“In Time of Plague”

How poetry about AIDS has shifted through the years.

In the summer of 1982, Tim Dlugos wrote a four-line poem entitled “My Death.” The summer prior, reports of a mysterious gay cancer spreading among gay men had begun appearing in major newspapers. In the poem, Dlugos makes no explicit mention of what the looming threat is, but read from the far end of the AIDS years, there’s a terrible sense of foreboding in his few lines:

when I no longer
feel it breathing down
my neck it’s just around
the corner (hi neighbor)

He was a month shy of his 32nd birthday when he finished revising the poem. It might’ve been rooted in mere morbidity, or surprise at the quickening passage of his 30s. In an introduction to Dlugos’s Powerless, Dennis Cooper refers to his friend’s struggles with drinking and depression. Dlugos himself refers to a bout of hepatitis in “Pretty Convincing,” a poem written after “My Death.” Yet the resolution of “My Death,” or lack thereof, points to a threat the speaker can’t outrun, one embedded in his community, “just around the corner,” embodied by his neighbor.

Dlugos died from complications of AIDS in 1990. The poem went unpublished in his lifetime. David Trinidad has noted that Dlugos “chose not to publish his most confessional poems (at least not until the end; it’s hard to imagine a more revealing poem than ‘G-9’) but he saved them nonetheless.” It’s hard to say whether “My Death” is one of those confessional works. It’s cryptic and appears slight at first glance. It’s nothing like “G-9,” which is named for the AIDS ward at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. Dlugos wrote “G-9” in 1989. By that time, the sheer wasting power of AIDS was evident; deaths attributed to the virus had reached nearly 90,000. The poem opens with Dlugos at the funeral of a friend:

His mother hands me
a paper cup with pills:
leucovorin, Zovirax,
and AZT. “Henry
wanted you to have these,”
she sneers. “Take all
you want, for all the good
they’ll do.”

Dlugos makes no judgment of the woman’s bitterness in “G-9” and hazards no guess at his own chances for survival. He goes on to write, “I was powerless to change / the horror and the shame / that had infected my whole life.” It’s a powerful poem, brave and direct. “D.O.A.,” the last poem Dlugos ever wrote, is a bittersweet farewell, almost an elegy for himself. “The hardest part’s / not even the physical effects,” Dlugos writes. “It’s having / to say goodbye like the scene / where soundtrack violins go crazy ...” Both “G-9” and “D.O.A.” are noted for their candor. They seem to have originated from a back-to-the-wall moment for Dlugos, an attempt to fully reckon with his illness. Was he making oblique reference to AIDS in “My Death” years earlier, when although he acknowledged he couldn't escape, he actually had up to that point? If so, the dilemma he faced was common to all poets who wrote about the virus early on. They grappled with the daunting task of addressing the fear and uncertainty surrounding an ill-defined threat. There was limited official acknowledgment that the problem even existed.

The same summer Dlugos revised “My Death,” the medical community opted to replace the acronym GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) to more accurately reflect the inclusive nature of the disease. These were the first of the quickly proliferating acronyms of those early years. Rachel Hadas, who first led a poetry workshop for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1989, characterized this new language as “an insider’s lingo to which one gets accustomed with inconceivable rapidity.” This is not to say it proved wholly satisfactory, or that the passage of time made the effects of the virus any more comprehensible. Mark Doty published “Atlantis” in 1995. Nearly a decade and a half into coping with AIDS, poets and people with AIDS still found it defied sense:

It’s been six months,
almost exactly, since the doctor wrote

not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
four-letter cipher

that draws meanings into itself,
reconstitutes the world.
We tried to say it was just

a word; we tried to admit
it had power and thus to nullify it
by means of our acknowledgement.

Hadas’s “insider’s lingo” aside, AIDS confronted poets with the task of writing about something for which there was no previously established vocabulary. They could borrow from the familiar precedents, words set aside for grief and loss, for tragedies during wartime and peacetime alike, but that was an imperfect solution. Those past losses were often deemed heroic, cast as examples of great sacrifice. Discussion of AIDS and the people living with it was more frequently couched in fearmongering and stigma. This complicated writing about the illness and its aftermath. Robert Cording mentions John Donne in “Elegy for John, My Student Dead of AIDS.” David Bergman invokes Keats at the outset of “A Dream of Nightingales.” Robert Creeley recalls lepers from his childhood in “Plague,” as does Richard Ronan in his “Love Among Lepers.” Ronan died of complications related to AIDS in 1989.

Apart from these references to literary and historical forebears, it was common for poets to choose between bluntness and deftness, to confront the harsh particulars of the disease and its complications directly, or to skirt the physical toll in favor of the emotional. In his 1988 poem “Kindertotenlieder,” Reginald Shepherd writes of “pneumocystis / carinii pneumonia blossoming in your lungs,” and “Kaposi’s sarcoma, harsh syllables pronounced / across the skin, the purple lesions almost / hyacinth.” Marvin Solomon’s “AIDS” offers a finely detailed portrait of what happens, “Finally / When there is nothing else to be done.” Joel Zizik’s “Pneumocystis” names one of the most dangerous complications of the early AIDS era and traces its impact on his friend and lover, Fred. “I was out of town the first time you almost died,” Zizik writes, and goes on to catalog the “breathing fast and attenuated” and “the fever rising until you were liquid / inside your skin, like a small young planet.” 

