Dreamers' Songs: Nancy Bevilaqua's Poems

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Holding Breath

(From Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days)

HOLDING BREATH

April dusk drained, while I was out,

into your mouth, the black

collapsing cave, your glottis ticking off

 

last swallows of the day. You watched tides

receding, patterns on the rug

recounting dreams, frail fingers

 

fingering cold fences

that held you in your bed.

Coming in with sheets

 

and pillows from Delancey, I smelled your skin

beleaguered., tasting itself, falling

away, the smell of fruit

 

rotting in a bowl, unnaturally sweet.

The nurse dismissed, I prematurely lit the room

with candles against night.

 

Then night began, a shadow

lapping in the shallow moments. Rats

and pigeons rustled, pestilent,

 

trapped in walls; open windows lifted tongues,

sending quiet cadenced prayers

to infiltrate God’s monotone. Your eyes,

 

slow fish, slid in wide ellipses

while I prepared us for the caterpillar ride

to dawn. By nine I lay

 

against your back between the rails, your muteness

sharp against murmurs from the street,

against the muffled rush of breeze

 

through pale fingers of new leaves. Hooded figures

flickered and bowed

in gestures of atonement on the walls.

 

There was nothing to do

but wait. I lay you down. Sometime that night

your whisper broke

 

an interval of sleep. I need,

you said. I waited while

you shook it from inside your head.

 

I need someone

to hold my breath for me. That night

I never slept again,

 

imagining you driving on some prairie road,

your arm dancing in the wind outside the window

with the rhythm of a country song.

 

I warmed your back curved hard

against sleep, passing the hours preparing

for the time that we had left.

 

–Nancy Bevilaqua

 

How You Looked (Manhattan VA Hospital, AIDS Unit, Spring, 1990)

 

This is one of the five poems included in my book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days.

 

How You Looked (Manhattan VA Hospital, AIDS Unit, Spring, 1990)

David, let me wash and cool
your swollen feet while you’re awake
so nothing can get worse, at least
for now, at least not here where we
are so alone, the nurses masked,
reluctant to come in the room.

I’d almost tell you how you looked
asleep, all afternoon,
your body on a boat
losing course, slipping over fish, the sun
a yellow wine that whispered
in my head to let you drift.
I watched your face fall fully
open, saw your sheets come loose
and drop apart, your body a mirage,
your belly hollowed-out and vaporous,
your penis arched and cool
dozing there, flawless in the glare.

The sound is just the rush
of water and a washcloth
in a bowl. Tell me if it feels too hot
or cold. You’ll feel my fingers
run across your toes so thick
I’ll never pass a towel through. Your skin
is breaking up like desert floor,
no longer big enough to hold you in.

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