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In Steven Cordova’s poem “13 Things to Do Once I’m Dead,” “Stop thinking about death” tops the list. This starting point seems to imply that death is an obsession for the poet, and that the obsession is bleak—think Sylvia Plath and the poetics of suicide, think Anne Sexton and the poetics of darkness. But the poem is actually a tip of the hat to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which sees the subject through varied lenses and differing portraits, from the noble to the comic. Number 5 in Cordova’s list is “Claim I stand just under 6’,” and number 12 is “Make every day Day of the Day”—a nod to his Mexican American heritage and to a celebration that places the dead within a festive, not sullen, context.
But the final item on the list collects all emotion into one enterprising idea:
Open a vacation spot,
call it Death Valley
or Dead Sea Bed
& Breakfast. (Vacancies,
a neon sign will blink.
Though this poem highlights Cordova’s use of humor, it’s also representative of how he treats mortality–not as fact to be feared or ignored, but as a reality to be incorporated into the everyday imagination. In the poem “The Next Generation,” for example, the speaker, who is HIV+, aligns his medication:
those pills upon a stand:
one a lily-white diamond;
one a capsule half-buttercup,
half-trust; the remaining three
bachelor-button blue, oblong.
I must take four or five with my food;
a piece of bread sits among them,
a book of poems I’ll read
if work is light today.
The shift of the positive status from death sentence to a life with a long-term and manageable disease is perhaps what makes Cordova’s work so contemporary, and which allows him to build an identity as a gay man outside of the affliction (“Why fear my water-stained rise to the peel of death?” the speaker asks in “Testing Positive”), though he continuously acknowledges it, especially when encountering other positive men. On a dinner date, two men compare medications, “drugs// with names like the names/ of second-rate Greek gods.” During yet another dinner date:
We both know we have
that–what?–that ultimate date
one night to come, one bright morning.
Who can blame us? Not the forks
and not the knives that carry on
and do the heavy lifting now.
If anything shapes the gay sensibility in Long Distance it’s the particulars of New York City living, from the serendipitous Manhattan encounters with former flings and old crushes, to the public unfolding of people’s private dramas, thanks to the thin walls of apartment housing and the crowded streets: it’s live and let live. But the Big Apple is also a place of troubling contradictions–a landscape that can offer the pleasure of anonymous sex and the safety of anonymity, but also the dangers of isolation and loneliness. In the title poem, for example, the speaker mourns for an old love:
Crawling into bed last night
you lifted the sheet, I held it
to your sweet and blushing face.
“Does it smell fresh?” I asked,
then woke before you answered.
The poem “Punched” (a canzone—a 65-line poem with a challenging end-word pattern) speaks to the senseless city violence endured by the speaker’s sudden and swift encounter with a drunk on the subway. The act is not couched as a hate crime, though it does become the punctured window that allows the victim to reflect on his past (to a father who was a wife-batterer) and to his immediate future–the burden of convincing friends and strangers that the incriminating bruise on the face is not evidence of a homophobic attack or of same-sex domestic abuse. The gay body, Cordova tells us, reveals its own stories, sometimes independent of the truth.
In the end, Cordova’s affirmation of living as a gay man with HIV is not as simplistic as it sounds. It’s the precarious balance of vulnerability and strength, darkness and light–it’s seeing the self as the spider of the poem “Two Nocturnes,” weaving beauty and creativity into the intricacies of limitations and threats outside of one’s control:
the web is not elegant or architectural,
ziggurat-like in its progression upward.
It’s ramshackle, unselfconscious.
I ask myself how far I’ll let this go.
Long Distance is a finely-crafted collection of poems, and a gorgeous and fearless debut of a book.
By Steven Cordova
Bilingual Review Press
$10, Paperback, 60 pages