‘Clay’ by David Groff
Author: Tony Leuzzi
September 16, 2013
On June 30 2013, at the New York City Pride Parade, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) declared an HIV Prevention emergency. Armed with new CDC statistics that report alarming increases in rates of infection among young gay men, members of the group wielded banners (“Fuck Smarter! Fight Harder! FIGHT AIDS!”) and disseminated important information about old and new forms of HIV prevention. It was an historic moment for the 27-year-old coalition. ACT UP’s mission has always been constant, but advances in modern medicine, which help those who can afford health care to contain the disease, have enabled many to wrongly presume the AIDS crisis and all its attendant complications are footnotes of recent history.
How appropriate, then, that one of this year’s most substantial books of poetry is David Groff’s Clay, a verse collection that both celebrates those who have died from AIDS and records with fierce precision how one man forges a loving relationship with an HIV-positive partner. The recipient of Trio House Press’s 2012 Louise Bogan Award, Groff knows the lessons of history will help us make decisions for tomorrow; and yet the author’s intimate narrative voice refuses nostalgia or gauzy remembrance. Always honest and often self-critical, Groff’s poems, like his lover’s night cough, tear through the illusions of safety and silence to “shudder us awake.”
“To Men Dead in 1995” begins with ruthless clarity: “You recede into your dead millennium, / as remote as Reagan or Rommel.” With time, the sufferings of those a generation past can become as abstract as the victims of ancient history. Groff ironically restores those faces by acknowledging their distance: “How embarrassing you embarrass me, / you with your absurd Doc Martens, / your shorts of hemmed denim, / the mimeoed leaflets blued to cloud…” Here Groff shows that we are, among other things, creatures of consumption who define ourselves as much by what we buy and wear as by our reactions to the limitations of our age. If the date in the poem’s title were changed to 2013, the list of particulars would change, too—and be no less remote to someone in 2031.
“Dead AIDS Poet Archive” echoes this sentiment. Working through “acidic folders” of poets lost to AIDS, Groff admits “they are too gay and grim to / snare you like Berryman or Clare.” Xeroxed pictures of men in mullets and untrendy mustaches furnish Groff with further opportunities for embarrassment. And yet, in a brilliant turn, these very “faces beckon / you to lie down with them. / They say Read us in bed.”
Elsewhere, Groff’s attentions focus more specifically on individual figures. Paul Monette and Robin Hardy are honored without the usual elegiac clichés or sentiments. Even more salient than such remembrances are Groff’s nuanced, confessionally-shaded poems about life with Clay, the titular figure of the collection. In “Clay’s Flies,” which opens the collection, a moment of erotic play—a beachside blowjob—is interrupted by a swarm of horseflies that “pepper [Clay’s] body like buckshot.” Blistered by stings, Clay’s body fights back: his swollen skin is proof of his health. A jump in time shows Clay no longer prone to mosquitoes, an ironic perk of HIV doing its “erosive work.” Groff tends to his lover, monitoring his intake of experimental medicines, administering needle injections, rubbing his scrotum. His attentions pay off: “The T-cells we once / knew by name now rise to anonymity.” The poems’ closing passage recuperates the couple’s erotic play in one of the collection’s most lyrical, hard-won moments.
Lyric power is one of Clay’s most impressive features, and Groff’s sense of the forms his poems can take is wide-ranging. Whereas “Clay’s Flies” balances musical grace with an appropriately blunt clinical prose, “Clay’s Face Is” and “Clay’s Cough” are tightly lineated poems that sculpt lovely music from the mundane intimacies of married life. In this way, some of Groff’s poems remind me of mid-period Yeats, whose insistence on “walking naked” allowed him to expand the possibilities of formal poetic utterance. A more contemporary link is William Matthews, a poet whose impeccable sense of craft was often buoyed by the quotidian. “Clay,” which begins section three, recalls that poet’s “Moving Again” in scene and tone without being derivative.
Groff is as equally versatile in subject as he is in form. Not all the poems in Clay address HIV/AIDS. “We Boys Pull Down Our Pants,” is an excellent poem about boys exploring their bodies: “we saw we were a riot of colors, / boys inching into men, / becoming good at being hard.” “Fresh Pornography” and “Rick O’Shea” mine the world of gay pornography in a manner both arch and wistful. In an homage to Cavafy, “The Tomb of Lysias,” Groff vividly captures the powerful, almost timeless sexual current between two men in a way that credits the source of his inspiration.
My favorite poems in the collection are those where Groff writes of his father and mother respectively. “My Father, a Priest Pruning” tells the story of a man’s unsuccessful efforts to restore a dying perish. Set in what might be politely called a “transitional neighborhood,” the poem deftly explores one of the most underrepresented themes in American poetry—white flight and the fate of those who remained behind. Groff recalls that, while whites moved out, “blacks prayed with themselves.” As a boy he was acutely aware of his difference: “We were white,” he says,
and they, like cherries, were black,
though often friendly and kind,
black sheep I saw as myself,
though others jumped me at school…
The adult narrator notes today the church and rectory have been replaced by a hospital and that his father, now eighty-four, “refuses to admit // the church he labored for / exists just in his head.” Throughout, Groff’s narration displays Wordsworthian dimensions insofar as his understanding of past events appears to unfurl as he recalls them; the voice is therefore subject to doubts and revisions—as noted in many of the poem’s parenthetical passages. Such dynamic presentation of experience is common in Clay. Many of Groff’s poems are marked by a relentless, restless searching.
Of the five moving poems about his mother, “Her Knee Surgery” is possibly the most intriguing, because it so effectively juxtaposes a mother’s physical decline with a son’s exuberant sexuality. While Groff is “naked, three hundred miles away / from her bedside, beside David Geffen’s / night pines next door” his mother undergoes surgery for a “rouge clot.” Although his groin is “boiling” with desire, he suffers guilt for leaving her to wrestle with her own mortality. This leads him to pray to God, whose arm he imagines repeatedly twisting for favors in keeping his mother alive. She eventually dies, leaving Groff to utter the collection’s most heart-breaking turn: “Dried, I survived & saw I was naked.”
Nonetheless, Groff’s devotions to his lover, though connected artistically and otherwise to his role as dutiful son, are more than atonement; they are the expressions of unconditional love. With whom other than Clay could Groff—as he says in the final lines of “Jacked”—plunge “past the tracks / that separate the states / and mark a zone of time, /” and, consequently, “gain an hour of life”?
By David Groff
Trio House Press
Paperback, 9780985529215, 90 pp.