In his poem “Lament,” Thom Gunn embraces the direct, visceral approach Zizik took:

Your lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained,
Did all your breathing now. Nothing remained
But death by drowning on an inland sea
Of your own fluids, which it seemed could be
Kindly forestalled by drugs.

David Bergman’s “In The Waiting Room” deals in less stark images, preferring “A man in a white / laboratory coat” and “the ailing anatomy” of the man he examines. Henri Cole’s approach in “A Half-Life” tracks with Bergman’s in that he opts to characterize the man’s body as “novocained and irradiant,” rather than delving into the harsher physical particulars that necessitated those measures. In an introduction to his 1988 collection Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog, Paul Monette explains the more intensive tack he took. He writes, “I wanted a form that would move with breathless speed, so I could scream if I wanted and rattle on and empty my Uzi into the air.” He essentially invented one, filling his poems with great torrents of words, ignoring punctuation, and creating a feeling of almost reckless momentum. He piles on clinical language to devastating effect at times, but his sense of how desperately sad the continuation of mundane things can feel in the face of loss hits even harder. Consider “No Goodbyes”:

we are war and peace in a single bed
we wear the same size shirt it can't it can't
be yet not this just let me brush his hair
it’s only Tuesday there’s chicken in the fridge
from Sunday night ...

Monette died in 1995 of complications related to AIDS.

Their approaches might differ, but many of these early poems share a remarkable urgency. These writers were involved on a personal level, whether by way of the illness of friends, lovers, or family members, or by living as People with AIDS themselves. Simple answers were elusive. Individuals’ own reactions were difficult to parse, as Gunn’s “In Time of Plague” makes apparent:

My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.

Melvin Dixon uses “Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt” to portray a melancholy scene that resonated with many who participated in the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. In the poem, Aunt Ida carries on a monologue as she pieces a quilt to memorialize her nephew Junie. She faces his sexuality, which troubled her, when she notes, “I caught him switching down the street one Saturday night, / and I seen him more than once. I said, Junie / You ain’t got to let the whole world know your business.” But she also wrestles with a means of sustaining his memory (“Something to bring him back”), and the prospect of his life and loss broadening her view, when she says, “I ain’t so old fashioned I can’t change.”

Essex Hemphill took a less hopeful tack. “When My Brother Fell” concludes:

When I stand
On the front lines now,
Cussing the lack of truth,
The absence of willful change
And strategic coalitions,
I realize sewing quilts
Will not bring you back
Nor save us ...

The division between Dixon’s poem and Hemphill’s reflects enduring tensions between activists in the 1980s and early 1990s, in particular between the more confrontational ACT UP and groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which was seen as insufficiently political. Dixon died of complications related to AIDS in 1992, and Hemphill died of complications related to the disease in 1995, a month prior to the availability of protease inhibitors, the writer Martin Duberman notes in Hold Tight Gently.

There is a sense as well that the intrusion of AIDS into their lives forced many poets to work in a direction they otherwise might not have considered. In 1975 Dlugos wrote, “I try to write myself out of the time and space I find myself in,” and further, “My work is part of the nostalgia craze; all of it reminds me of where I used to be. That spurs me on to greater achievements, so I can look back at those, too, from a point even further in the future.” He never updated this ethos to include the implications of an illness expected to shorten his life drastically. It seemed to slow his work for a number of years, but David Trinidad, who edited Dlugos’s posthumous collection, remembers Dlugos’s last two years as a “resurgence” in which he wrote 47 poems, including the aforementioned “G-9” and “D.O.A.” Rachel Hadas writes that regarding subject matter for the students of her workshop, “the what was a given—was for much of the time the given of their daily lives.”

What value do these poems have today, what lasting impact? There is a moment in Andrew Holleran’s 2006 novel Grief when the protagonist, who is teaching an AIDS literature course, tells his students, “AIDS is over ... At least in this country—it has had its cultural moment, and produced some art that will probably last no longer than thirties agitprop.” He looks at the “glassy blankness” of their faces and reflects, “I didn’t know if they knew I was being ironic—or if I knew myself.” In 1996, ten years prior to Grief, Andrew Sullivan declared an end to the AIDS epidemic in the New York Times. He was writing in response to the rise of protease inhibitors and the changed prognosis people with AIDS would face going forward. He noted that “a diagnosis of H.I.V. infection is not just different in degree today than, say, five years ago. It is different in kind. It no longer signifies death. It merely signifies illness.” Three years later, the poet Rafael Campo offered “The Changing Face of AIDS” and considered “How difficult it is to say goodbye / to scourge.” These declarations were arbitrary and premature, though the eagerness to escape the shadow of AIDS was understandable. They did suggest a shift in how the public regarded the virus. Charles Bernstein’sSelf-Help” makes a quick, cutting reference to this change with the line “AIDS ravaging Africa.—Wasn’t Jeffrey Wright fabulous in Angels in America?” The threat had, to a large extent, moved abroad. The Americans most susceptible to infection were increasingly poor and of color. Sarah Schulman reminds us that

We still have to work every day to assert the obvious, that in fact, there are two distinctly different kinds of AIDS that are not over.
1. There is AIDS of the past.
2. There is ongoing AIDS.

