On December 6th, 1989, fourteen female engineering students attending École Polytechnique in Montréal were singled out and murdered in a brutal act of gender violence by Marc Lépine, a profoundly disturbed yet articulate young man intent on revenge against “The Feminists”. At the time Lépine was regarded as psychotic yet his very specific killing programme and his enaction of it was not judged to be a hate crime – which it very much was. But in 1991, this date – December 6th – was officially recognized by the Parliament of Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women – to honour those women whose lives were ended due to gender-based violence.
Sadly, violence against women remains very much the reality it was when the “Montreal Massacre” took place twenty-five years ago.
Gender-based discrimination and violence are too common in Canadian workplaces and communities, with Aboriginal women and girls suffering at rates three times higher than for other female groups in our society. And a recent example – the August murder of 15-year-old foster-care child Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in a garbage bag in the Red River in Winnipeg – highlights the ugly intersection of racism and colonialism with anti-woman violence.
As well, new federal legislation – Bill C-36 – puts the lives of sex workers (prostitutes) at risk by reproducing and legitimizing the negative anti-sex-work laws that had been declared earlier by the Supreme Court of Canada as unconstitutional; Bill C-36 is most definitely a step backwards. Nothing but the full de-criminalization of sex work must be sought in order to put decision-making power in women’s hands, where it belongs; the Criminal Code does not protect the rights (labour/human/legal) of such women.
. . .
The following three poems, each in their own tangential or direct way, address the theme of violence in women’s lives:
Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
The rest of us watch from beyond the fence
as the woman moves with her jagged stride
into her pain as if into a slow race.
We see her body in motion
but hear no sounds, or we hear
sounds but no language; or we know
it is not a language we know
We can see her clearly
but for her it is running in black smoke.
The cluster of cells in her swelling
like porridge boiling, and bursting,
like grapes, we think.
Or we think of
explosions in mud; but we know nothing.
All around us the trees
and the grasses light up with forgiveness,
so green and at this time
of the year healthy.
We would like to call something
out to her.
Some form of cheering.
There is pain but no arrival at anything.
. . .
Pat Lowther (1935-1975)
1, the fear
the fear is of everything
staying the way it is
and only i changing
the fear is
of everything changing
and i staying the same
the world expanding
branch tunnel cell
more and more
precious and terrible
while i grow only more
fragile and confused
the fear is my own
my eyelids stuttering
light breaking into
the fear is of you
patiently elsewhere growing
a blood shape
of all my wishes
2, i am tired
i am tired of pain
i am tired of my own pain
i am tired of
the pain of others
i am tired of lives
unwinding like a roll
of bloody bandage
i shall roll up
the sky, pinch the sun
i go out to the cliff pours
of stars, the tall
volumes of stars
i go down
to the grains of soil
to the neat mechanics of molecules
to escape the pain
to escape the pain
3, what i want
what i want is to be blessed
what i want is a cloak of air
the light entering my lungs
my love entering my body
the blessing descending
like the sky
sliding down the spectrum
what i want is to be
aware of the spaces between stars, to breathe
continuously the sources of sky,
a veined sail moving,
my love never setting
foot to the dark
anvil of earth.
. . .
Elizabeth Bachinsky (born 1976)
It was down that road he brought me, still
in the trunk of his car. I won’t say it felt right,
but it did feel expected. The way you know
your blood can spring like a hydrant.
That September, the horseflies were murder
in the valley. I’d come home to visit the family,
get in a couple of weeks of free food, hooked up
with a guy I’d known when I was a kid and things
went bad. When he cut me, I remember
looking down, my blood surprising as paper
snakes leaping from a tin. He danced me
around his basement apartment, dumped me
on the chesterfield, sat down beside me, and lit
a smoke. He seemed a black bear in the gloam,
shoulders rounded under his clothes,
so I tried to remember everything I knew
about black bears: whistle while you walk… carry bells…
if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you…
play dead. Everything slowed. I’ll tell you a secret.
It’s hard to kill a girl. You’ve got to cut her bad
and you’ve got to cut her right, and the boy had done neither,
Pain rose along the side of my body, like light.
