How to Continue

AIDS Elegies After Ashbery

Sam Huber
Release of pink and white balloons.

Still of a balloon release from Jim Hubbard’s 1989 Elegy in the Streets, a film that captured the growing political mobilization around the AIDS crisis. Courtesy Jim Hubbard.

john ashbery’s “how to continue” (1992) is the most moving elegy I know for the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s early losses. It’s also the most moving tribute I know to the solidarity engendered by those losses, though Ashbery is an unlikelier witness in this regard. Our late patron poet of idiosyncrasy—recognizable by his digressions and reversals, who once wrote of “fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal”—was roused by AIDS into the clarity of a group perspective. “How to Continue” eschews documentary details for the neater tools of parable. Once upon a time, the poem tells us, there was an island with a “shop / selling trinkets to tourists.” On that island a community flourished, a refuge for its inhabitants and a curiosity to outsiders:

And it was always a party there
always different but very nice
New friends to give you advice
or fall in love with you which is nice
and each grew so perfectly from the other
it was a marvel of poetry
and irony

Like the past half-century of gay life, “How to Continue” is cleaved by a trauma, with AIDS marking off a clear before and after. In the 1970s, gay liberation had unleashed new forms of political and sexual experience, promising communal pride and promiscuity without consequence—“always a party,” but also “a marvel.” Like the urban enclaves of that decade, Ashbery’s nest of intimacies is porous (“always different”) but coherent (“very nice”). The poem’s island is more vibrant and satisfying than its residents might have ever dared wish for: “everybody was happy to have discovered / what they discovered.”

Until one day, without warning, the party sours. The former revelers, now “sleepers / in heavy attitudes,” hang around their old haunts like zombies. The tourists leave, abandoning the islanders to their new condition. A “gale” descends and announces, “it is time to take all of you away.” Oddly, the natural disaster seems both to break up the scene and to arrive after its end has already been set in motion. Cause and effect are murky. Whatever its source, the disruption gives rise to a new kind of beleaguered fellow feeling:

And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love

AIDS is never mentioned in the poem, but what other referent might there be for a melancholic gay man in 1992? By then, the epidemic had torn through communities, enveloping every thought, dream, and desire in its terrible context. Governmental inaction, blinkered public health initiatives, a rabidly homophobic and racist news media, and a scientific establishment stalled by lack of funding and researchers’ competing egos allowed the virus to spread practically unabated for the better part of a decade. By the time Ashbery’s poem was published, AIDS had laid waste, in the eyes of many, to entire ways of living.

If the governing vibe of the 1970s had been celebratory and assertive, much gay writing in the epidemic’s early years was riven by ambivalence. “Now we think / as we fuck / This nut / might kill us,” the poet Essex Hemphill proclaims in Marlon Riggs’s 1989 film Tongues Untied. Hemphill’s lines bridge two competing impulses— we might call them introspection and activism—among artists of that era. The existential threat of AIDS drove many queer people inward, forcing them to confront their own mortality, the strain of caring for sick lovers and friends, and the persistence of shame in the wake of ostensible liberation. Currents of self-implication tugged at writers who wondered if the plague bore some cosmic referendum on their individual decisions and intimate lives. In the title poem of Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats (also 1992), illness seems to figure as a bill come due for years of sexual risk:

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.

AIDS could be a profoundly isolating experience, shrinking the world to the size of a sickroom.

But many resisted isolation, feeling that monadic introspection could neither clarify what was happening nor hold anyone accountable for it. In a poem for the writer and anthologist Joseph Beam, who died in 1988, Hemphill invokes war as a metaphor for shared purpose amid senseless pain:

When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons

and the passing ceremonies
marking his death
did not stop the war.

Likewise, in the preface to Love Alone, his 1988 collection of elegies for his partner Roger Horwitz, Paul Monette imagines himself as “a warrior burying a warrior” and likens his breathless, unpunctuated verse to machine-gun fire. The impulse to close ranks was more ethical and political than it was aesthetic; AIDS poetry of the 1980s and 1990s assumed a range of styles and postures, from Hemphill’s open antagonism to Ashbery’s storybook tone. Just as there was no exemplary person with AIDS, there could be no consensus about what feelings and art forms responded most appropriately to the epidemic. Each life lost was irreducible to any other, even as the headcount climbed. The unifying fact was AIDS itself, a shadow cast over every cultural artifact.

