The AIDS Memorial
(for Clifford and Andrew)
Will you write our story? Do you want me to? You have to he said
no one but you can write it.
—Patti Smith, Just Kids
Two bronze men in verdigris
unfurl from each other,
as if a red ribbon’s twist
crosses below their thighs,
their armless torsos, buffeted chests,
risen throats naked to the sky.
I circle this turmoil
within the sea’s sight:
two flown men caught.
Can I cast this net to haul you back?
Twenty years and nine years dead,
should I leave you in peace
or leave myself twice bereft?
staccato as breathing, harsh
as recalling with no one to listen.
It’s ancient history. We’ve got it licked.
No one dies here; all those dazzling fairies
dated as neat moustaches and Bronski Beat.
where’s the triumph in such recollection?
Didn’t we finish this conversation
a lifetime ago? It started with your name.
We sat, two diffident eleven-year-olds
at joined desks. Bitten pencils,
dog-eared books, chewed-up spat-out paper globs
whizzed around us, missing their mark
in the chaos when the teacher left our class.
What makes two boys catch each other’s message?
I wanted to hear whatever you said next.
Arty teenagers, where’s the tape we made
of The Waste Land? Me singing,
you plink-plonking your secondhand red piano.
Arias and diminuendos
bloom before they dwindle into air.
You’re on the brink
of Art College, telling me you’re gay.
I never guessed: often a lag behind,
sometimes missing your point.
Then I’m married, preoccupied.
You sway in a chair bought to lull
our first baby, saying into silence
“I’ve got Aids”, correct yourself: “HIV.”
You and Andrew built your lives
as if glass might carry the sky.
Your brush, a thistle or fuchsia,
stippled each canvas.
Snail-shells and pylons,
cooling towers, peacocks and gasworks,
lily-pads, light-bulbs and half-moons
blaze from your farewell, celebrate
today across my walls. I rise to them
every morning. They sing your name.
Occasionally in dreams you’re well again,
your skinny diminuendo etched through me.
Once I lifted my toddler son
to your hospital window, where you waved
at each other. He had chickenpox, you shingles,
although I can’t remember how we were
protecting you, or thought we were.
The last time we spoke
I kissed your knuckles when you thanked me,
as though you’d become a prince.
The feather-breath you finished
before Andrew said “He’s gone”
led me weeping to the sheet
between your head and stopped shoulder.
These surging verdigris men
swirl from each other,
while Andrew twists roses through your wreath
My Funny Valentine and I recite Hopkins
at your funeral, stilled to a crowded hush.
My breath hovered until My own heart
let me more have pity on. The son I lifted
to your window has forgotten you.
I relinquish ash blown towards the tide.
where’s the rescue from such memories?
They smack like waves, relentless
in the plunge, this blur of blue
agapanthus with creamy Russian vine.
Two bereft friends cling to each other,
as the drunks beside this memorial
slur stories to fill their hours.
When thirty balloon-strings
loosen through our fingers, a mother shouts
her son’s name at the clouds, over and over,
as if one repeated word might voice her loss.
Thank you for making that T-Shirt:
I’M POSITIVE…LIFE IS WONDERFUL
in black capitals across your chest,
for shoppers and browsers to read
your body’s message. You taught me
to pluck happiness like a harebell
from the nettles. Teach me now.
Thank you for saying “Why not
leave the party early?” as if
foreseeing the brief violet
of your death.
You fell in the market
among lettuces and gooseberries,
sugar-cane, okra and barrow-boy yells.
Halfway through your organised day,
buying CDs, walking back to your flat,
a shut heart, the pavement’s pillow.
I enter the ward twenty years ago,
find you quietly lying together,
this glade of calm, my breath an intrusion.
Forgive me. I should re-write my arrival,
win you an hour’s blessing in his arms.
After such friends, how to continue?
It’s ancient history, forever circling
two verdigris men who strive
beyond grass like silver birches.
Tonight your names
join a list at the service.
Couples and singles cup their flames
by this floodlit memorial.
Once I’m numb from too much snow
I’ll kneel before the sea’s crashed gardenias.
Robert Hamberger is the author of the poetry collections Warpaint Angel (Blackwater Press, 1997), The Smug Bridegroom (Five Leaves Publications, 2002) and Torso (Redbeck Press, 2007). His poetry has been broadcast on Radio 4, featured on the Guardian Poem of the Week website and has appeared in British, American and Japanese anthologies. His poems have appeared in various magazines, including Gay Times, The Observer, The Spectator, New Statesman, The North, The Rialto and Poetry Review. He was awarded a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship and shortlisted for a Forward prize. Robert’s fourth collection, Blue Wallpaper, is forthcoming from Waterloo Press.
This poem previously appeared in Ambit.