Review Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDSPersistent Voices
edited by Philip Clark & David Groff
Published by Alyson
Reviewed by Richard Canning
I remember once mentioning to the novelist Edmund White a book project I had in mind called Gay Graves. Not a great title, for what on reflection wasn’t a good idea either. On my travels around Europe and beyond, I’d found myself making detours to visit the tombs of GLBTQ writers I revered. Often they’d be found in strange places (Genet’s on the edge of a cliff in Larache, Morocco), or be marked by weirdness or bombast (Winckelmann in Trieste) – or, just the reverse, scarcely prove noticeable at all (Proust in Pere Lachaise, Paris). There were stories behind these eccentricities, I thought. I’d come up with a jaunty narrative line, linking together a dozen such sites into some sort of single idea about the way marginal writers had been remembered on their graves.
White turned with uncharacteristic ferocity and told me what an awful thing I’d dreamt up. ‘After all, the way someone dies and is buried doesn’t say anything about how they lived! Especially with gay lives. It’s a pointless, senseless, misguided idea.’ Inevitably, the shadow of the unspoken epidemic bore over what he was saying. I binned the thought immediately.
The incident came back to me when reading Persistent Voices, which – first off – you should know as a wonderful resource, and a great addition to the canon of post-war (mostly male) gay verse. It’s not a book about HIV, and the editors note with satisfaction that ‘a majority of the poems included here are not about AIDS at all.’ Indeed a good number of authors featured are represented by poetry written before 1981, the year the syndrome was first written up. Selections are presented alphabetically by author surname; one of the pleasures is in moving – sometimes clearly, sometimes opaquely – between the 1970s, 80s and 90s and their sharply different contexts for gay men.
Still, it’s while noting the many pleasures here, and the intelligence of the selection and editing, that I’m stuck with a problem concerning Persistent Voices’s raison d’etre. It’s the same as White’s objection to my own fallacious enterprise. Why select poets simply according to their medical condition, unless that condition became the governing subject around which the poems are based? And – churlish as it may be - if you do use this criterion, why then bend the rules, to accommodate poets who, suffering from ill health, committed suicide?
Some writers here effectively came to poetry because of their HIV status. Two were nurtured by poet-tutor Rachel Hadas, in a groundbreaking creative writing class for early casualties, wonderfully written up in her (ed.) Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop (Faber & Faber, 1991). Glenn Philip Kramer, is represented by three poems, including ‘What happens’:
do we become dust
do we dance with friends gone
awaiting friends to come…
The talent of the other, Charles Barber, is best shown by ‘Thirteen Things about a Catheter’:
Hung from a pole,
Striped with words of caution:
“To expire in ninety-one”
Hadas recounted in Unending Dialogue how she developed her students’ ideas and reaching out towards a personal poetic style, by introducing them to apposite verse from different contexts – to Tennyson, for example, and the work of other elegists. She also shared her own poetry. In Persistent Voices, though, we lack this context: Hadas has not died. Nevertheless, she has written some of the most memorable verse about HIV/AIDS.
Other poets can be said to have written their best work on or as a result of their diagnosis and struggles with ill health – notably Tory Dent, whose single selection from the brave, idiosyncratic collection HIV, Mon Amour (1999) seems oddly frugal. The book was, after all, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin Award. Perhaps there were problems with permissions. Two selections from Dent’s Black Milk (2005) make the cut, however, including ‘Immigrant in my own life,’ with its threnody-born pulsating rhythm:
I don’t know my name, what I am without disease,
Foreign sky, foreign street, foreign trees with their foreign leaves.
Dent and Cookie Mueller are the sole female voices here, understandably: women tended to succumb to AIDS-related conditions much more quickly, having invariably been diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome much later than their male peers. Given the small window of time often afforded this group before its members got sick, it is obvious why so few left us much literature. Gay male poets dominate, among whom there are familiar names, such as Sam D’Allesandro, Paul Monette, George Whitmore and the outstanding Tim Dlugos, who has four selections from his volume Powerless, and a fifth poem cannily unearthed from the much-missed Patrick Merla-edited journal James White Review.
The James White Review also discovered a poet I wasn’t aware of – J M Regan, whose ‘Partial Luetic History of an Individual at Risk’ is perhaps the most ambitious poem here, bending the nonsensical world of AIDS biomedicine and treatment into verse characterised by wonderful, intentionally flawed rhymes:
My Jewish doctor loves me truer,
sitting rigid at the bare Care Center
like a gaunt tree,
and the air of a bored whore,
one eye on her watch,
one hand in her snatch.
Joe Brainard is also present. And here’s a cavil: some nine pages is given over to excerpts from the book I Remember. It’s a great and important gay poem – but, unlike most of the material here, it is readily available elsewhere, and, dating from 1970, inevitably makes the reader wonder: how, and why, should Brainard’s AIDS-related death come to define his poetical gifts? On the other hand, it comes as a shock to find Brainard’s 1971 poem ‘Sick Art’ jauntily pronounce:
Today, with modern art, it is not easy to spot diseases and physical disorders.
