Twenty-five years after its first publication, the expanded edition of Aaron Shurin’s Unbound: A Book of AIDS (Nightboat Books) will move both new readers and those revisiting after a quarter of a century. My own true understanding of the impact of AIDS began about a year after Shurin first began writing it.
In my twenties, in 1989, after some months abroad, I ended up living in San Francisco, finding work delivering wine to restaurants, then selling wine at a liquor store where I got to take home half-full bottles from distributors. I lived in the Mission, paying $325 in rent and, not owning a car, walked to work in the Castro neighborhood. I lived a generally bohemian life, reading a lot and trying to figure out how to write.
I knew about the Castro neighborhood, that it was a gay neighborhood, that it had been a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community for years, and I knew about HIV/AIDS. I had also seen the virulent homophobia directed at this community. Working this job (at nights mostly), I saw and heard a lot: purple blotches covered by a bit of foundation or a scarf, extremely thin gay men laughing at brunches or walking with heads held high, even as it was clear that they were terribly sick. I had been to the Halloween street parties but also heard how I missed the heyday, that the bathhouses were nothing like they used to be. And I saw activists imploring, clashing with, shouting at, and finally getting the attention of a man at the National Institutes of Health named Anthony Fauci, a man who would become an ally. Working nights, I listened to some scared and lonely people who had nowhere else to go. I learned a lot about suffering from disease and prejudice, community, and bravery.
With the coronavirus pandemic, so many now know the feeling that your life story is being rewritten without your consent. But in the worst time of this pandemic there was always reason to hope because of the relentless coordinated efforts around the world to develop vaccines. And now a couple years later, many have been vaccinated, boosted and/or have caught and recovered from COVID-19. While there have been breakthroughs in treatment, there is still no vaccine for HIV.
Younger readers will not know the charged, uncertain feeling in the queer community at the peak of the AIDS epidemic—the grief, desperation, and activism to get attention, to be taken seriously and to get some help. As Aaron Shurin says in the “A Note on the Text” included in the new edition, “The tenor was always one of unfolding incredulity, and the ground a portion of history held in a desperate embrace.”
How to write about something so singular? This was the task faced by Shurin, one that eventually led to the original publication of Unbound. So much has changed (and not changed) since then: Unbound has accumulated three historically contextualizing prefaces, and as Shurin says, “each iteration casts a different light on what is essentially unfathomable.” Each is a reflection with the benefit of hindsight (in this edition, two earlier ones are arranged into an epilogue). The prefaces act as snapshots, as windows providing entry into the original text and also as lenses refractive of their own time, the most recent echoing with special relevance in the era of COVID-19.
Shurin never set out to write a book about AIDS. “There was no project,” he claims in the original preface. Instead, AIDS took its toll on those around him, and he was compelled to respond in a manner “weighted toward witness.” “How to write AIDS named me,” he says. So many are crushed; others are prompted to action. Shurin wrote the book because he had to: “I was surrounded by what I might properly call a sense of duty, even if it at times felt like nowhere to run: AIDS chased me down, cornered me, and stuck a pen in my hand,” he explains in the new preface.
But how to write about it? The range of prepositions used here in writing about how to write AIDS is indicative of the range of questions encompassed by the book, the range of the “brutal presence” of the disease. It is a book about AIDS, a book written into the “dark oracle” of the mouth of a young friend with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a book by HIV—“It’s writing me.”—but primarily it is a book of AIDS, as the title claims. What emerges is a hybrid of poetry, personal narrative, and poetics that is as variable as the channels in our lives the Human Immunodeficiency Virus creates.
The contemporary reader will be thrown into the narrative, among the men who act with intimacy, beauty, and mercy amid the horrors of AIDS. Shurin writes of the immediately personal but also speaks to the pervasive influence the disease has had: both multiple and awesomely singular in its end, microscopic and terrifyingly huge in scope, figurative and disfiguring. In his struggle for a means of address, Shurin writes that, at first, he saw two possible responses: one of loss, the other of rage. The first, he writes, seemed to him “woefully personal” and the latter already embodied by Act Up, Queer Nation, and other activist organizations; neither was satisfactory to him. In the original preface, he writes “It soon became clear that for me writing about AIDS was weighted toward witness.”
