HIV Blues (and other poems)

HIV Blues

Read me a poem about loss I say.
Are you on the mend? I say.

I shake my head no. 
I need a poem to ease my anxiety I say.

Why are you anxious I say.
I’ve lost the compilation of all my favorite sad songs I say.

Have you ever tried listening to opera in foreign languages I say.
All opera is in foreign languages I say.	

No, all good opera is in foreign languages I say.
But not to those who understand opera I say.	

You mean those born in the country of the language I say. 
No, those who understand out of the greatest miseries survives the greatest beauty I say.

You mean the music and the singing I say.	
I mean everything I say.

On the Bus

                                          for Kasim

Riding from Knoxville to the Appalachian forests,
I’m hunched in the corner of my seat, 
next to a man who seems to be unraveling,
striving for composure in the way 
despondent men do: mouth agape
& drooling, eyes sunken as if his face 
intends to make a cave of its own flesh.
He moans like there’s some creation 
struggling to be born, as if
he is reincarnating himself, 
as if doing so will allow him a second 
chance to avoid mistakes he made
in his past life. & I cannot help but feel 
pity for him, as I recall another bus ride, 
the number 10 that wound its way around
the heart of Knoxville, & you were there beside me, 
breathing softly, I remember, so softly I felt 
the machinery of the inner ears churning 
to process the sounds you were making.
I asked what’s the matter, & you hesitated.
So I persisted in the same way I did
when I urged you to make the long, cold walk 
from your apartment to mine, to tell you 
I tested negative when you were not
in the mood to celebrate as I had, only hours earlier, 
with champagne & a lobster tail. & recalling 
that moment, I realized why your breath
seemed to whisper. So I wept. Embarrassed.
Which coaxed more tears as I tried to learn compassion. 
You said the virus had not taken its toll.
I was relieved. Or was it our years of friendship
that made me unafraid to touch,
to wrap my arms around, 
to shoulder your grief.
But where is that compassion now? 
This man is resting his bleached head on my shoulder. 
For a moment I think it’s yours. 
But he mumbles about forsythia, four-leaf clovers. 
& I’m frightened because I will love you
with the same passion that I wonder if anyone will clamor 
to pay respects to this half-living man. 
I push him against the window.
Scoot farther to the edge of my seat, shuddering
when I hear his head
knocking against a pane of glass.

Existing in the MRI machine after a seizure due to delirium tremens

is like deplaning in a slow single file
conveyer belt of sluggish passengers still wired 
into their sleep modes since it’s four in the morning
everyone shifting through the narrow aisle 
gathering their wits  their luggage but not 
the human decency to maneuver with purpose 
as Houdini once did to escape a straightjacket 
padlocked inside a great tank of water
but turtling along as if shackled in ankle-cuffs
chains around their waists connecting more chains 
in cross-sections of heavy metallic links 
the length of their bodies
escorted on either side by guards 
trundling in their own lackadaisical fashion
securing these passengers-turned-captives 
beneath the arms & down the long corridor 
they schlepp to the execution chamber
shuffling while meantime your head aches in peril
the kind of pain that must be like a blown-out tire 
& no spare & the driver wracking his head 
against the steering wheel until he groans 
with regret for not spending a little extra 
for a measly donut & now he’s stranded on the side of the road 
with passersby carrying on the usual business of apathy
or else there isn’t enough time to stop & offer assistance
as they are needed at the airport to collect their friends & relatives
whisk them home unaware they’re in no hurry so early 
in the morning to be “collected” weary as they are
as it’s been from Seattle to Portland to Atlanta to Knoxville
one insufferable layover & no booze to keep you starry-eyed
like a child’s propitious discovery of the well-kept secret
hideaway where the candy is kept
& he’ll sort through all the options of how 
to make his belly ache as you would indulging a liquor 
cabinet’s inventory to reacquaint yourself with a reliquary of spirits 
you’ve been long without but still
jubilant as though you’ve happened upon 
the most desirable of sundries
no more collateral damage
of days ransacking a room for even a milliliter 
titled into the bottom of an errant bottle &
later crawling the floor with a lampshade around your ankles
purring like a walrus 
all of this a sign of the wretched past & presently
a celebration akin to the serendipitous unearthing 
of a chest of jewels buried among the ruins of a derelict field
if only the drink that brings back your soul will assuage this aching 
that refers itself throughout your body 
the way a clot transfers itself from the leg to the left ventricle 
if it wants to kill a man if it wants
to commit itself to healing 
the suffering you endure 
when there isn’t a swill of liquor to be had 
when a kink in the machinery reduces you to shivers 
if you don’t soon taste the elixir to calm 
your beating heart coding the S.O.S. 
as you slope toward the revelation 
you’re inside the belly of a ravenous beast

Poem to a Son

Finally I’m trying to forget 
the impossibility I will ever father

a son.
Then remembering I’m trying

to forget, I remember
the forgetting & am heartbroken,

lying in bed, twilight slicing
horizontal lines

into my flesh,
as if the arced moon intends to remind me

I’m prisoner to a grave fault.
& if the stretch of night would give itself

over to my grief, I would wrench
the crescent—stardust, helixes of galaxies,

isotopes, invisible matter—
from its smug, overbearing suspension.

But how will I feel in the morning, when
I overhear the old couple next door arguing

because the perfume of her gladiolas has become
so overwhelming, & he complains

of allergies? But later they make up
as there’s something to be said

about the long-coupled. They remind me
we must find shameless happiness

wherever it may be—in woodpiles
they spend stacking together, preparing

for winter. In the screech
of a raccoon chasing ghosts up cedars.

Even in the old house of my boyhood,
where the neighbors have a son.

A boy
I’ve seen only in the dim corner of his room,

back against window, tucked playing.
Some nights I’ve watched him

as his father stoops over the hill of his back,
gliding hands along the ridges of spine.

I watch the child lean into the cupped palm,
his father scratching the fine hairs of his head,

& I imagine joy welling inside a boy 
with a face like mine.


  • Darius Stewart’s poetry and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Review, Callaloo, Cimarron Review, Fourth Genre, Gargoyle, Meridian, The Potomac Review, Salamander, storySouth, Verse Daily and others. Stewart received an MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin (2007) and an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (2020). In 2021, the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame honored him with the inaugural Emerging Writer Award. He is currently a Lulu “Merle” Johnson Doctoral Fellow in English Literary Studies at the University of Iowa, where he lives in Iowa City with his dog, Fry. His poems "On the Bus" and "Poem to a Son" were previously published in his chapbook The Terribly Beautiful. Stewart’s first full-length collection of poems, Intimacies in Borrowed Light, was published in July 2022 by EastOver Press.

  • Images are altered stills from Obayashi's 1977 film House.