Many doctors, however, have noticed a strong relationship between various skin diseases and the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Fungus infections are very common in the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Then again, Steve Abbott’s ‘Elegy’ – ‘The dead/ communicate to us in strange ways, or is it only because it is so/ ordinary we think it strange’ – turns out to have been published in 1978. It’s a fine reminder that gay authors in the midst of the 70s culture of erotic abandonment were never only writing, or thinking, about sex.
James Merrill, certainly the poet with the biggest reputation today, was known to have addressed AIDS with characteristic obliqueness in his final collections. Three poems serve him well – particularly ‘Farewell Performance’, dedicated to Merrill’s friend, the critic David Kalstone:
Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common
lot a pure, brief gold.
Sadly, Clark and Groff haven’t included the second poem Merrill wrote for Kalstone, ‘Investiture at Cecconi's’ – though it can be found in Michael Klein’s anthology from 1992, Poets for Life: Seventy-six Poets Respond to AIDS.
Klein and Richard McCann followed this important collection with a second, Things Shaped in Passing, in 1997. I don’t want to compare these with Persistent Voices; there ought to be space on your bookshelves for all of them. But it is hard, once encouraged to think about the subject of HIV/AIDS, not to regret the forced exclusion in Persistent Voices of some great poets who either escaped HIV infection themselves, or have not died of AIDS: Thom Gunn, perhaps, most famously (The Man with Night Sweats collection), but also Olga Broumas, Rafael Campo, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Rachel Hadas, Richard Howard, Richard McCann, J D McClatchy, David Trinidad and Gregory Woods.
Nonetheless, Clark and Groff are to be congratulated for the breadth of their research. Most but not all of the contributors write in English; worthy exceptions include the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, best known for his prose works, and the Spanish author Jaime Gil de Biedma, whose four poems, finely translated by James Nolan, include ‘Pandemic and Celeste’:
To know love, to learn about it,
It’s necessary to have been alone.
And it’s necessary to have made love
On four hundred nights – with four hundred
different bodies. Its mysteries,
as the poet said, are of the soul
but a body is the book in which they are read.
Persistent Voices comes from a U.S. publisher, but Clark and Groff fortunately offer five poems by an acclaimed young English poet of the 90s, Adam Johnson, whose laconic tone is masterly: ‘I had not reckoned that the sky would fall.’ (‘The Departure Lounge’). They’ve also, I’d venture, (re-)discovered at least one genius: Donald Britton, whose only collection in his lifetime, Italy (1981) is impossible to find, and whose three previously unpublished pieces here are just fantastic. Take ‘Hart Crane Saved from Drowning (Isle of Pines, 1926)’:
Fish-eye, coruscated scales of surf, the bird
With a note Rimbaud speaks of as “making you blush” –
coral negatives plushed gold and azure plaster
in the harbour: death could come like a blackout drunk.
Others achieve their best effects with a directness, transparency and simplicity of lexicon that indicate that the bare realities of AIDS are stark enough; hence David Matias’s ‘Fooling the Forsythia’:
Another friend died. Howard. He’ll be missed.
He and all the others who have demystified death.
Sparest of all is Melvin Dixon’s unforgettable ‘Heartbeats’, entirely comprising spondees, or stressed feet:
Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.
Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.
Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.
Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.
Sometimes – and to risk contradicting myself – knowledge of the author’s demise affects how I responded to a poem. I liked very much Jim Everhard’s ‘Sexual Liberation in a Desperate Age’, with its admission that ‘even in a dangerous time/ i’m still interested, still amused.’ But how moving are these late, paradoxical lines too:
my heart regenerates
even when my body is busy dying,
unfooled as it is by a few boyish gestures.
Of course, the subject of AIDS, whilst apparently having fallen into a historic hole in publishing, and barely ever mentioned by anyone, anywhere, proves far from distant to us, whatever our own circumstances. It touches on any number of classic poetical themes all too readily; particularly the truth that Nietzsche pointed out – that death is the only certain event in life. Or as Reginald Shepherd’s ‘You, Therefore’ has it:
You are like me, you will die too, but not today.
Persistent Voices is a rich, and richly achieved assortment, capturing three decades of inspiring (mostly) gay voices in times of opportunity and deprivation, release and constraint, fear, hope and love.
Richard Canning is Senior Lecturer and Academic Co-ordinator at Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln. He is author or editor of eight books: Gay Fiction Speaks and Hear Us Out (Columbia), Brief Lives: Oscar Wilde and Brief Lives: E M Forster (Hesperus), Between Men and Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (Carroll & Graf) and Between Men 2 and 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson).
Labels: Poetry Review