Unbound tells the stories of many of Shurin’s friends who struggled with the disease and died of it. He renders them with intimacy and clarity, and I found myself startled by the courage of these men. Jackson, “a renaissance man [who] could do everything (except maybe relax)” asked C, his lover and primary caregiver, to carry him into the garden so he could ‘bleed into the earth’” as he died. In this, Shurin sees creation:
Jackson was able to arch over his death this worshipful poetic figure, to guide as communion a passing that others would read as being taken away . . . Who knew that a man could have such precise integrity in that particular moment, could engage his death actively—with cognizance and will—as a life image, could make of his final moments not a destruction but a creative act?
A young man, John Davis, haunts Shurin’s consciousness and writing throughout the book. John “documented his bodily demise in a series of dispassionately precise photos,” one of which appears on the cover of Unbound. Shurin describes John’s ability to “distance and devour” and includes two of his own reviews for exhibition because, I believe, they capture his own concerns about addressing AIDS through art in a culture that shuns the body. In such discussions of poetics and art theory, Shurin reveals his own ability to maintain a detached critical eye while not becoming emotionally numb; he too distances and devours. “He keep[s] the body forward” so that we still see it as it is—as Davis did in chronicling the disease’s destruction of his body—refusing to allow the virus to reestablish shame and concealment in his work or in the community. Shurin says “I do of course propose safe sex—medically safe but not politically safe, not socially or even psychically safe.” This “chaotic force of eros,” he says, “is a depth charge for change.”
Throughout Unbound are the footprints of Shurin’s influences: Cocteau, Whitman, Proust, Chopin, possibly Baudelaire. He created this response to AIDS from the things that matter in his life. The writing is informed by (and sometimes constructed from) the creative work of these writers so that it breaks free from genres into a language of both historical context and the particulars of a particular time. Sometimes this language is so heavily textured that it seems to threaten the reader’s sense of being in control, of being afloat on the work, and evokes the primal fear of drowning, of being eaten by it: “the terror, that coming-to-get-you shark with its boom-ba boom-ba boom-ba beat.” This shark motif occurs in a couple of places in the book, signifying an ever-present threat, an open-ended terror that remains, circling and waiting as AIDS does, regardless of how well-adjusted or safe one may be.
The language of the book pulls the reader below the surface—in the titles “Notes from Under” and “Further Under”—and in the use of a splintered narrative that appears, disappears, seduces, and finally is out of the reader’s grasp. In “The Depositories” and “Strips and Streamers,” Shurin uses language from Whitman, with whom he found a “kinship in scenarios of war.” to create sharp and gashing sentences amidst the carnage of a battlefield:
Green oozing out from the grass—large spaces swept over—burning the dead beards, odor of the rejected arm and leg. In history the paper remain and still remain soaking up the glaze.
For me, these works also evoke Whitman through Ginsberg because they not only memorialize, as the wounded and dying are cared for, but incite, though these “best minds” of Shurin’s generation are lost to AIDS and AIDS alone, “a unified swath of lifetime lost.”
Sometimes the narrative works as incantation, a recitation from memory of a secret spirituality.
I like to stand and look a long while. Individuals in human places verify the forms. The dim leaden members with heads leaning and voices speaking. In the arms and in the legs from my observation.
Other times the sentences lengthen and engulf.
“Human Immune” is the vortex of Unbound. Placed roughly in the center of the book, each paragraph lengthens incrementally so they spin out longer and longer; the funnel widens and spreads as a virus does. I read this work as the spiritual center of the book; everything before it is a prelude and everything after is contextualized by it. It alters the reader’s experience when proceeding through the book because it offers a glimpse of an erotic inferno—of sex and death’s closeness—raging behind the smoother narrative passages that follow.
