with critique by Jendi Reiter
When the immunity eaters—
The weird invisible troop—
Encroached his every marrow,
He was sentenced to sleep and wake alone.
So the immunity eaters
With their shapeless hunger,
Catalysed by Loneliness,
Won all the seats
In the spouts beneath his porous skin.
His shadow, his tears, his paper...and his pen
Became his only kin.
Like a house
That cries for renovation
Or fresh paint—
Unfit for habitation,
He suffered unforgiving separation.
A desert-isle, bound by moats
Dug by opprobrious disdain,
Inaccessible to carers' boats
Like the iceless morgue.
His senses, all,
Daily dined on emptiness
In isolation's cask.
His tears could not atone.
Captive in varied briers of scorns,
His life bled, leaving behind a convoluted trail,
Like earthworm that crawls
Upon the salty slush
With loneliness as chaperone.
Loneliness rode all his nerves.
His cheeks got profaned with brackish streams.
His eyes locked in the ridges of sour ecstasies,
And mirrored a lost battle.
His heart cried this woe I cannot bear!
Like a wounded snake
That inflicts its fatal wounds
With its lethal fangs,
He pierced his wounded, lonely self with grief.
Life leaked out
In hours, minutes, seconds...
Like cherry trampled underfoot bleeding,
Writing his epilogue....
He dragged and dragged and dragged,
But when he got to thirty-and-one
Then plodded through his own death,
His head never turning sideways or back.
He left behind his breathless frame as proof
Like a punctured tyre that has given up its breath
To let them know that they are
As guilty as the HIV-AIDS they accused.
Since they deprived him
of what to hold or lean upon.
As they look at him
With clinical hands
Cushioned in pockets full of sneer.
Copyright 2008 by Emmanuel Samson
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem comes to us from Nigerian poet Emmanuel Samson, who writes with compassion and prophetic anger about how social stigma compounds the physical suffering of HIV/AIDS patients. "Plodding Through His Own Death" has political force behind it, yet does not come across as preachy or shrill, because Samson keeps the focus on the protagonist as a real person whose pain we feel.
Another temptation in poems about social issues is to fall into journalistic, literal patterns of speech, which Samson wisely sidesteps from the very beginning with the words "At eight-and-twenty". This elaborate, old-fashioned way of stating someone's age can be used to add gravitas and poignancy to a poem about youth: think of A.E. Housman's "When I was one-and-twenty" or François Villon's "Le Testament" ("En l'an de mon trentiesme aage"/"In the thirtieth year of my age"). Here, it signals that the author will take an epic, lyrical approach to his subject, not a flat and factual one.
The opening stanza is tightly paced and holds the reader's attention with original imagery: "When the immunity eaters—/The weird invisible troop—/Encroached his every marrow,/He was sentenced to sleep and wake alone." The combination of enforced solitude (with some connotations of loss of sexual intimacy) and "immunity eaters" suggests that this is a poem about HIV, which is confirmed in the penultimate stanza. Rather than mention the disease by name at the outset, and risk calling up whatever clichéd or hostile thoughts we may associate with it, Samson brings us directly into the experience of the sick person, breaking down our ability to dismiss him with a stereotype.
In this poem, Samson occasionally repeats the same image or phrase too many times within a short period. I found this most problematic in the stanza beginning "Like a wounded snake", which uses "wound" three times in four lines. The rhymes "habitation/population/separation" felt too sing-song; one or two of those lines could be cut without losing the meaning. Similarly, to end a stanza "with loneliness as chaperone" and immediately follow with "Loneliness rode all his nerves" risks diluting the impact of a word that has already appeared once before. I would end the preceding stanza at "salty slush", since the image of the chaperone somewhat mixes the metaphor—not a fatal error in a poem this surreal, but still a technique to be used guardedly so as not to give the impression that the author's thoughts are muddled.
There is a fine line between controlled, intense weirdness and an overwritten poem that throws in too many powerful but unrelated images. Most of the time, Samson's wording is so interesting that I am willing to suspend disbelief, carried along by the emotional impact of the sensations he describes. Since "Plodding Through His Own Death" is about the disintegration of a man's body as well as his social identity, this disjointed style generally enhances the meaning.
For instance, when he says the immunity eaters "Won all the seats/In the spouts beneath his porous skin", we're switching from the metaphor of HIV as invading troops to the metaphor of a parliamentary election, with the unrelated image of "spouts" thrown in for good measure. But it works for me because it's such a creative comparison. Samson is tossing off multiple variations on a theme: AIDS is like being invaded by invisible soldiers, and like a hostile government taking power, and like an abandoned house, and like a lowly, wounded earthworm. It's as if he will never run out of ways to restate this wrongness because it is so immense, so impossible to get one's mind around.
Whereas a one-sided focus on the protagonist's passive suffering would have dragged, the poem remains dynamic by cutting back and forth between different perspectives. The sick man maintains dignity and agency by writing ("His shadow, his tears, his paper...and his pen/Became his only kin"), and at one point speaks aloud ("His heart cried this woe I cannot bear!") rather than being merely spoken about. Samson wants to show that one of the patient's worst afflictions is this transformation from a feeling subject into an object for others to discuss or shun. Thus, at the end of the poem, he widens his lens to scrutinize the community that abandoned the dead man.
The content of the final lines is exactly right, lending urgency and relevance to the dying man's story. This poem hopes to stir our emotions, not for entertainment value or self-flattering sentimentality, but to drive home our responsibility to the sick and marginalized. The ending would be stronger, though, if Samson smoothed out some grammatical bumps in the road. "Deprived him of what to hold" does not sound like standard English. Perhaps he could rephrase it as "Deprived him of all he might hold".
Also, it might be best not to end on an image as confusing as "Pockets full of sneer". I don't think of a sneer as concrete enough to be held in a pocket; it is more associated with the face than the hands. "Sneer" is a good strong word to end on, in terms of sound and meaning, inspiring an instinctive recoil. I'd advise replacing "pockets" with another word that has a more reasonable connection to facial expressions, although on the other hand, the image of "clinical hands/cushioned in pockets" concisely indicts the heartless medical establishment. At the least, I would change it to "sneers" because "full of" implies either a plural of discrete objects or a substance that fills space amorphously (e.g. water, mud, noise).
Despite a few rough spots, "Plodding Through His Own Death" struck me as a memorable, creative poem that will cause honest readers to think twice about their role in perpetuating the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
Where could a poem like "Plodding Through His Own Death" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Burning Bush Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 1
$200 prize for poems reflecting progressive economic or environmentalist values; formerly known as the People Before Profits Poetry Prize
Chapter One Promotions' Open Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by June 1
British writers' resource site offers 1,000 pounds for unpublished poems; readers vote for winner out of top 20 chosen by judge
Poetry London Competition
Entries must be received by June 2
Poetry London magazine offers 1,000 pounds and publication; postal mail, UK cheques only
NavWorks Press Pride in Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 29
Editorial-services company offers prizes up to $500 for poems (published or unpublished), anthology publication for winners and 50 runners-up; online entries accepted
Grandmother Earth National Writing Awards
Postmark Deadline: July 15
Long-running contest offers $100 prizes and anthology publication for poetry and prose on various themes; previously published work accepted
Bellevue Literary Review Prizes
Postmark Deadline: August 1
New York University literary journal offers competitive award of $1,000 apiece for poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction on themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2008 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.