I lay very still while he smoked beside me: this boy
I’d camped with every summer since we were twelve,
the lake so quiet you could hear the sound
of a heron skim the water at dusk, or the sound
of a boy’s breathing. I came-to in the trunk of his car,
gravel kicking up against the frame, dust coming in
through the cracks. It was dark. I was thirsty.
I couldn’t move my hands or legs,
The pain was still around. I think I was tied.
We drove that way for a long time before
the Chrysler finally slowed, then stopped. Sound
of gravel crunching under tires. I could smell the lake,
a place where, as kids, we’d come to swim
and know we’d never be seen. Logs grew
up from that lakebed. All those black bones
rising from black water. I remember,
we’d always smelled of lake water and of sex
by the end of the day, and there was a tape of Patsy
Cline we always liked to sing to on our way out —
which is what I thought we’d be doing that September
afternoon. That, or smoking up in his garage.
You know, you hear about the Body
all the time: They found the Body…
the Body was found… and then you are one.
Someone once told me the place had been
a valley, before the dam, before the town.
But that was a long time ago. When the engine stopped,
I heard the silver sound of keys in the lock
and then I was up on his shoulders, tasting blood.
I think he said my name. I think he walked
toward the woods.
. . . . .
C.P. Cavafy (Greek poet from Alexandria, Egypt: 1863-1933)
Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires that glowed openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembled for you in the voices—
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too—how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.
Body, Remember – in the original Greek:
Σώμα, θυμήσου όχι μόνο το πόσο αγαπήθηκες,
όχι μονάχα τα κρεββάτια όπου πλάγιασες,
αλλά κ’ εκείνες τες επιθυμίες που για σένα
γυάλιζαν μες στα μάτια φανερά,
κ’ ετρέμανε μες στην φωνή — και κάποιο
τυχαίον εμπόδιο τες ματαίωσε.
Τώρα που είναι όλα πια μέσα στο παρελθόν,
μοιάζει σχεδόν και στες επιθυμίες
εκείνες σαν να δόθηκες — πώς γυάλιζαν,
θυμήσου, μες στα μάτια που σε κύτταζαν·
πώς έτρεμαν μες στην φωνή, για σε, θυμήσου, σώμα.
. . .
He had come there to read…
He had come there to read. Two or three books lie open,
books by historians, by poets.
But he read for barely ten minutes,
then gave it up, falling half asleep on the sofa.
He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three, and very good-looking;
and this afternoon Eros entered
his ideal flesh, his lips.
An erotic warmth entered
his completely lovely flesh—
with no ridiculous shame about the form the pleasure took….
In the original Greek:
Ήλθε για να διαβάσει —
Ήλθε για να διαβάσει. Είν’ ανοιχτά
δυο, τρία βιβλία· ιστορικοί και ποιηταί.
Μα μόλις διάβασε δέκα λεπτά,
και τα παραίτησε. Στον καναπέ
μισοκοιμάται. Aνήκει πλήρως στα βιβλία —
αλλ’ είναι είκοσι τριώ ετών, κ’ είν’ έμορφος πολύ·
και σήμερα το απόγευμα πέρασ’ ο έρως
στην ιδεώδη σάρκα του, στα χείλη.
Στη σάρκα του που είναι όλο καλλονή
η θέρμη πέρασεν η ερωτική·
χωρίς αστείαν αιδώ για την μορφή της απολαύσεως …..
. . .
He asked about the quality
He left the office where he’d taken up
a trivial, poorly paid job
(eight pounds a month, including bonuses)—
left at the end of the dreary work
that kept him bent all afternoon,
came out at seven and walked off slowly,
idling his way down the street. Good-looking;
and interesting: showing as he did that he’d reached
his full sensual capacity.
He’d turned twenty-nine the month before.
He idled his way down the main street
and the poor side-streets that led to his home.
Passing in front of a small shop
that sold cheap and flimsy things for workers,
he saw a face inside there, saw a figure
that compelled him to go in, and he pretended
he wanted to look at some colored handkerchiefs.
He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost, his voice choking,
almost silenced by desire.
