I find myself wanting to be in conversation with people who have experienced similar grief to what I’m feeling now, who have seen their community ravished by disease, felt fury at inadequate political response, gone to battle advocating for compassionate changes to drug testing rules, and learned to grieve not just for individual friends, but for an entire sense of community that, if not lost, is deeply wounded. I was in high school during the AIDS epidemic, and although I knew some LGTBQ people in the rural Wisconsin community I lived in, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t closeted, and I blithely ignored the tragedy that was enfolding in our nation. I can’t ignore our current tragedy, of course, and in the midst of it I am very grateful for the members of St. Stephen’s who lived through the height of the epidemic in the 1980s, saw it ravish their communities, and can now reflect on it with hard won wisdom and grace.
That generation of LGBTQ people wrote poems and songs, novels and nonfiction, to make meaning of what they had experienced, and I find myself turning to their work now. I’m not asking their work to teach me what to think or feel. When I say they made meaning of the experience, I don’t mean that they had answers to all of the questions that had been raised or solutions to all of the problems such experiences pose to the soul. I only mean that they were able to state the questions deeply, to name the problems well, and I find myself incapable of doing either of those things at this moment. So I turn to them for help.
I turn particularly to this poem by Mark Doty. I’m not entirely sure why it gives me solace. It certainly makes me cry. I hope that it speaks to you as deeply as it speaks to me.
by Mark Doty
Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
said goodbye to his parents,
paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit?
but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets
he’s already found a home for
— he can’t be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,
I can’t have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start
with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan
to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe
they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love
anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,
though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,
a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,
her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,
a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,
a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn
in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend —
Is he going out
Into the last loved object
Of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence
Of an opulent tail,
Undulant in some uncapturable curve
Is he bronze chrysanthemums,
Copper leaf, hurried darting,
Doubloons, icon-colored fins
Troubling the water?