . . "
I am interested in poetry that is inhabited, eloquent, and based in observation. Anyone who has ever had an HIV blood test knows about responsibility and anxiety, and sharing that anxiety. It is a moral engagement. To be told "You are negative" does not erase the scope of dependence or empathy. One is always changed, regardless of the results.
I would also like to recall Yeat's aphorism -- "Out of our quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry; out of our quarrel with others, we make only rhetoric."
|Ciascuna parte, fuor che l'oro, e rotta|
d'una fessura che lagrime goccia . . .
-- Dante, The Inferno, XIV, 112-113
This is some odd variation
of the missionary position.
The sole of one of your feet
patching one of my eyes
reminds me of Promethus
bringing us industry
and forgetfulness of death
that we could live as if forever.
Though we both have tested
negative to HIV antibodies,
AIDS has taken a toll
on our illusions. Oh, God.
I arrive shooting tears:
poetic joy, poetic grief.
Thomas O'Neil is also the author of the play, "Judy at the Stonewall Inn," and two definitive showbiz award books -- The Emmys and The Grammys (Penguin).
When your lover of nine years tests HIV-positive and you remain negative, how do you cope? You inevitably look at him, wondering silently: Did he catch this while cheating on me? Since the virus can lay dormant for 10 years or longer, you'll never know; and in all honesty, I believed Brian when he said he was baffled by the source. But the spectre of that third man will always haunt you -- especially at night.
Who else would you have found
to love you as I do?
One boy may have been more muscled,
taller, too, a real looker sweeping down Broadway,
but Ian, let's call him, would have promised more
yet the casbah is crowded
and boxes from Tiffany's you've opened before.
The point is: amour. And I have loved you
with a frenzied heart, you know,
and one eye open at night
searching for God.
As I watch for the night sweats, too.
This disease makes you bleed your own juices,
although tonight I see cool dreams
sweep over you like meadow winds.
We will be fine for one more day.
Forgive me this nightwatch, please, Brian.
You'd be angered to know I'm mothering
and furious over these fantasies of Ian in your arms
but it's his fatal seed that you sweat
in the dark; and I am still truly proud
of how hard I work at this love
and winning you.
Rena Lindstrom, a native of North Carolina, lives and writes in Provincetown.
Billy was the first gay man I ever really knew. We met in Bangkok in 1975, where we both went to teach school. I was from a small town in North Carolina. He was a native New Yorker. He was worldly and outrageous and brave; I was naive and timid. Far away from home, in a strange land, we became fast friends. He took me into his world, challenged me, shocked me, and loved me intensely. Not long after we returned to the United States, Billy learned he was infected with HIV. I wrote this poem then, furious with grief -- with him for leaving me, with the injustice of his dying, with my own helplessness. Now, years later, so many others gone, I think it has something to do with forgiveness and the blessed gift of memory.
Billy lies in a wrap of morning sleep. He sleeps, and I read an old
New Yorker in a chair by the bed. His head hangs slack against the
pillow, his flesh loose around the knotty skull, freckled ears
protruding. Sun flicks blue on the blanket. I won't turn to the photo
album to relive anything, goddammit. I'll assume his awful dementia
and forget the times we had, reckless wanderers in the sex capital of
the world. The veins in his pale temple pulse. The rhythm of the
discos on Pat Pong. The hot close bars. The Thai boys moving onto
the floor in an undulating circle, their arms, their slender wrists,
remembering an old syncopation. Clear liquid drops through a tube
in time, thick sweetness of gin gathering in my mouth. Billy sleeps,
and behind the blinds the sirens rattle the thin glass. The stunned
citizens prowl the sidewalk five floors down on Hudson Street. When
I return home to Carolina, to my desk and the piney backyard, I
write in my journal, "forget if you have to, Billy Bates. I remember."
To My Caregiver
Dennis Rhodes, a Body Positive board member, lives and writes in New York and Provincetown.
This poem was prompted by the question: What happens when the caregiver becomes the one cared for?
TO MY CAREGIVER
Dear stranger, I lounge here, awaiting your arrival,
pondering the complexities of my survival:
I too once climbed stairs and saw all too well
men tottering on the threshold of hell,
joys discarded, bodies wasted, life spent.
To these I have been an angel sent
in the most ordinary guise and fashion,
bearing a lifetime's supply of compassion.
Imagine me an angel! Imagine me divine
when every human failing and flaw have been mine.
I have been weak and wanting, full of need.
I have lived with wounds too deep to bleed.
But I have been foolish, selfish in my despair.
You put me to shame. Please, pull up a chair.