But the shadow fell differently on different corners of the gay community, the country, the world. If AIDS was all-encompassing, the experience of it varied with identity and social position. The virus never constituted a single, uniform context; it couldn’t mean the same thing to everyone, not even to everyone who had it. As the scholar Paula A. Treichler argued in 1987, “The AIDS epidemic… is simultaneously an epidemic of a transmissible lethal disease and an epidemic of meanings or signification.” Because it was so poorly understood, and because its most visible targets were gay men, people who inject drugs, and Haitians, AIDS invited a host of contradictory judgments and representations in its early years. These meanings scrambled private feeling and impeded political response, with more brutal consequences for some than others.

AIDS is now a global disease, and its prognoses, treatment regimens, and demographic centers of gravity have shifted dramatically since it was first identified forty years ago. No wonder, then, that the poetry of AIDS has become shadowed as much by the startling fact of the epidemic itself as by the knowledge of its pluralism. Such awareness isn’t exactly new: “Some of the best minds of my generation would have us believe that AIDS has brought the gay and lesbian community closer,” Hemphill wrote in 1990, casting a skeptical eye on the unity that Ashbery’s poem seems to endorse; “what AIDS really manages to do is clearly point out how significant are the cultural and economic differences between us.” This insight, though still not universal, is a starting point for contemporary writing about AIDS, rather than an end.

In books published last year, the American poets Mark Bibbins, Pamela Sneed, and Danez Smith refuse to isolate HIV/AIDS from its broader social and historical contexts, but neither can they imagine a single shared alternative to individual suffering. Each has a different relationship to the virus: Bibbins and Sneed witnessed the worst years of the early epidemic, while Smith, who is a generation younger and HIV-positive, is in more intimate touch with its contemporary reality. All three inventively measure our distance from the first decade of crisis, tracing its disparate aftershocks in the present AIDS made. Together, they chart how the experience of HIV/AIDS varies diachronically as well as synchronically, depending on where one is located both socially and in history. Just as Hemphill asked his readers to confront—and so begin to more honestly mend—“the cultural and economic differences” revealed by AIDS, Bibbins, Sneed, and Smith reveal gaps and continuities between how HIV/AIDS is remembered and how it’s now lived.

Poster reading "if they were alive today they'd still be living with AIDS"
Broadside poster from fierce pussy’s For the Record series, produced for the 24th annual Day With(out) Art, 2013.

for the 2013 day with(out) art, organized annually since 1989 by the New York-based arts organization Visual AIDS, the queer artists’ collective fierce pussy produced a series of broadsides, postcards, and stickers that both highlight and attempt to bridge the gap between the work of mourning the initial carnage of HIV/AIDS and tracking the more diffuse reality of its spread today. Three of the four text-based pieces bear a version of the simple phrase “if he were alive today he’d still be living with AIDS” printed against a white background, each with a different pronoun (he, she, or they). The final piece in the series riffs at greater length on its central sentence, filling in the details of the life that could have been:

if he were alive today he would be at this opening if she were alive today you’d be texting her right now if he were alive today he would be going gray if they were alive today they could tell you about getting arrested at City Hall…

Through this litany of counterfactuals, fierce pussy attempts to show us AIDS as we should always be struggling to see it: both as a catastrophic episode of queer history and an unresolved aspect of our ongoing present.

In Mark Bibbins’s book-length elegy 13th Balloon (2020), representing AIDS is again complicated by the passage of time. Bibbins was in his early twenties in 1992 when his friend and sometime lover Mark Crast, then twenty-five years old, died of AIDS-related illness (“non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma / your official cause of death”). The intervening decades haven’t brought much closure. The poem is divided into brief sections, none longer than three pages, each of which captures a fleeting memory or image as it impinges on the poet’s daily life. Bibbins welcomes these incursions, addressing his book directly to Crast: “Since you died,” he writes, “the house style could best / be described as leaves that cling / to trees too long into winter.” The poem is propelled by its discontented search for new ways to describe the slippery, elusive bond between subject and elegist, lost young man and now middle-aged poet. “When I cut into the past / what leaks out is you.”

