Paul Monette's AIDS Poetry

Turning to The Iliad to survive a great loss

Ellis Jaewon Yeo
Photo of Paul Monette by Robert Giard.

Photo by Robert Giard. © Estate of Robert Giard.

In the preface to his collection of poems Love Alone:18 Elegies for Rog, Paul Monette recalls a white marble block he saw on a recent trip to Greece, its face covered with ancient text eroded by time. As he traces his fingers over the fading letters, Monette laments the ephemerality of the physical monument: “‘I hope somebody’s recorded all this,’ I said, realizing with a dull thrill of helplessness that this was the record.” For Monette, the elegies he wrote for his partner, Roger Horwitz—who died of AIDS in 1986—were analogous to the writing on that marble block. However imperfectly the ruin survives, it retains its fundamental essence: “if only a fragment remained in the future,” Monette writes, “to fade in the sulfurous rain, it would say how much I loved him and how terrible was the calamity.”

During the epidemic’s early years, AIDS was an inevitable death sentence. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, the disease took more than 100,000 lives in the United States. The American public quietly allowed the epidemic to destroy an entire generation of gay men. Their disenfranchised grief was neither acknowledged by society nor publicly mourned, until a broader societal movement took hold, leading to the establishment of World AIDS Day in 1988, which is still marked annually on December 1.

How was a gay poet to dignify a death that society chose to stigmatize?

At the time, the cultural rhetoric framed gay men as doomed to die, “a tainted community that illness has judged,” as Susan Sontag wrote. In the face of denial and stigma, the gay community struggled to memorialize its loved ones. Nor did poetry have ready answers. Elegy—the classic poetic form of memorializing loss—focused on the trajectory from grief to consolation, through cycles of natural renewal, often tied to the birth of the next generation. But those elegiac tropes were grossly inappropriate for gay writers living in the near-apocalyptic circumstances of the epidemic’s early years. The vast scope of the task of memorializing the dead “strains all our notions of composition,” the poet Carol Muske-Dukes wrote. AIDS elegies often couldn’t embrace the trope of children as legacy, because few gay men in the 1980s had children. And many AIDS elegists composed their poems while anticipating their own death from the disease. The survival of an entire generation was at stake.

What the collective tragedy of AIDS demanded, then, was a different poetics of mourning, one that answered the question: How was a gay poet to dignify a death that society chose to stigmatize? Paul Monette’s answer was a new form of queer poetry, one that built on his fascination with the classics and could address the demands made by the AIDS epidemic, which would take both his life and that of his partner. Through resonances with the Iliad, Monette evokes the epic notion of fated mortality as the central identity of those dying of AIDS. Within a rhetoric that offers no futurity for gay men, Monette’s rereading of the classical past allows him to shape his own trajectory—and that of Horwitz—towards a kinder teleology than the meaningless mass casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Of course they will die, but they will die with dignity—the dignity of Achilles. World AIDS Day in 2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of the first reported case of the disease. AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but a generation of gay men died too early to receive the treatments that are now readily available. They survive in elegies like Monette’s.

WHILE LIVING IN BOSTON and teaching at Milton Academy in the early 1970s, Monette met Horwitz, his long-time lover. In a journal entry for September 2, 1974, the 28-year-old Monette marks their first meeting by noting simply: “Roger Horwitz.” The two lived together for more than ten years before Horwitz died from AIDS-related complications in 1986. Monette would succumb to AIDS less than a decade later, in 1995, aged just 49. In the years following Horwitz’s death, Monette wrote several works about their relationship, including the memoir Borrowed Time and a series of poignant poems, Love Alone:18 Elegies for Rog, both published in 1988.

Monette’s early publications had been unremarkable, but Love Alone became one of the early foundational works of AIDS literature. Its wide distribution by St. Martin’s Press spurred the publication of other volumes of AIDS poetry in the following years. Toward the latter part of his life, Monette’s writing and activism had aligned around AIDS advocacy. “I would rather have this volume filed under AIDS than under Poetry, because if these words speak to anyone they are for those who are mad with loss, to let them know they are not alone,” Monette wrote in the book’s preface.

Not only did Monette bear witness to the AIDS tragedy, but he also immortalized his beloved in his remarkable parallel to heroic epic.

