Groff, David. “Clay”, Trio House Press, 2013.
I do not think that anyone can deny the tremendous impact HIV/AIDS has had on the LGBT community. We often think of those friends we have lost on a personal level but there are also those that we have lost on a national level—activists, actors, composers, musicians and so on. Many may think that the epidemic is over but we know it is not. David Groff, in his gorgeous book of poetry, “Clay”, writes of those we have lost and goes a step further and tells us of his love for his positive partner who is also the person whose name is the title of this book.
We are also all aware of the importance of history and, how by studying it, we are better equipped to deal with the future. Groff looks at history but he does so realistically and minus nostalgia. We were at risk, and we are still at risk to a degree, and he reminds us of who we are and that sleep (metaphorically speaking) is a luxury as we face the future. Groff catches us immediately with the first poem and tells us that we must keep our eyes and ears open; there are those waiting for us to slip, to return once again to the “jaded undertakers” that await our business. We may no longer be in Kansas but we have not yet reached Eden. (As I sit here thinking how to write about a collection of such exquisite poetry, I find myself facing writer’s block because I know that no matter what I say I will not be able to capture Groff’s true beauty. The way the poet approaches death shows us that it is a fact of life that we cannot escape but we can hope that those who come after us will continue what we have built).
One of the things I really like here is the brutal honesty in these poems, which are at times so honest I cringed. In “To Men Dead in 1995” Groff tells us plainly that we are governed, in some ways, by what we consume. And as if that is not enough, we are ageists. The poet also spends time on individuals and on his own life with Clay, his partner. And yes, he is erotic and he is playful but that is for you to discover yourself. I will give you a hint—something happens on the beach. From the moment that we see the cover with its photograph of Michael Brohman’s sculpted male torso, we know that we are about to partake in a very special experience. (The photograph was taken by Clinton T. Sander). I felt that I was being asked if it is possible to love someone when death is all around us and then that is answered in the poems. Yet the way that that is answered varies among them. The poems go from humor to the erotic to even darker themes. The one overall theme that I felt in all of the poems is what happens to those we lose—the activists who died before the new medications were discovered– and those people that returned from death’s door to lead full and active lives. We need to understand what we lost and that this depressing epidemic was for something. We see how much it costs to survive. I kept thinking about how lucky I was not to be living in the United States during the height of the epidemic and how it was when I came for a visit in 1989 to find that every gay man I knew well was gone. I wanted to know why this sacrifice had to be made and if anything good come out of it. I have still not been able to shake that sense of loss.
We are asked to look back at the time of AIDS in a way that was difficult to do before when every day we read the obituaries to see who died. For many the wounds of the AIDS era have healed and now we should be able to look at them again with different eyes. I ask myself, “If there had been no AIDS, where would we be today? Are the freedoms that we have today consolation prizes for what we lost?” Now we are embarking on a new age with new understandings of loving and dying and of gender and sexuality. Power and justice are also taking on new meanings.
Having been an academic in the fields of literature and philosophy, I have often wondered how Byron and Foucault would deal with the way we study their works for meanings and hidden messages. Then I find myself doing the same thing with David Groff. How do I know if the way I interpret him is what he meant or does it even matter? Is the medium still the message?
There is great power in Groff’s lyricism and he manages to maintain that even with subjects that are far from lyrical. He is able to find music in the mundane issues of everyday life.
Not all of the poems here deal with HIV/AIDS. There are poems about exploration of who we are an about being good; there are references to pornography and there are writings about discovering intimacy that are reminiscent of Cavafy. There are also poems about Groff’s mother and father in which he writes about the fear of being left behind. Perhaps the most shocking and interesting aspect of what we read here is how the hospital now replaces the church and how much both the church and religion have changed. It is not that we do not know that but how often do we see in print much less in a poem?
There is a line in the opening speech of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” that says our lives are built on memory. I might add that because memory often dims and fails, we find ourselves making revisions to what we remember. Sometimes, even, that memory becomes a search that seldom ends.
We are also treated to a look at the poet’s private life through the way he writes of his unconditional love for Clay and how attentive he is to him.
It has been a long time since I read something that has had such an effect on me and I have a feeling that will become a part of me for a long time.