And the answers came back the same way,
distracted, the voice hushed,
offering hidden consent.
They kept on talking about the merchandise—but
the only purpose: that their hands might touch
over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
might move close together as though by chance—
a moment’s meeting of limb against limb.
Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back
wouldn’t realize what was going on.
Ρωτούσε για την ποιότητα—
Aπ’ το γραφείον όπου είχε προσληφθεί
σε θέσι ασήμαντη και φθηνοπληρωμένη
(ώς οκτώ λίρες το μηνιάτικό του: με τα τυχερά)
βγήκε σαν τέλεψεν η έρημη δουλειά
που όλο το απόγευμα ήταν σκυμένος:
βγήκεν η ώρα επτά, και περπατούσε αργά
και χάζευε στον δρόμο.— Έμορφος·
κ’ ενδιαφέρων: έτσι που έδειχνε φθασμένος
στην πλήρη του αισθησιακήν απόδοσι.
Τα είκοσι εννιά, τον περασμένο μήνα τα είχε κλείσει.
Εχάζευε στον δρόμο, και στες πτωχικές
παρόδους που οδηγούσαν προς την κατοικία του.
Περνώντας εμπρός σ’ ένα μαγαζί μικρό
όπου πουλιούνταν κάτι πράγματα
ψεύτικα και φθηνά για εργατικούς,
είδ’ εκεί μέσα ένα πρόσωπο, είδε μια μορφή
όπου τον έσπρωξαν και εισήλθε, και ζητούσε
τάχα να δει χρωματιστά μαντήλια.
Pωτούσε για την ποιότητα των μαντηλιών
και τι κοστίζουν με φωνή πνιγμένη,
σχεδόν σβυσμένη απ’ την επιθυμία.
Κι ανάλογα ήλθαν η απαντήσεις,
αφηρημένες, με φωνή χαμηλωμένη,
με υπολανθάνουσα συναίνεσι.
Όλο και κάτι έλεγαν για την πραγμάτεια — αλλά
μόνος σκοπός: τα χέρια των ν’ αγγίζουν
επάνω απ’ τα μαντήλια· να πλησιάζουν
τα πρόσωπα, τα χείλη σαν τυχαίως·
μια στιγμιαία στα μέλη επαφή.
Γρήγορα και κρυφά, για να μη νοιώσει
ο καταστηματάρχης που στο βάθος κάθονταν.
. . .
Days of 1896
He became completely degraded. His erotic tendency,
condemned and strictly forbidden
(but innate for all that), was the cause of it:
society was totally prudish.
He gradually lost what little money he had,
then his social standing, then his reputation.
Nearly thirty, he had never worked a full year—
at least not at a legitimate job.
Sometimes he earned enough to get by
acting the go-between in deals considered shameful.
He ended up the type likely to compromise you thoroughly
if you were seen around with him often.
But this isn’t the whole story—that would not be fair.
The memory of his beauty deserves better.
There is another angle; seen from that
he appears attractive, appears
a simple, genuine child of love,
without hesitation putting,
above his honor and reputation,
the pure sensuality of his pure flesh.
Above his reputation? But society,
prudish and stupid, had it wrong.
Μέρες του 1896
Εξευτελίσθη πλήρως. Μια ερωτική ροπή του
λίαν απαγορευμένη και περιφρονημένη
(έμφυτη μολοντούτο) υπήρξεν η αιτία:
ήταν η κοινωνία σεμνότυφη πολύ.
Έχασε βαθμηδόν το λιγοστό του χρήμα·
κατόπι τη σειρά, και την υπόληψί του.
Πλησίαζε τα τριάντα χωρίς ποτέ έναν χρόνο
να βγάλει σε δουλειά, τουλάχιστον γνωστή.
Ενίοτε τα έξοδά του τα κέρδιζεν από
μεσολαβήσεις που θεωρούνται ντροπιασμένες.
Κατήντησ’ ένας τύπος που αν σ’ έβλεπαν μαζύ του
συχνά, ήταν πιθανόν μεγάλως να εκτεθείς.
