Steven Reigns’ newest poetry book, A Quilt for David, documents the story surrounding David Johnson Acer. If you are aware of David at all, you may know him by the label he received: “The AIDS Dentist.”
You may be more familiar with his accuser, Kimberly Bergalis, the “young HIV-positive woman in Florida [who] claimed she was a virgin and that her infection came from her gay, dying, dentist [(Acer)].”
“The media,” the opening of the book goes on to explain, “believed her, seven others came forward, and a monster was born.” B. D. Colen, in a 1991 article, compares the media’s portrayal of Kimberly Bergalis to that of Ryan White–two white, middle-class young people portrayed as “innocents.” The tolerance and acceptance of the Ryan White story is the complete opposite of the Kimberly Bergalis story, a story of fear and misinformation. This misinformation about how the virus is spread continues to this day. Reigns even begins the preface of the book with a reminder of how exactly the virus can be spread, and how unlikely it is that a dentist could infect a patient, relaying Reigns’ own personal and professional experience as an HIV test counselor.
The narrative of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its continuing repercussions into today is largely owned by those without HIV. HIV still carries stigma, as if the pure are immune from viruses, and many of those who might tell their stories aren’t alive to tell them. Instead, they’ve been used as false warnings to stay on the straight and narrow, and to criminalize the transmission of HIV with HIV criminalization laws currently on the books in more than half of the states in the U.S., and in many other countries as well. A Quilt for David does the important work of shifting the narrative back through a careful and complex weaving together of facts, perspectives, and poetry–a care and complexity headlines and cover pages never could achieve.
The title and assembly of the work are clearly a reference to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, though perhaps some are already becoming unfamiliar with that quilt, last displayed in 1996, but unforgettably(?) revealed in 1987, the same year Dr. Acer first tested positive for HIV. The quilt is an effort to record and memorialize the lives of those who have died of AIDS, many of whom would not be memorialized at all if not for the friends and lovers that made a quilt for them. But Dr. Acer does not have a panel on the AIDS memorial quilt, instead this collection of non-fiction poems is carefully stitched together by researcher and writer, Steven Reigns, not just as a memorial, but also as part of the archive of queer love and history, a written record where before there was silence and silencing.
The book starts in silence, the silence of David driving home after his diagnosis. This first prose poem is a block of text in the middle of the page, the space around it framing (blocking?) the silence. It’s the silence of the secret many people keep even today, though in time of this scene there are “no pills,” “no cell phone to call someone and confide,” “no cure, or even hope” (1). “No one recovered from the disease,” the speaker reminds us (1). The silence of the secret, we know, will be punctured, but in this block is preserved.
In another poem of similar form, a new kind of silence is framed–the silence of Dr. Acer’s staff. His staff, the speaker explains, “saw how every word was twisted, every quote was suspect. So your staff stopped talking. Silence more loving than defense.” Here the silence is heartbreaking, again, but also completely understood. The staff doesn’t say anything in defense of David because it will just be twisted, this silence almost becoming its own tribute.
Poetry is a useful form in creating these silences. The space between lines and stanzas creates a kind of space for the unsaid, the “I could say more.” The forms of these poems are the forms of fragments, of excerpts almost like newspaper clippings or sparsely annotated evidences.
But Reigns makes the case that poetry is well suited to fill in these silences. He explains, “I decided not to use poetic license, to avoid adding fiction to a story already loaded with misinformation” (xix). The silence and silencing of David’s history, and the histories of other people with HIV that is lost and erased could be filled with the researched and honest ideas of the writer. But Reigns chooses poetry. “Poetry,” he writes in the introduction, “wasn’t just my beloved form of writing; it felt the best way to assemble the sparse information that existed without adding speculative details” (xix).
Bordering the blocks of painful silence are often blocks that use direct quotations, speech acts from David and others that allow for the voices of the past to speak into the present. These are often kinds of understatements: David saying his diagnosis was “lonely and isolating” (45), acquaintances saying David at a work party “just stood there” (6), KImberly’s mother describing him as “a pretty amicable guy” (3), Kimberly to a group of school children, “Everybody makes mistakes” (54).
