Days before Mother’s Day, I began reading Hum of Our Blood, Madelyn Garner’s searing collection of poems centered around her son Bradley (“Brad”) Joseph Braverman, “a son cut off / at mid-blossom” by AIDS shortly before his thirty-fifth birthday. Like any gay man of a certain age, I know that Brad’s fate could just as well have been my own. I often thought about the special bond between mother and son during my mother’s recent holiday visit, and I know that my mother would have been there for me, just as Garner was there for Brad, had I not been one of the lucky ones. This bond between mother and son, “love’s umbilical cord,” as Garner puts it, pulses throughout this powerful and introspective book.
Hum of Our Blood follows a mostly chronological order of the adult years of Brad’s life in Los Angeles from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. It begins with Brad’s years as a young artist, photographer, and graphic designer in the land of excess, where hot young men “danced like brides until mirrors swallowed them, / spit them out,” a carefree time when little was yet known about acquired immune deficiency syndrome or its transmittal (until 1982, it wasn’t even called AIDS). As Garner states in “Drum,” Brad was “unaware that if he were celibate he might live.” But the party goes on until in “The Baths, 1982”:
Virus HTLV arrives disguised as hunger
in the beautiful bodies slamming
against each other.
The virus rages unstopped, and soon AIDS infects millions around the world, including Brad when he notices, in “His First Symptom,” the “taste of dime on the tongue.”
In the first of three triptychs in the collection, we learn about Brad’s diagnosis in a series of inventive metaphors. “As Ouija Board” foreshadows fate with its eerie prophesy: “every time the heart-shaped planchette . . . / points to carnage.” In “As Etch-A-Sketch,” “aluminum dust swallows / the gray lines of his gaunt face,” and Kaposi’s sarcoma appears on his chin as a “silver stigmata / colder than moonstone.” The prose poem (one of several) “As Playground Swing” ends with “dragging his heels in the ground, the jerk of chains. The shudder.” Things are about to get worse.
“The Years Between”: years of “black market cures,” of “exotic botanicals, . . . fluorescent shakes,” of a syringe that could be the “singular needle in the haystack,” of desperate hope despite the lack of AIDS research during the Reagan years. Then a call from Brad’s clinic, “that place where wall clocks / pocket minutes,” cements reality: “First evidence his brain is shriveling: / no numbers on which to hook meaning,” indeed “not even the five fingers he counted on / as a child.” The “annihilation” continues as other gay friends are:
exposed, excluded, excoriated, exiled, X’ed-out—
so many words
for one repetitive note of a locked groove,
needles stuck on fear.
Or as “under Exhausted Stars” baldly ends, “They are. / They are not.”
As the son’s life diminishes, it is at this point in Hum of Our Blood that the mother’s comes more into play: the living must carry on. A middle-of-the-night phone call shows the fears Garner also faces as she listens intently for “each wing-sweep of his lungs” on “a voiceless line.” In “The Promise,” she too prepares for a journey “across an unknown field far away.” Some of the most tender poems between mother and son appear when Brad enters the AIDS ward. “For days I have kissed my son / through paper,” Garner laments in “Surgical Mask.” In “Hospital Waltz” the two dance alone in a quiet hospital patio, far removed from the boisterous disco scene that opens the book, “Mother and child, pulse to pulse,” the hum of blood connecting them. In “My Son Confesses,” the fearlessness of love prevails as her son’s lover climbs into the hospital bed with Brad:
. . . defiant
of sheets that are blood-smudged
spongy with sweat, sour with fluids
It is here that she too traces “the labyrinths of his body . . . to a place beyond pain,” an action echoed in “What the Body Knows” when—knowing he is “unmendable”—the family gathers to
lay our hands on his body,
such a small boat, clasping it firmly
to the shore of the living.
In the last of the triptychs, “His Final Days,” the images leave no hope: “the smell of decay,” “limbs turned phantom,” “a landscape narrowing to skeletal.” Brad’s body becomes “a candle / devoured by its own fire.”
The final poems of the book represent the move through grief in a world where most take “no notice of one son lost in a plague of coordinates.” But there’s also the need to move on, to accept, as in “Spring Lament”:
My womb, old empty pot, cannot replace
what it has lost, but I am ready to nurture
seedlings . . .
And so the living go on, though for Garner, her son will always be “patient Alpha / patient Omega,” the beginning and the end.
Hum of Our Blood is unflinching in its raw descriptions and visceral language, and its images are given plenty of space on the page to deliver their impact. They are often shocking, but given the consequences of the virus, how could they not be? This was a time of great devastation, when AIDS was a death sentence and there were no drug cocktails to prolong lives. But it was also a time of great love, as the gay community and its allies came together. No love, however, was stronger than that mother-son bond, and few writers have written so beautifully of this bond. On each reading of Hum of Our Blood, I was reminded of my own mother, and how fortunate she and I are to be in this world together when so many have lost everything. In the pantheon of AIDS literature, Garner’s lines and images are among the most striking. They are powerful reminders of a horror not that far removed, one where AIDS patients were
cocooned in black plastic and taped
for crematoriums, left outside
hospital walls like garbage.
Garner’s important testament to her son and his times has vital relevance in 2017 as gay rights seem to be slipping away in a wave of bias, open discrimination, and conservatism. This is a book very much still needed, an essential book that places love over fear.
Scott Wiggerman is the author of three books of poetry, Leaf and Beak: Sonnets (a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Helen C. Smith Memorial Award), Presence, and Vegetables and Other Relationships; and the editor of several volumes, including Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry (I & II), Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Bearing the Mask. Recent poems have appeared in A Quiet Courage, Calamus Journal, Red Earth Review, bosque, Sin Fronteras, and Chelsea Station. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his husband, writer David Meischen. His website is http://swig.tripod.com.