Aλλ’ όχι μόνον τούτα. Δεν θάτανε σωστό.
Aξίζει παραπάνω της εμορφιάς του η μνήμη.
Μια άποψις άλλη υπάρχει που αν ιδωθεί από αυτήν
φαντάζει, συμπαθής· φαντάζει, απλό και γνήσιο
του έρωτος παιδί, που άνω απ’ την τιμή,
και την υπόληψί του έθεσε ανεξετάστως
της καθαρής σαρκός του την καθαρή ηδονή.
Aπ’ την υπόληψί του; Μα η κοινωνία που ήταν
σεμνότυφη πολύ συσχέτιζε κουτά.
. . .
Comes to rest
It must have been one o’clock at night
or half past one.
A corner in the wine-shop
behind the wooden partition:
except for the two of us the place completely empty.
An oil lamp barely gave it light.
The waiter, on duty all day, was sleeping by the door.
No one could see us. But anyway,
we were already so aroused
we’d become incapable of caution.
Our clothes half opened—we weren’t wearing much:
a divine July was ablaze.
Delight of flesh between
those half-opened clothes;
quick baring of flesh—the vision of it
that has crossed twenty-six years
and comes to rest now in this poetry.
Η ώρα μια την νύχτα θάτανε,
Σε μια γωνιά του καπηλειού·
πίσω απ’ το ξύλινο το χώρισμα.
Εκτός ημών των δυο το μαγαζί όλως διόλου άδειο.
Μια λάμπα πετρελαίου μόλις το φώτιζε.
Κοιμούντανε, στην πόρτα, ο αγρυπνισμένος υπηρέτης.
Δεν θα μας έβλεπε κανείς. Μα κιόλας
είχαμεν εξαφθεί τόσο πολύ,
που γίναμε ακατάλληλοι για προφυλάξεις.
Τα ενδύματα μισοανοίχθηκαν — πολλά δεν ήσαν
γιατί επύρωνε θείος Ιούλιος μήνας.
Σάρκας απόλαυσις ανάμεσα
στα μισοανοιγμένα ενδύματα·
γρήγορο σάρκας γύμνωμα — που το ίνδαλμά του
είκοσι έξι χρόνους διάβηκε· και τώρα ήλθε
να μείνει μες στην ποίησιν αυτή.
. . .
The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.
And there on that common, humble bed
I had love’s body, had those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.
Η κάμαρα ήταν πτωχική και πρόστυχη,
κρυμένη επάνω από την ύποπτη ταβέρνα.
Aπ’ το παράθυρο φαίνονταν το σοκάκι,
το ακάθαρτο και το στενό. Aπό κάτω
ήρχονταν η φωνές κάτι εργατών
που έπαιζαν χαρτιά και που γλεντούσαν.
Κ’ εκεί στο λαϊκό, το ταπεινό κρεββάτι
είχα το σώμα του έρωτος, είχα τα χείλη
τα ηδονικά και ρόδινα της μέθης —
τα ρόδινα μιας τέτοιας μέθης, που και τώρα
που γράφω, έπειτ’ από τόσα χρόνια!,
μες στο μονήρες σπίτι μου, μεθώ ξανά.
. . .
When they come alive
Try to keep them, poet,
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
Try to hold them, poet,
when they come alive in your mind
at night or in the brightness of noon.
Προσπάθησε να τα φυλάξεις, ποιητή,
όσο κι αν είναι λίγα αυτά που σταματιούνται.
Του ερωτισμού σου τα οράματα.
Βάλ’ τα, μισοκρυμένα, μες στες φράσεις σου.
Προσπάθησε να τα κρατήσεις, ποιητή,
όταν διεγείρονται μες στο μυαλό σου,
την νύχτα ή μες στην λάμψι του μεσημεριού.
. . . . .
All of the above poems:
from: C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992
. . . . .