Bibbins is careful not to idealize the couple’s relationship, which, in his telling, was fitful and intense even before Crast’s diagnosis. Still, the brief scenes from their time together would be memorable under any circumstances. In one of the book’s most tender passages, a series of false alarms summons Bibbins to the hospital,

only to find you
sitting up doped up cockeyed grinning
You’d lift your head a little
and say Hey what’d you bring me Boo
and I’d climb into the bed
with you and say Nothing good just me

In these episodes from Crast’s illness, we see how, like the gale in Ashbery’s poem, the trial of AIDS brought the two young men closer. That easy intimacy is frayed by the poet’s current vantage. As in earlier poems of AIDS, obscure misgivings run through this book. But Bibbins’s is the guilt of the long-standing survivor, not the sick. Deep grooves of self-scrutiny drive him to repeat and contradict himself: “If death is a test I fail // If death is a test I pass.”

From the beginning of the epidemic, HIV-negative and asymptomatic men wrestled with the unearned gift of their wellness, which was always provisional. The survivor’s intimate proximity to illness is dizzying and almost invariably traumatic. He’s at once central and peripheral to the history that it falls to him to record. “Strange not to know whether one’s life has / an asterisk hanging next to it / or is itself the asterisk,” Bibbins reflects on the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the direct action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

The survivor’s intimate proximity to illness is dizzying and almost invariably traumatic. He’s at once central and peripheral to the history that it falls to him to record.

Unsure how much of the story is his to tell, Bibbins instead focuses our attention on the seam between his remembered life with Crast and the life he now lives without him. Whatever redress the elegist might imagine comes too late to be of use to the dead. Every memorial is in this sense self-interested: its audience is the living. In The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2013), Sarah Schulman recalls the double bind faced by New York’s “AIDS generation” in the late 1990s once the worst years of the epidemic seemed to be behind them. To move on would be disloyal to the world they’d lost; not to move on would mean squandering the lives they had been spared. For artists, Schulman writes, the challenge was “finding a way to represent their own disappeared context, without being locked in nostalgia.” Bibbins squares this circle by admitting the limits of his own vexed efforts of memorialization and the felt insufficiency of his materials (“Nothing good just me”). Qualifying phrases—“I don’t remember now,” “From here I can see,” “but who can tell”—are strewn across the book’s assembled scenes, anchoring the reader on the near side of its central divide. The memories Bibbins does summon tend to be partial. Even the details of Crast’s memorial service have grown hazy. Excavating that day, the poet tries and fails to distinguish his eulogy from the thousands of others like it delivered in those years:

what did I say
a version of          you aren’t really dead
or see you again             some useless thing
any other deathstruck boy
lightly educated at state and city schools
might have said

Elsewhere he writes, “I have only language for you now / a language / that morphs like a virus.” Language, like memory, is plastic, vulnerable to misinterpretation and liable to reshape itself around new inputs, occasions, and moods:

For me elegy
is a Ouija planchette
  something I pretend not to touch
as I push it around trying
to make it say
what I want it to say

Though 13th Balloon doesn’t appear to be formally adventurous, Bibbins experiments restlessly with metaphor, trying on and casting off figures for his grief. The title image derives from a newspaper clipping that frames the poem. In September 1992, Crast’s death was marked by twelve balloons released among six hundred others, an event conceived “as a visual reminder of those who have died from [AIDS] and those still alive struggling with the disease.” This book, it would seem, offers one more balloon. But for Bibbins, balloons turn out to be characteristically ambivalent symbols: buoyant, blandly innocent, yet also fragile, aimless, “unsure / of where to go / except up.” Their direction is hard to dictate, though they lack their own will. They lead the eye out to an endless sky, but balloons are also haunted by their inevitable expiration, whether by slow leak or sudden pop.

Fitting, then, that so many of Bibbins’s memories are deformed by the split ambition to tighten and loosen his grip on them. His swift, associative movement among images offers little compensation for all that has slipped the poet’s grasp, one balloon after another. When Bibbins asks, “How many thousands / of stories like yours / have been told / and forgotten,” the question doesn’t feel rhetorical. In a just world each one might be counted up and told again, told over and over, assigned its own elegist or balloon. “In truth I don’t have that many / memories of you left,” Bibbins eventually confesses, a reminder of the poem’s unbearable premise: Crast was only twenty-five years old when he died, nearly thirty years ago, amid a flood of other young people whose memories we have largely failed to preserve.

