Demystifying Death

Poetry on The LGBT Community & Living with AIDS

The AIDS epidemic in the United States began in 1981 and spread nearly unchecked throughout the country. At the time, AIDS was a death sentence with few treatments. Though scientific innovations have improved the duration and quality of life for HIV positive individuals, the disease still infects more than 37,00 people every year.  Due to the number of gay men who contracted the disease, some experts initially thought that HIV might result exclusively from homosexual sexual activity. Though scientists later proved this suspicion false, the disease nonetheless became stigmatized. 

Members of the LGBTQ community felt the effects of AIDS keenly. Many lost their lives to the disease. Furthermore, the stigma surrounding AIDS, coupled with prejudice against LGBTQ people, contributed to public anger and vitriol directed against HIV positive individuals as well as the community as a whole. This prejudice also influenced the federal response to the disease, which was initially apathetic and slow.

David Matias, like other LGBTQ individuals in the 1980s and 1990s, lost close friends to the AIDS epidemic. In 1989, he received his own HIV diagnosis. Matias reflected upon the many facets of his experience with AIDs through his poetry. His poems share how he coped with the difficulty of receiving his diagnosis and informing his family members about his illness. They also discuss the physical toll of AIDS, his grief over losing friends to the disease, and finally his reflections on mortality and the afterlife.

"February 7, 1986"

“February 7, 1989”  

In this poem, Matias describes the traumatic event of testing positive for the AIDS virus and his doctor’s shocking lack of empathy. Matias describes how the doctor tested him without his consent and then passed moral judgement on him. He recalls the doctor asking, “You’ve been doing things you’re not supposed to, haven't you?” This homophobic and stigmatizing characterization of AIDS as the fault of the patient was not unusual at this time, even within the medical community.

"This Chapter"

“This Chapter”

This poem describes Matias's father’s reaction to the news of his AIDS diagnosis. Depicted through flashbacks Matias has as he speaks on the phone with his mother, the poem reveals how Matias’s father accepted him despite, or perhaps because of, his diagnosis. In the poem, Matias’s father expresses his love for Matias in an explicit manner not seen in Matias’s earlier poetry.

"First Hospitalization"

“First Hospitalization”

“First Hospitalization” is a graphic portrayal of Matias’s first AIDs related hospitalization due to meningitis. Individuals suffering from AIDS often contracted other serious illnesses like meningitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis due to their compromised immune systems. Frequently, it was these secondary infections which led to their untimely deaths.

"Fooling the Forsythia"

“Fooling the Forsythia” 

Matias read “Fooling the Forsythia” at a memorial service for his friend, Howard, who died from AIDS in the early 1990s. Deeply moving, the poem compares death to a cutting of forsythia which Matias “fools” into blooming indoors. This poem serves as a poignant reminder that beauty and hope can be found even in the midst of death.

Introduction to "Fooling the Forsythia"

“Introduction to Fooling the Forsythia”

This handwritten document is the introduction to “Fooling the Forsythia,” which Matias read at his friend Howard’s memorial service.

"Escort to Earth"

“Escort to Earth” 

“Escort to Earth” is the final poem in Dances with Family and Disease. Striking and rich in metaphor, it features some of Matias’s more unusual musings on death and mortality—in particular, the idea that deceased loved ones come to visit Earth in the form of birds. “Dedication,” by Czeslaw Milosz, features similar thoughts, though the tragedy of which Milosz speaks is the Holocaust rather than the AIDS epidemic.