Joe Brainard (Arkansas/Oklahoma/New York City, 1942-1994)
Sex (written in 1969)
I like sex best when it’s fast and fun. Or slow and beautiful. Beautiful, of course can be fun too. And fun, beautiful. I like warm necks. And the smalls of backs. I’m not sure if that’s the right word: small. What I mean is the part of the back that goes in the most. Just before your bottom comes out. I like navels. I like under-arms. I don’t care for feet especially, or legs. I like faces. Eyes and lips and ears. I think that what I like most about sex is just touching. Skin is so alive. I like cold clean sheets. I like breasts and nipples. What I’m a sucker for most is a round full bottom. I really don’t like that word bottom. I think underwear is sexy. I like hair on heads, but hair on the body I can take it or leave it. Skinny builds don’t turn me on as much as normal builds. Probably because I’m skinny myself. I have a weak spot for blonds. I like to fuck sometimes but I don’t like to be fucked. What I really like is just a good plain blow-job. It’s rhythm that makes me come the best. I don’t think that, in bed, I take a masculine role or a feminine role. I guess I must be somewhere in between, or both. Sex-wise I’m not very adventurous. I am sure that there are a lot of things I like that I don’t know I like yet. I hope so. So—now you have some idea of what I like in bed.
. . .
Part of the so-called “New York School” of artists, dancers, musicians and poets, Joe Brainard died of AIDS-induced pneumonia in 1994.
Reginald Shepherd (1963-2008), a gay, African-American poet, wrote the following commentary in February 2008:
“[At a recent poetry conference poet Randall Mann asked] a provocative question about why so many contemporary gay male poets avoid writing about sex…..a question I’ve asked myself about my own work, which is full of desire – but not much actual sex. I replied that for a lot of socially and financially comfortable gay men, they are born insiders and then this thing happens to them that pushes them from the centre to the margins, and they then spend a great deal of energy trying to get back home to the centre by asserting how safe and normal and respectable they are, with their good taste and their well-groomed dogs, and how they just want to be like everybody else – which most of them are, except for the alcoholism and the crystal meth addictions – (sorry, bitchy comment). I remember someone at a meeting of the mostly undergraduate gay student group during my brief sojourn as a PhD student at Harvard saying that gays weren’t any more artistic and sensitive than anyone else. I responded, ‘Yes, and that’s the problem.’
Gays may have inalienable rights which they insist on – good luck with that. But one thing they apparently don’t have anymore…is Sex, since fucking, blowjobs, rimjobs, and even handjobs, are what disgusts straights to have to think about…..
I’d like to marry my partner (if only to have access to his health insurance, which I sure need, what with my HIV and my chemotherapy, and my slew of other medical problems). I’d like to have a kid (kids in the plural would be too much to handle). I’d even like a dog, though we’d have to fix the back fences first. But I am definitely not like everybody else, nor do I wish to be. As Alan Parsons Project sang, “I wouldn’t wanna be like you.” I’m not even like all the other boys!”
. . .
Reginald Shepherd (Bronx, New York, 1963-2008)
Under the Milky Way
Some stars, brightest early, falter
and fade, while some increase in magnitude
throughout the night. Sometimes
fistfuls of scattered light croon
through my star-spattered sleep; sometimes
the stars are silent. Sometimes the soul loses control
of Plato’s horses swimming viscous air: the sensual,
the beauty merely intellectual. Sometimes
not. Some nights I can see Gemini,
white shadows Gemini leaves. I’m lying
with my hands here in my pants, hard
for you but to no end. I’m rummaging
this rumpled bed where we last fucked
looking for clues to you, a print
of dried semen or an invisible “I love you”
in Vaseline. I wanted to take your picture
as you lay spread open, white briefs bunched at
your ankles, but what can cameras
keep? Your portrait’s burned into my retina
upside-down. Buoyed above the tedium
of the working week’s routine, sometimes
obscured by clouds, it’s a glittering prize
for the swiftest, the fairest, well hung
in the desiring sky. Your body,
I mean. I think of your body
as a museum of careless gestures:
the way you light a cigarette or turn
a sticking doorknob, the way you shake your head
at something you’ve just read. Impulses
chase themselves through a closed circuit,
the expenditure of energy unavailable for work:
I call it desire, or just unsated hunger.
