An AIDS Memorial
Seven years ago, I was given a task that has allowed me to discover, in poetry and in performance, a way to contain the unbearable pain of the AIDS epidemic in a yearly ritual of mourning and celebration. The task was assigned to me by synchronicity, by dream and by some deep need to remember and to honor my fallen brothers and all those lost to AIDS. Specifically, every year since 1992 on the weekend closest to the Spring Equinox, I have publicly offered a ritual performance of Walt Whitman's great elegy for Abraham Lincoln and all the dead of the Civil War, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, a poem that begins:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
To give you a sense of how this project evolved and seems to have been asked of me rather than planned, let me explain how this has come about.
In 1988, as the pressure of the continuing epidemic mounted, I had a powerful vision of Whitman -- a great Gay spirit whom I have long loved -- circulating among the beds of the wounded and dying young soldiers of the Civil War. I was becalmed on an Orange County freeway listening to a heart-rending news report about AIDS discrimination when I suddenly found myself imagining a Public Service Announcement, filmed in sepia-toned black-and-white, in which we see Whitman, with his characteristic good cheer and benevolent tenderness, passing among soldiers in a makeshift army hospital, lined with cots as in a Matthew Brady photograph. Then, a close-up of Walt bending close with a kind word and a caring look, and then, as the camera pulls back, we see him no longer in an army hospital in 1863, but in color in a contemporary AIDS ward, surrounded by the same young men now with pneumocystis rather than bullet wounds in their lungs, KS lesions rather than battle scars.
Out of this grew a reading of The Wound-Dresser, adapted by my Radical Faery brother William Moritz from Walt's own prose reminiscences in his Civil War book, Specimen Days. To this I added segments of the poem called The Wound-Dresser from Whitman's collection Drum-Taps. A radio version of this piece a year or so later led to a request that I portray Whitman in a tribute to him on March 26, 1992, on the 100th anniversary of his death, that included sections from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
Six days before the tribute was to take place, I paid a birthday visit to a beloved friend whose birthday on the Spring Equinox has led her from childhood to identify with Persephone who was for the Greeks both the maidenly deity of the Springtime and the Silent Goddess of Death. As my friend is the author of several books on the Goddess traditions as well as on the myths and mysteries of same sex love, this early identification is more than a casual one; it has been life-shaping for her as well as a part of the deepest rhythm of our long friendship. In Persephone's story, the young goddess is kidnapped by Hades while picking flowers in a meadow and dragged down into the Underworld. On this equinox of 1992, it was I who was kidnapped into the Underworld when my friend told me that Philip Loftus, a dear mutual friend of ours sick with AIDS, was not expected to live the week.
The news hit hard and I was catapulted into a sudden torrent of grief. That night I had a dream in which I somehow knew that I was supposed to take a photograph to Philip in the hospital inscribed with the words, "At least now I know to whom this year's lilacs are to be dedicated." Upon awakening I did just that, as the picture was an actual one; and later, at the performance, though I did so only in the silence of my own heart, it was for him that I read that poem, and of him that I thought when I spoke the lines, "and thought of him I love." The next year, again invited to participate in a Spring Equinox celebration of Walt Whitman, the words of the elegy inevitably suggested themselves, "I mourned, and yet shall mourn, with ever-returning Spring." If my dream of Philip had referred to dedicating "this year's lilacs," didn't that imply that every year the lilacs, that "bloom perennial," should be similarly dedicated, and that I should rededicate myself every Spring to the remembrance of those whom AIDS has taken?
And so, I have done, every year since. Among others, to Jess Jessop, a San Diego man who founded both its Gay and Lesbian Center for Social Services and the Lesbian & Gay Historical society; to Martin Worman, Gay theater comrade, one of the original Cockettes and a man with a closet-shattering sense of humor; to Paul Monette, the Elie Wiesel of AIDS literature whose witness will never allow us to forget; to Marcel Bedard, who abandoned Roman Catholic seminary and was ordained in a non-Roman Catholic church giving mass in a storefront every day in emulation of his hero, St. Francis; to Essex Hemphill, the black poet whose sinuous voice so powerfully permeates Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied. All but Essex were personal friends, but with each something in me could come to rest. But Whitman's poem is not only dedicated to Lincoln; it is also an elegy for "all the slain soldiers of the War." When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd was his answer to questions which AIDS has made familiar to us: How does one mourn a particular beloved friend when faced with the premature deaths of so many friends, not to mention a whole generation? Must we inevitably shut down, or can we respond with openness to pain, loss, and senseless suffering? So I dedicate my performance every year both to one person, and to everyone lost to AIDS.
