In her poem “What Calendars Have Become,” Tory Dent describes her poetics: “I refer to the world but I speak of the body” (35). Diagnosed with HIV at age 30, Dent has written three books of poetry—What Silence Equals (1993), HIV, Mon Amour (1999), and Black Milk (2005)—which explore AIDS and its range of social, political and personal implications. She is, to my knowledge, the only woman poet in America to publish multiple volumes of poems about living with HIV and AIDS. Yet all of Dent’s work resists being classified as “representative” poetry about AIDS. In fact, as I will explore here, her work resists representation itself and continually underscores the inadequacy of language to describe the experience of living and dying with AIDS. With its reliance on strategies of Language Poetry and the New York School, its long Whitmanesque line structure, its web of allusions, and its complex syntactic patterning, Dent’s poetry challenges our assumptions about writing about both the world and the body.
The body Dent refers to above and elsewhere in her work is always a female body, but here again Dent resists easy categorization: it is a female body identified with gay male bodies, a female body suffering as those bodies suffer. And it is not a private, individual body. In her final volume, Black Milk, which is my focus in this essay, Dent titles her poems about HIV and AIDS after poems by such writers as John Donne and Paul Celan, and employs the other poets’ language within her own to show how the body under siege exists throughout history. Dent’s individual body in these poems is always a social body.
In this essay, I will frame Dent’s poetics of resistance through a reading of her work in terms of these contradictions that surround her evocation of the body. Specifically, I will look closely at her poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” which explicitly locates Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name as an intertext. Dent’s use of Plath’s work is interesting because it asks us to consider gender and the female body so directly.
Just as her work does not fit easily into the category “AIDS poetry,” Dent’s writing does not comfortably align itself with dominant traditions of “women’s poetry.” For the most part, her poems appear not in anthologies of women’s writing but in volumes of AIDS poetry (such as In the Company of My Solitude) and experimental work (The Exact Change Yearbook). The one “women’s anthology” in which Dent’s work appears is Bearing Life: Women’s Writing on Childlessness (edited by the late Rochelle Ratner). In this book, Dent has contributed a selection from an unpublished memoir, titled “The Deferred Dream.” Dent writes:
Writing about my living with AIDS is always painful for me. But it is—always—what I write about; I can’t think of anything else to say. In the desire to write is the desire to communicate, I believe. I’m sharing with someone and in that process trying to understand myself what I’m thinking or feeling . . . . By writing I hope to feel closer to the world. It’s what I want. It’s more and more what I want as I lose slowly, incrementally, unpredictably and of course unfortunately my physical grip on the world. It is AIDS weakens my grip . . . My organic body, born into this world and made up of this world as its by-product, is the rejecting factor. (122)
In this passage, the body presents a terrible paradox: as Dent loses her “physical grip” on the world and uses her writing to bring her closer to the world, it is her body that rejects that closeness. It is significant that this passage opens Dent’s piece on wanting a child—and having an abortion as she was urged to do because of her HIV status—and that it is included in the volume of women writers. Furthermore, it is significant that Dent is classified here as a woman writer in a prose collection.
Yet the experience Dent evokes in her work is crucial. Although current literary criticism seems oddly uncomfortable with Tory Dent’s poetic linking of the female body, the gay male body, the social body and AIDS in her work, it is important to remember that AIDS is currently the third most deadly disease for women in the US. And women now make up 25% of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in this country (“Women and HIV/AIDS: An Overview, Elinor Nauen and Bonnie Goldman). 1 Paula Treichler writes, “Despite documented cases of AIDS from almost the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS was assumed by most of the medical and scientific community to be a ‘gay disease’ or a ‘male disease’—assumed, that is, to be different from other sexually transmitted disease” (42). Even in 2011, more than twenty years after the epidemic was first named, I have seen this disbelief about women and AIDS in the college classrooms without exception every time I begin a discussion of Dent’s work. And as soon as we start talking about women and AIDS, my students always want to know how Dent contracted HIV. I ask them why this matters, which often leads to a conversation about stigma—what it means to be an AIDS “victim”—that can be valuable. 2
Finally, while Tory Dent’s work resists categorization as AIDS poetry and women’s poetry, it also resists in another ways that have to do with her linguistic strategies. Her work investigates real, material bodily experience but does so through a poetics of resistance. Her poems constantly expose language’s formal limits and yet it is at every moment a project of bearing witness to atrocity. For example, Dent continually challenges writing as a mode of discourse through her invocation of other art forms. Her work is not simply ekphrastic but it borrows the techniques of music, film and photography. In Dent’s first book What Silence Equals, music or sound is the dominant trope that signifies writing (several poems are noted as being written to songs and one poem is titled “Poems in American Sign Language”). And in her second, HIV Mon Amour, photography and film play a central role as she deploys jump cuts, frames and cropping of images to make her poems, In Black Milk, the poems offer very direct poetic intertextualties; Dent titles them after well-known poems and employs the other poets’ language within her own.
My reading of Dent’s work follows several recent literary and cultural studies that look both back and forward at the AIDS epidemic in the context of multiple kinds of writing. Paula Treichler’s assertion in How To Have Theory in An Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS that AIDS is an “epidemic of signification” (19), that AIDS cannot just be read by language but that it is constructed through language, in particular the language of biomedicine, and that an understanding of AIDS’ multiple and at times contradictory meanings is crucial to our understanding of the disease. “Signification” and its relation to disease is a central focus for Dent; her poetics are inseparable from AIDS and its significations. As well, in Untimely Interventions: AIDS Writing, Testimonial and the Rhetoric of Haunting, Ross Chambers notes that “witnessing” is usually understood through ideas of legal testimony—as ”honest and direct, straightforward and unproblematic—the simple report of a reliable eyewitness” (18). This is exactly what Tory Dent’s work complicates and at times even refuses.