A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992

OUT, July 1993, p. 34.


AIDS Poetry Heartfelt

A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992

by Walter Holland, Magic City Press


Walter Holland’s first collection of poetry, A Journal of the Plague Years, explores such subjects as cruising rituals, Sen. Jesse Helms and the sights and sounds of various places including Spain, Turkey and Greece.


Holland is at his best, however, when he speaks from the heart about his personal experiences and observations of friends and lovers who have lived with and died from AIDS. Constituting the major portion of the collection, these poems ache and breathe with the sadness and rage the epidemic has caused.


“To the Hospital” describes Holland helping a loved one get drssed, packed and taken by taxi to the hospital, only three blocks away, because the man is too weak to walk:


            I have held in my hands

            the dim contents of that day,

            a plaster sack stuffed with your coat, one crumpled

            suit, one folded tie—these are the vestments

            of the dead, the raiments that we carry back

            through empty lobbies after dark


“For A.B.” is an exceptional poem about a friend attempting to write down his stories, no matter how long that process may take, in order to leave behinda  record after his death. “On the Beach” is a perceptive poem that finds parallels to the AIDS crisis in an old movie and “Season Opener, Fire Island” contrasts the spectacle of gay men carrying out their societal rituals with the pain that lies below the surface:


            Grief is a studied stillness,

            the place you freeze the frame,

            a beautiful torso on the beach,

            sculpted out of sand


Though the subject matter may be somber at times, Holland repeated inspires by showing the tenderness, compassion and bravery of a wide variety of people. Interspersing pop cultural references to people like Andy Warhol, Ken Kesey and Tracy Chapman, Holland his expertly interwoven the common threads of humanity that connect us all. — N.K.

Lambda Book Report, Mar/Apr 1993, Vol. 3, No. 9, p. 29.


by Walter Holland

Magic City Press

ISBN 0963414305

by David Bergman

When Walter Holland trained and worked as a dancer and in these poems filled with “the inventory of loss” and “the strange radiance of grief,” he pays unusual attention to the gestures and movements of people’s bodies, as if this time of disease were a music we moved through like a Merce Cunningham piece.


Consequently, Holland speaks of “the frail embrace//of your arms, like the fullness of some idea that finally forms and dies.” A friend’s eyes become “giant points of reference/pulling me into/darkness.” A friend “seemed to sleep in my arms/like a girl I might have fathered, like the child/I had hoped for.” And in one of the more haunting poems in this extraordinarily poised first book, he describes seeing on St. Marks Place “one black man, barefoot in shorts/ … who zig-zagged/ … hands upturned to the dark clouds.” (“Saint Marks Place, Sunday 1989”). These poems, which are as much choreographed as sung, return to the tragic origins of poetry, those ancient Greek rites in which robed masses moved to the sound of their own words.


These poems are very much a product of New York City, that darkly anarchic global village, and most of the poems are set there, or in nearby venues like Fire Island, the location of another series of poems. But the book begins with a sequence about travel to Turkey, Spain, Greece, Bali, and Mexico, places where Holland searches for an “unbroken pattern that professes a constancy/history can no longer promise.”


The AIDS epidemic demands from Holland a shape, a pattern, a history that will give its anguish a meaning and resonance beyond immediate suffering. Many of the poems in the section marked “A Journal of the Plague Years,” are rough sonnets or aspire to other classically formal patterns. It is as if they sought a containment and objectivity that would not so much free them from pain, as grant his pain the dignity society has sought to strip from it. The Christian rite that Holland returns to repeatedly is the Stations of the Cross, a rite in which movement is stylized into a sequence of freeze frames as cleansing and eternal as the pagan dance lopped about a Grecian Urn.


A Journal of the Plague Years takes its place with Thom Grunn’s The Man with Night Sweats and Kenny Fries’ The Healing Notebooks, books of poems that will give permanent voice to the suffering of this particular moment.


David Berman is currently editing Men on Men 5. He is the author of Gaiety Transfigured and Cracking the Code, winner of the George Ellison Poetry Prize.

ART & UNDERSTANDING, Oct/Nov 1993, p. 40


Walter Holland is a physical therapist and doctoral student in English literature at the City University of New York, whose poetry has appeared in the George Mason Review, Christopher Street, and Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS. In A Journal of the Plague Years, Holland offers poetry over thirteen years, from the beginning of awareness of the public health holocaust to the present of telling time by symptoms and illnesses. Yet this is far from a despairing volume. Rather, Holland uses a filmmaker’s eye to show the sufferings and the joys, the highs and the lows of living daily life. His life and any other life. The volume is in six sections: Borders/Crossings, Evenings in the Cenezoic, Wasted Seed, Fire Island and Dementia and Public Access. Illness is not he subject here. Observation is. This from “Madrid”:


            From the fountain of Cibeles the water sprays—

            the spent silver of Conquistadors, the piss of Austrian

            princesses, the waste of reactors.


