What Laughter? What Joy?
A Review of Madelyn Garner’s Hum of Our Blood
By Robert Carr
Some experiences require the passage of twenty years before you can write about them. This is the case with Madelyn Garner’s powerful Hum of Our Blood, published by 3: A Taos Press in 2017. In this collection, the author draws on her identity as a poet and as the mother of an artist, photographer Bradley Joseph Braverman. Brad died from complications of HIV disease in 1996, at the age of 34.
I write this review as a gay man, a poet, and a public health professional who has worked in the field of HIV prevention and care for over 30 years.
Garner shares powerful testimony in this collection. The poems are consistently evocative. What I admire, among so many things, is her simultaneous vulnerability and objectivity, her ability to relate to her son Brad as a mother—but also as a fellow artist.
Through these poems, Garner has found a way to bring her talented son back into the world. She has partnered with the dead—a challenge which I have been trying to understand and accomplish for most of my life.
Hum of Our Blood is skillfully organized into three core sections, tracing the course of Brad Braverman’s illness and the speaker’s response as mother and artist. Each of the three main sections opens with a triptych of poems, followed by a deep exploration of each phase in Brad’s AIDS diagnosis.
The book, through the order and titles of poems, succeeds in conveying multiples layers of meaning. For example, the first section “Triptych: Days of Diagnosis” includes the poems “As Ouija Board,” “As Etch-A-Sketch” and “As Playground Swing.” These titles introduce us to the horror of an AIDS diagnosis in the early days of the epidemic (before the availability of effective treatments) through the unlikely framework of the names of childhood toys.
An astonishing quality of Hum of Our Blood is the speaker’s readiness, willingness, and availability to inhabit the sexual life of her son. In “The Baths, 1982” we experience the throb of those years and that erotic milieu
engorged and driven like pistons, exploding
in each pink-cheeked Mozart—creator
of complex études for four hands.
In the same poem, the speaker asks, in the voice of Brad Braverman, “How many times can I be kissed before I die?” This question opens a deep reality for many who survived the early AIDS epidemic. While reading Hum of Our Blood I found myself questioning the arbitrary nature of a pandemic. As a gay man who survived, I am now 58. Today, Brad Braverman would be 56. Each poem in this collection forces the reader, regardless of age, gender or sexuality, to evaluate meaning and value in their life. The poems express terror, but also call on the reader to find gratitude.
The arc of this collection is straightforward and elegant. We witness the transformation of the speaker and Brad Braverman in a series of lines with the power and concentration of epitaph.
In the triptych poem “Days of Diagnosis, As Playground Swing,” the speaker describes the young man, about to receive the fateful diagnosis, as ascending
…weightless—free—beyond the terror of what his blood tests will show.
Deep into the collection, in the poem “What I Didn’t Know,” all has been transformed:
What laughter? What joy? He is unmendable.
Before his untimely death, Brad Braverman was an accomplished photographer represented by galleries from Los Angeles to New York. The book uses Braverman’s photographic images to extraordinary and heartbreaking effect. There are many examples, but perhaps none as powerful as the connection between word and photograph in the poem “Spring Lament.”
My womb, old empty pot, cannot replace
what it has lost, but I am ready to nurture
seedlings, tack clematis to trellis,
chase off aphid and beetles.
If only you will tilt.
These words are followed two pages later by a black-and-white Brad Braverman photograph of a paint chipped cast iron urn positioned in shadow. A sheet of white silk flows from the urn as if in strong wind. The connection between poem and photographic image is vivid, enhancing the narrative connection between mother and son. “Spring Lament” evokes “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams, and we can imagine the speaker finding a parallel grief in Williams’s words:
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
Madelyn Garner does not flinch from describing the deepest grief and the tricks the mind plays in order to stay sane. In the poem “Schrödinger’s Cat” the speaker imagines a parallel world where Brad Braverman lives the life she had hoped for
My mind says Yes
to infinite copies of him coming
to the door, young
and transcendent with good blood,
bearing a kitten the color of shadows
Twenty-one years after Brad’s death, the author has found a vehicle for bringing the memory of her son to the door. She invites us to meet him, to appreciate their deep bond, and to learn from the power of their journey. These poems tap into a collective grief that remains relevant today.
On a personal level, I experience this book as a gift. Reading and rereading the poems I found myself recalling my own mother, whom I lost 14 years ago. For years, from 1984-1994, she walked beside me at From All Walks of Life, the fundraising AIDS walk in Boston. She loved deeply, and she loved the young gay men that were in my life.
I will always treasure how strangers surrounded her on those marches. My mother became, in those moments, the mother of all those marchers. Men who had been rejected by their families flocked to her and she embraced them.
In this most personal of projects, Madelyn Garner has shown all of us that there are powerful women, powerful mothers, who still have our backs. This book is a healing force.
Perfect Paperback: 102 pages
Publisher: 3: A Taos Press; 1st edition (August 28, 2017)
Robert Carr is the author of Amaranth, a chapbook published in 2016, and an associate editor with Indolent Books. Recent work appears in Assaracus, Bellevue Literary Review, Kettle Blue Review, New Verse News, Pretty Owl Poetry and other publications. He lives with his husband Stephen in Malden Massachusetts, and serves as deputy director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
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