Forty years ago this month, on June 5th 1981, the first five cases of what later became known as AIDS were officially reported in the United States. Just under a month later, on July 3rd 1981, the New York Times published an article about the then still-unknown disease headlined: ‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals’. Nearly half of the recorded cases were in New York; the city would later have between 25 and 42 per cent of the national caseload, losing 116,000 people to HIV. But the Times devoted just two further articles to the disease that year, ‘setting the tone’, as journalist Randy Shilts wrote, ‘for non-coverage nationally’.
Accompanying the unfolding of the pandemic came a shadow pandemic of misinformation, confusion, anger, superstition, and fear, compounded by the virus’s time lag, by the unimaginable danger posed by something invisible, and by virulent homophobia. It took President Reagan six years to mention the crisis in public. Politicians and clergymen welcomed the virus as proof of God’s will to punish so-called transgression. Doctors refused sick people medical care. Commentators called for people with HIV to be tattooed and interned. Families of some of those who died, as writer and filmmaker David France recalls, ‘withheld all but a shiver of grief’. Artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992, wrote: ‘WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.’
How does a culture record, respond to, and remember an experience such as this? A massacre that poet Pamela Sneed reads alongside the Hurricanes Maria and Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the Holocaust? A long-drawn-out moment of rupture that poet June Jordan also frames in the context of contemporary crises, including deadly mudslides in Jamaica and killings by the KKK? A ‘medical and political emergency’, in queer theorist Lee Edelman’s words, characterised by ‘terrifying epistemological ambiguity’? A bomb, as Andrew Holleran writes, that ‘fell without anyone’s knowing the bomb had fallen’? A disease, as Hervé Guibert, who died in 1991, reflected, ‘that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life’? A mass death event that left hundreds of thousands of survivors with depression and PTSD, with unprocessed grief and survivors’ guilt, and with an overwhelming sense of having been abandoned?
In particular, what can poetry do in such a crisis? Poetry speaks differently: as poet Jay Bernard writes in their recently published manifesto, ‘a poet can’t deliver justice but they can ask a different kind / of question’. In their writing, New York’s poets engaged in complex and varied processes of revising, negotiating, re-imagining, and making meaning out of narratives about HIV-AIDS, asking pressing questions about disability, racism, gendered injustice, survival, death, and love in the context of a pandemic. From angrily legible accounts of personal experience to quieter, more oblique representations of the complexities of enduring, surviving, and articulating the crisis, the poetry that emerged from a city in the grip of a decades-long tragedy reveals the gulf between the ideology surrounding the pandemic and the experiences of people and communities living with and dying from HIV-AIDS. Such disclosures are couched in the intricate webs of language that make our universe knowable and habitable (even when it isn’t), revealing articulation to be a crucial part of survival and remembrance. Scholars have long recognized that the AIDS crisis elicited a crisis of language, of signifying. In Paula Treichler’s words, AIDS wrought an ‘epidemic of signification’; in Susan Sontag’s, the pandemic engendered and was also fuelled by ‘the struggle for rhetorical ownership of the illness’. As Edelman argues, ‘politics and AIDS cannot be disentangled from their implication in the linguistic or the rhetorical’.
Poets from AIDS-era New York articulate the refusal of erasure; in creating counter-narratives, their poems are a form of alternate documentary of the lives and deaths of individuals and communities, writing back, writing against, writing for. They offer what Melvin Dixon, who died in 1992, called ‘textual survival’: an effort to enact futurity in the face of physical and cultural obliteration. In his last public speech, given at the 1992 OutWrite conference in Boston, Dixon contrasted his ‘broken heart’ and ‘broken body’ with his ‘unbroken spirit’, emphasizing:
Our voice is our weapon. I may not be there for the development of gay literary history, but I’ll be somewhere listening for my name … You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.
Poems can memorialise, witness, interrogate, explore, argue, hold to account, soothe, and even save lives. The poet Mark Doty reflected in correspondence with scholar Deborah Landau on lines from a poem by American modernist William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Commenting on these lines, Doty affirms the verity of Williams’s words: “I believe that ‘what is found there’ might alleviate misery, if not postpone death … If ‘what is found there’ might help us all to re-imagine the disease, and rewrite the repetitive texts of homophobia and fear of otherness, then in fact poetry might keep people from dying.”