On L. Lamar Wilson’s “Legion: Human Immunodeficiency Virus”

by Evan Coday Kleekamp

Imagine a body. This body is a container. It carries a virus. This virus multiplies, it establishes itself in any fitting container. In this case, the virus is HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus; the human body its fitting container.

Now, imagine a poem (itself a container), and inside it a frame in the form of an epigraph:

Return to thine own house, and shew how great God hath done unto thee. – Luke 8:39

To translate: return to yourself and examine what God has given you, or perhaps taken. This moment of solace, a visitation to prayer, soon interrupted. Imagine the poem as it shifts to replicate and utilize the process by which the human immunodeficiency virus perpetuates: inside the poem, a poem in and of itself. If the poem and the human body are containers (read: forms), then here the virus drives content; it inhabits the container in the form of words. Rendered here, inadequately:

When I’m with you, I’m only with you.
When I’m with her, I’m only with her
& you. When you’re with him, I’m only with you & him & her & him
& him & her & him & you & her & him & her & him & you & her & him & her & him & you &

This is how the assault on the body begins (“When I’m with you, I’m only with you”), and it is relentless. Other actors, themselves containers in the form of human bodies, are added into the stream (“your neighbor,” “your mama,” “her daddy,” “her twin brother,” “your stylist”). The litany does not exhaust itself until reminding the reader:

& how could you? you don’t even know your own name now

the phrase being a modulation on an earlier line:

& how could you? you didn’t even know his name

Inside the litany, the speaker loses their name, their history, and the organization of their thoughts as they are submitted to an onslaught of words, begging an association with paranoia.

The poem spreads across the length of two pages and unfolds from the center of Wilson’s new book, Sacrilegion. That is to say, the poem is both immense and perfectly situated. It pays homage to the virus’s effect on the human body, and enacts this concept without sacrificing lyric or control. It is beautiful and traumatizing. It is larger than the page; the repetition wounds by means of its subtle shifts in denouement (again, a reenactment of the virus). Like many of the lives claimed by HIV/AIDS, it does not end on a clean thought, but on a final conjunction:

& him & you & we are dying ah this shame we are numb & him & her & you & you & you &

I think it would be a misreading of the poem to see every person listed on the page as a direct casualty of the virus, because the virus’s impact has a scope larger than just lives, namely livelihood: family, intimate friends, friends of intimate friends, family of intimate friends, the wider social circle—they are all affected. Inside the poem sits a mysterious stanza:

When you are alone & cannot be stilled,
I will never leave: my hands, your hands:
your blood’s taint coursing: your high-
yellow heart’s flesh hunger for bodies bruised
blue: who can hide what yours cannot

Is the speaker here the same? Is it the voice of the virus promising to replicate? This is the poem’s final captioning technique. We are exposed to the psychological space occupied by the virus at the level of the subconscious: a demon invading the body, administering itself to a multiplicity of fragmented voices as it attempts to speak its own name.

 

Evan Kleekamp

Evan Coday Kleekamp

is an MFA candidate studying poetry at Columbia College Chicago. His work has appeared in Adult and Sprung Formal.

 

 

 

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