Sites of Suffering and Joy: The Importance of Place in Poetry of the AIDS Crisis
In the (almost) wake of the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to ignore many of the parallels between the United States government’s response—or lack thereof—to Coronavirus to their shameful inaction and contempt for those suffering from AIDS throughout the 80s and 90s. As a queer poet, it is impossible to ignore this lineage which I am writing into, and the AIDS crisis is something which has been written about (sometimes extensively) by a majority of the poets I look up to most dearly. Ron Schreiber, CAConrad, Tim Dlugos, David Trinidad, D.A. Powell, Henri Cole, Mark Doty, Wayne Koestenbaum, J.D. McClatchy, James Merrill, Danez Smith and Randall Mann are just a few of the writers who come to mind when I think about the poetry which came out of the AIDS crisis, each writer representative of a certain generation and setting. The place of the poem is equally important when it comes to poetry about the AIDS crisis because it can significantly change not only the mood and tone of the piece, but it can highlight certain elements of the epidemic which might be unique to a certain population.
In looking at the works of Ron Schreiber, specifically his final collection John (1989), gay domestic life becomes infused with the tragedy of his partner’s illness in a way that is more sensitive and tender than other poems I’ve read about similar topics. Alternatively, CAConrad’s essay “SIN BUG,” about their life in Philadelphia during the AIDS crisis, is much angrier and vengeful but still filled with a reverence for the people they loved and the gifts which the city afforded them during such a dreadful period of time. Finally, in looking at Tim Dlogos’ poem “G-9” about his time in the AIDS wing of the Roosevelt Hospital in New York City in 1990 shows us the complex layers of emotions one might feel about being at the end of life. As opposed to writing about the lovers and friends who have died from AIDS, Dlugos gives us a firsthand account of the gripping realities of the virus and how it can change the way we think.
In highlighting these three writers, I think it becomes possible to see the ways in which place and setting are essential elements for poetry written about the AIDS crisis. Whether it is the importance of cities like New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, the interior domestic spaces which are built through our personal relationships, or the austere and unwelcoming environment of the hospital, the place of the poem has the power to change the way we think about the epidemic and how we respond to it as artists. As a contemporary writer who is privileged and has access to medications like PrEP, my own perspective on the AIDS crisis is different from that of most of the writers I listed above. I know people today who are HIV positive, but their lives are not in the same kind of danger that they would have been twenty-five or thirty years ago. I have mostly learned about the AIDS crisis as a historical event, but there is still no cure and thousands of people are still diagnosed with HIV each year in the United States. Reading these poems helps me to put things into perspective and allows me to consider the ways in which poetry can change our perceptions, and how my own work fits into this long history of writing about tragedy and queer existence.
David Halperin writes in his book, How to Be Gay, about the ways in which gay culture gets passed on from generation to generation of LGBT individuals. He argues that none of us are born knowing how to be gay and that we must learn about our history from our elders. Much of this is done through mass media today and is partially why some individuals have been so vocal about the fight for proper representation in almost every branch of the arts and popular media. Many queer theorists have been distraught over the death of queer culture since the AIDS crisis, though, and they’re afraid of the ways it has changed in recent years. In thinking about how queer individuals are able to publicly learn about how to interact with and engage with one another—at bars or clubs, in theaters, or at now nearly nonexistent bathhouses—Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed write in their book, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past, about how this decline in public spaces, specifically those which have been labeled as queer spaces, has changed the way we think about LGBT history. Castiglia and Reed write,
Queer culture often circulates through spaces nominally marked for other purposes, from the avenues taken over for demonstrations to the wooded areas, bathrooms, and warehouses taken over at certain times for sex. These exemplify the adaptability of sexual minorities living without sanctioned institutional spaces. (87)
Putting aside the ways Pride month events have been curbed by capitalist interests, Castiglia and Reed highlight in their book the irony of the desire for increasingly invisible interior queer spaces in the face of ACT UP protests and queer liberation marches, at which people chanted “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it.” This quest for media visibility happened concurrently with the creation of queer spaces which existed away from the eye of the heterosexual public—for example, the designing of bachelor houses to hide gay men away from their neighbors in suburban settings (which for better or worse never really caught on), or the reclamation of the West Side Piers off Lower Manhattan and the Revetment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, both spaces which were used for sunbathing, cruising, queer gatherings, and even semi-temporary housing for homeless gay and trans individuals (85). The closing of most public bath houses in the 1980s did nothing to help the situation either and only further stigmatized the queer population, resulting in the increased isolation of queer communities, particularly in metropolitan areas.