Monette got his wish: Love Alone has since been categorized primarily as AIDS literature, and he is remembered mainly for his activism. But despite his stated intention, the collection is more than just AIDS testimony: its raw and artful elegies, and the tradition of gay engagement with antiquity that they invoke, are unique within AIDS literature. Not only did Monette bear witness to the AIDS tragedy, but he also immortalized his beloved in his remarkable parallel to heroic epic.

For Monette, Greek literature was a continual touchstone, one that validated same-sex love in a time of heightened social stigma. In A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883), John Addington Symonds offers a framework for two different modes of Greek homosexuality: the sensual and the spiritual. In the first category, we find the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, in which a handsome Trojan aristocrat is abducted by Zeus to serve as his cupbearer, and in the second, the heroic friendship of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. While the Iliad doesn’t explicitly state that there was a homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it paints a portrait of male intimacy cultivated through loyal companionship. In the ancient world, readers and critics commonly interpreted the relationship between the two warriors as a romantic one. The Achillean relationship sanctioned a heroic ideal of masculine love among the Greeks—it also valorized same-sex passions, painting them in a socially beneficial context in which they could elevate martial prowess and inspire artistic creation. (The contrast to the conflation of homosexuality with meaningless promiscuity and effeminacy in the 1980s is obvious.)

Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus underlies all of Monette’s elegies—a portrait of two men wholly devoted to one another, tending toward the inescapable moment of death. The Iliad offered a solution to how to grieve without a future: fated to die, gay men could make glorious their brief remaining life, free of shame and regret. The scholar Christos Tsagalis wrote in his critical monograph, Epic Grief, that the Iliad is ultimately “a poem about death, anticipated but unavoidable, just like the tragic fate awaiting its best heroes.” Monette recalls this ancient epic notion that death could give power—and ensure literary survival. Unlike in traditional elegy, consolation was not to be found in apotheosis or in the renewal of life. A truly modern elegy written in the extreme moment of the AIDS epidemic would summon an ancient literary tradition in which the word survives even if life does not.

Even before becoming an elegist,
Monette expressed a serious interest in the genre. A product of a conventional middle-class upbringing, Monette attended Phillips Academy Andover on scholarship. He remained closeted through his undergraduate years at Yale, where he wrote his English thesis on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam. During the summer of 1966, Monette visited Cambridge University to study Tennyson’s letters. There, he grew to resent the formalism of Tennyson’s writing, which he believed hindered proper expression of feeling—namely, Tennyson’s suspected love toward Arthur Henry Hallam. Monette ultimately argues for In Memoriam's failure as an elegy; elegies, he insisted, require more free movement in more varied form than the rigidly metered In Memoriam. As he recalls in his 1992 autobiography, Becoming a Man: “For once I wanted poems and life to lead me out of feeling into experience, raw not cooked, and no more perfect phrases.”

Monette’s continued frustration with the formal constraints of writing poetry led to a long hiatus—until, five months after Horwitz’s death, in October 1986, when he was 41 years old, Monette returned to writing poetry out of necessity. “Writing [the poems] quite literally kept me alive,” he wrote in the preface to Love Alone, “for the only time I wasn’t wailing and trembling was when I was hammering at these poems. I have let them stand as raw as they came.”

The extremity of Monette’s grief produced these “raw” poems that lack self-consciousness. (The first section of Love Alone, made up of so-called “conspiracy poems,” which Monette describes as “a secret between two voices,” was not originally written for publication; these poems were exchanged with the poet Carol Muske-Dukes, a good friend of his at the time.) The poems of Love Alone were written “entirely without thinking,” with “no sense anyone else would want them.” Compared to more traditional elegies, these free verse poems appear to renounce many formal constraints: written in a breathless, self-disruptive style conveying both the clumsiness and immediacy of spoken language, the poems lack punctuation, capitalization, and stanza breaks. The awkward phrases, repetitions, and interruptions evoke the authentic voice of a mind disorganized by grief. Even as his private mourning later turns public, Monette continues to reject aesthetic refinement—for him, there are no “perfect phrases.”

Greek literature was a continual touchstone, one that validated same-sex love in a time of heightened social stigma.

But underlying the recklessness lies a typographical restraint. The lines are mostly uniform in length, with the occasional variation contributing to a visual jaggedness, reminiscent of a fragment. The overflowing speech is contained in constant enjambment and released into capitalized sudden cries: “WAIT WAIT.” Throughout, he captures the everyday objects of the world that intrude and compete with his lament: “Glad Bags One-A-Days KINGSIZE,” “FOR SALE,” “SUNSET PLAZA ONE-HOUR.”

