- The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS by Dagmawi Woubshet
In his beautifully conceived The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS, Dagmawi Woubshet explores how a range of disenfranchised mourners during the early years of the AIDS pandemic used literary and cultural forms to grapple with the innumerable losses of AIDS, while grieving their own impending deaths. In four chapters focusing on AIDS literatures and cultures from the United States to Ethiopia, Woubshet attends to the formal and aesthetic qualities, as well as to the historical context and political properties of early AIDS mourning. The Calendar of Loss intervenes in literary and cultural theories of loss and mourning by considering the work of an array of "disprized mourners" in the early era of AIDS—the period before HIV/AIDS was deemed a manageable chronic illness through the invention and distribution of antiretroviral therapies. This historical periodization is important because many of the gay writers who populate Woubshet's study perished before 1996, when these drug therapies became available. This meant that early AIDS mourners not only grieved the loss of friends and lovers, but they also grieved their own certain deaths. Woubshet names the serial losses that accumulated as evidence of early AIDS mourners' own approaching deaths a "poetics of compounding loss." The historical trauma of AIDS rendered loss as "both object and subject, past and prospective, memory and immediate threat" (4).
The manuscript also intervenes in AIDS scholarship, which has often excluded the contributions of people of color. Beyond including the voices of people of color, Woubshet offers African American mourning as a methodological alternative to normative frameworks of loss and mourning. The persistence of death as a feature of black social life imbues black culture "with an anticipatory sense of loss, recalibrating the calendar of mourning to record past and prospective losses in a single grammar of loss" (19). Centering theories of black mourning, Woubshet reads across a disparate set of AIDS literatures, including the work of black gay artists who often appropriated slave songs to capture their own precarity in the early era of AIDS, along the way capturing the political properties of sorrow—how disenfranchised groups mobilize mourning for community building and political mobilization across difference.
Chapter one, "Lyric Mourning: Sorrow Songs and AIDS Elegies," analyzes the AIDS elegies of black gay writer Melvin Dixon and white gay writer Paul Monette. This chapter extends literary theories of the elegy in British and American poetry by juxtaposing them against African American spirituals to develop the concept of compounding loss. Although a poetics of compounding loss is atypical in Western elegiac forms, it is a constitutive feature of African American spirituals: "There are spirituals that cast death not simply backward and upward but also forward in a timeline that brings into view a death-bound lyric subject who stress death not as transcendence, but as an impending fact here and now" (32). This feature of the spirituals guides his reading of Monette's Love Alone, a book of eighteen single-stanza poems written in the wake of his lover's death from AIDS-related complications. Woubshet attends to the poems' formal qualities, and to the ways that the narrative arc of the poems marks the time of Monette's impending demise. Staying true to his commitment to formalist and contextualist reading, Woubshet also notes how Monette's whiteness inflects his lyric mourning, such that the catastrophic present of [End Page 177] AIDS only comes into view against the backdrop of his nostalgia for an idyllic American past. As such, Monette's lyric mourning is markedly different from the lyric mourning of Dixon, who situates AIDS along a continuum of black racial trauma. In Dixon's AIDS elegies, one finds an intertextual relationship with African American spirituals, wherein the incalculable losses of the slavery and the Middle Passage are translated into the innumerable losses of the early era of AIDS, including his own death from AIDS in 1992...