Wednesday, December 1, 2010

AIDS Sutra (Vajrayana)

(sections of the AIDS Quilt, Madison, WI, 1989)

AIDS Sutra

and I remember the one and only time I ever visited The Quilt,
laid out in partial display, less than a quarter of its total weave,
but still enough panels to cover the floor of the Field House in Madison,
     temporarily displacing the basketball team,
     whose players stayed away that weekend;
it was a Sunday. The day before we had marched through downtown streets,
a blustery afternoon’s hike, shouting slogans and singing—
some of us had drums despite the cold, and the living procession
throbbed with noise—and I remember how warmed I felt
by the outpouring of strength and love from all those queers, and from all
the friends and loved ones who marched with us, in sympathy and kinship;
and I remember how I still felt different, alien,
     more queer than queer,
alone even when immersed in the throngs of shouting, different folk;
and I remember the quiet people walking amongst The Quilt’s bright panels,
quietly reading, taking photos, talking in low funereal voices;
and I remember the white-clothed Quilt attendants walking on patrol,
bearing kleenex tissue boxes, swarming in on private griefs
     whenever some wanderer broke down in tears,
white-clad leeches like intrusive psychic vampire vultures feeding off the pain
and leaving our grievings sucked out, shallow, and diminished—
and I just wanted to tell them to go piss off
     and leave us all alone;
     can’t a person just have a good cleansing cry without you horning in?
And I was afraid of all the loose emotion in that space,
so I shuttered down my nascent impenetrable walls, bearing silent witness,
playing the dispassionate ethnographic observer, until,
the purity of one graceful message
struck through my shields and split me open:
the simple remembrance of a man
who had sown his lover’s favorite blue jeans to a panel—
faded denim on pink—and a simple “I miss you”
with a name;
and I broke down and cried,
and took a photograph—the fish that finally caught me—
and wondered if the war would ever end;

and I remember how alone I felt all through the years of public school,
and I hated that bitter loneliness,
     when I felt so different and unknowable,
     more alien than “queer”ness alone could encapsulate:
     I was doubly queer because I was a smart kid, and triply queer
because I had grown up without radio or television, in a foreign land;
and I remember lusting after every barechested
     adolescent boy I ever saw—
     myself still adolescent, shy and scared—
and never got to touch or kiss;
and I remember swimming naked during boys’ gym class
     in the junior high school pool in 7th grade—
all the boys who didn’t have their suits on any given swim day
     swam naked for an hour—
and sometimes I’d deliberately forget my suit at home,
passing nude from locker room to shower to pool
     to shower to locker room again,
and never wanted to get dressed, I felt so comfortable
     in my skin;
and I have come to forever love the water,
     the healing of the waves,
     the river’s flowing kiss,
     the envelope of liquid grace on my naked skin;
but I never got to kiss or touch or lick or suck
     those other naked boys,
even the ones who probably wanted it as much as I did
     but were just as scared of the ultimate rejection
as I was, scared of being so alien, so queer, so unloved,
instinctively knowing we’d be hated and scorned and branded forever;
I thought I was the only boy who’d ever had these feelings;
and I remember being afraid of getting beat up again—
     this time not for being a sissy, a weakling, a four-eyed
     pale-bodied book-reading teacher’s-pet goody-two-shoes,
     but because I was the queer little faggot—
by all the boys who were bigger and tougher than me,
     which was nearly all of them,
if they ever found out what I felt inside;
and I never got to love them all,
never got to lie together close and naked
     and make love;
and so I both hated and loved those gym classes,
     because I was ashamed of my puny little body,
but I loved going shirtless and rubbing shoulders with the other boys,
or going naked in the pool, pretending I couldn’t swim
     so some bigger boy would hold me by the hips
     while I flailed at the dark, warm, chlorine-flavored water;

