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A Poet Confronts AIDS In His Home Country

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Hope's Hospice near the city of Montego Bay used to be a place where Jamaicans suffering from AIDS went to die. Now that the disease is more treatable, it's where they struggle to live--the frontline of Jamaica's growing battle against HIV/AIDS. The center's doors are open to anyone who suffers from the disease. Recently, they also welcomed a poet, a native Jamaican by the name of Kwame Dawes. He speaks of life there in his poem Hope's Hospice:

The bodies

broken, placid as saints, hobble

along the tiled corridors, from room

to room...

I think of songs,

the accordion, the strained

harmonies, the bodies of the dying

shuffling past, eyes still hoping;

the van waiting in the shade

to take me from all of this;

the long ride through rain and dark

to Kingston, to sleep and more sleep.

Dawes, who was raised in Kingston, is now the poet in residence at the University of South Carolina. He returned to Jamaica with a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, hoping to draw attention to the country's growing HIV/AIDS crisis: the country's AIDS rate is nearly three times that of the U.S. and experts fear that it may soon become an epidemic.

The result of Dawes' efforts is a new form of journalism--a remarkable website called HOPE: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica. The site sets first person audio and video accounts by doctors and patients to the vibrant and evocative photography of Joshua Cogan. The centerpiece of the website, however, is Dawes' poetry. Reading his poems and listening to Dawes' voice, you unlock the emotional toll AIDS is taking on Jamaica.

In his poem Coffee Break, Dawes recounts a story told to him by one of the doctors at the center:

It was Christmas time,

the balloons needed blowing,

and so in the evening

we sat together to blow

balloons and tell jokes--

the cool air off the hills

made me think of coffee,

so I said, "Coffee would be nice,"

and he said, "Yes, coffee

would be nice," and smiled

as his thin fingers pulled

the balloons from the plastic bags;

so I went for coffee

and it takes a few minutes

to make the coffee

though I did not know

if he wanted cows milk

or condensed milk,

and when I came out

to ask him, he was gone,

just like that, in the time

it took me to think,

cows milk or condensed;

the balloons sat lightly

on his still lap.

While AIDS is no longer necessarily a death sentence in Jamaica, Dawes illuminates how difficult it is to live with the disease. He joined an AIDS support group at the Portmore center and got to know its members. Some are victims of rape--a horrible myth persists that AIDS can be cured by sex with a virgin--and some (both men and women) have infected and continue to knowingly infect others. They are portraits of strength and weakness, of guilt and of defiance, and many of Dawes' poems are based on their heart-wrenching accounts. This excerpt from Nichol is Dawes' view on one man's struggle:

How coolly it has broken you,

trying to mask the knowing wit

behind your eyes--

every smile, brilliant

against your gleaming

black skin, is defiance.

You stammer, push out

words; tell your story;

slap your knees to show

where your stroke frozen

body would crawl

across the concrete

to reach the yard,

with the gawking

on-lookers. You laugh

"Man must live.

Man must live."

It's no accident that Dawes uses the word "loving" in the title of his project. He views the patients he met in Portmore as they view each other--no matter their sins--with what he describes as "the simple equations of compassion." In an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review, he said of the support group: "No one can put on airs here. No one has anything to hide. They share a disease that has leveled the field for each of them, and it is strangely moving to watch."

Thanks to his efforts, far more of us are watching.

You can visit his site here.

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