“It will be recorded that the dead in the first decade of the calamity died of our indifference.” —Paul Monette
At the end of the past year, the Trump administration dismissed all sixteen members of the federal HIV/AIDS advisory council, a panel that has existed since the Reagan years. This was coupled with deep cuts to public health initiatives and a refusal to name a new acting director for the White House Office of National AIDS Policy at the White House. For many, this was but another tragic addition to the many forms of violence inflicted upon some of the most vulnerable populations struggling to survive in our current political climate.
To be honest, I struggled deeply with this news. As a queer person of color, I have had many encounters with members of my community who had never heard of the AIDS crisis. I recently taught a unit on the literary and cultural history of this period, and my undergraduates still write to me about how it was the material that most resonated with them precisely because it has not been (and in many ways still isn’t) taught. Advances in treatment and prevention have made HIV/AIDS “no longer a death sentence,” a turn of phrase I hear often in queer circles. But this has contributed, in my view, to a dangerous cultural amnesia of what Lance Wahlert has aptly called the painful reunion. When homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in the 70s, the rise of the AIDS pandemic in the early 80s forcibly reunited many queer people with the medical establishment that only a decade ago had pathologized them. The consequences of this reunion continue to haunt the lives of queer people living with HIV/AIDS today, many of whom will never have access to treatment.
The AIDS era produced a powerful archive of queer feeling in the face of governmental neglect, cultural stigma, and mass death. This archive, as Carol Muske notes, articulated an urgent “politics of death…that has made dying itself – in bed, away from the battlefield – a political act.” In Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog (1988), Paul Monette mourns the death of his longtime partner, Roger Horwitz, from AIDS. But this mourning is thick: one that exceeds catharsis as elegy’s usual affective mode and embraces unexpected pleasure and memory. But the most powerful of these feelings is anger.
Monette prefaces the volume with a note about its form:
These elegies were written during the five months after he died, one right after the other, with hardly a half day’s pause between. Writing them, quite literally kept me alive, 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… I don’t mean them to be impregnable, though I admit I want them to allow no escape, like a hospital room, or indeed a mortal illness… I wanted a form that would move with breathless speed, so I could scream if I wanted and rattle on and empty my Uzi into the air.
While witnessing the devastating loss of a generation of gay men, Monette’s poems force the reader to inhabit the “breathless” experience of “no escape,” a feeling many gay men shared while in the hospital rooms beside their loved ones or in their own suffering from AIDS. The volume’s uzi-style burst-verses—lines rapid firing one after another—lend themselves to an exasperating reading experience like a prolonged, agonizing scream over the course of the eighteen poem cycle. Love Alone memorializes Rog, but it is importantly a call-to-action, a battle cry to fight.
I frequently teach the volume’s second poem, “Current Status 1/22/87,” which exemplifies how Monette’s AIDS elegy works:
marginal no change T-4 four-sixty-five
as of 12/8 but the labs are notoriously
inexact nerdy white-coat sits eyeballing
his microscope counts the squiggles in a cubic
inch racks them up on his abacus and writes
his apt # on the lab slip thus I’m fifteen
less than August thirty-five more than June
this is not statistically meaningful or am I
the walking wounded do not count the counting
begins at breakthrough how are my lymph nodes
how are they not a mere three-quarters
centimeter at the neck in the vampire spot
cm and a half in the armpit not suggestive
unless they harden or start to throb taking
four hundred milligrams RIBAVIRIN b.i.d.