and I’m still angry, angrier than ever,
     at all the missed opportunities that echo through my life,
     all the times I was too timid,
     all the times I was too shy to seduce or be seduced,
     all the times I seemed to choose the wrong man to love;
and now I’ve found the bottomless volcano of my anger,
     the dragon rampant on a darkling plain,
     the shapes of the warrior inside me rising like the wind;
and I still get pissed at the thoughtless cry of the sheep,
     the autonomic rage against bigotry and banal, brainless hate;
and I am just angry as I ever was, and I don’t suppress it anymore,
but my tactics have changed: now,
     I turn my anger into these hard words,
     I fling it at the world in packets of knife-edged music,
I put myself out in little flames—
I change it into heartfelt art and dance and song;

and I remember my activist days, still believing we could make a difference,
     the meetings, the arguments, the discussions over ice cream,
     the plans to change the world, to educate our enemies,
     the endless endless talk, the speakers’ bureaus before dim prejudice—
and I am just angry as I ever was, and I don’t suppress it anymore,
but my strategy has changed: now,
     I live the life I’ve chosen, I am walking the good red road,
     I live as the visions lead me to live, and otherwise
I live my life just as I wish, and harm no-one:
being true to yourself is the best revenge.

And I remember the worst violation, the final pointless insult:
     just as I was ready at last to go out and experiment with sex,
     just as I felt ready to endure the hate and look for a lover,
     just as I felt strong enough to have a relationship with some other boy,
          or at least have sex,
AIDS appeared on the horizon, looming like the rats of the plague,
frightening us all into retreat or death, exacting a mounting toll
     that grew to rival—then surpass—the deathcount of boys
     destroyed by the Vietnam war, which thank the gods had ended
     before I was old enough to have to choose between the draft or dodging.
AIDS, you terrified me,
AIDS, you gave me a reason to retreat back into my shell in fear,
AIDS, you gave my long-standing fears their final torch—
just as I was ready to come out and act like a man, a queer, a full-bodied fag,
AIDS, you gave me an excuse to be celibate and timid again.
And I remember falling for it, hell,
     I fell for it completely, retreating with my tail between my legs,
     not Lee at Appomattox but the baffled generals in ‘Nam,
falling for the ultimate black hole joke:
     the game is rigged, folks, you don’t know the rules,
     the dice are loaded, you haven’t got enough to stake you in,
     and there’s no way in hell you’ll ever win, or even leave the table alive,
so why even try to play.
That’s what AIDS said to me.

But that’s no more rich or rare than any other curse.
I’ve lived through too many days of dislocation,
too many words of hatred flung my way,
     to miss how nothing’s really changed:
life must kill you in the end.
It’s how we choose to live—
keeping to the rules we’re given, or breaking them if we can search them out,
or making up our own, or playing—not to win
but to keep the game in play—

that’s the only way,
the only way,
the only way
to play this game.

Originally written circa 1994, and revised a couple of times since, this poem is part of the book Sutras: Spiritual Exercises. It's an unpublished long book, more a personal credo than a book of "fine art poems." I long ago decided, after presenting some of the Sutras to a workshop critique group, to mostly negative responses, that it was more important to me that the Sutras are honest, spiritual, and reflective, rather than "perfect" poems. So I make no apologies for the emotion in this poem, or its anger. I write these Sutras as, indeed, spiritual exercises; some are in poetic forms; some are more like prose-poems; and some are not defined in terms of form.

This Sutra on AIDS speaks for itself. At some point you have to look around, and express your grief. Sometimes grief can seem like anger, but really it's grief. Don't try to block it. Just let it rain. As Paul Monette once wrote, "Grief is a sword, or it is nothing."


  1. Nonpoets write poems during times of intense emotion - love, anger, despair. Strong emotions are major reasons for poetry.

    When one enters the vocational world of poetry - publishing, critiques, workshops - one often hears distaste for strong emotion. So it goes.

    I like the anger in your poem, even what might be unfair anger - the anger directed at the volunteers holding kleenex, for instance.

  2. Thanks, Glenn, that's an insightful comment. I agree. Anger isn't always fair, but I do try to be honest with it, for my own sake.

    It's true that strong emotions are often discounted among "professional poets" in PoetryWorld, in favor of far more cerebral, controlled expression—but that's precisely what the problem is with most such poetry: it's TOO cerebral, not connected to the heart as well as the brain.