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In 1987 I was a senior in high school, living in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. That summer before my senior year, there were whispers along the street where I lived; one of our neighbor’s sons, a young man in his early 20’s, had come home to die. He had AIDS. Two years later, my first cousin was killed in a terrible accident — he was only 17 years old. He was not gay, but during the memorial service, the minister, caught up in the heat of his preaching, went off on a tear about the evils of the contemporary world — among them was AIDS — a sign of God’s wrath on homosexuals.
I recalled these two events while reading this book, because I realized that I had always approached the AIDS epidemic as a thing. A “thing” disconnected from people, and disconnected from first-hand experience. As with all catastrophes, there is always an attempt to find a reason, to understand why the unthinkable has happened, and most of the time the easiest place to find fault or place blame is with the victim: this is the inherent political nature of any tragedy, and the politics of the AIDS epidemic, not the actual experience of the tragedy, were really all I had experienced.
Meg Withers’ book, A Communion of Saints, approaches such a fraught subject in the spirit of this particular experience of that tragedy — by getting right in its face — literally while clutching a cocktail in one hand and a bible in the other. I think it’s important to say that I’m already focusing at this point on the tragedy, which is impossible not to take into account when writing about this period of time. But the book itself really avoids that trap — it begins like a fable, with a sympathetically fucked-up misfit arriving in paradise and being effortlessly, wondrously kidnapped into a glitzy, drunken, diva-istic, many-layered enclave of misfits.
So I mentioned that the book doesn’t fall into the trap of existing in order to explain, justify, or champion the AIDS epidemic. Neither is it a romanticization of a carefree “fuck the oppression of morality” fantasy. What I felt it was, in the reading, was an offering and an elegy. The book is dedicated to, and about, real people, who are not remembered best as “part of a tragedy” or a “symbol of a former time”. They were people with complex histories who were later caught up like insects in amber. This book sets out to explode that idea, as it also sets out to explode the idea of an easily interpreted universal morality.
The story is told in a series of candid, candy-bright prose poems. They are titled in a style reminscent of Henry Fielding in “The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild” — where each title introduces the plot of that particular poem, but written as a kind of tongue-in-cheek morality play. Examples of the titles show what I mean: “in the beginning was...”, “in which even knowledge hurts...”, “thus fear crawls its way...”, and “in the end arlene/noboyfriend visits blowhole...”. The poems themselves are highly visual and tactile. Since everyone is drunk and drugging throughout the story, it could be easy to get lost in that kind of rush of disconnected emotion and energy — but the poems are solidly anchored in physical descriptions of people, and the kaleidoscopic beauty of their personalities. They seem to match the surroundings in this bizarre way: the tropical lushness of Hawai’i that is so characterized by lushness, is full of these dazzling lushes.
Add to this a further complication: each poem is coupled with a bible passage, which, taken in the context of the poem it is paired against, emphasizes that the moral fury that rained down on those contracting AIDS and living “unclean” lifestyles came from a book that is, in it’s most popular King James version, a 397 year old revision of a smorgasbord of fairy tales, historical records, morality lessons, political gambits, mystical poetry, and elegiac biography with so many translations, contributing authors, editors and revisors that it might be safe to say that the bible is the most powerful example of the politics of storytelling in existence. I find it humorous, in the blackest possible way, that a book of stories so twisted by time and personalities can be leveled at anyone as an example of truth, or how to behave — or more sadly, a reason that some people deserve to suffer and die.
Withers knew what she was doing when she perched each of her poems atop a solid, pulsating brick of bible verse. She understood that the most incendiary thing you can do is own the thing that disowns you. And that essential polarity, that seemingly mutually exclusive cross-purpose, is a huge part of the craft of this book.
The poems are built on that matter/dark matter tension — the language is often harsh and brash, while the characters themselves are sometimes rude, off-putting and dismissive of everyone, including themselves — but the strange outcome of that harsh, falsely happy-go-lucky language creates something soft, introspective and deeply lyrical. It’s like meeting a person so used to being pummeled that they run interference by being preemptively abrasive, yet that abrasiveness is clearly a front.
Some might argue that a bar scene lifestyle is hardly lyrical. I would counter that by saying that having a bunch of sluts and drunks tell a story is a well-practiced tradition of lyric writing, e.g. Sappho, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Joyce. Drunk people in their regular bar/pub/dionysian meadow are lyrical mouthpieces often allowed to point out (and do) the things the sober are not, giving voice to the trickier and more taboo subjects behind the constant banter of surface jokes and verbal jousts. In fact, it might be that the all-encompassing magnanimity and loosened consciousness of the happy plane of drunkenness is what allows the reader to more easily participate in the candid rush of the book.
There is also the question then, of right and wrong, since the characters themselves admit to being on the fringes of a society which deems their behavior, more often than not, wrong. Enter the monster, which makes its vain, insidious entrance in part two. I’m not talking about the monster of AIDS, I’m talking about a far more sinister monster — that some interpretations of morality lead us to believe that certain people deserve to be sick, suffer and die, while others don’t. And the dividing line between those fates is as emphemeral as a story that’s constantly being reinterpreted and retold.
I see these ideas all over the book, but here are examples: page 30, in the first poem that disease makes it’s appearance in the form of a blemish people later would come to know as Kaposi’s Sarcoma:
...we partied on...made fun of his neck/lefteyebrow/ankle when they blotched up worse...he was dead one day...we went to see a cold bronze urn...ashes/to/ashes...after doing too much cocaine/rumncokes that changed nothing...
...there is no limit now to death and dying...shadows swallow whole kuhio avenue...black cloth replacing red/yellow aloha shirts...until the dead wax more real than the living...
So, maybe the darkness has triumphed a bit in this review so far — reading back over it I see the frustration and angst I felt while reading. But let me end by saying that the book doesn’t end in that darkness. It ends, of course, in resurrection, which is what, like a lot of this story, is so disconcerting about tragedy — that if you survive it and go on living, something must be created out of that pain. And in fact, people who come after will have the double curse of not having had to suffer what the people who paved their way did.
I’ve seen ads on telephone poles in San Francisco recently that show a comic-faced young man with tousled hair, his hands pressed to his cheeks à la Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. Above him is the caption, “Got Stress? Need HIV meds?” There’s room now for humor, there’s room now for AIDS to be no longer a death sentence, but an inconvenience.
There’s a parallel here back in the bible — that is to Jesus’ story — a sufferer-by-proxy. I am not saying that any self-respecting person who died from AIDS would welcome this comparison, I’m just trying to make the point that moral authority is a servant to the interpretation of the source. In the case of Withers’ book, all of these wider political questions become eclipsed, as I believe they should be, by the true purpose of the book: to tell the story of a group of beautiful, raucous misfits who found and befriended each other and fell in love and drank and slept around and for a while, were deliriously happy.
L.J. Moore lives in San Francisco in a basement by the beach with two ferrets. Her favorite author is Edward Gorey. L.J.’s poetry and photography have appeared in numerous publications. She is a co-editor and co-founder of Small Desk Press, a San-Francisco based small press collective dedicated to supporting emerging writers whose work challenges the conventional divisions of experimental, narrative, poetry and/or prose. Her first book, F-Stein, is forthcoming in December 2008 from Subito Press.