The first time I read this poem, I thought "wow, that's a lot of fluid," and "gee, that sure was homoerotic." Without knowing anything about the author, I absolutely thought the poem was written by a man for another man. Only later, when I read a poem that was clearly written about a woman, did I revise my earlier assumption--"maybe he's straight? Bi? Queer?" But why did I care?
I sat with that question for a while-why did I care? And where did this assumption come from? Is it because the author compared his semen to milk, and milk comes from a woman's breasts? Is it how he called his sexual fluids a "bitter balm," and balm is typically a cleansing agent, and cleansing is a maternal act backed up by images of women like Mary Magdalen? Or is it my assumption of the "male gaze"? Ohh, that's interesting. I thought about that: when I read poems, I usually assume the poet assumes that I am a man. "HIV" is a sexual poem, and a very intimate sexual poem. Many straight men don't feel particularly comfortable talking about such intimate sexuality with other straight men, as discussions of intimacy "feminize" the author. Because we live in a culture that does not particualrly like femininity, especially in men, and especially in straight men, I figured the intimate sexual poem was not by a straight man.
But this isn't just an intimate sexual poem. This is an intimate sexual poem about HIV, written by a Latino man in the early-to-mid 90's, The only images I have of Latino men with HIV in the early 90's are gay latino men--in fact, immigrant gay Latino men--from Pedro Zamora on the Real World San Francisco to Antonio Banderes in Philadelphia. Whoa! It really struck me, how my presumptions about the poem, its author, and its audience were so clearly effected by the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality, through the lens of disease.
In light of our numerous discussions on whether we can/should read poems by people of color without racializing their poem, I found this poem illuminating for the various identities that emerged while reading, and re-reading, and re-reading my re-reading. And I wonder how often we remove (or add) other identities in our reading because they do or do not fit an image we have of that person. There are discussions in social justice circles of how the image of "a black person" is usually "a black man", and "a woman" is usually "a white woman." By stripping a narrative of race to get to "a humanity", what other identities do we submerge or subvert? Is it good to do that? Do we have to take away "Other" characteristics to get to humanity? And what does that human look like?