Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band

Never Forget the Voices by Dean J. Smith, Director, Cornell University Press

As I read Dr. Susan Ball’s memoir, Voices in the Band, about working in the trenches of the AIDS crisis, I remembered the searing lines from Henri Cole’s poem “Paper Dolls” that was published in The New Yorker in 1995: “Straight as candles/His legs exposed/The eroding candelabrum/That was his body.”

Ball’s account brings back the patients she cared for in all of their tragic beauty. You accompany her on daily rounds and inside the group therapy sessions where doctors were trying any technique possible to deal with a deadly contagion that had become a national health crisis. You learn that many hospitals and doctors didn’t want to deal with these patients. She arrived to find the shoddy work of medical residents who were afraid to touch them.

On some days, she’d had enough: 

Luz and I wanted the same thing; she needed to feel better in order to move around and care for her son. I helped her do that. One the one hand, Olive wanted illness to excuse her from life; on the other Etta behaved as if she could avoid becoming ill just by her own obliviousness. They didn’t want what I had to offer them.

I lived in Chelsea from 1988 until 1997 and had minimal interaction with those suffering from the disease or its impact. Our city councilman, Tom Duane was the first openly gay councilmember in the US and had tested positive for HIV. Even in that neighborhood, a kind of ground zero, the details were scarce but the suffering as close as St. Vincent’s Hospital less than 10 blocks away. There were hints in the scads of mail addressed to people with male first names who were no longer living at my residence.

Had they died of AIDS?

I ran into my friend and fellow poet David Craig Austin from the Columbia MFA program frequently on 7th avenue during that time. His poems in workshop were like nothing I’d ever seen. He wrote love poems about the red light district in Provincetown. At 22, I didn’t even know where that was.  We met in Carolyn Forche’s loft apartment in Soho. Poet Bruce Craven would say in his critiques that we were all “bad in a good way.” We started out copying the styles of our heroes. Not Austin—he was already in a different league. I received a postcard shortly after seeing him on the street with the skeletons of elephants on the front. I had no idea he was sick. I asked a fellow writer after a reading at Man Ray Bistro if they had seen him recently.

“He died two months ago,” she said. “Bob Towers cried at this funeral,” referring to the director of the writing program.

I remembered the skeletons on the postcard. The postcard had been a goodbye.

The David Craig Austin Memorial Prize was started to honor him and has been given to some of the best poets in America: Moira Egan, David Yezzi and Emily Fragos to name a few. His career was cut short and we’ll never know how great a poet he would have been. Dr. Ball rekindled David’s memory for me.

In his poem, “The Gifts,” Austin writes: “I think of metaphors/for marking time: windows, the torn pockets/of winter coats and what falls through, lost/for good.

In Voices in the Band, Dr. Ball presents her patients in breathtaking detail and lets nothing fall through the pockets of her memory.

The Director of Cornell University Press, Dean J. Smith, will occasionally be contributing to the Sage House News blog.

Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band