Is it possible to address the AIDS pandemic without recourse to metaphor? Yes, argues Mícheál McCann, citing the ‘admirable ordinariness’ of Marie Howe’s 1997 collections of poems ‘What the Living Do’.
This article is part of a week-long takeover (23-27 March) of The Polyphony by HIV Humanities guest editors José Saleiro Gomes, Louisa Hann, and Stian Kristensen.
[T]o resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us. Why the necessity of metaphor? Not just to do it to avoid it, but to make it more there.
– Marie Howe (2013)
‘Presentness’ is a method of queer experience lain siege to in the early days of the AIDS emergency. Cruising sites, saunas, or private intimacies became more than demonstrations of desire; desire became bed-fellows with shame, panic, the death-drive; or so queer theory’s overarching emphasis on negative affect would have it. (Queer) sex is perhaps the foremost exemplar of an individual totally inhabiting an immediate present, yet the onset of AIDS infection began the pathologizing and moralising of gay sex by a hysterical mainstream population, and often by the marginal communities and voices that it also affected. Paula Treichler (1999, 1-2) rightly suggests that the AIDS crisis was as much a cultural and linguistic crisis as it was a biomedical one. Succinctly, the temporal significance of the ‘immediate’ becomes drained, and furthermore, dangerous. Susan Sontag, in her wonderfully vociferous AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989, 158), writes:
The fear of AIDS imposes on an act whose ideal is an experience of pure presentness (and a creation of the future) a relation to the past to be ignored at one’s peril.
Sontag’s text brilliantly works to trouble what we mean when we talk about metaphor and AIDS in tandem. Sontag suggests that the newly-forming language (complemented by a still-forming scientific understanding) surrounding HIV/AIDS works to destabilise the very way illness is perceived, and subsequently how normative ways of existing and experiencing come to be questioned. Sontag, whose thinking was years ahead of her contemporaries, here surmises the nascent danger of an unconsidered, militaristic metaphorization of illness and AIDS; and also predicates a movement in critical interest from presentness to futurity. This is read in Kadji Amin’s (2016, 174) succinct sketch that “queer scholars have tended to gesture toward the unbounded future” and how queer theory has moved from “of the now to being a rejection of the now” (182).
In trauma studies, it is said everything breaks down in the face of trauma. Temporality, or ambition toward a futurity cannot withstand the march of trauma (read: AIDS). If queer studies turns entirely to consider the potential of the horizon, what of those afflicted peoples relegated to the present? Let queer defy definition and encapsulation, let it not be just negative affect, not positive; not just the future, and not the present.
Amin wonders—in efflorescent terms—may it be more “efficacious to engage queer’s multiple pasts” (id., 174) than to riff indefinitely on potentiality/futurity. AIDS brought about a definitional schism. The dread of ‘AIDS’ when imposed upon ‘(high-risk) sex’ is true, yet ‘sex’ does not hold ‘AIDS’ as its single referent in response. Queer, too, suffers in part in this incoherent schism. Queer’s importance in the immanent moment has been decried in favour of an always unreachable, expanding horizon. The horizon as a vision of utopia is most notably vied for in Jose Esteban Muñoz’s landmark text Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009). Muñoz debases the “prison-house of the present” in arguing that astonishment in its sensorial immediacy “helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present and allows ones to see a different time and place” (2009, 5). This conveyance is, arguably, a dismissal of a difficult present, too.
With Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s wise proposition that “[T]here are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person” (1994, 8), we turn to the lyric poem, and the manners in which the lyric ‘I’ has altered, standing down the shadow of the AIDS emergency. In The Art of Description, Mark Doty describes a temporality unique to poetics: “timelessness. In this lyric time we cease to be aware of forward movement; lyric is concerned neither with the impingement of the past nor with anticipation for events to come” (2010, 22); in other words, a poem forsakes forward and backward casting gazes in favour of an attuned attention to the immediate. In poetics, a lyric poem represents, in an AIDS literature context, a determined clinging to every sensed detail.
Marie Howe is the author of four books of poems, and has edited (along with Michael Klein) an anthology of American writing from the AIDS pandemic. What the Living Do (1997) is a collection of poems famously described as ‘free’ from metaphor. These poems are full of admirable ordinariness, affecting in their seldom observed normalcy. Howe’s poems in this volume, of many other components, are comprised largely of dialogue (see ‘The Gate’), or seemingly mundane, torturously evocative normality.
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil
probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty
dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday
we spoke of.
Howe (1998, 89)
Howe, in characteristically long lines, presents decorously simple scenarios, objects and people. A “small glass bottle of milk and an open jar of jam” (id., ‘Late Morning’, 63) is what her speaker fixates on the moment she learns of her brother’s death from AIDS-related complications. The title poem ‘What the Living Do’ is a love-note to living, and how immanent potential is located in our “everyday”. Addressed to Howe’s younger brother, Howe works to show us how celebrating and memorialising may be found in the immediacy of living one’s own life, as much as it may be casting forward to find a new shore by morning.
In terms lifted from technical typesetting, this poem makes interesting use of ‘widows’ (very short lines that are preceded by an incredibly long, margin to margin line). In ‘What the Living Do’ these long lines are burdenedwith detail, while the widows that follow are sparse:
“my wrist and sleeve
‘What the Living Do’ is rich with these supposedly flat details, from a clogged sink to the open living room windows: material facts that, in their mundanity, emphasise that sacred materiality of living. Andrew Cunning in ‘A Table, A Cup, A Meowing Cat: Marie Howe’s Theopoetics of the Ordinary’ (2019) dialogues with Andrew Epstein, to further delineate the ‘transformation trope’ prevalent in poorly written poetry criticism. This ‘trope’ is often attributed to a poet’s skill at transmutating ordinariness into something profoundly otherworldly and transcendent (Cunning 2019, 311). Howe prizes the primary subject rather than what it transforms into, her brother John; her deceased friends; ‘that yearning’. Howe concludes the poem with her speaker noticing their own reflection of the corner video store. Consider the motion of “blowing”, the sense of a face blushing with “chapped”, and the openness to the bite of cold with an “unbuttoned” coat. The poem ends in the present tense. The certainty of grief commingling with an immanent attention, maybe a prayer, to the ongoingness of the present.
“I am living. I remember you.”
Mícheál McCann is from Derry. He is a PhD researcher at Queen’s University Belfast working at the intersections of AIDS literature, positive affect and temporality. His first pamphlet of poems is forthcoming from Green Bottle Press in Spring 2020. He tweets at @micklemccann.
Amin, Kadji. 2016. “Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory’s Affective Histories.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 44, no. 3/4 (): 173-89.
Cunning, Andrew. ‘A Table, A Cup, A Meowing Cat: Marie Howe’s Theopoetics of the Ordinary’ Literature and Theology, Volume 33, Issue 3, (2019): 307-320.
Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Graywolf Press, 2010.
Howe, Marie. What the Living Do. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Howe, Marie. Interview with Krista Tippett. “The Power of Words to Save Us”, podcast audio. On Being. On Being Studios, April 25 2013. <https://onbeing.org/programs/marie-howe-the-power-of-words-to-save-us-may2017/>
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. ‘Queer and Now’ from Tendencies. Routledge, 1994.
Sontag, Susan. AIDS and Its Metaphors. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.
Treichler, Paula. How to Have Theory in An Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
 For more see Michael P. Snediker’s Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) which parses the problematics of negative affectas the sole conjuring tool for queer theorists.