Poetry Sunday:
“For the Young Men Who Died of AIDS,”
by Julia Vinograd

For the Young Men Who Died of AIDS

The dead lovers are almost as beautiful
as razor-edged spaces in the air where they used to walk.
Do you remember his hand lazily playing
with the rim of a glass, making the ghost of a bell sound
for his own ghost, and the talk didn’t even pause?
The glass is whole. Break it; break it now.
Break everything.
How can people go on buying toothpaste
and planning their summer vacations?
Vegetables would care more.
The potato has a thousand eyes all mourning for the lovers
who lived in their deaths like a country
foreign to everywhere for a long time before dying.
A long time watching people look away.
The potato only met them under the earth
after their deaths and it still wept. And we do not.
The ghost bell makes barely a sound forever.
The dead lovers are still in love, but no one else is.
He took his hand with him, a grave is as good
as a briefcase to keep the essentials in:
a smile, bones, a way of biting his lip
just before looking into your eyes.
Shoulder blades cutting into summer like butter.
All the commuters in a rush hour traffic jam
are cursing because the lovers are dying
faster than their cars.
The child sent to bed without dinner cries
for the lovers, also sent to bed early and without.
Unfair. Throw the dishes against the wall. Break them.
The dead lovers are almost as beautiful
as when they were alive.
You can hear the rim of a glass
tolling for the ghosts to come home.
Break the glass, break the ghosts. Pull down the sky.
Break everything.
Dance on the fragments. Scream their names.
Get splinters of ghosts under your skin
torn and bleeding because it hurts,
because it hurts so bad.


From Cannibal Carnival (Zeitgeist Press 1996), reprinted with permission from Bruce Isaacson and available for order here.

Vinograd’s obituary is here.

Julia Shalett Vinograd (December 11, 1943–December 5, 2018) was a poet, well known in the Bay Area as “The Bubble Lady,” a name she gained from blowing bubbles at the People’s Park demonstrations in 1969 and depicted in the People’s Park Mural near Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. A street poet, Vinograd became part of Berkeley’s street culture beginning in the 1960s. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies, including Berkeley! A Literary Tribute. She was born in Berkeley, the daughter of Sherna Shalett and her husband, chemist Jerome Vinograd. She graduated with a BA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1965 and graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Vinograd was awarded a Pushcart Prize for “For the Young Men Who Died of AIDS” and in 1985 won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The City of Berkeley awarded her a Poetry Lifetime Achievement Award, and Mayor Tom Bates declared June 4, 2004 “Julia Vinograd Day” for representing the spirit of Berkeley, saying: “She gives us a voice when ours vanishes. She gives voice to the homeless, the street performers, the merchant, the coffee drinker, friends and foes alike, and her words, like a sharp knife, cut deep into the truth. She describes us as full of life and love and heartache. She makes us honest. We, the eccentric, the lonely, the broken, are given a voice.” She has often been called Berkeley’s unofficial poet laureate. [Source]


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Julia Vinograd was a familiar figure to Bay Area poets and lovers of poetry. I heard her read several times, often in Berkeley at the Watershed Festival and other events, but also where I live, across the bay in Marin County. Like another poet I knew and loved from Berkeley, John Oliver Simon, Vinograd was a true poet, one whose whole life revolved around reading and writing her poems, leaving little time for the usual resume-grooming and other activities often expected of poets today. She was in-your-face fierce, unapologetically vocal, and passionate, and the audience always sat up and paid keen attention while she read.

From the little bomb of an oxymoron that pairs “lovers” with “dead” in the first line to that remarkable anaphoric injunction to “break everything” that keens near the beginning and then again at the end of the poem, “For the Young Men Who Died of AIDS” does what I remember best about Vinograd: it makes us sit up, take notice, and listen—listen in the face of the way we tend to grow hardened, even indifferent to suffering. The scourge of AIDS is in decline here and elsewhere now, but those of us who lived through those terrible times must never forget, and especially never forget those we loved and lost. The poem is insistent on this point, and on its refusal to “look away” from that suffering and death.

Among the many powerful poems written about AIDS—Thom Gunn’s are amazing—I find this one especially moving. I like that it is written in plainspoken diction, in free verse, qualities that support its agonized and heartfelt utterance. Many of the poem’s images are sharp-edged and painful—shards of glass and “shoulder blades cutting into summer like butter” to name just two—and they are meant to shock us, the kind of shock that Aristotle says is delivered by great literature to engender human responses of recognition, horror, and pity. And that, readers, is the poem’s main subject and mission: to remind us of the way habituation and other aspects of contemporary existence can make us indifferent to the suffering of others, and to make sure that, at least for the time it takes to read this remarkable, powerful poem, we will remember, and feel something. In this, it does what another writer, Franz Kafka, says all great writing should do: wields an axe to chop through the layers we grow to protect ourselves from pain:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. [Source]

Brava, Julia Vinograd, and rest in peace. You are already much missed.



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