Monday, March 1, 2010

Crooning from under the mud

In the current issue of THE GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW, there's a remarkable poem by Patrick Donnelly. Here it is:


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?

How dared
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.


Elisabeth said...

The title says it all to me, this business of 'careless lov'e and the consequences thereof, not just in relation to HIV.

As you say, that's been transformed at least to some extent through medical advances while its legacy and the memories remain.

The same thought comes to my mind about the business of all those unwanted and aborted babies and dead mothers mid backyard abortion) years ago before the advent of decent contraception. More medical advances.

I can remember those halcyon days pre HIV and immediately post pill when our lives felt sexually free, to make 'careless love' but not so for anyone now.

It is as if we have all been burned and saved but the losses remain.

I agree this is an exquisite poem.

Mari said...

I think of Doug Powell's _Chronic_... But you're right, "the situation of HIV is weirdly under-visible in our poetry". Symptomatic of a larger denial, perhaps? I volunteered at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in the early 1990s when awareness of the illness and its devastation seemed at its peak, at least in the City. Now the climate's much different and there seems to be a kind of unspoken agreement not to address directly what has brought so much pain to so many... as if doing so will cause more harm.

Nancy Devine said...

the poem is chilling, the last line of the first stanza blaring.
"if all were ignorant, do all bear the blame?" maybe because i'm a teacher, i wonder about what we don't know...if we are aware of our ignorance and what i can or should do about it.
i saw sarah shulman on tv a couple of months ago, kept thinking i should read her i know i should.

James Allen Hall said...

Reminds me vaguely of that Eudora Welty story, "Where is the Voice Coming From." Such an excellent poem!

Unknown said...

I like the way it questions all of those issues that you raise in the accompanying post. I'll look for more from this writer, thanks.

Carol Peters said...

It's Henry, DS 29

Allegra: said...

Really compassionate and tuned-in reading of this poem by my friend Patrick. Would you mind if I linked to this post from my blog?

It's I write about the poets of Western Mass and my own life as a poet.

--Allegra Mira

Mark Doty said...

Allegra, of course, feel free!

apprentice said...

I agree with your point "but I still feel that the situation of HIV is weirdly under-visible in our poetry" and that it may have to do with people being exhausted and shell-shocked, as well as issues of survivor guilt etc, etc.

As someone who lost a brother to HIV/AIDS and who visited London hospices in the late 80s/early 90s I can understand why it still sears the soul.

It is a wonderful poem, with such texture and layers of meaning. Let's hope Donnelly sparks a trend.

I also wish there would be more of a read across to the disease elsewhere in the world, where it is still a big deal.

Bill Matthews said...

It's also true that tragedy has an end point: death was the big STOP in the telegraph of the old AIDS story. But survival is a different thing. You survive and then....what? Life in all its plain jane get-up-and-feed-cat ordinariness. That's a harder thing to eulogize. A great poem Mark, thanks for sharing it.

Laura said...

Oh! That last stanza. "The heart dies of this sweetness."

This poem manages to address relationships to both risk and nostalgia that are weighty and crucial to "the situation of HIV." Where in the sociological realm, we have Ann Cvetkovich recording lesbian experiences with ACT UP, and whether or not those experiences continue to sustain them--the complexity of how their nostalgia functions. And Tim Dean doing some very eloquent work on risk and current bareback culture... but the two intersect, don't they? It seems that the poem knows this, can know it because it's not trying to untangle the "childlike and sinister"?

Joelle Biele said...

Thanks so much for this poem--