Don Yorty for Word for Word Poetry, February 16 2016
Featuring the poets of HIV Here & Now
The Reading Room Bryant Park on February 16 featured HIV Here and Now, an online poetry project () where a poem a day has appeared throughout the year, a countdown from June 5, 2015 until June 5, 2016, when it will be 35 years since the Center for Disease Control first reported five cases of AIDS in Los Angeles. “Will I enjoy this?” I thought to myself as I sat down and waited for the poets to begin. I had my doubts. For someone like myself who lived and survived the awful era of AIDS, while hundreds of my friends and associates did not, I felt a foreboding and braced myself for some depressing stuff.
Michael Broder, the coordinator of the HIV Here and Now project, was the first to read and he introduced the other five poets as well. The poets, he told us, would read poems of their own, and poems by other poets that had appeared online for the countdown. Michael has a PhD in Classics, runs a small press, Indolent Books, and has had one book of poems published, This Life Now (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014) which I happen to own and enjoy. A modest host, Michael read only two poems, powerful poems of his own. One poem addresses the Judeo-Christian tradition of judgment and damnation, the religious tradition that shuns. Michael stood up to that tradition. He would be noticed. He would be honest. He stood right there. Hang on to your hat when you start to read this poem because it doesn't back down.
Standing Before the Ark
I am becoming what I will be
said the voice in the bush that burned but was not consumed.
What is ever truly without a breath of foreshadow?
What do we not seek even as we flee?
You know the consequences, your head on the block,
you cum buckets over that executioner’s blade.
Do you want this scarlet letter, pink triangle?
Are you becoming what you will be?
This tag in my blood a kind of invitation, proposal, corsage.
Marked, branded, identified, known associate—believed.
This, at least, is not a phase, not about shy, awkward, a late bloomer.
This is down on my knees, I pray to the God of Sodomites.
Infection triumphant, like dying for my country, the shema on my lips—
Hear, Oh Israel, I suck dick, I get fucked!
Lønely Christopher read next. He’s a poet and film maker who has had a book of poems published, Death and Disaster Series (Monk Books, 2014). Lønely read a poem titled His Lips Were on That Glass. In July of 2009, New York state senator, Tom Duane, gave an after midnight speech in favor of legislation that would cap the rents of poor people living with AIDS. I remembered that rallying speech very well. Tom Duane’s impassioned plea moved the House to pass that rent cap bill 52 to 1. Lønely uses some of Tom Duane’s words in the poem as well as his own, a collaboration of two becoming the strength of one. It was the first poem Lønely had ever written about AIDS. He was twenty-two at the time. This poem though long on the page is minimal, often one word to a line, which makes it intimate and immediate when you read it just like a speech being heard word for word.
Michael Broder is going to include His Lips Were on That Glass in the HIV Here and Now Anthology that will be coming out in November. I was glad that he gave me the OK to include it here. This poem, both long and short, captures what the AIDS epidemic was really like back in the day.
His Lips Were on That Glass
I don’t think you know
what I’m doing here.
Let me take
the early eighties
we’d go in
we’d go in one night
in the morning they’d be
I’d bring them
food my family
bring them food my
friends bring someone
whoever was in the
bed would be
before they could
We’d leave it
nurses will take it
they wouldn’t eat it
wouldn’t touch it wouldn’t
go into the room
in the afternoon
the next day
and that went on
for months and
You think if you
and your friends
that I would
Every cold every
I thought I’d be
and so did so many
You think you
you think you
me back off
people in the
rooms the public
they had to
they tried not to but
they had to
you know what
the Catholic hospitals
the only ones
the only ones.
people they could
people could stay alive
a few days
a few days
people thrown out of
people evicted from
their apartments families
didn’t want to know
who their kids were.
His lips were on that glass
don’t touch it
sterilize that plate.
Every cold every
virus I’m gonna
what it was
Then they were
oh you know
this this uh
you know we could
put you on this
antibiotic for a
while it will wreck
but we’ll we’ll
we’ll give you a
few more weeks here
try this try this uh
of my friends
every day I
thought that I
the next one.
I wish I
not not much
different at all.
|Jee Leong Koh|
Jee Leong Koh, a poet and essayist from Singapore, read next. He is the author of three poetry collections, Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015) being the most recent. He matched the power of the preceding poems by reading a poem by John Humpstone, an interior designer who died of AIDS in 1996 shortly before his 40th birthday. When he knew he was dying, John wrote the poem, and left it behind in his papers. With a calm clear voice Jee read with careful precision; John Humpstone was alive as we listened.
The fireflies who drifted on summer evening’s
Warm and reassuring dark
And seemed to my young eyes a thousand
Tiny boats afloat on sunset’s lapis sea
Called to us still playing hide and seek
To keep night’s magic dancing in the air.
And though the sky grew darker
With each moment’s passing
I teased and hid and kicked and screamed
At being called and sent to bed.
I’d plead for just a minute more
But knew full well the time had come
To rest before tomorrow’s break.
In later years in smoke-filled clubs
We danced until the sky grew pale
And as the morning sun replaced the fractured light
Of spinning mirror balls, we laughed and screamed
And pleaded for that one last song
But knew the folly of our chants, as time had come
To face the day that blazed outside beyond
The neon and the strobes.