None of this is meant to suggest that private spaces aren’t significant or important, only that they’re limiting in regard to forming and unifying a larger queer community. In looking at queer literature from the 1980s and 1990s, it seems evident that these private domestic spaces offered queer individuals with AIDS a s haven in which they could be surrounded by loved ones as their health continued to decline. These were spaces in which they could comfortably die—a morbid thought, sure, but one which doesn’t seem to be taken for granted in the queer poetry of the time.
Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space that
…beyond all the positive values of protection, the house we were born in becomes imbued with dream values which remain after the house is gone. Centers of boredom, centers of solitude, centers of daydream group together to constitute the oneiric house which is more lasting than the scattered memories of our birthplace…we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream. (38)
While Bachelard is thinking here very literally of houses as birth places, I believe this sentiment could—and does—apply to places of ‘rebirth’ for queer individuals. It is a common saying that queer people are able to choose their families, to select the individuals whom they share their lives with, not to be restricted to the family (often unwelcoming) assigned at random by birth. An important part of this rebirth for queer individuals, then, is the establishment of a home space which is severed from the past, which symbolizes for some a fresh start, typically in major urban areas (though not always). The living spaces created during this period of rebirth may have always existed to some extent in an oneiric sense, as Bachelard contemplates. These are the spaces dreamt of by queer individuals throughout childhood, spaces in which the queer individual can exist comfortably, can express their sexuality honestly, and a space which is free of heterosexual judgment and violence.
We see this in Edmund White’s quasi-autobiographical ‘Edmund Trilogy’—A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997)—a collection of novels which trace the path of a boy as he discovers his sexuality from the 1950s up to and through the AIDS epidemic. In A Boy’s Own Story, the unnamed protagonist is growing up in his parents’ house, knows he is different, and dreams of a life away from the repressive heterosexual environment in which he has been raised. Throughout the trilogy as he makes his way from Cincinnati to Chicago to Michigan to New York and abroad, we see him create and recreate these queer spaces he had dreamed of when he was younger.
Ron Schreiber is a poet who, like Edmund White, traces a loose autobiographical narrative throughout each of his books. I closely associate Schreiber’s poetry with the celebration of queer domestic spaces. In a poem like “the image of you vivid,” Schreiber alludes to a life spent together with his partner, a comfortable intimacy depicted through small details and sense memories. In the poem’s final stanza Schreiber writes,
the years we’ve been together blur into your shifting image
that I want to touch even though I’d be afraid
if I were with you now frightened of your fear
trying to hide my own your body is more vivid to me
than my own body just sitting across the room
or crying in Larry’s apartment when your mother died
or spitting on me in our livingroom or falling asleep
with the television on or flirting laughing dancing
swimming in the Atlantic wherever you’re at whoever you are (26)
A clear vision of a cohabitated life is constructed throughout Schreiber’s poems, and although his collections Living Space (1974), Moving to a New Place (1974), False Clues (1977) Against That Time (1978), Tomorrow Will Really Be Sunday (1984), and John (1989) each depict various lovers and partners that Schreiber was intimate with, his poems treat them all with the same level of care, sensuality, and decency. The books track Schreiber’s romances chronologically as he moves from Chicago to Dayton to Ithaca to Cambridge, with excursions to Japan as well as into the Adirondacks, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other locales along the east coast of the United States.
In the poem “Isthmus,” Schreiber writes,
you laugh when I tell you Nico’s
been beaten up (just like Nico
used to laugh nervously at news
of misfortune). you say you’re
sorry for him but
you’re fiercely loyal to me.
—not responsive to my particular
problems of the day, anxieties of
the afternoon, or every whim or
fancy my mood darts into.
but there for me.
absorbed sometimes in your own
moods, exhausted after working
six days. if you cannot train me
to care about clown fish or anemones,
or even to like your cruelty,
there’s still the fact of you
breathing into my pores.