Your body is too far above me to read
by its light: I walked right into two blue eyes
and drowned myself, can’t remember
if you pulled me out. Here I am
washed ashore, your summer skin
sees right through me. I’m leading myself
by the hand again somewhere I’ve been
too many times, I’m floating on mercury
toward you in a tissue-paper boat and you’re
looking away. Here I come.
. . .
Shepherd then goes on to quote poet Aaron Smith:
“Recently at a gay publishing party a friend told me that he wants his new book to be about something other than cock because that’s all that gay men write about. While everyone around him nodded in agreement, I was thinking: Can you please tell me which poets are currently writing about cock? Because those are the poets I want to read! I couldn’t help but sense an undercurrent of conservatism in his statement – as if gay sex has no place in the pristine rooms of contemporary poetry, a sense that we have already done that. I wonder—this early in the 21st century—is there really nothing else we can say about the gay erotic?…..And I caution poets against listening to the voices that say we’ve heard enough about sex (or about discrimination or about “coming out” or about AIDS)…”
. . .
I’ve been meaning to tell
you how the sky is pink
here sometimes like the roof
of a mouth that’s about to chomp
down on the crooked steel teeth
of the city,
I remember the desperate
things we did
and that I stumble
down sidewalks listening
to the buzz of street lamps
at dusk and the crush
of leaves on the pavement,
Without you here I’m viciously lonely
and I can’t remember
the last time I felt holy,
the last time I offered
myself as sanctuary
I watched two men
press hard into
each other, their bodies
caught in the club’s
bass drum swell,
and I couldn’t remember
when I knew I’d never
be beautiful, but it must
have been quick
and subtle, the way
the holy ghost can pass
in and out of a room.
I want so desperately
to be finished with desire,
the rushing wind, the still
. . .
From Blue on Blue Ground © 2005 Aaron Smith
. . .
The Bar Closes (But You Don’t Want to Go Home)
While the man you love bites stories
into someone else’s back, there’s a flicker
in your eye only seen in late-night
television (the heroine stretching her face, half-
grin, half-cry), all you’ve done wrong
clarified in a liquidy theme song.
You say, the only party is my party, the only
death worth dying is the disastrous one.
If everything was black and white,
darling, the world would look more
like an afterlife, certain and grand
and unexplainable. But even the shoreline
against the city tonight is indecisive,
jagged and rocky the way desire used to be
before you knew enough to know it was desire.
. . .
Aaron Smith is the poetry editor for Bloom Literary Journal (“Queer Fiction, Art, Poetry & More”).
. . .
Timothy Liu (born 1965, San José, California)
Hard to imagine getting
anywhere near another semi-
nude encounter down this concrete
slab of interstate, the two of us
white-throated swifts mating mid-flight
instead of buckets of
crispy wings thrown down
an army of mouths
eager to feed
left without any lasting sustenance.
Best get down on all fours.
Ease our noses past
rear-end collisions wrapped around
guardrails shaking loose their bolts
while unseen choirs jacked on
airwaves go on preaching
loud and clear to every
last pair of unrepentant ears—
. . .
Intermittent wet under
cloud cover, dry
where you are. All day
this rain without
you—so many planes
above the cloud line
either closer or
farther away from
one another while
you and I remain
grounded. Are we
finer than what the day
might bring or is this
an illusion, a stay
clinking as the carts
make their way down
the narrow aisle
no matter what
class we find ourselves
seated in, your voice
the captain’s voice
even if the masks
do not inflate
and there’s no one
here to help me
put mine on first—
my head cradled
between your knees.
. . .
A room walled-in by books where the hours withdraw.
At the foot of an unmade bed a bird of paradise.
Motel carpet melted where an iron had been.
His attention anchored to a late night “glory hole”.
Of janitorial carts no heaviness like theirs.
Desire seen cavorting with the yes inside the no.
A soul kiss swimming solo in an open wound.
The self as church where the whores now gather in.
. . .
Timothy Liu is an American poet and the editor of Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry. A graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Houston, Liu is a Professor of English at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. His journals and papers are in the Berg Collection archives of the New York City Public Library.
. . .