In the preface to Love Alone, Monette confesses that the poems are not meant “to be impregnable, though I admit I want them to allow no escape, like a hospital room, or indeed a mortal illness.” As the poems extend for pages without the respite of a period or stanza break, the visual constraints enact that claustrophobia, that panic; neither Monette nor his reader can escape his consuming grief.

AN EPIGRAPH BY THE WORLD WAR I poet Wilfred Owen sits above the preface to Love Alone: “Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” Monette’s subject, too, is war. In his poems, the struggle against AIDS—and for recognition of the gay community’s suffering in the face of public indifference—becomes martial. He becomes “a warrior burying a warrior.” In “The Losing Side,” Monette recalls Rog’s heroism to another mourner at the graveyard:

He fought so hard I say the blizzard force of your
endurance reduced to fight-talk as if it
were equal combat man to man . . .
all the Iliad stood in awe that’s how hard.

Though he knows that the battle against AIDS is far from a fair fight, Monette relies on the reference to the Iliad to elevate Rog’s heroism to the ranks of the most illustrious warriors of classical antiquity.

The connection to the Iliad builds throughout Love Alone as Monette draws on the poetics of lament found in Achilles’s mourning for Patroclus. “No Goodbyes” narrates the hours leading to Rog’s death: “I won’t won’t / say it all I will say is goodnight.” When Achilles hears the news of Patroclus’s death, he utters an animal wail of lamentation. Of the many different moments of lament in the Iliad, Achilles’s reaction is unique in its raw and destructive nature. Here, Achilles’s wail is not merely an act of mourning; it signals his own incipient demise. He vows to avenge Patroclus’s death by killing Hector, even knowing that doing so will lead to his own death. Unlike in traditional elegy, classical lament leads to a heroic death, not a renewal of life.

In a capitalized exclamation, Monette invokes the Iliadic war context in the latter half of “No Goodbyes,” casting him and Rog as a pair of warriors:

THE SENTRY HERE nothing passes as long as
I'm where I am we go on death is
a lonely hole two can leap it or else
or else there is nothing this man is mine
he's an ancient Greek like me I do
all the negotiating while he does battle
we are war and peace in a single bed
we wear the same size shirt it can't it can't
be yet not this.

For Monette, Rog is not simply a lover but a comrade who shares in the same battle. The reference to the shared bed is reminiscent of a moment in the Iliad that depicts Achilles and Patroclus sleeping in the same room. The closeness of the two heroes extends beyond the battlefield into the domestic sphere of the bedroom. In A.T. Murray’s translation, “Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-built hut . . . and Patroclus lay down on the opposite side.” Heroic masculinity—partly represented by Achilles himself, partly by the martial setting—coexisted with domesticity. As Symonds put it, the pair shared “a powerful and masculine emotion, in which effeminacy had no part.”

The survival of the word may be the best defense against the mortality of AIDS.

Throughout the Iliad, Patroclus is called Achilles’s therápōn, conventionally translated as “attendant.” He performs domestic tasks for Achilles, such as mixing wine and preparing his meals. In The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, the classicist Gregory Nagy notes that themultivalence of therápōn also encompasses the meaning of “therapeutic,” as in the emotional sense of “to care for.” This definition resonates throughout the domestic moments of Love Alone in which Monette plays the role of the primary caretaker for the dying Rog, tending to his every need:

what do you need is it
sleep like sleep you want a pillow a cool
drink oh my one safe place there must be
something just say what it is and it’s yours.

The inherent intimacy of domesticity intensifies the pathos of their foreshortened relationship: “it’s only Tuesday there’s chicken in the fridge / from Sunday night.” The leftover chicken has outlived Rog. After Patroclus’s demise, Achilles reminisces about Patroclus setting up dinner for him and their companions. Now, in Patroclus’s absence, Achilles forgoes food and drink, disengaging from these mundane aspects of life: “Ah surely once, unlucky one, dearest of my comrades, you used to set out a savory meal in our hut swiftly and deftly . . . But now you lie here mangled, and my heart will have nothing of meat and drink, though they are here at hand, through yearning for you.” Without the departed partner, domestic life itself becomes painful—its lonely continuation can be only a reminder of what is lost.

