In the current issue of THE GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW, there's a remarkable poem by Patrick Donnelly. Here it is:
IN LOW, UNWORTHY ROOMS HE MADE CARELESS LOVE AND NOW
guesses he's killed some man or men. Can't imagine
how long a pilgrimage could in iron shoes atone.
If all were ignorant, do all bear the blame?
his indigent seed
lodge a bullet upside anyone's sweet puppy head?
Whose faces? Whose shade
rises, swears he's the feckless fuckhead who molested my blood.
His mischief keeps crooning from under the mud
little milk caught the kitty, made off my heart,
little love in the ditch, little lord that I hurt,
little bug, little bat, broken as dirt.
That title nods directly to Cavafy, but in his work it would lead to a restrained, aching elegy for gone days of sexual pleasure. But Donnelly's erotic memory has, of course, been re-colored by the advent of HIV, and these remembered boys, who were touched with such pleasure -- did the man who so ardently enjoyed them also infect them?
The poem took me back to a discussion, years ago now, at the final OutWrite conference in Boston. Sarah Schulman was sitting on a panel talking about AIDS, activism and writing, and she asked the panelists "What have you noticed about the epidemic that hasn't been represented yet?" The first thought that came into my mind, as an audience member, was Everything. It was as if, when the horrific crisis years came to an end, we were all so exhausted and shell-shocked that it didn't seem possible to write another word. How to talk about the new dizzying fact that people we thought would die soon now might live a long time? How to talk about a transformed relationship to medicine? A culture where the artifice of chemical intervention becomes an ordinary, daily reality -- even, to some degree, no big deal. And then there's the matter of our recent history: years of grief, years of injury, just behind us, and how to find any terms for all that?
That conversation was years ago, but I still feel that the situation of HIV is weirdly under-visible in our poetry. That's one reason I find Donnelly's poem just thrilling. It looks headlong into the awful prospect of guilt in the transmission of disease, and though it speaks to those perhaps-lost men with tenderness, it also doesn't let the speaker off the hook. He reaches towards those ghosts tenderly, but he doesn't dodge the fact that he may be the one who "molested" their blood. "Milk caught the kitty" is utterly chilling, both childlike and sinister.
Finally, the poem's virtues don't just reside in its content. It's an artful little song, these four three-line stanzas with their deft loose end-rhymes, and then that aching, scary song-within-the-song at the end, spoken by the "mischief" of the speaker -- imagining himself as unknowing murderer -- singing up from beneath
the ground, in lines that feel charged with pity and sorrow, guilt and tenderness and threat.