But some of the quotations are records of hate and queerphobia: Sherry Johnson (the sixth patient to claim she was infected by Acer) said, “Thank God he’s dead” (49), Barbara Webb (the fourth) “We’ll never be able to drag David Acer back from wherever he is–I hope it is not too comfortable–and find out the truth” (61).
And some of the hate is simply reported, as are other facts about the story: William F. Buckley Jr. suggesting “tattooing the infected” “in the holocaust of AIDS” (15), or Senator Jesse Helms stating that people like David “should be horsewhipped” (40).
These silences and facts and quotes stir up emotion in at least this reader. Reigns, again in the introduction, writes “Poetry and poetic language compel our emotions.” Or as Billy Collins may have said, “Prose makes you think; Poetry makes you shudder.” Reigns, looking over all the reports and praise of sympathy for Kimberly Bergalis asks, “What if, through poetry, I could offer an equally empathetic and compassionate view of David?” The book certainly creates a kind of empathy with David. I felt my own shame again, my own fears and loneliness. And reading the hateful passages reminded me of the vitriol I’ve experienced and experience. And the description of the misinformation that surrounded the case made me feel hurt. And then, quite honestly, angry. And as I read toward the end, I looked for poems that might reward that anger. In all of this, I’m looking for someone to blame.
But one of the great strengths of this book, and a testament to the poetic mastery of Reigns, is that, if there is emotion on the part of the speakers of the poems, there is only tenderness. Many of the poems throughout the work are written to David, addressed to this “you” that the reader can begin to empathize with as well. The first three poems are all addressed to David. “You would have kept the news a secret” (1), “You were described as agreeable” (2), “You worked hard to finish school, (3). Here the tenderness is in its beginning stages, linked mostly to facts reported. But other poems direct our emotions more to the person himself: “Your hair patchy, deep circles, under eyes, weight loss hollowed your cheeks, front teeth protruded. You lost a career, future, and your looks. You avoided mirrors” (13). “I’d sew a quilt for you. / I would grab a needle, / put the thread in my mouth, / moistening the fibers together” (5) the speaker writes, though by speaker I also mean poet. Because this book is a quilt, a memorial quilt for David.
But the book also recognizes that David is not the only one who died from HIV/AIDS. While none of the poems directly address David Acer’s accusers with “you,” there is a level of tenderness for them as well. Several poems address the kind of stigma Kimberly may have faced as well, pressuring her to defend her virginity. A heartbreaking poem describes final scenes of Kimberly’s life with her parents: “After her mother brushed her hair, / her father carried her body, / half its normal weight, / a skeletal sixty-five pounds, to bed” (46). Facts about AZT and other “treatments” begin to build empathy for all people who suffered from AIDS. Descriptions of the suffering they endured, all of them, extends empathy beyond just David.
And, so like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, this book does more than just memorialize people who have died. It brings to light the injustices that people with HIV/AIDS endure(d). For readers like me, who are looking to place blame, they will find it. Some may find it in the people who lied and accused David. Others may find it in the parents. Some blame the media. Others blame the government. Some more broadly on stigma and social norms. But for me, the book squarely places the blame where it truly belongs.
The virus is to blame. It’s the virus that harms everyone. While some may be protected from stigma, or protected by the government, protected by their parents, or the media, it is the virus that will harm them all. It couldn’t be a more pertinent time to be reminded of our common enemy. The fight against HIV isn’t about protecting one group of people, though the virus affects marginalized populations more than others; it’s about defeating anything that gets in the way of the treatment and prevention of HIV. In the end, I think this collection of documentary poetry, moves us toward the kind of solidarity we are in such desperate need of as we fight against this virus and others. When one of us is harmed, we are all harmed.
Mat Wenzel’s reviews have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Feminist Theory, American Book Review, and other journals. Mat’s National Parks Passport currently has 37 stamps in it. Mat also collects squished pennies and makes zines and poetry. Mat teaches writing and rhetoric at TCU in Fort Worth, TX.