poem index

Yusef Komunyakaa on Tory Dent's HIV, Mon Amour

Year

2004

In HIV, Mon Amour, one thinks of the long line as a near classical conceit, a life-line tethered to in-depth meaning and breathless pursuit. This collection is a whirlpool of energy that seems to be reaching for cinematic clarity, driven by a need to confront modern psychology and ontology until there's a focus of certainty. Here's a map where imagination and experiences collide, and what rises out of the landscape underneath is a poetry painful and truthful, beautiful and terrifying, lyrical and narrative, always engaging the intellect and body politic.

A longish collection of Whitmanesque narratives, HIV, Mon Amour explores the AIDS epidemic and popular culture. Not from a detached, voyeuristic, or sensational position, but from the highly personal. There's a controlled anger within the wonderment at the center of this engaging book. It reminds us that even in our global society of sound bites, e-mail, and cell phones, we still need the love and care of other human beings:

Never have I wanted from loving friends the most they can ask for
like I do today, a thousand moments crushed beneath its essential parting
from language what it must say though repulsive, delirious, raw and sordid
some hot tongue in my mad sleep may moan, whisper, scream, cry or chant
at no one
Egged on by an elaborate need to mother like a goddess the ugly within me.

We hear desperation and gratitude in these wonderful poems that we can believe. And yes, there are moments when we are reminded that the edges haven't been polished off--a bold bigness and robust energy within a vision that is American, but much more. All the questions of life and death coalesce in this remarkable moment of poetic candidness. Here is a language no one can hide inside of, and we surrender ourselves to this poet's realm that is democratic and inclusive, painful and joyous, personal and public. The narrator is a seer peering into places that at times seem off-limits, as she objectifies metaphorical glimpses into the past and the present.

If we have difficulty believing that beauty is the distillation of truth, then there is another beauty in HIV, Mon Amour. The balanced canvas of this book is epitomized by a poem such as "Palea":

Only my mouth taking you in, the greenery splayed deep green.

Within my mouth, your arm inserted, a stem of gestures, breaking gracefully.

Into each other we root arbitrarily, like bushes, silken and guttural.

Palaver, we open for the thrill of closing, for the thrill of it: opening.

The night was so humid when I knelt on the steps, wet and cold, of prewar stone.

A charm bracelet of sorts we budded, hand-made, but brazen, as if organic.

I cannot imagine the end of my fascination, emblazoned but feather-white too.

The gold closure of this like a gold coin is, of course, ancient.

Why can't experience disseminate itself, be silken and brazen yet underwater?

A miniature Eiffel Tower, an enameled shamrock, a charm owned by its bracelet.

A testimonial of wit and flesh, this poetry gives us a witness who has refused any blindfolds, and she reaches straight for the hearts and minds big enough to welcome a music swollen with real cries and laughter. At times, these poems read like a breathy elegy for Dionysian happenstance; however, there are also passages here filled with hope and temporal grace, a language that craves a wholeness through acknowledgment and synthesis.

HIV, Mon Amour seems relentless, a long-breath engine that propels the urgency of this spell-binding collection of poems at the end of our millennium. The voice here is not stingy; it is a full-throated singing that demands a passionate response because it has compassion for the reader. This book is brave, and a bold sophistication is in the heartbeat of the truth-telling.


Tory Dent was the winner of the 1999 James Laughlin Award for her second collection of poems, HIV, Mon Amour, which was published by The Sheep Meadow Press in 1999. The judges for the award were Lynn Emanuel, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Marilyn Nelson.