ACT UP activists hang a banner in Grand Central Terminal, reading "One AIDS death every 8 minutes."

In 1991, ACT UP activists hung a banner reading “One AIDS death every 8 minutes” at rush hour in Grand Central Terminal, New York City, as part of a coordinated protest known as the “Day of Desperation.” Among other interventions, they also released balloons. Courtesy ACT UP/New York. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

more than one hundred thousand Americans died of AIDS before Crast—“twice as many as had perished in Vietnam,” as David France observes in How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Scientists Tamed AIDS, his 2016 history of the early epidemic. Forty-two thousand more would die in 1993 alone, and fifty thousand the year after. It may be impossible to metabolize such numbers, but this country can’t yet be credited with trying. In “G-9,” published in 1990 a few months before he died, the poet Tim Dlugos asks, “When I pass, / who’ll remember, who will care / about these joys and wonders?” The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, to which mourners can contribute panels honoring their dead, famously seeks to capture both the magnitude of collective grief and the specificity of each life lost. So did many of ACT UP’s best remembered actions: Bibbins recalls seeing a banner with the statistic “one AIDS death every 8 minutes” during a demonstration at Grand Central Terminal. But today the quilt’s more than 48,000 panels are exhibited piecemeal, and few physical traces remain of the protests. The National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was granted legal designation by Congress in 1996, fifteen years into the epidemic. Another two decades would pass before, in 2016, New York City opened its own public memorial on the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which housed the city’s first AIDS ward. After the hospital’s closure in 2010, the Greenwich Village campus was demolished to make way for (what else?) luxury condominiums.

Like 13th Balloon, Pamela Sneed’s Funeral Diva (2020), a collection of poetry and essays, reckons with the gaps in our collective memory of the early AIDS epidemic. But Sneed also interrogates how and to whom remembrance gets distributed: When we picture the first waves of patients and activists, whom do we see? As she writes in “Twizzlers,”

I moan complain
How the AIDS narrative only belongs to men
They never ask women
Black women
As if AIDS didn’t happen to us

Despite the fact that Black and Latinx people have always been at disproportionate risk and since the mid-1990s have constituted the majority of people with AIDS in the U.S., most popular media about the early epidemic still cast white men as its protagonists. France’s How to Survive a Plague and its companion documentary, for example, have been criticized for centering a small group of white male ACT UP members to the exclusion of women and gay men of color. The stakes here are higher than the due assignation of credit; different casts tell different stories. France’s central characters become increasingly entangled with the scientific and medical institutions protested by ACT UP, advising and befriending the officials who steered AIDS research in the 1990s. By contrast, Sarah Schulman’s monumental new book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 assembles its narrative from interviews spanning 18 years with 188 of the group’s surviving members. This expansive approach leads Schulman to argue that focusing on heroic individuals with institutional access, as France does, distorts both the particular history of ACT UP and the dynamics of social change in general: “political progress is won by coalitions.”

Sneed’s own investment in these historiographic issues is personal. In the 1980s and 1990s she became a fixture at memorials for Black gay men, who are too often sidelined in mainstream representations of AIDS. The title poem of the book recounts her years “as an unofficially titled, ‘funeral diva,’” because she was so often asked to deliver eulogies, “to accurately portray and pay homage to the spirit of someone / who’d lived only for a short time on this planet.” Her writing reclaims “the AIDS narrative” for herself and for the friends whose legacies she hopes to safeguard. Coming of age in the worst of the plague years, Sneed found community in “a Black lesbian and gay movement,” taking inspiration from older luminaries like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Pat Parker, and befriending the men of the Black gay writers’ collective Other Countries. Certain anecdotes recur across the book’s short pieces: an unnamed friend struggles to get his AIDS care covered by Medicaid; the poet and filmmaker Donald Woods offers Sneed a couch to crash on after a reading in the West Village; Assotto Saint assumes the pulpit at Woods’s funeral to insist, over Woods’s family’s objections, that “he died of AIDS and he was a proud Black gay man.”

The elegist’s powers are in permanent doubt: what good is a pill to the dead? Survival in verse isn’t really survival.

