An elegist of concision, Mark Doty came of age poetically as a generation realized HIV/AIDS would not permit them the free hand their forefathers had enjoyed. His 1996 memoir Heaven’s Coast, a ruthless accounting of a lover’s decline and fall, remains one of the decade’s best. I’ve dipped into his poetry once in a while; it has a finish that encourages single reads. “The Embrace” recalls an era when the family on whom we assumed we could rely preferred strangers folding up the hospitalized dead in garbage bags.
You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.
I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.
We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative
by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?
So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of —warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.
Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.
Take a pause for World AIDS Day.