as if we were twin boats together
in a bathtub, or penguins
playing in the Antarctic,
totally warm. (16)
The poem is imbued with a sense of knowing, of shared stresses and joys. They feel like celebrations of the commonplace and a testament to the pleasures of simply existing alongside somebody you care so deeply about. They are the tenderest of gay love poems. In addition to writing about these relationships, part of the reason I’m so drawn to them is because, like my own poetry, they are all so deeply rooted in place, marked by the locations in which they were written, or where the memories were experienced. The poems are also not ashamed of being what they are, whether they are sad, erotic, or consumed with gratitude. In his poem “reforming the beach, Lon Nook,” Schreiber writes,
alone in mid-September
the seasonal rangers
—the ones who leer
& write tickets—
are laid off
for lack of funds
I wonder whether
there’ll be another
faggot in the dunes &
if we’ll like each other (32)
This intimate depiction of Schreiber’s own sexuality and desire, paired with the comfortability assured through his use of setting in each poem is perhaps why the poems in his collection John are so devastating in what they depict. Through the use of dated poems, the book traces Schreiber’s own life with his partner John from April of 1986 when John is diagnosed with AIDS to November of that same year when John dies. Almost the entire book takes place either in John’s hospital room or in Ron and John’s shared apartment. For Schreiber, the apartment setting exists as a bittersweet space in that for him it is the place where his lover dies. Simultaneously, though, the apartment exists as an oneiric space which they shared, a space which was misunderstood by the family of his lover but was nonetheless a safe space for the two of them and their friends, especially during their final months together.
Much of the collection is concerned with Schreiber taking whatever means necessary to ensure that John is comfortable either at the hospital or at home, often at the expense of his own wellbeing. Schreiber spends months making arrangements for John’s eventual, expected death, but in the end, he is not granted the kind of intimate parting he expected or deserved. As John is dying, Schreiber writes in his poem “10-29-86,”
When I was out on errands Saturday morning, a decision was made to which I was asked to acquiesce: that John would go home with his mother (to his mother) in Holbrook. “That’s what John wants,” they said. And “we had been thinking about it, but we didn’t want to say anything until Johnny said something.” Not to me either, who had no notion what they had been thinking about. (The house queer; the house nigger. He’s done his job—back to the family into which John was born). (84)
In a biographical note at the beginning of the book, we are told that John was kicked out of his house after coming out as gay at the age of fifteen. It pains Schreiber to see John reclaimed by his parents at the time of his death, unwillingly brought back to a house in which he was for so long unwelcomed. John is not allowed to die peacefully with his chosen queer family and due to Schreiber’s legal inability to do anything about it, John’s own wishes are disregarded, their sacred queer space ignored in favor of what his birth family imagines is tasteful and “normal.” Even John’s obituary in the Boston Globe omits the fact that he died of AIDS and, at the request of John’s father, never once mentions Ron Schreiber or the nine years he spent together with John.
The importance of the domestic space is not unique to Schreiber, though. Other poets like CAConrad and Tim Dlugos have these same qualities about their writing which deals with AIDS. In CAConrad’s essay “SIN BUG: AIDS, Poetry, and Queer Resilience in Philadelphia,” the city takes on a personality of its own. Philadelphia goes from being a euphoric place of adventure and rebirth after running away from his childhood home and conservative family and transforms into a place of morning and tragedy as the AIDS crisis dragged on. Conrad describes their move to Philadelphia’s openly queer neighborhood in 1984 as though they were “arriving in the middle of a family tragedy, everyone talking about AIDS like a serial killer targeting our community. And who was next, who would be the next victim?” Conrad eventually finds spaces which offer them temporary reprieve from the anguish of the larger community; whether they are house sitting for a friend, attending penthouse parties, eating at macrobiotic cafés, doing naked tarot in bed with Peppy (a “New Age Queen”), having sex with thier boyfriend Adam after testing negative for HIV, or at an Essex Hemphill poetry reading, Conrad is able to find spaces of queer joy within the city even—and perhaps especially—during a time of great suffering and loss.
In the essay, Conrad writes at length about Adam who was a “bug chaser.” Conrad writes that prior to getting tested,
I was secretly planning my funeral and making notes about where lovers and friends should scatter my ashes. I had three locations: one was the Liberty Bell, just throw me at the bell and scream my name! Each location included handing out safe sex brochures. My friend Rex told me once, “Honey, always remember that every gay man in the 1980s was secretly planning his funeral.
These places of joy are turned into sites of activism (out of necessity) and queer individuals were faced with the very real possibility that they could be gone within a short period of time, that they could have the virus and not know it. After getting his and Adam’s test results back, both negative, Conrad is ecstatic. Adam, however, was upset that his HIV test came back negative. “I was wishing we were both going to be HIV positive,” he tells Conrad, “I was just hoping to get it over with, you know, together.” After spending weeks trying to convince Adam that they could live a long, happy life together, Conrad discovers that one day, Adam has snuck off to the local bathhouse. What had once been a site of queer joy for him and his friends—a space which José Esteban Muñoz would mark as a source of ecstatic time—is suddenly turned into a place of horror. Conrad writes,
The next day, my friend Nail and her girlfriend Prank said they saw Adam go into the gay bathhouse near their apartment. When I told them what he wanted to do, Nail went inside with me to find him…When we found him, he was naked, bent over with cum dripping from his ass. Oh my god, Adam, my dear friend! What upset me the most was his smile while I wiped the cum off his ass with a towel.