Like Bibbins, Sneed appreciates the gravity of her eulogizing task, and despite her professed “flair for the dramatic,” seems properly daunted by it (she was no older than he when thrown into her not-quite-chosen role). She also exhibits something of Bibbins’s uncertainty about her own claim to these memories, which locate her at the epicenter of a crisis to which she was nonetheless made to feel marginal, her survivorship further complicated by misogyny. Despite her closeness with Donald Woods, for instance, she was not asked to speak at the memorial arranged for him by Other Countries—“his brothers / had full control.” She acknowledges the pettiness of her desire to be recognized as his best friend, but their intimacy also compels her to bear a broader witness:

                                                                    I needed in one way
to clear the room, be alone with Donald once more,
like during our intimate phone talks, to place my ear against his,
treasure our bond, but in another way,
I had simply wanted to speak.

Bibbins’s anxieties about the passage of time are compounded for Sneed by the relative absence of Black people from popular representations of AIDS, which explicitly politicizes her sense of duty to the dead. Throughout her book, like other poets of AIDS, Sneed readily avails herself of whatever imagery she has on hand, casting about for some yardstick big enough to span the remembered horror. As her planchette roams across the board, she echoes Ashbery’s weather: AIDS’s enveloping force appears in Funeral Diva as a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake. But unlike in “How to Continue,” Sneed has specific storms in mind. Not just “a hurricane,” but Hurricanes Katrina and Maria; not just any earthquake, but the one that ravaged Haiti in 2010. In Funeral Diva, AIDS is always pressing up against other tragedies, many though not all of them particular to Sneed’s experience.

The book makes an especially strong connection between AIDS and older histories of Black subjection and resistance: the deaths by cancer of Pat Parker and other Black women who nurtured gay men through AIDS are “like” Harriet Tubman’s uncompensated service during the Civil War; the undignified compromises Sneed and others made to survive the epidemic are “like” intrafamilial violence in the antebellum United States and apartheid South Africa. These comparisons are occasionally heavy handed—“Like the recent survivors of Hurricane Katrina and Maria in Puerto Rico, / I was grief-stricken and waterlogged”—but they communicate the extremity of the AIDS crisis while at the same time deexceptionalizing it. In Sneed’s hands, AIDS enters a long line of historical traumas either caused or exacerbated by homophobia, colonialism, and anti-Blackness.

neither sneed’s nor bibbins’s poems address themselves to the contemporary experience of living with HIV/AIDS, yet each helps us see how our memory of AIDS is itself inevitably contemporary. Both 13th Balloon and Funeral Diva maintain that the early years of AIDS aren’t a discrete past to be protected from the present’s distortions. But as fierce pussy insists, it’s not just the memory of AIDS that we’re still living with.

The advent in 1996 of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the first effective long-term treatment for AIDS, was heralded by some as tantamount to a cure, quieting Ashbery’s gale into an endurable drizzle of routine checkups, pills, and safer sex practices. Those who had been living with the virus or mourning AIDS deaths for years were understandably eager for reprieve. Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats, published four years before the HAART breakthrough, ends by willing an ending into existence. In place of Ashbery’s gale or Sneed’s hurricane, Gunn figures the loss of his community as dissipating vapor:

The year of griefs being through, they had to merge
In one last grief, with one last property:
To view itself like loosened cloud lose edge,
And pull apart, and leave a voided sky.

But new clouds form daily over other parts of town. AIDS has never been a single gale pelting a single island. HIV/AIDS is now chronic rather than fatal for those who can access medical care, but transmission rates remain high, and there’s still no cure. According to the most recent available estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, 1.2 million people in the U.S. are currently living with HIV, though only 65 percent of them receive any HIV-related care. More than 40 percent of people newly diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. in 2019 were Black and more than 25 percent Latinx. Globally, UNAIDS estimates that 37.7 million people were living with HIV in 2020. The vast majority live in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific; more than half are women and girls. In his elegy for Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill worries that memorial projects like the AIDS Quilt might divert precious energy from a war that has not yet been won: “it’s too soon / to make monuments / for all we are losing.” If monuments are desperately needed now, so too is Hemphill’s insistence on speaking loss in the present tense.

