Is this the future of homosexuals? Really? Disney propaganda promoting Romance, Marriage and Heteronormativity. The Normals literally stepping into the shoes of the Hets.
worlds that flare / and consume so they become the only world.
– Lynda Hull
there is no life but this / and history will not be kind.
– Melvin Dixon
The history of the frame reframes itself as the history of the failure to reframe.
– Tory Dent
A HANDFUL OF POETS FACED WITH DEATH sat in a circle. Their poems share the threads, murmurs, and syntax of two crises: the urban crisis and the AIDS crisis. These crises occurred simultaneously, during the 1980s and ’90s, and, in the cultural imagination, they were associated with the same groups of people — Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin addicts, for example. Both crises were also exacerbated by municipal and political structures that chose to ignore them, doing little or nothing to address their sources. Just as people in urban centers were often seen as being responsible for the decay, arson, and drug abuse consuming their blocks, victims of AIDS were seen as similarly responsible for their sickness because of their sexual or social behavior. Poetry from the era can help us understand much about the urban crisis and the AIDS crisis, because poetry often became an avenue of recovery from this decay. Let’s recover this poetry, put it in its proper context, and understand the acts of recovery the poets underwent by writing these poems.
What can we learn about the ways AIDS and cities were connected by reading the poems produced at the time? What can we learn about the impact that AIDS has had on the evolution of poetry, art, and culture in America? And what can we learn about the ways in which memory can aid recovery, both on a personal and a societal level?
The best poems from the period document both the personal deterioration and the public deterioration that occurred. They investigate the crisis with an intense and empathetic artistic inquiry that asks: what else have you got to say about reading this city and this disease with love? The Whitmanesque assemblages of city life pulse and thrum through the language of the poems, even as the inevitable burning-down of that life casts pathos on everyday objects. Poems from the AIDS crisis teach us that loss engages with memory: all losses trigger all previous losses. So, a poet’s private memory is a window into the public memory of the event: its grief, its mores, and its metaphors.
Some of the poetry from this period has not lasted. It was elegiac, abstract, sentimental, or flat; it lacked a rigor in terms of language and did not offer fresh insights into the horrors the poets sought to address. Most of the poems written during the AIDS crisis turned out to be elegies — the expected form to address overwhelming grief. Many of these were unsuccessful because they fell into familiar tropes bound up with the form. David Groff, who won the National Poetry Series in 2002 for his collection Theory of Devolution and coauthored The Crisis of Desire: AIDS and the Gay Brotherhood,explains why he often found the elegy to be an inadequate or problematic response to AIDS:
There were all these reactions from straight people of being kind of bummed and kind of defaulting to an elegy and an absence of specifics of AIDS that denied injustice I felt. A lot poems, especially by straight people, that said AIDS is a bummer and how it was symptomatic of how death can happen and life is unfair. That seemed to me almost a kind of glib reaction, to take AIDS as almost too-easy a metaphor of mortality, when in fact, AIDS in life and in literature is this hugely wrought conflation of every issue of love and death, but also social justice and unfairness, political powerlessness, race, culture, and sexuality. It is one of the grand and awful metaphors of our time and I think you have to approach that with fear and trembling as a poet or any kind of writer […] Elegy is not just grief and grief is not just sadness. There was something more powerful to address there. It was much more of a complex garden to explore and shape in literature.
The crisis was so complex, it is only natural that many of the attempts fell short. This makes the successes even greater achievements. Some poets created their best work in spite of the looming pressures of a disease that was killing them, or the people they loved. I’ve chosen works by four exemplary poets — Charles Barber, Melvin Dixon, Tory Dent, and Lynda Hull — that transcend the expectations of a traditional elegy, pushing the form into new realms of expression, or working against the form, in order to create profound emotional and political responses. “