Unsurprisingly, Adam soon tested positive for HIV and died several months later. For as much joy as Conrad was able to find in Philadelphia at this time, there were equal amounts of suffering and pain. Conrad goes on to write about visiting Adam and numerous others in the hospital and how angry they would get when the straight doctors and nurses would behave unsympathetically towards the AIDS patients. When a straight friend struggles to understand why Adam would want to catch the virus, Conrad explains to her,
Adam was raised in an orthodox religious household, and when he was only 16, they found out he was queer and threw him out. He became a prostitute because there were not a lot of options for a queer teenager living on the streets. He never said a mean word about his family, and often lovingly quoted his father. Imagine yearning for your family and never being allowed to see them again. Then you create your own family, and they all start to die one after the other.
Just like Schreiber’s partner John, Adam shared a similar experience living on the streets after being kicked out of his childhood home. To be born into a household that is unwelcoming and to die in a hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses who don’t care enough to help you die comfortably is perhaps the consequences of “heterosexual violence” as Conrad suggests in their essay.
The hospital is a space which appears in most writing about the AIDS crisis, especially in personal poetic accounts of friends or family who have been lost. The hospital serves in these works as a liminal space which becomes a canvas for grief, for memory, for beauty, and for mourning. In his poem “diagnosis (4-10-86),” Ron Schreiber writes,
…I have been
happy for eight and a half
years. John will be, we hope,
35 in June. June 10. two
months from now. Now.
it’s a hospital bed, coughing.
vomiting unappetizing food
& red medicine that looks like
blood. Especially virulent. (11)
In Schreiber’s next poem, however, the hospital room changes. In “the next day (4-11-86),” Schreiber writes,
John is better “better” today, his
eyes are brighter, he is
eating without vomiting.
from his bed you could see
the Charles in springtime
if the drapes were open.
all along the road to the
hospital forsythia bloom
& magnolia, white & sometimes
pink. tonight or tomorrow,
when I go in next, I’ll
bring the orchid from his room
at home. (12)
These alternating attitudes are seen in the writing of poet Tim Dlugos as well, sometimes in the same poem. Shortly before his death in 1990, Tim Dlugos wrote a poem entitled “G-9” which detailed his stay in the AIDS ward of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. At the beginning of the poem he writes,
My first time here on G-9,
the AIDS ward, the cheery
D & D Building intentionality
of the decor made me feel
like jumping out a window.
I'd been lying on a gurney
in an E.R. corridor
for nineteen hours, next to
a psychotic druggie
with a voice like Abbie
Hoffman's. He was tied
up, or down, with strips
of cloth (he'd tried to slug
a nurse) and sent up
a grating adenoidal whine
all night. "Nurse . . . nurse . . .
untie me, please . . . these
rags have strange powers."
By the time they found
a bed for me, I was in
no mood to appreciate the clever
curtains in my room,
the same fabric exactly
as the drapes and sheets
of a P-town guest house
in which I once—partied? stayed?
All I can remember is
the pattern. Nor did it
help to have the biggest queen
on the nursing staff
clap his hands delightedly
and welcome me to AIDS-land.
I wanted to drop
dead immediately. That
was the low point. (461)
Roosevelt Hospital, and specifically this wing, serve as a jumping off point for Dlugos to reflect on his life and experiences, weaving in old memories alongside observances about what is happening in the G-9 unit during his stay, as well as reflections on other friends and artists who had AIDS at the same time he did. Throughout the poem, Dlugos lists the daily happenings in the hospital, he talks about his visitors, the list he makes of his friends who have died from AIDS or are still sick. He writes,
There are forty-nine names
on my list of the dead,
thirty-two names of the sick.
Cookie Mueller changed
lists Saturday. They all
will, I guess, the living,
I mean, unless I go
before them. (464)
In addition to thinking about what he has already lost, His time in the G-9 unit offered Dlugos a chance to reflect on the people he loved and the things he was still unwilling to lose. It’s heartbreaking to read, but an experience which must have felt so common throughout these years, something experienced by everybody who spent time in the G-9 unit. Dlugos’ sentiments echo what Shreiber notes while he sits with John in the hospital and what CAConrad was thinking prior to getting tested for HIV. Death was always present. Later on in the poem Dlugos writes,
At this moment,
Chris walks in, Christopher
Earl Wiss of Kansas City
and New York, my lover,
my last lover, my first
healthy and enduring relationship
in sobriety, the man
with whom I choose
to share what I have
left of life and time.