None of this is to say that poets have altogether turned away from AIDS. D.A. Powell’s trilogy of books, Tea (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), features poems concerning AIDS, but Powell writes in a prefatory note to Tea, “This is not a book about AIDS ... I do not deny this disease its impact. But I deny its dominion.” Perhaps this more than anything characterizes the relationship poets have established with AIDS since the late 1990s. They don’t lack the courage to approach it as subject matter. In the past decade, young poets such as Jericho Brown, Angelo Nikolopoulos, and Alex Dimitrov have done admirable work in that vein. Others, like Saeed Jones, yield to their poetic forbears because, as Jones says, “a great deal of poetry has been written by poets who lived through/witnessed/survived the Plague Years and out of respect for that work, I personally defer to the work that has been done rather than try to re-imagine something too real to be fictionalized or turned into a trope.” His debut, Prelude to Bruise, shows a fierce intellect and a fearlessness in exploring sexuality, emotion, and the long shadow of history.

In The Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman observes that we can’t measure the scale of loss wrought by the AIDS years. Indeed, there’s no easy answer, no set of factors we can plug into a single equation to let us know what might have been. Yet we are fortunate enough to have a number of committed, knowing writers and thinkers whose work and insights add clarity. Mark Doty lives on, as do Eileen Myles, David Trinidad, and others. Philip Clark and David Groff’s 2009 Persistent Voices is a valuable anthology of writers whose lives were cut short by AIDS, as is Rachel Hadas’s Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop. Michael Klein has compiled two volumes of poems written in response to the AIDS epidemic, 1989’s Poets for Life and a 1997 volume, Things Shaped in Passing, which he edited with Richard J. McCann. (Of the four books, only the latter two remain in print.)

We can also look to young poets such as Saeed Jones, who have the freedom to explore as they see fit in their work, and imagine a reborn Essex Hemphill or Paul Monette. We can savor the prospect of following them through long careers. We didn’t get that pleasure with Hemphill or Monette. Or Tim Dlugos or Melvin Dixon. The list feels endless. So it falls to those of us who remain to stretch our memories to accommodate those many names and the verse they left us with. 


Originally Published: November 26th, 2014

John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. His writing has appeared in Brick Magazine, The American Scholar and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.

  1. November 26, 2014
     Tim Barrus

    HIV is not history. AIDS is not something we have put
    behind us.

    I teach poetry to young boys (we throw around the term
    AT RISK far too often) who have HIV.

    Adolescent boys are still getting HIV and many of them
    are acquiring it from sex work. Most are homeless. Most
    gave up on school a long time ago. Where rates of
    infection have decreased significantly for many
    populations, the rates for adolescent males has only
    continued to increase. We do not have a handle on it.
    We also throw around the term -- HARD TO REACH
    POPULATION -- so ubiquitously that it has no meaning.

    If the boys have given up in significant ways, we, too,
    have washed our hands of them.

    I want to give up on them about twenty times a day.
    They're difficult. Hard to reach does not begin to cover

    The foundation I work with gives them cameras.

    Usually, I just let them loose. They return with
    photography and video which they set to poetry they
    have written. Much of it is profane and very hard to hear
    because the bitterness of the boys is awesome.

    They write about HIV and death a lot. They go for sex
    like tigers. What they have to say about sex and death
    disturbs the nice people.

    It isn't polished work. It's furious and conflicted.

    But they won't write anything else for love nor money.
    Just poetry.

    Because no one can come down on them for being
    either stupid or wrong.

    I don't edit much. My role is to hug them and applaud.

    It's day to day. Moment to moment. The things they
    have to say about access to medicine can be stunning.
    They are mean and often suicidal.

    Yes, poetry about AIDS has shifted.

    What hasn't shifted are the human beings at the edges,
    marginal, struggling, and astute.


  2. November 27, 2014

    Excellent piece.

  3. November 27, 2014
     Saren Deonarine


  4. December 6, 2014
     Boris Golovin

    There is no poetry "about" something. It is about everything contemporaneously at all times.

  5. December 7, 2014
     Susan Justiniano

    I am interested in getting in touch with the author, John McIntyre, regarding this piece in order to do an interview for The Freedom Radio Hour with DJ/Producer/Advocate Adam Cruz

    Here is some info on the show:http://news.freedomradiohour.c...

    Please email me at [email protected]

    Thank you