Melvin Dixon (1950 – 1992)
“One by One”
They won’t go when I go. (Stevie Wonder)
Live bravely in the hurt of light. (C.H.R.)
The children in the life:
Another telephone call. Another man gone.
How many pages are left in my diary?
Do I have enough pencils? Enough ink?
I count on my fingers and toes the past kisses,
the incubating years, the months ahead.
Thousands. Many thousands.
Many thousands gone.
I have no use for numbers beyond this one *,
one man, one face, one torso
curled into mine for the ease of sleep.
We love without mercy,
We live bravely in the light.
Thousands. Many thousands.
Chile, I knew he was funny, one of the children,
a member of the church, a friend of Dorothy’s.
He knew the Websters pretty well, too.
Girlfriend, he was real.
Remember we used to sit up in my house
pouring tea, dropping beads,
dishing this one and that one?
You got any T-cells left?
The singularity of death. The mourning thousands.
It begins with one and grows by one
and one and one and one
until there’s no one left to count.
* this one – Dixon’s lover, Richard Horovitz
. . .
Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.
Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.
Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.
Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.
Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.
Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.
Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.
Don’t cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.
Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.
Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.
Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.
Black out. White rooms.
Head out. Feet cold.
No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. No air.
Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.
Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.
It waits. For me.
Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
. . .
“Turning 40 in the ’90s”
We promised to grow old together, our dream
since years ago when we began
to celebrate our common tenderness
and touch. So here we are:
Dry, ashy skin, falling hair, losing breath
at the top of the stairs, forgetting things.
Vials of Septra and AZT line the bedroom dresser
like a boy’s toy army poised for attack –
your red, my blue, and the casualties are real.
Now the dimming in your man’s eyes and mine.
Our bones ache as the muscles dissolve,
exposing the fragile gates of ribs, our last defense.
And we calculate pensions and premiums.
You are not yet forty-five, and I
not yet forty, but neither of us for long.
No senior discounts here, so we clip coupons
like squirrels in late November, foraging
each remaining month or week, day or hour.
We hold together against the throb and jab
of yet another bone from out of nowhere poking through.
You grip the walker and I hobble with a cane.
Two witnesses for our bent generation.
. . .
“Aunt Ida pieces a Quilt”
They brought me some of his clothes. The hospital gown.
Those too-tight dungarees, his blue choir robe
with the gold sash. How that boy could sing!
His favourite colour in a necktie. A Sunday shirt.
What I’m gonna do with all this stuff?
I can remember Junie without this business.
My niece Francine say they quilting all over the country.
So many good boys like her boy, gone.
At my age I ain’t studying no needle and thread.
My eyes ain’t so good now and my fingers lock in a fist,
they so eaten up with arthritis. This old back
don’t take kindly to bending over a frame no more.
Francine say ain’t I a mess carrying on like this.
I could make two quilts the time I spend running my mouth.
Just cut his name out the cloths, stitch something nice
about him. Something to bring him back. You can do it,
Francine say. Best sewing our family ever had.
Quilting ain’t that easy, I say. Never was easy.
Y’all got to help me remember him good.
Most of my quilts was made down South. My Mama
and my Mama’s Mama taught me. Popped me on the tail
if I missed a stitch or threw the pattern out of line.
I did “Bright Star” and “Lonesome Square” and “Rally Round,”
what many folks don’t bother with nowadays. Then Elmo and me
married and came North where the cold in Connecticut
cuts you like a knife. We was warm, though.
We had sackcloth and calico and cotton. 100% pure.
What they got now but polyester-rayon. Factory made.
Let me tell you something. In all my quilts there’s a secret
nobody knows. Every last one of them got my name Ida
stitched on the backside in red thread.
That’s where Junie got his flair. Don’t let anybody fool you.
When he got the Youth Choir standing up and singing
the whole church would rock. He’d throw up his hands
from them wide blue sleeves and the church would hush
right down to the funeral parlour fans whisking the air.
He’d toss his head back and holler and we’d all cry Holy.
And never mind his too-tight dungarees.
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.
Who cared where he went when he wanted to have fun?
He’d be singing his heart out come Sunday morning.
When Francine say she gonna hang this quilt in the church
I like to fall out. A quilt ain’t no show piece,
it’s to keep you warm. Francine say it can do both.
Now I ain’t so old fashioned I can’t change,
but I made Francine come over and bring her daughter
Belinda. We cut and tacked his name, JUNIE.
Just plain and simple. “JUNIE, our boy.”
Cut the J in blue, the U in gold. N in dungarees
just as tight as you please. The I from the hospital gown
and the white shirt he wore First Sunday. Belinda
put the necktie E in the cross stitch I showed her.