This is the hardest
and happiest moment
of the day. G-9
is no place to affirm
a relationship. Two hours
in a chair beside my bed
after eight hours of work
night after night for weeks
… it’s been a long haul,
and Chris gets tired.
Last week he exploded,
“I hate this, I hate your
being sick and having AIDS
and lying in a hospital
where I can only see you
with a visitor’s pass. I hate
that this is going to
get worse.” I hate it,
too. We kiss, embrace,
and Chris climbs into bed
beside me, to air-mattress
squeaks. Hold on. We hold on
to each other, to a hope
of how we’ll be when I get out.
Let him hold on, please
don’t let him lose his
willingness to stick with me,
to make love and to make
love work, to extend
the happiness we’ve shared.
Please don’t let AIDS
make me a monster
or a burden is my prayer.
Too soon, Chris has to leave.
I walk him to the elevator
bank, then totter back
so Raquel can open my I.V.
again. It’s not even
mid-evening, but I’m nodding
off. My life’s so full, even
(especially?) when I’m here
on G-9. (476-7)
In the last years of his life, following his positive HIV diagnosis in 1988, Dlugos temporarily gave up poetry, adamant on becoming a priest. He enrolled in Yale Divinity School and moved to New Haven for one year, but in 1989 he chose to withdraw from the program, citing his declining health. “G-9” ends on a somewhat hopeful note, however, as Dlugos muses on his own death. He discusses how Buddhists have three stages in death,
the first is white, like passing
through a thick but porous wall.
The second stage is red;
the third is black; and then
you’re finished, ready
for the next event. I’m glad
[they have] a road map, but I don’t
feel the need for one myself. (477-8)
My hope is that he passed away peacefully “with the strength of sleep’s embrace…in just the right place” (478). Dlugos’ vacillation between the hopeful, the maudlin, and the morose throughout “G-9” seem to me an encapsulation of what one must be feeling when your fate has been determined for you and you know you’re at the end. I don’t know if I would be able to continue writing poems. Or maybe I would have no other choice. I think often of David Trinidad’s poem about Tim Dlugos, “Driving Back from New Haven,” and how I feel more like Dlugos at that stage of his diagnosis, still fearful for what comes next. Trinidad writes,
Tim looks at his watch, reaches into his
pocket, takes out a small plastic container
and swallows an AZT pill with a sip of Sprite.
“Poison,” he mutters under his breath. I
glance over at him. We haven’t talked about
his health the entire trip. “How does it
make you feel?” I ask. “Like I want to live
until they discover a cure,” he snaps. We
travel in silence for a while. I stare out
the window at all the green trees on the
Merritt Parkway. Then he says: “I resent
it. I resent that we were not raised with
an acceptance of death. And here it is,
all around us. And I fucking resent it.
I resent that we do not know how to die.”
Kevin Bertolero (he/him) is the founding editor of Ghost City Press and is the associate director of the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Love Poems (Bottlecap Press, 2020) and his nonfiction book on gay cinema, Forever in Transition, will be released this fall with Another New Calligraphy. He is currently studying in the MFA program at New England College and lives on the New Hampshire seacoast where he teaches English at a residential school for at-risk youth. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinBertolero or visit kevinbertolero.net for more info.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Penguin Books, 1958.
CAConrad. “Sin Bug: AIDS, Poetry, and Queer Resilience in Philadelphia.” Poetry
Foundation, 2 Apr. 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2020/04/sin-
Castiglia, Christopher and Christopher Reed. “For Time Immemorial: Marking Time in the Built
Environment.” If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past.
University of Minnesota Press, 2012, pp. 73-112.
Dlugos, Tim. “G9.” A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad.
Nightboat Books, 2011, pp. 460-478.
Halperin, David. How to Be Gay. Harvard University Press, 2012.
Klein, Michael, editor. Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS. Persea Books, 1992.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York
University Press, 2009.
Schreiber, Ron. Against That Time. Alice James Books, 1978.
— — — . False Clues. Calamus Books, 1977.
— — — . John. Hanging Loose Press, 1989.
— — — . Living Space, Hanging Loose Books, 1974.
— — — . Moving to a New Place. Alice James Books, 1974.
— — — . Tomorrow Will Really Be Sunday. Calamus Books, 1984.
“Tim Dlugos.” YAMP: Yale AIDS Memorial Project. http://yamp.org/Profiles/Timdlugos.