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How to Understand the Frailties of Life with HIV? Poetry


In the 1990s, so eager were young gay men to forget the ravages of the AIDS epidemic that they helped to legitimate a cultural shift toward a conversation around its non-existence. Troubling words like “clean” and “disease-free” began to be used to signal HIV-negative status, stigmatizing those who lived with the disease as unclean or worse. “One month after it’s ended,” said Ford Maddox Ford about World War I, “it will be forgotten. Everybody will want to forget it—it will be bad form to mention it.” The same could be said of many of the twentieth century’s crises. An intentional forgetting seeks to hold at bay the uncertainty and frailty that history exposed on its battlegrounds—whether those battlegrounds were the Western Front or, as in the case of HIV/AIDS, others’ bodies.

The first three books of the American poet D.A. Powell, newly collected as Repast and published this November by Graywolf Press, refute that kind of forgetting. The collection shows the ingenuity of a poet, himself HIV-positive, whose invention caused beauty to bloom out of a burying ground. Powell’s poems burst into this amnesiac culture with the force of a memory that ranges from Gloria Gaynor’s B-sides to gloria in excelsis—a style that is at once bold, gleeful, and morbid. Repast is a thrilling and necessary collection. Anyone who cares about American culture should take it seriously.

Since his first book Tea in 1998, Powell has achieved considerable acclaim, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012 for Useless Landscape; or a Guide for Boys and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 2009. But his first three books, Tea, Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), did not receive widespread mainstream attention. Bringing them together over a decade later—which, their titles suggest, was intended all along—Repast grants a new generation of readers an opportunity to marvel at the vision that they contain. Repast is a unified triptych and a vital memoir of the past half-century of a certain kind of American life.

Born in 1963, Powell lived the exhilarated, impoverished, risky adventure of a young gay man in the post-Stonewall, pre-Internet world. Occasionally turning tricks to make ends meet, “I had meant to be the first among us dead,” he writes in Tea, but, “the ground refused me. the ground that would leave the easy prey to be scavenged and take and take.”

Living fast but not dying young, Powell revels in “strobed moments of elegance,” always aware of the darkness between the light’s blasts. He writes elegies for his friends and lovers whom the ground did not “refuse,” poems that are often bawdy even as they mourn. Powell gives unusual attention to the extravagant performance of elegy: He sees the necessity of the rituals, costumes, and modes of speech that turn private mourning into communal experience, and the artificiality that gives access to authentic emotional response.

In Tea, this energy fuels Powell’s wordplay, pop-culture references, and even his unusual long line, stretching across the page, a kind of Whitmanian inclusivity. But there is a darker side to Powell’s long line, recalling that other great San Francisco poet Jack Spicer’s description of the pain of the mortally wounded outlaw Billy the Kid: “It was a long pain/About as wide as a curtain/But long/As the great outdoors.” Powell’s pain is a long pain, too, and his tripping, galloping line stretches it far across the ground where plague seized the “easy prey” and far into the lonely horizons of the “great outdoors.”

In Lunch, Powell temporarily abandons this long line for a shorter stanza, where the speed of caesura and enjambment mirror new losses (“our dialogue breaks off midsentence”) and stress his new knowledge of his HIV-positive status. In this changed world, even something as banal as putting on a rainslicker on a chilly day can become heavy with mortality (“don’t want to catch my death”). By the end of Lunch, Powell is surviving on the “cocktail” of anti-retroviral medication but miserable from side effects and uncertain about his future. He balances Keatsian gestures of grand resignation—“abundant the harvest and the tithe”—with vexation over a life that might “break off midsentence,” spitting out, “want my goddamn cocktail.”

Powell’s work, in Lunch as elsewhere in Repast, makes the most gruesome imaginings and realities into the occasion for a boisterous, almost joyful music. This technique seems equally to belong to the world of disco that he so often invokes: the torch song set to a four-on-the-floor beat, the narrative of abandonment and weakness made buoyant. Reading Powell is a tremendous sensory pleasure, even though his content is so often bracing.

Yet it is in Cocktails, returning to the long-lined forms of Tea, that Powell’s largest breakthrough in content occurs. By setting Cocktails in sequence with the two earlier books, it becomes clear how Powell’s discovery of a Christian spirituality transformed that disco fever into an electric halo. In the darkest moments of these books, this music is, as Powell says, “a bell for the coming mass.” A poem about cruising on the subway in Boston disintegrates into a lament for his former self:

now I’ve spent myself in lines and lost.     where is that boy of yesteryear?

let him die young and leave a pretty corpse:     die with his legs in the air

Repast provides a rare opportunity for a reader of poetry: a unified poetic memoir, making good on its titular pun. In the extraordinary third section of Cocktails, this effect is particularly powerful, as a ferocious new spiritual energy emerges. Powell’s irony subsides into an intense desire to be transformed, to perform rituals that reinterpret all preceding experiences. In his “song of Mary the mother,” he writes,

when the lot fell to me I took up my pitcher and filled it

took the purple upon my fingers and drew out the thread

in shag and floss:     in coarse bottoms and in tight glossy skeins

the thrum did wind itself away from me

for a word had entered my womb and leapt inside me

. . .

purple the night I felt the stab of the godhead in my side

purple the rot of its silk:     its muscardine.     its plague

In this vision, the annunciation itself becomes a figure for becoming a poet, becoming infected with the “plague” of HIV, and a newfound religiosity that shapes the meaning of both of these processes. With their fervency, these lines opens up a tonal register as close to a twenty-first century sublime as contemporary American poetry offers.

Other poems use this new tone to reimagine the figures of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus the leper, and even the Resurrection:

we knelt to the wood.     and this I tell you as gospel:     the sky shuddered

a bolt shook our hearts on the horizon.     for what seemed an eternity

[for we knew eternity by the silence it brings]     void:     then scudding rain

For Powell, as these religious poems make clear, HIV/AIDS as a subject is best understood as an intensification of the eternal concerns of poetry—mortality, elegy, the difficulty of love. This, more than the disease, is ultimately what these books are “about.”

But as Powell’s work reveals, the meaning of that legacy is changing. In his first book, boys were dying everywhere around him; by the time of Cocktails, for many in the gay male American community, HIV/AIDS had become a generally chronic disease, not a terminal one (indeed, Chronic is the title of Powell’s fourth book). He has written elsewhere, “We don’t die from the dread diseases of our time; we die from complications.”

Medical advances are changing the meaning of disease, but Powell’s work offers a language to understand the frailties that persist: to think about an era of “complications” as the risk of both disease and memory, and to mourn when we should and to celebrate when we can, both activities constructing a resilient soul. Powell’s poems in Repast are both a sonic feast and a stay against silence—a resilient repast made of song. And they are some of the best antidotes yet devised in our century to the “long pain” of history—the necessary memories that may be “bad form to mention” but that we cannot forget.

An earlier version of this piece stated Powell was born in California. He was born in Georgia. We regret the error.