Irreverence has never been off limits in art about AIDS—I think often of David Román’s indelibly titled article “It’s My Party and I’ll Die if I Want To!” (1992), in which he notes the resurgence of camp in gay theater of the late 1980s—but the availability of life-sustaining medications has surely broadened the emotional range with which people relate to their own HIV status. The poems in Jericho Brown’s The Tradition (2019) that explicitly reflect on his seropositivity capture this shift. “The Virus” personifies HIV as a disarmed killer, lying in wait “just beneath your skin.” The speaker is voracious, indiscriminate, saying of the flowers outside “your” window:

I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here

Try as it might, HIV can’t keep Brown permanently on guard. “Cakewalk” folds the virus into a scene of casual intimacy, not as a source of terror but as grist for flirting and defiance. The poem opens, “My man swears his HIV is better than mine,” a line that charms as much as it scandalizes. The speaker lobs it back: “But I keep my eyes on his behind, say my HIV is just fine.”

If the security afforded by effective treatment can defuse sexual risk under certain circumstances, it merely remixes it under others. In their 2020 collection Homie, Danez Smith shares Sneed’s concern with the inequities of vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Like Sneed, Smith is achingly attentive to HIV’s interaction with other forms of harm, an attention that unlocks a thrilling range of tones and forms. A poem that starts off brash and acrobatic collides abruptly with the virus:

may all the hood niggas who humor my wet
be blessed with some fly shit: 24s, condos
enough & some healthcare. i swear

buddy who rocks me best gets thinner by the day.
he can’t afford the pills that keep me round & blood quiet.

What began as a paean to “that project dick” is rerouted by the blunt fact of AIDS. Smith’s shift in register may bring to mind the survivor’s guilt of Bibbins and Gunn, but with crucial differences— of race and class, yes, but also temporality. Smith’s lover is still alive and might remain so; death looms but isn’t foregone. Smith casts their lot with his, literally yoking the two lovers’ fortunes together by splitting one pill “like gas, like the brown blunt’s brown guts.”

Death is everywhere in Smith’s poems, entwined with every intimacy. Homie’s primary unit of relation is the friend group, and—like so many poets of AIDS—Smith loves to call their friends by name, in both celebration and preemptive defense against loss. Smith inverts Brown’s image of HIV as an impotent threat: instead, for Smith, the virus is “a thing you want to kill / & can’t.” It’s one of many dangers that won’t stay offstage, alongside suicide, white people, the police. “The wind is tangled / with the dust of dead homies, carrying us over / to them,” Smith writes.

This familiarity with death overwhelms, of course, but a number of Smith’s poems meet it with hard-won equanimity. They admit relief upon contracting the virus: something inevitable had been gotten over with. Unlike Ashbery’s islanders, Smith saw this coming. HIV/AIDS denies Smith closure, holding a door open to the poet’s past—the virus is “almost like gone / but not gone”—but they’ve also learned to make a kind of peace with it: “i want to live. think i mean it. / took the pill even on the days // i thought i wouldn’t survive myself.”

Smith’s teachers in living include not only HIV and their friends, but also the poets who preceded them. Their faith in the power of naming extends backward in time, encompassing Black queer artists “who we miss & never knew,” in whose lineage the virus places Smith. The poem “gay cancer” begins by calling roll: Melvin Dixon, Assotto Saint, Essex Hemphill. In this intimate convening, the poets trade “blood’s gossip.” Smith props open history’s passageway, inviting traffic in both directions:

                                            it grows by the day
still       i’m sorry       we are still in the midst
  of ourselves       here       a pill for your grave
            a door to our later years

The elegist’s powers are in permanent doubt: what good is a pill to the dead? Survival in verse isn’t really survival. Even so, Smith keeps their dead near, tethered by blood. Hemphill is as close and as quick as Smith’s own pulse: “my wrist to my ear / you’re here.”

For Smith as well as Bibbins and Sneed, the question of how to continue is always also a question of how to turn back. Moving forward can never mean simply moving on. The devastation of HIV/AIDS is impossible to tally, but its poetry might teach us how to build something like a life amid the magnitude and variety of that loss. While reading Ashbery’s poem, I’ve sometimes been so compelled by his vision of cataclysm that I forget his final lines presume a future: “the people all got up to go / and looked back on love.” When we look back from wherever we’ve landed, we join them there.

Sam Huber is a writer and senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Race Off

The fantasy of race transformation
Namwali Serpell

In Pursuit of Clancy Sigal

A writer’s radical life
Todd Gitlin

The Brink of Destruction

Revisiting John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”
Edward Hirsch


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.