The mx of the elegant with earthiness is skillful throughout. But it’s not just world journeys and their backdrops to relationships — Holland delves deeply into the AIDS crisis by describing the suffering around him unflinchingly. Yet he balances a certain unrelenting style with pieces of lyricism. This is “Mornings. Room. City.” spare in its beauty:


            Venice and a wide canal —

            but it was not Venice, it was the morning,

            the West Side and the school’s yard.


            The light had a splendor of its own,

            from Amsterdam to the river.

            In the fenced-in park lay an old notebook


            thrown down on asphalt, its pages blank.

            Do you love me?

            I listen to the noise

            of radios and cars down Broadway.


            The Spanish church plays its bells

            the peal across the flat roofs

            down to the valley of Harlem.


            I awoke to see your room,

            the window like some wide mirror

            reflecting convex walls and towers,


            and the dry park trees (a room from Canaletto)

            one broad sketch

            of bridge, of cloud, of city, your arms).


            I have thought of the dead.

            I have thought of Venice.

            I have lain awake in the white of a room

            and studied first light on a face such as yours,

            in the shadows of bare walls

            in the frame of the sky.


            Do you love me

            in this hour of light

            in a city, in a room, in a morning?


This weaving beauty with reality culminates in the superb “Good Friday” from Part 2. It’s not easily excerpted. (Buy the book).


Part 5, “Journal of the Plague Years” presents a camera’s cruelty. That this section is not infinitely tragic is further evidence of Holland’s gifts for balance and style. From “The Castro 1989”:


            It’s a high camp movie of tragic proportions,

            this great distortion we’re living today.

            In fact, I dreamed all those disco queens now dead

            and all those friends we’ve sent to hospitals

            found to have P.C.P., were hovering around

            talking to us in high-arch Hollywood chic.

            But then in the Castro diner, I spotted the man

            sitting with his cigarette, staring outside,

            his arm thin and depleted and I knew the wasting —

            could see it had begun; the wasting everywhere around me.


Further examples of Holland’s profound honesty, which embraces rage, frustration, anger, grief and hope, is found in “Stephen’s Illness”:


            The blue shapes on the skin, elliptical

            like Franz Marc’s horses, Expressionist forms,

            beautiful they wander in a forest of paleness.

            Like dark ink they seep through

            the tissue that was your body, testing all our associations.

            You cover them with powder but their stain

            blots through. How fetid is this fruit of flesh,

            the harvest nearly over.


And in Part 6, Public Access, Holland turns to comedy. Read “Warhol’s Double Elvis” followed by the drama of “Weightless” and the profound beauty of “Stations of the Cross.” Read all of Walter Holland’s A Journal of the Plague Years and see how one artist works through a cycle of life.

Bay Windows, Feb. 17, 1994, pp. 26, 31


Being there

New Yorker Walter Holland has been recording—in poetry—his impressions, from their beginnings, of the AIDS years

by Steven Riel


The AIDS pandemic permeates the entirety of Walter Holland’s “A Journal of the Plague Years.” No matter where in the foreground the poet focuses, neither he nor the reader loses sight of the reality of AIDS. Even in poems describing travels in Europe, we find Holland unable to simply enjoy the architectural splendors of the past:


            From the fountain of Cibeles the water sprays—

            the spent silver of Conquistadors, the piss of Austrian

            princesses, the waste of reactors.


The poet cannot think like a stereotypically superficial American tourist in Europe; his perceptions seem to be profoundly altered by the fact that everything has been turned upside down by AIDS back in the United States. The images of loss and unalterable change that he finds in Europe, while not what he was looking for, speak volumes for what he has left behind in New York:


            The Retiro is green, its esplanade a wide landscape . . .

            We know its nobility. We assess its shadows much

            as a Velázquez painting, seeking the face of saints,

            the lost gaze of faith. But the saints are dead . . .


Even the poet’s relationship to history has been altered: history is no longer dependable:


            … the mountains rise before us like tiles of Moorish

            blue whose unbroken pattern professes a constancy

            history can no longer promise.


In “Aphrodisias,” my favorite of Holland’s travel poems, the speaker wonders what he can truly know about past life at the archaeological site, or even at the modern village existing above the site before excavations began:


            Was the radiance of those white stones any indication

            for what really had been there and what had lived or

            was it the false illusion of beauty — a guise the past had given

            to the brief untenable present.