Speaking the line about laying a sprig of lilac on "coffins all," I sometimes imagine placing a lilac sprig on each one of the panels of the NAMES quilt, recognizing that to be only a tiny fraction of the actual dead, not only among Gay Men but so many others worldwide.
Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,...
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
... I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you, O death.
About the third year, I learned the poem by heart, discovering in the process what "by heart" really means, and happening -- across the tightrope of that act of memory -- into a deeper relationship to the Bardic tradition from which Whitman springs, and the resonant poetry of the spoken word that emanates from the time before poetry was separate from breath. The poem went from out on the page to inside my chest, at a certain point not me speaking it but it speaking me. That has led to a kind of private ritual of preparation as each February at the cross-quarter Feast of Candlemas a half-turn before the Equinox, I begin a nightly "Waltwalk" as I've come to call them, when I walk my neighborhood park once a day with the text of the poem, usually near near sundown, to bring it back to memory. Like those ghostly figures in the mist in the final scene of Fahrenheit 451 -- when to save books, the rebels all commit a classic to memory -- I'm assigned Walt's Lilacs, and thus must daily relive its Journey to the Underworld, "as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions, I (flee)forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not."
I've come to understand Lilacs as the soul-deep response of a great poet and a great artist to unimaginable loss, and thus to know that it's also about how poetry matters. The narrator of the poem says to the Hermit Thrush he hears singing in the swamp,"Well, dear brother, I know/If thou wast not granted to sing/Thou wouldst surely die." It is my sense that it is not just the singing but the listening that heals, so to perform the poem as a ritual expression is to return poetry to its most ancient social function: in Michael Denneny's phrase, "to turn happiness into praise, and grief into lamentation."
This matter of ancientness is one of the things that I have been able to appreciate fully only since making the commitment to read the poem yearly, as a kind of Kaddish. What I'd understood previously only with my intellect, is now something I carry far more deeply in my body.
I've come to see, as my friend's connection with Persephone had taught me, how much the Spring Equinox is connected in an inescapable, archetypal way with death. At the climax of Whitman's poem, when he journeys into that dark swamp with his ghostly companions, he hears and joins in with the Hermit Thrush's Carol of Death, in effect a kind of love-song to Death as a "Dark Mother, always gliding near with soft feet." He calls on her to approach as a "strong deliveress." He begs her: "When you must come, come unfalteringly." I can so easily imagine that gray-bearded Whitman sitting all night and half the next day by the bedside of a young soldier whom he has come to love adhesively, beginning to pray at some point for merciful deliverance; as I'm sure can anyone who has attended at the bedside of a dying friend, especially when the disease has ravaged body and spirit as AIDS does. We often use the phrase, 'from womb to tomb' -- this is a view of Death as womb, as a kind of birth into a new realm of gestation. The bird's carol is a hymn to Persephone. In my version it is actually chanted with an original melody I didn't so much compose as spontaneously utter in response to the rhythms and imagery of the poem.
"Come lovely and soothing Death/ Undulate 'round the world."
The other connection is that in the very oldest religions -- in which the Mother Goddess was worshipped -- there is a recurring story about a mortal lover and consort of the Goddess who dies tragically and is mourned extravagantly by his Divine Lover and Her worshippers. Long before I began to conceive of performing the Lilacs as a yearly event, I was struck by how much the imagery of the poem brings to mind these pre-Christian mourning rites to Adonis or Tammuz or Baal by the adherents of Aphrodite and Astarte and Ashteroth. Only afterward did I discover that carved images of the mourned beloved were strewn with offerings of purple flowers.
Historically, Lilacs was written because when Whitman heard of Lincoln's death in mid-April of 1865, there were beautiful lilacs in early bloom in the place he happened to be staying which never afterward failed to remind him of the 'great tragedy of that day.' He didn't know, consciously, that purple flowers were scattered in mid-March on the altar to Attis in ancient Syria, but his poem is as true to those very ancient rituals of the mysteries of love and death as to his literal historical experience. Saying every year, 'I mourn and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring,''and meaning it literally, connects me with a priestly, perhaps priestess-ly function that feels age-old and that helps me to deal with the enormity of loss and grief forced on us by AIDS in a way I can't imagine otherwise. This year for the first time I asked those who attended the reading to bring with them a bunch of purple flowers to dedicate to someone they had similarly loved and lost. The shimmer emanating from that bank of blossoms helped us all.
"Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well..."
David Cohen lives in San Diego.