Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Steven Cordova's Poem "Across a Table" from His Debut Book "Long Distance"

One of the more enjoyable books of the year is Steven Cordova's "Long Distance." The poems possess the graceful conviction to evaporate as you read them--there's rarely a desperate transition or forced leap in their trajectories. You sense the impact of an Eileen Myles in his work: the poems are unobtrusive, wispy—in a delightful way. Cordova's AIDS poems dissipate; they don’t strain to be remembered. He creates in HIV-impacted narrator who is admirably modest in his desires: he wants to share, from time to time, even entertain, but never with much self-aggrandizement.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Cordova’s well-tempered, necessary re-envisioning of AIDS as the aggressively banal. This is the complete opposite of poets who insist on seeing the illness as never less than dramatic (and often melodramatic).

Cordova’s titles indicate his desire to determinedly, yet calmly investigate the unremarkable : “New Love,” “In Your Defense,” “Old Friend,” “Drinking Buddies.” Here’s one of my favorite poems “Across a Table” in its entirety:

“I’m glad you’re positive.”

“I’m glad you’re positive,

too, though, of course, I wish

you weren’t.” I wish you weren’t

either is the response I expect.

But you say nothing.

And who can blame you?

Not me. I’m not the one

who’ll call you after dinner and a movie.

You’re not the one who’ll call me.

We both know we have

that-what?-that ultimate date

one night to come, one bright morning.

Who can blame us? Not the forks

and not the knives that carry on

and do the heavy lifting now.

Unadorned, the poem speaks to the idea that AIDS has become rather undramatic and at the same no less significant. In its Cavafy-like flatness, the comedy-of-manners contained in the opening lines reflect a dilemma of the now. With the disclosure of HIV so common, how does one still find (or should they find?) a heightened significance in the exchange of statuses?

It’s telling that Cordova uses the word “blame.” Here blame is attributed not in any way to the mode of transmission; it’s connected to a failure in etiquette.

In the poem, Cordova employs two rhetorical question: 1.) “And who can blame you?” regarding his quasi-disappointment that his date doesn’t reciprocate the wish that his companion isn’t HIV-impacted. 2.) “Who can blame us?” – which functions most intriguingly as confirmation that the banality of a failed date is nothing that significant in relation to larger unions like oneself to their own mortality.

The “forks” and “knives”—the props for a dinner date –are more than sufficient to carry through what is the ultimate crisis of the poem: a failed date. The banal subject of AIDS is elided (yet not concealed) in perhaps the most whimsical of poetic devices: personification. This unforced poetic move is one of the now, not of the late 1980 or early to mid 90's.

In a future post, I'll focus on one or two of my other favorites: "Testing Positive," "The Last AIDS Cat," "At the Delacorte" "Old Friend", etc.


  1. I think that's my favorite poem in that book.

  2. I like the idea of uniting to mortality. And the great line break, "carry on" which would be cloying if it wasn't coupled with "the heavy lifting now."

  3. That's my favorite Cordova poem.