Brian Teare (born 1974, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
“As his unlikeness fitted mine”—
so his luciferous kiss, ecliptic : me pinned beneath lips bitten as under weight of prayer, Ave—but no common vocative, no paradise above, and we not beholden to a name, not to a local god banking fever blaze his seasonal malady of flowers—nor to demi-urge nor the lapsarian system’s glittering, how later we spoke between us of sacred and profane as if the numinous could bring death—the only system—to bear burn outside him and hang its glister wisdom and singe in the viridian wilt. Lilt, to break salt in that sugar where skin was no choice and sanguine, not blameless, though, Ave, I loved our words for want beginning liquor, squander sip and fizz : fuck, ferment I loved and bluebottles tippling windfall rot, bruises’ wicked wine gone vinegar beneath the taut brief glaze of wings, but it was not yet nameable, what we later called disease : script brought us by the trick snake’s fakey Beelzebubbery. In the dirt with his dictionary skin, tight skein of syllables knit by un- numbered undulating clicking ribs, the snake slunk and stung and spelled the dust with his tongue and tail and was nothing, a black forked lisp in the subfusc grass hued blue as the blue sky tipped its lip to ocean horizon and filled, hugest amphora, and sank, evening, Ave, I will tell you now I loved it all. That in his hot body there was something similar to the idea of heat which was in my mind, that when we alembic, lay together, we bequeathed the white fixed earth beneath ardent water and a season’s kept blood, and I not a rib of his, not further hurt in his marrow—for the idea of death was in him, the only system—and we lay together in the field that was not yet page, not begun with A—, not alpha nor apple, not Ave, not yet because what we knew was the least of it then. It was difficult to sleep with the love of words gone gospel between my thighs where nightly he’d jack the pulpit, Ave Corpus, Ave Numen, gnosis and throb unalphabetical, I will tell you I loved it all, fastest brushfires and dryburns his body’s doublecross, garden lost to loss, incurable season : wilt, lilt : singe, our song. And the snake, lumen skin of alphabets, rubbing his stomach in the dust until his tin eyes filled with milk, his slack skin flickered and split and new black sinew out of the slough dead lettered vellum legless crept and let fall wept whisper, hiss, paperhush : with the skin language left behind I bind time to memorial : Book of Our Garden Hours, illuminated bloom : Here a gilt script singe sings of heat split in its leaves, and the bee gives suck to the book : Ave Incunabulum, love’s first work : Ave, In Memoriam— [ J—05/1999 ]
Incunabulum: a book printed at an early date (esp. before 1501)
“As his unlikeness fitted mine”—from Tennyson’s In Memoriam
. . . . .
Robert Hass (born 1941)
A Story about The Body
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity – like music – withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl – she must have swept them from the corners of her studio – was full of dead bees.
. . .
Marie Howe (born 1950)
How some of it happened
My brother was afraid, even as a boy, of going blind – so deeply
that he would turn the dinner knives away from looking at him,
he said, as they lay on the kitchen table.
He would throw a sweatshirt over those knobs that lock the car door
from the inside, and once, he dismantled a chandelier in the middle
of the night when everyone was sleeping.
We found the pile of sharp shining crystals in the upstairs hall.
So you understand, it was terrible
when they clamped his one eye open and put the needle in through
and up into his eye from underneath
and left it there for a full minute before they drew it slowly out
once a week for many weeks. He learned to lean into it,
to settle down, he said, and still the eye went dead, ulcerated,
breaking up green in his head, as the other eye, still blue
and wide open, looked and looked at the clock.
My brother promised me he wouldn’t die after our father died.
He shook my hand on a train going home one Christmas and gave me
as clearly as he promised he’d be home for breakfast when I watched him
walk into that New York City autumn night. By nine, I promise,
and he was – he did come back. And five years later he promised
five years more.
So much for the brave pride of premonition,
the worry that won’t let it happen.
You know, he said, I always knew I would die young.
And then I got sober and I thought, OK, I’m not.
I’m going to see thirty and live to be an old man.
And now it turns out that I am going to die – isn’t that funny?
One day it happens: what you have feared all your life,
the unendurably specific, the exact thing. No matter what you say or do.