Making the connection

The speaker’s mind immediately turns to his own, personal past, referring, it seems, to the years before AIDS:


            … The flat paths that left us tracing and retracing

            our way made me think of earlier years, joyfully unheeded.

            Stone propped on stone, beauty in pieces artfully scattered,

            never to be rebuilt, yet mythologized, like the warm and perfect day.


Holland’s European musings about historicity relate directly to his task back home, where he attempts to recapture the plague worlds of Fire Island, gay bars, etc., and to memorialize those friends and lovers he has lost to the disease. The poetry he must write is historical; the two realities he must compare and contrast are those of the past and the present. AIDS has split his life into two distinct epochs. Holland wants to avoid mythologizing both.


(Interestingly, blocks of stone in ancient ruins also figure centrally in Paul Monette’s inspiration for this book “Love Alone: 18 elegies for Rog.” More on comparing Monette’s work with Holland’s later.)


My favorite poems by Holland fall into two broad categories. The first and largest category is of carefully constructed poems which, possessed of Neo-Platonic aesthetic virtues, produce their effects though balanced variations on a theme, imagery pattern or metaphor. Although at times their patterns are subtle, careful examination reveals how soundly they are constructed. “Good Friday” serves as an excellent example of this type of Holland poem. Images of whiteness and light flash through the poem’s narrative at regular intervals, culminating in the final, sacred memory of the speaker’s now-dead friend carrying a vase of white lilies.


The poem contains a second pattern: a methodical unveiling of the many layers of memory which press on the single moment which has occasioned the poem. Bit by bit, we learn how the speaker’s past activities (“[l]ast Easter,” “[a] winter ago,” “the summer before,” and “a decade ago”) echo within and alter the present moment. Holland’s concern with the dismantled modern village above the archeological site in “Aphrodisias” is relevant here: like Proust, he is acutely aware of the many layers created by time in one location and in one person’s life.


Craft’s submergence

The other category of my favorite poems by Holland is as aesthetically pleasing as the first, but it is more passionate, so that the reader does not predominately admire the craft — the craft is consumed, transcended. “Stations of the Cross,” my favorite poem in the book, similarly operates by means of theme and variation, but each variation creates much more than pleasing symmetry, for it thrusts us deeper into the passion of PWAs, and into the hell of the speaker who witnesses their suffering:


            It was passion, you see, played out. He was young

            and his brown had never felt thorns

            though he was marked by silence

            marked in the temple’s strange open space,

            where the feast took place

            where the wine stained him, unwilling host.


In this last poem, Holland skillfully constructions an incredibly suggestive echo chamber of metaphors; he seems to have found exactly the right way of sounding Christianity’s notes while mostly keeping his own commentary out of the poem, allowing all the echoes to resonate on their own. Even the poem’s quietest observations are devastatingly sad in their accurate details (which work on both the literal and the metaphoric levels):


            Neither angry nor redeemed we watched

            your mother in her black dress, black halo that spread

            like a spot on the skin;

            or like a wound across the chest . . .


This poem, one of Holland’s most perfectly realized, deserves to be widely anthologized and read.


I could not help comparing Holland’s poetry about AIDS to Paul Monette’s, Thom Guan’s (“The Man With Night Sweats”), and Ron Schreiber’s (“John”); its difference from Monette’s is most striking. Even when Holland’s poems are very angry (“Night Before the March 1989”) or abysmally sad (“Saint Marks Place, Sunday 1989” or “The Wedding”), one could not characterize his voice as a scream. (It is telling that some of Holland’s attempts in this book’s “Public/Access” section to raise his voice fail). One often senses an artistic distance in Holland’s poems, perhaps a bit of Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I certainly would not compare the texture of Holland’s diction to Hemingway’s, but the two writers share a penchant for understated reportage. Monette, by contrast, writes like a hysterical (and virtuosic) diva pulling out all the stops. We are swept along by his flood of emotions and memories; even when he is telling us about the past, we feel its immediacy. In “Love Alone,” Monette rarely takes us out of the present by using the words “I remember”; Holland uses them many times.


My only criticism of “A Journal of the Plague Years” is that about a third of the poems should have been left out, because they do not meet the standard of Holland’s best work. Several of the travel poems contain only flat reportage, the heightened quality of their final lines attempting to give closure to something that never happened. Some of the linguistic experiments in the “Public/Access” section never truly gel into poems. Those stumbles aside, Holland has captured with a fine and steady brush a gay man’s experience during the AIDS crisis.