Along with therápōn, Patroclus takes the epithet phílos, indicating his interchangeability with Achilles and the parallel between them. Phílos identifies Patroclus not just as a friend but as “another self” to Achilles. “The more you love someone, the more you identify with this special someone,” Nagy writes. This interchangeability lies at the crux of the parallel that Monette draws between his poems and the Iliad. In the Iliad, Patroclus borrows Achilles’s armor in order to deceive the Trojans. “Grant me to buckle on my shoulders that armor of yours in the hope that the Trojans may take me for you,” he tells Achilles. The disguise is successful; Patroclus, mistaken for his friend, is killed. To consummate the coupling, Patroclus receives Achilles’s own epithet, áristos Akhaiôn (“the best of the Achaeans”), immediately following his death.

In Monette’s elegies, he and Rog share a similar interchangeability. “We’d always worn the same size shirts and underwear and socks . . . We’d always been disguised as each other anyway,” he writes. Indeed, they are so united that personified Death struggles to differentiate between the two:

He cannot seem to tell who’s who
as you used to say in your cranked-up bed
playful astonished But were the same person
when did that happen

In his lament, Monette hopelessly insists on the impossibility of Rog’s death as if the fact that they both fit into the same physical mold could somehow eradicate the vast discrepancy of life and death: “we wear the same size shirt it can't it can't / be yet.”

Interchangeability in life translates to the belief in a common, fated death. By the time he was composing Love Alone, Monette was already infected with HIV. He witnessed Rog die a painful death that he knew to be a foreshadowing of his own. For Monette, as for Achilles, life has no meaning after being deprived of his beloved companion; he wishes to die and join his lover. Monette attempts to fill Rog’s absence through physical superposition: “I sleep now just where you slept curled / in the selfsame spot.” Achilles is certain he will die in Troy, in the same soil as Patroclus: “for both us are fated to redden the selfsame earth with our blood here in the land of Troy,” he says, planning a shared burial mound. Monette, too, longs for reunion: “I can lie on this hill just above you / a foot beside where I will lie myself / soon soon.”

Love Alone ends in an allusion to the Homeric tradition of memorializing the fallen in song. In the collection’s last and longest poem, “Brother of the Mount of Olives,” Monette discovers a photograph of the couple from a trip to Italy a year and half before Rog’s diagnosis. He spirals into a memory of their visit to the Benedictine monastery, Monte Oliveto. In the poem, Rog and Monette tour the monastery with Brother John, a friendly monk who has a “drunken gaiety.” In the final lines of Love Alone, the joyous recollection ends as the couple are reunited and celebrated in perpetual song:

pray that my friend and I be still together
just like this at the Mount of Olives blessed
by the last of an ancient race who loved
youth and laughter and beautiful things so much
they couldn’t stop singing and we were the song.

When Love Alone was published, only two poems appeared outside the chronological order of their composition: “Dreaming of You” and “Brother of the Mount of Olives,” the final poems of the collection. “Brother of the Mount of Olives” had been written several days before “Dreaming of You,” but the poet chose to end the entire collection with this poem—and with the phrase “we were the song.” The “song” by the “ancient race” is reminiscent of Homeric kleos (glory), which comes from klúō (“to hear”)—the meaning is literally “that which is heard,” though more commonly what is meant is “a song that conveys glory [and] fame.” In Greek epic, the central dilemma for any hero is the tension between nostos (homecoming) and kleos. At a critical moment in the Iliad, Achilles says: “if I remain here and fight about the city of the Trojans, then lost is my nostos, but my kleos will be imperishable.” Most heroes in the epic tradition (with the exception of Odysseus) forgo their nostos because death is preferable to a life without kleos.

Faced with the inevitability of death, Monette draws upon the Greek epic tradition to transmute his and Rog’s deaths into a kind of immortal glory (kleos aphthiton), foregoing the consolations of traditional elegy. Consolation is not a part of Monette’s griefwork. For Monette, the work of mourning transcends the binary of consolation and melancholia. The survival of the word may be the best defense against the mortality of AIDS. In his ultimate tribute, Monette seeks to memorialize Rog, hoping that his elegies will survive as a song testifying to their love.

Ellis Jaewon Yeo holds a BA from Harvard College and is a community health worker at the HIPS Suboxone clinic in Washington, D.C.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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