Wouldn’t you know we got to talking about Junie.
We could smell him in the cloth.
Underarm. Afro-Sheen pomade. Gravy stains.
I forgot all about my arthritis.
When Francine left me to finish up, I swear
I heard Junie giggling right along with me
as I stitched Ida on the backside in red thread.
Francine say she gonna send this quilt to Washington
like folks doing from all across the country,
so many good people gone. Babies, mothers, fathers,
and boys like our Junie. Francine say
they gonna piece this quilt to another one,
another name and another patch
all in a larger quilt getting larger and larger.
Maybe we all like that, patches waiting to be pieced.
Well, I don’t know about Washington.
We need Junie here with us. And Maxine,
she cousin May’s husband’s sister’s people,
she having a baby and here comes winter already.
The cold cutting like knives. Now where did I put that needle?
. . .
The poems above are from Melvin Dixon’s posthumously-published poetry collection, Love’s Instruments (1995) © Faith Childs Literary Agency
When He calls me, I will answer…I’ll be somewhere, I’ll be somewhere…
I’ll be somewhere Listening for My Name.
These are words from a Gospel hymn that Melvin Dixon (see the ZP Senghor post immediately above this one for Dixon’s biographical details) quoted when he delivered a speech to The Third National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference – “OutWrite 92” – in Boston, Massachusetts. That was in 1992, and Dixon hadn’t long to live – AIDS would soon carry him off. He urged those in attendance to “guard against the erasure of our experience and our lives. As white gays become more and more prominent – and acceptable to mainstream society – they project a racially exclusive image of gay reality…(And) as white gays deny multiculturalism among gays, so too do black communities deny multisexualism among their members. Against this double cremation, we must leave the legacy of our writing and our perspectives on gay and straight experiences. Our voice is our weapon…We alone are responsible for the preservation and future of our literature.”
Dixon’s opening remarks are worth quoting at length; they evoke the battle scars of that first brutal decade of AIDS and also demonstrate Dixon’s absolute integrity in acknowledging the interwoven-ness of sexuality and race. Society’s attitude towards AIDS and HIV has evolved somewhat since 1992 but none of that progress came easily; it was the result of courageous and dedicated activism. (Note the un-reclaimed use of the word “nigger” (still, in fact, a lightning-rod word in 2013) and the complete absence of the word “queer” – a hateful slur that was still in popular use by ‘polite’ homophobes in place of the coarser “faggot”):
“As gay men and lesbians, we are the sexual niggers of our society. Some of you may have never before been treated like a second-class, disposable citizen. Some of you have felt a certain privilege and protection in being white, which is not to say that others are accustomed to or have accepted being racial niggers, and feel less alienated. Since I have never encountered a person of no colour, I assume that we are all persons of colour. Like fashion victims, though, we are led to believe that some colours have been so endowed with universality and desirability that the colour hardly seems to exist at all – except, of course, to those who are of a different colour and pushed outside the rainbow. My own fantasy is to be locked inside a Benetton ad.
No one dares call us sexual niggers, at least not to our faces. But the epithets can be devastating or entertaining: we are faggots and dykes, sissies and bulldaggers. We are funny, sensitive, Miss Thing, friends of Dorothy, or men with ‘a little sugar in the blood’, and we call ourselves what we will. As an anthropologist/linguist friend of mine calls me in one breath: “Miss Lady Sister Woman Honey Girl Child.” Within this environment of sexual and racial niggerdom, recovery isn’t easy. Sometimes it is like trying to fit a size-12 basketball player’s foot into one of Imelda Marcos’ pumps. The colour might be right, but the shoe still pinches. Or, for the more fashionable lesbians in the audience, lacing up those combat boots only to have extra eyelets staring you in the face – and you feel like Olive Oyl gone trucking after Minnie Mouse.
As for me, I’ve become an acronym queen: BGM ISO same or other. HIV plus or minus. CMV, PCP, MAI, AZT, ddl, ddC. Your prescription gets mine.
Remember those great nocturnal emissions of your adolescent years? They told us we were men, and the gooey stuff proved it. Now, in the 1990s, our nocturnal emissions are night sweats, inspiring fear, telling us we are mortal and sick, and that time is running out…I come to you bearing witness of a broken heart; I come to you bearing witness to a broken body – but a witness to an unbroken spirit. Perhaps it is only to you that such witness can be brought and its jagged edges softened a bit and made meaningful…We are facing the loss of our entire generation…(gay men lost to AIDS.) What kind of witness will You bear? What truth-telling are you brave enough to utter and endure the consequences of your unpopular message?”