“Aids,” by may sarton
May Sarton’s 1987 poem “AIDS” is both bleak and hopeful, looking at love through the lens of the disease that rose in the 1980s and devastated the gay community in particular. This poem, though, is not about homosexuality as much as about a different kind of love – devotional rather than erotic, nurturing in the face of bleakness and death.
The poem’s tone is its most obvious and striking aspect. In the first stanza, Sarton sets an undeniably dark, urgent tone, as the narrator says, “We are stretched to meet a new dimension/Of love, a more demanding range/Where despair and hope must intertwine” (Sarton 89). Clearly, death is imminent and inherent in this new form of love, which she does not explicitly identify. However, because Sarton herself was gay, one could infer she means the gay community, which suffered the ravages of AIDS first. AIDS is the new dimension that threatens erotic love, separating lovers in an insidious way, tainting love with danger.
The tone remains dark and is underscored by the second stanza, which simply repeats “Fear” four times in a single line, deepening the dreadful tone in blunt terms. The next emphasizes the situation’s seeming hopelessness and loneliness of “their” world (again, this community remains unnamed, but could be specifically the gay community or humanity in general). The first three stanzas combined [paint a bleak picture of a world made, dark, dangerous, and sterile by AIDS, which disrupts love by bringing death and forcing lovers apart (presumably for fear of infection).
The fourth stanza changes the poem’s tone considerably, introducing a somewhat more positive and hopeful outlook. The narrator recalls someone caring for a dying friend, and the “new discipline” and “new grace” mentioned indicate a new incarnation of love in the face of the epidemic – not erotic and sexual but compassionate and nurturing, giving the sick and dying tenderness and solace instead of shunning them. The final stanzas underscore AIDS’ harsh, cold reality and ass, “Every day now devotion is the test” (Sarton 90), revealing the new face of love. When Sarton states, “We are forging a new union. We are blest” (Sarton 90), one sees fulfillment in an altruistic kind of love. The final stanza, in which “Love” repeats four times, directly answers the second, which bluntly drives home fear.
The poem’s form follows its tone, changing when the tone shifts. Its first three stanzas, which emphasize death and gloom, have nine, one, and four lines, respectively. The fourth, in which the narrator’s revelation signals a shift in tone and outlook, contains eight lines, making it the only stanza in the poem with this number. The final three, which explain the new, redeeming kind of love, have four, nine, and one line respectively, as if directly answering and reacting to the first three stanzas. The use of single-line stanzas bluntly emphasizes not only the tone but also the conditions of this changed world – if fear is the problem, then love is the solution.
Though the poem says nothing about homosexuality, the narrator’s persona is presumably gay, since AIDS affected mainly homosexuals in the 1980s and Sarton herself was a lesbian but revealed the fact late in life, which may give the line “Closed lives open to strange tenderness” additional meaning (Sarton 90). The narrator is at least acquainted with AIDS and sympathetic to its victims, both infected with the disease and affected by death and alienation.
Sarton’s poem acknowledges the dangers and devastation of AIDS without affecting a preachy tone; instead, she demonstrates how love adapts and survives in a new form. Physical love becomes subordinate to the “new grace” of nurturing and giving tender solace – “learning the hard way how to mother” (Sarton 90) and finding fulfillment in a deeper, perhaps more meaningful way.
Sarton, May. Halfway to Silence. London: Women’s Press Ltd., 1993.