the magic dose if results released 1/9
prove to be long-term of course when you cry
all day an afternoon can be frightfully
long-term but we mustn’t muss the curve with
personal agendas equal dose ACYCLOVIR
ditto twice a day this part purest guesswork
doesn’t attack HIV but seems to lower
the general viral bullshit level and besides
the cornflower-blue capsules go quite nicely
with the royal-and-white of the RIBAVIRIN rather
like the flag of an island nation which I am
bowels normal though I peer at each specimen
in the bowl like an oracle poking entrails
David E who just got back from the Rift
Valley where man began says if you flush
a toilet five feet south of the Equator
the spiral flows clockwise five feet north flows
counterclock this is the only non-medical
fact I have learned in two years moving now
to the head twenty milligrams SINEQUAN for
despair no effect at all but may help
tip me over into sleep that little church
of the dark which bars me all its sacraments
add fifteen milligrams DALMANE 2 a.m. for
the final knockout not the same as sleep
not even the same as night but a full-bore dose
of SINEQUAN makes you Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN
within two weeks and you eat whole loaves of
Wonder Bread till your moon-face waddled body
humpty-dumpties off a wall no mouth sores
fevers sweats bruises like imploded orchids
nothing significant see you in March
to put it quite simply I’M DOING FINE
or as we say in California DOING GREAT
holding a shiv to the listener’s throat as it
to dare contradiction the test-givers
bald numerologists and milligram chemists
all my tribe of shamans and not a one knows
the iron tests I watched you suffer the six
spinals three broncs your bone marrow sippped by
a ten-inch needle till you had enough numbers
to stump an algebra class pyramided like
a Mayan calendar exact to the second for
a thousand years by which time the last Mayans
stared out of stone eyes at the blue monkeys
who swarmed their decimal palaces my medicine
men can’t see my condition is just a prefix
my vast pharmacopoeia no more than a grave
not to you my friend who bore so many
milligrams we needed a gram balance like
a CHARCUTERIE in Paris tests of tests
my groping docs might just as well use leeches
for all they can touch my invisible disease
cracks on the heart don’t blip on an EKG
thus no treatment sorry we don’t cure life
Rog I am still in the anteroom of all
the useless measures leafing old PEOPLEs
reading diplomas deep in my head I hear you
the night of the third intrusion your larynx
like slush from an extra milliliter’s freeze
of XYLOCAINE quelling your voice to a strangle
for two three hours WHY IS THIS HAPPENING
I DON’T KNOW I said all the bells in my voice
untarnished and thought how no one had better
try to say why either or ever suppose
to know the worst take my pills like clockwork
because you took yours submit to a week’s
bleeding because you fought like Theseus for
the white-crowned hill of your reason breakthrough
is the real thing when these are not just tests
of fate ball bearings in a wheel of luck they are
fate made visible which of my thirteen
pills would I give a dying child which one
ought the world to be taking morning and night
to feel this strange communion dose by dose
this set of printouts clinically healthy why
does that sound like a qualification is this
how being a hero starts or just dying
Ypres and Verdun men have lain down in certain
fields with all their unspent years but meanwhile
there is the fighting before that the target
practice I’m learning how to hold a sword
but there is no telling what I will do
when I get there stay at my side will you
so I don’t do anything vain or cease to honor
you and all our brothers below the Equator
In eschewing the conventions of punctuation and capitalization, Monette refuses the reader an easy encounter with the lines that do not begin and end where we expect. Monette ventriloquizes the clinical voice, which dehumanizes patients by reducing them to T-cell counts while proffering futile treatments that prove to be “purest guesswork,” almost the same as archaic bloodletting or leech therapy. The “vast pharmacopoeia” of prescription drugs that Monette catalogs in excruciating detail exposes the limitations of medical intervention that can only delay the inevitable. As drug names interrupt each line, Monette mocks the absurdity of Western medicine’s promise of a linear narrative of diagnosis, treatment, and cure. For an “invisible disease” that has no cure and no vaccine, this narrative is a destructive fantasy. The rhythms of patients’ lives become synonymous with the symptoms of their opportunistic infections, the schedule of their many doses. The temporality, the very selfhood of living with AIDS is embodied in the poem’s form: fractured, fragile.
Particularly tragic is the fact that Monette knows he will soon undergo the same slow death as Rog. Monette, aware of his own contraction of HIV from Rog, doubts “this set of printouts clinically healthy.” Why is this happening / I don’t know, Monette admits. The disturbing truth is that neither physicians nor patients know why and what to do about it. But for Monette, there is still every reason to fight—for himself, for Rog, for his “brothers.” In these dire circumstances, we must all learn how to hold a sword.
*My love and thanks to Aaron Gorelik who first shared Monette with me in 2008.
**For more of my writing on HIV/AIDS, please see my article on the Pulse shooting (http://impakter.com/theory-epidemic-pulse-legacy-hivaids/) and “‘Requestioning’ AIDS: An Ethical Reflection from 1993 to Today.” Journal of Homosexuality. 25.3 (2015): 452-55.
 See Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed’s If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (UMinnesota Press, 2011) for a timely reflection on what they term “degenerational unremembering,” a phenomenon of cultural “amnesia as a prophylaxis against loss” (40).
 See Lance Wahlert. “The painful reunion: the medicalization of homosexuality and the rise of the queer.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. 9.3 (2012): 261-75.
 Carol Muske. “Rewriting the Elegy.” Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS. ed. Michael Klein. New York: Crown, 1989. 6.
 Paul Monette. Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
 Love Alone xii.