And now although my world has moved indoors
And withered limbs defy my dance,
Despite a life that shrinks at nearly every bend
I’ll plead for just a minute more
And hide and plead and kick and scream
But know that I am being called
To rest again in cool but reassuring dark.
I like the last two lines in the first stanza of this poem. It’s about Eve losing her virginity by the seaside. Jee writes:
On a beach raised from the ocean with a shout, he entered her
and she realized, in rolling waves, that love joins and separates.
“Love joins and separates” is a very powerful thought, and a sexy one as well.
|Guillermo Filice Castro|
Guillermo Filice Castro read next. He’s the author of Agua, Fuego (Finishing Line, 2015), a book I am looking forward to reading. Like Jee, Guillermo’s first language isn’t English, and that always interests me. He’s from Argentina where he was in the military during that short war with England over the Falkland Islands. How exact would his English be? I was interested to hear both syntax and sound. Guillermo’s English, short lines with a stark image, added to the sensibility of his growing up in Argentina, a country that’s had its death squads and disappearances; his poem The Last of the Bees addresses that intolerance in English telling us something Spanish and South American. Here are the last few lines, a young man taken off to be tortured or shot wishes to watch, for a little while, bees buzzing in an arbor:
To the last of the bees
In the vines above
Their wobbly lines made more
Disorderly through the sudden
Guillermo read a poem about his mother, a poem about death, but also about living, that uses clear concise language with interesting assonance, alliteration that make it real and present.
On a New Anniversary of Her Death I Make Myself Buckwheat Pancakes
And a world is born
In this skilled skillet
And a clumpy mixture
That flattens into
An almost round
Moon so hot
Blueberries begin to bleed
And smear eye shadow
Across the pock-
Its less bubbly
With my spatula’s
The tart and naked disc
Hissing a wish
By sliced strawberries
Then forked into my mouth
Filling with the murmurs
Of water and milk
And the one egg
That in cracking
Bound it all
Debora Lidov read next. Up to now, all the poets had conjured up memories of my own experiences with AIDS and sex and death. When Debora read, I found myself focusing on the poet herself because her poems were unique and important. She has been a medical social worker for over ten years. At the same time she was dealing with HIV mothers working at a neonatal unit, she was also dealing with her own cancer treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma. It gave Debora’s reading a poignant immediacy. I wasn’t remembering friends who had died; I was in the here and now with Debora and her trials. Here is one of her poems about the neonatal unit:
Baby Boy with necrotizing enterocolitis three inches viable gut. Baby of maternal diabetes, maternal fever, maternal utox, maternal HIV. Baby of domestic violence. Baby Boy they were trying for a girl this time. Baby Girl they were hoping for a boy. Baby the father’s Indo-Caribbean side will not accept your blackness. Baby intubated, brain dead on arrival, mother seized and expired prior to induction. Baby born with one arm one leg external bladder but two perfect lungs and excellent heart breathing easy. Triplet A, born at 1,200 grams, home in 12 weeks; Triplet B born at 1,400 grams home in 12 weeks; Triplet C born at 800 grams never leaves never off the vent, on and off the oscillator high-frequency vent. Baby X of ambiguous genitalia. Baby, she whispers in recovery-room trance, of revenge rape, baby, she says to the aide in Creole, of gang rape, baby of incest, one nurse notes to another in the hall about the baby. Baby with fused lids get ready to see, baby on new baby trache get ready to breathe, failed kidney baby recover your function, baby, filter and excrete, arrhythmia baby steady whenever you’re ready your baby baby baby baby beat.
The poems Debora read, Working from Home, Atheist, Like, and Newborn can all be found in her recent collection, Trance (Finishing Line Press, 2016). They are well worth reading. When Debora finished, I noticed that the clapping was tentative, starting slowly until everyone was applauding quietly at once. I think the audience was moved; Debora’s reading had put them so much in the present, they were startled to find out it was over. The Struggle Continues.
The generous Sarah Sarai was last to read. She has a collection, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX, 2016). Like her book’s title Sarah’s poems were optimistic. She moved us with joy, a joy that one could say was religious, not the religion of strict tradition, but a religion of poetry, the joy of spiritual discovery. “God is what makes us better,” Sarah tells us in a poem about loving a woman, Miracle Fiber. And God, if you didn’t know, is a woman. Here is a poem that gives you a good idea what Sarah’s reading was like.
Nothing but smooth sailing.
[The Isley Brothers]
Those aren’t birds are they are they,
are they?, or are they insects of an ilk
glowing and hovering hummingbird-
like though not hummingbird, not bird,
no, I see it, that which I wasn’t seeing,
a lingering phosphorescence, no
luminescence, oh!, it is incandescence
and those are seraphim I see, I am
seeing seraphim, six-winged seraphim,
seraphim having six wings or so said
Isaiah, a seraphim seer, two wings, fans
over a mighty face, two enfolding feet
and two neon wings to lift them aloft,
smoothly sail above prophesies for our
tangled times, two wings golden as honey
is gold, as amber is gold, as transparency
is gold, carry us to a feared eternal now,
tolerable, almost, when we sing along.
An hour had passed since the reading began. Sarah’s poetry brought us back to the beginning and answered the poem by Michael Broder that confronted stern tradition. This moving powerful reading had come full circle from intolerance to tolerance, from frightened hate to understanding love. A good thoughtful time, I believe, was had by all, but with the sober realization too that the fight against AIDS is not over, nor the fight against intolerance as well.