He knelt down next to me—fallen giant, empty stump. Feeling the blood pulling around my thighs, “I think it’s screaming,” I said. He stood barefoot, one warm leg, nest at the belt pink wriggling sack, I wanted to run into the sun now, bristling muscular bulging animal sedated by his eyes. My body shook against him on a hot summer day, gushing to life, blood-filled, blood-dizzy. He rolled over onto his side, watching the men. A ruin. A patient. Overgrown so that the flat air had no answer. We floated in which the memory moving our bellies going dark have all taken flight—a cure may be possible—tell me what words mean—pleasure for a coffin: turn and enter your home.
Also in “Human Immune” is the reoccurring motif hell is round, the double meanings of which bring the reader amidst the language (all around) and also invoke Dante’s circular hell. Here, the reader gets the feeling that the work is really being written by HIV, that it is spreading outward, mutating and threatening. There is something both dark and beautiful here lurking in the syntax, moving through the shadow’s erotic imagery, pulsing through the blood of its dreamlike logic. Rereading this, after twenty-five years, the strength of this vortex remains: the whirling suction of voices and perspectives pulling the reader in, always threatening to infect and engulf.
“The Dance We Made,” written in 2003, is new to this edition of Unbound but is written very much from inside the world of the original, even as it ponders its own perspective. Here, Shurin responds to a request to collaborate with a dancer and friend, Richard, to reenter the writing of, about, and through AIDS, hesitating at first, “uneasy, uncertain” finding his footing and ground “on the edge of the Age of AIDS.” “The Dance We Made” slips in and out of bodies, the writing generated from and inspired by inhabiting the physical:
I was able to project myself into you, enter your skin, and for an instant, I saw, possibly speak from there. It took a physical shape to seduce and activate me, where mentality and abstractions had left me wordless.
And so, reentering the narrative places himself back into the skin of beloved people in the Age of AIDS.
This request to collaborate, to step through the window into that time is quite a request, considering the vulnerability and presence with which Shurin approached each piece and each trauma. Here, he ponders what it means to reenter the narrative six years later, to step through the various viewpoints through which the era is experienced. In this case it is a narrative about a dear friend, Marshall:
I still wonder whether giving Marshall’s death its due requires placing it inside the raging epidemic, San Francisco of the ’80s and ’90s, inside a frame of other frames, a grand, dramatic, panoramic gallery unspeakably long, or just an every-day family album stuffed with helplessly ordinary snapshots. Ah, the vital tenor, the pressure, the grief, the accuracy, the lift, the loss, the loss, the names, the language, the infancy, the phantasm, the new old age, the pure volition, the surrender, the schooling, the tender vigil, the words spoken out loud or not spoken at all or murmured into the mystery of the night, the words held in abeyance in a secret pocket for another time, another room, another improvised blessing or curse. . . .
Shurin writes Unbound with an acute awareness of the frames within frames of perspective. It offers comfort in its beauty and compassion for so many dying people, but it never looks away.
People want to make sense of things. But too often our sense-making dulls the senses, reconstructing events with sweeping statements that create a manageable distance from traumatic events, giving them some level of psychological comfort. Immunity from viruses is wonderful (as is building a degree of psychological resilience against traumatic events). But when our souls become immune, a part of us dies, empathy and humanity is lost. Shurin’s writing inhabits, first and foremost; it is immediate and open, not distant, and is therefore subject to the pain (and pleasures) it inhabits. The reader is pulled into the work with the same force Shurin was forced to write it.
Unbound: A Book of AIDS is a work of dedication, a visceral portrait of another era and so much more—a mourning, a habitation, a guide to grieving, an homage to and an act of intimacy, love and beauty in a time of plague. It is an effort by its author to address a moment in history of great calamity and personal sorrow with full awareness. But there is instruction in this book as well. In Shurin’s struggle toward articulation and consciousness.
To characterize this visceral struggle as esthetic is to recognize an ecology of paradigms, a streaming mutuality of influences artistic and social, and to pay attention—poetics—as if one’s life depended on it.
One’s life does depend on it, and one does need full dedication: “The poet meeting his fate in poetry, the lover in loving: propriety serves neither, both must go too far.” Shurin goes beyond the threshold and carries the reader with him.