- Loss's Grammar:Rewriting Aids Through Black Grief
Remarkably "the first book-length study of AIDS in the humanities at the intersection of black and queer studies" (26), The Calendar of Loss also stands out for Dagmawi Woubshet's exacting attunement to aesthetic form in the early AIDS archive. Suggesting that AIDS cultural studies has been long occupied with the facts and discursive entanglements of AIDS—its consequential "truths"(25)—Woubshet frames his project explicitly on the literary and visual poetics of the early era of AIDS and in particular its transmission of acute grief. As he moves comparatively among works by black and white artists, beginning in the United States and ending in Ethiopia, Woubshet identifies an experience of cataclysm, shared across race, that sets the poetics of early AIDS cultural production apart from canonical notions of expressed mourning. This sense of cataclysm, along with the reality that most of the authors of these early years of the pandemic worked in the face of their own impending deaths, brings these works together as part of a tradition that Woubshet uniquely identifies as a "poetics of compounding loss," connected historically to flashpoints of collective, overwhelming grief. This historicization reverses the conventional racial dynamics of AIDS cultural memory, wherein black authors appear as a minor note in predominantly white subcanons of [End Page 269] American art. Instead, Woubshet takes a soft brush to white AIDS expression to reveal its debt to black loss, placing these works in a concealed racial history of grief's uneven distribution. Through Woubshet's archival and cultural realignment, we begin to understand all AIDS writing as participating in, rather than inaugurating, an American poetics of compounding loss that finds its origin point not in the white urban middle class but in the Middle Passage. The phenomenon by which the white expressions of AIDS mourning find themselves estranged from the chain of American catastrophes experienced by its other "disprized" subjects reveals divergent calendars of loss (5). In the American literary history of mass grief as charted by Woubshet, the AIDS crisis is but one flashpoint among many important others that emerge when we read through a black lens.
Woubshet moves gracefully among media, and his intense attention to the formal manifestations of compounding loss and its inconsolability binds his archive together across genres and contexts. Without overstating any extraordinary divergence among his texts, I mean to highlight the exceptional coherence that Woubshet's concept of compounding loss (and his interpretive technique) lends to his archive. This compounding emerges as repetitions, lists, restagings, densities, anticipations, and other strategies that signify borne-but-unbearable accumulations of grief. In three of the book's four chapters, a focus on written genres of mourning—the lyric, the obituary, and the epistle—allows Woubshet to remap the literary history of forms that emerge in response to the AIDS pandemic. The poetry of AIDS finds precedent in slave spirituals; the normative formula of the obituary emerges, in contrast to the improvised black queer eulogy, as a mode of containment; and letters to the dead reveal the ways in which loss warps time and defers grief. Woubshet moves black expressions of grief to the root of grief's artistic forms, "eschew[ing] a model of AIDS scholarship that isolates people of color in a separate chapter, away from and contingent on the experiences of white gay men"(6). His method does not sideline the well-trod white canon of AIDS cultural production as though to simply remove it from this history but engages it within a new historical frame that peels away its Europhilic veneer.
For example, in chapter 1, "Lyric Mourning: Sorrow Songs and the AIDS Elegy," Woubshet reads Paul Monette's book of poems Love Alone alongside Melvin Dixon's Love's Instruments. Both of these works demonstrate one of the ways in which Woubshet separates early AIDS poetics from other "normative grammars of [End Page 270] loss" (29): the temporal proximity of the speaker...