This is what my brother said:
Here, sit closer to the bed so I can see you.
. . .
My brother opens his eyes when he hears the door click
open downstairs and Joe’s steps walking up past the meowing cat
and the second click of the upstairs door, and then he lifts
his face so that Joe can kiss him. Joe has brought armfuls
of broken magnolia branches in full blossom, and he putters
in the kitchen looking for a big jar to put them in and finds it.
And now they tower in the living room, white and sweet, where
John can see them if he leans out from his bed which
he can’t do just now, and now Joe is cleaning. What a mess
you’ve left me, he says, and John is smiling, almost asleep again.
. . .
Both the above Howe poems are from the collection What the Living Do © 1998 Marie Howe.
Howe’s brother John died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. “John’s living and dying changed my aesthetic entirely,” she has said. In 1995, Howe co-edited, with Michael Klein, a collection of essays, letters, and stories entitled In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
if Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
. . .
The Maryknoll AIDS Task Force Prayer
God of all compassion, comfort your sons and daughters who live with HIV.
Spread over us all your quilt of mercy, love and peace.
Open our eyes to your presence reflected in their faces.
Open our ears to your truth echoing in their hearts.
Give us the strength to weep with the grieving,
to walk with the lonely, to stand with the depressed.
May our love mirror your love for those who live in fear,
who live under stress and who suffer rejection.
Mothering, fathering God grant rest to those who have died
and hope to all who live with HIV.
God of life, help us to find the cure now and help us to build
a world in which no one dies alone
and where everyone lives accepted, wanted and loved.
(Prayer courtesy of the Maryknoll Sisters of the San Salvador Diocesan HIV/AIDS programme and Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance)
. . .
Prayer for the Girl Child (from Musa W. Dube’s Africa Praying: A Handbook on HIV/AIDS)
We are gathered together to affirm the humanity of the girl child. We celebrate the fact that the girl child was created in the image of God and is loved by God. We claim responsibility to protect the girl child and give her the opportunity to grow without fear of being abused by anyone. We pray for a safe environment that is created by all for the safety of the girl child. Amen.
. . .
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
A Witness in Favour of a Stricken People (excerpt from The Plague)
Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favour of those plague-stricken people: so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in people than to despise. Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.
Translation from French: Stuart Gilbert
From the Rig-Veda (ancient Sanskrit hymns from India):
Let us be united
Let us speak in harmony;
Let our minds apprehend alike.
Common be our prayer,
Common be the end of our assembly;
Common be our resolution;
Common be our deliberations.
Alike be our feelings;
Unified be our hearts;
Common be our intentions;
Perfect be our unity.
. . .
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)
The Long Boat
When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
. . .
Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918)
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
I stand watching her until she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says
“She is gone.”
The loss of sight is in me, not in her.
Just at the moment when someone says “She is gone,”
there are others who are watching her coming;
other voices take up the glad shout, “Here she comes.”
And that is dying.
. . .
A Confucian Prayer
All fathers are to be served,
Revered, as one’s own father.
All mothers are to be cherished
As one’s own mother.
All men and women are to be respected,
Honoured, as one’s own brothers and sisters.
As earth bears them all,
So all of them are to be accepted.
All are to acknowledge
And to act upon
Their universal kinship.
Thus will the Great Unity come into being.
. . .
A Hopi Native-American Prayer
Do not stand at my grave and weep
– I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
– I am not there, I do not sleep.
. . .
From Japanese Shinto sayings:
Clothe yourself in kindness.
The heart of the person before you is a mirror:
Behold therein your own.
One good word can warm three winter months.
One good deed is better than three days of fasting at a shrine.
Requite ill-will with kindness.
Be like the tree – which covers with flowers the hand that shakes it.
. . .
We are grateful for provision of these poems and prayers to: The Maryknoll Sisters, whose AIDS Task Force was founded in January 1992; Professor Musa W. Dube, feminist theologian from Botswana; and The Huffington Post.
To read poems in four languages – ZP’s World AIDS Day 25th Anniversary feature (December 1st, 2013) – click the following link: