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In his introduction to Things Shaped in Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing from the AIDS Pandemic, co-editor Richard McCann mixes his own story of watching a lover die with meditations on the disease cultivated from fellow poets, as well as psychotherapists and medical ethicists. But when he quotes from “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by World War I poet Wilfred Owen, AIDS is aligned not with other illnesses, such as cancer or TB, but war.
The metaphor is apt, says McCann, because there are “so
many dead, and particularly, as in war, people die out of time [i.e., young people die]. And combined with [that is] what [psychotherapist Walt] Odets calls the hugeness of the psychosocial event.”
The Great War destroyed its era’s ideal that burgeoning modernity would change life for the better, but according to McCann “one thing that AIDS has also done is to blow the idea of modernity itself. [Among] people who have lived in the center of the pandemic in America, where modernity is a more important idea than perhaps in other places, there’s this sensation that is theoretically modern, but is in fact really medieval in the proximity of death.”
When McCann, co-director
of American University’s graduate creative writing program,
was helping compile Things Shaped in Passing, his lover, Jaime, was dying of AIDS. But any solace McCann derived from reading poetry of witness was indirect: “Comfort is a more complex thing than we think….
If by comfort one means ‘there, there,’ no, not at all. But if by comfort one means something far more complicated, meaning something more having to do with cleaving to the truth of an experience, sure.”
“I think one thing an anthology does, and one thing that a literary community doesto some degree an anthology creates a literary communityis provide strength.”Christopher Porter
Contributors Belle Waring and Mark Doty, along with McCann, read from Things Shaped in Passing at Chapters, Monday, March 24 at 7 p.m.