A New Narrative for HIV/AIDS? How Tory Dent Made Her Way through the Prevailing Rhetoric of Identity, Death & Disease

Claire Atwood


When we talk abour HIV/AIDS, we are not just talking about disease. We are talking about any number of dimensions that the disease might take: the science behind its replication and treatment, the politics behind its funding and coverage, the activism behind our awareness of it.  There is no talking about HIV in some kind of unfettered state that is not associated with a from a preloaded narrative about it. So says G. Thomas Couser, who in his book Recovering Bodies explores the challenges ill and disabled people face when writing about themselves. He explains that much of the difficulty in talking about HIV/AIDS results from the fact that “AIDS is culturally constructed, or ‘written,’ as a series of narratives” (Couser 84). These narratives end up manifesting themselves as “hegemonic scripts or metaphors” (Couser 86) that inform or, worse, determine, how we talk about HIV/AIDS. Couser sees these metaphors and narratives on large, aggregate stages, and he addresses how those large stages end up directing the way individuals talk about HIV/AIDS, whether or not they are aware of it. Take, for example, the way AIDS diagnoses are couched as death sentences. Or, as Lee Edelman notes, how legislators and even doctors can imply that people contract HIV by surrendering themsleves to unfavorable sexual or drug habits, a “dangerous discourse of mastery” (81) that has prompted gay rights activists “to defend themselves” (81) against the distorted relationships of their bodies and their sexualities (80). As both scholars and activists have pointed out, and which has become increasingly clear to a wider public, these overriding narratives often are defeating for persons with AIDS .

         The prevailing solution to this issue has its own problems. As Couser points out, activists and persons with AIDS have typically attempted to subvert these stigmatizing narratives by going personal (79), and we have seen many memoirs and testimonials try to establish a more compassionate and individual narrative of the disease. These more personal narratives, claims Edelman, have not entirely freed HIV/AIDS from the larger, more imposing narratives of the disease, and they can even end up recycling similar stories and similar attitudes. In Edelman’s words, writing and speech on HIV/AIDS has been a history of “homophobic and antihomophobic forces alike generat[ing] . . . discourses that reify and absolutize identities” (86). That is, all sides of the debate tend to emphasize identity in a way that cannot actually contain the various ways in which a person can identify. What’s more, these personal narratives of AIDS can end up being interpreted ungenerously by a public readership, whose attitudes toward AIDS have already been determined by its larger (and often phobic) narratives. As such, the voices of individual stories tend to get absorbed into the politicized din of AIDS. Even in the creative media of art and literature, where persons with AIDS may have more say in representing their illness and themselves, the specter of those public narratives still hangs over their work. Such narratives make it difficult for writers and artists to separate their voices from those of politicians, scientists, and even friendly activists. They struggle, in other words, to find a voice that faithfully expresses their experiences without being subordinated to some greater agenda about death, promiscuity, or morality, among the many more we can imagine. Although the authors of autobiographical AIDS narratives have, in Couser’s words, “the potential of countering hegemonic scripts” (89), they are then faced with the problem of how to represent their experience when all available language they might draw on seems better built to serve an agenda.

This is the problem in which Tory Dent rather elegantly, if cryptically, inserted herself. Dent, a poet who wrote of her own experience with AIDs, passed away in 2005 of AIDS-associated illness after having written three books of poetry, winning the James Laughlin Award, and being honored by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. Reading her poetic sequence, “HIV, Mon Amour,” the title poem of her second book, reveals a possible solution to the problem of defining one’s voice, and therefore one’s own experience, when addressing HIV/AIDs. Her sequence is structured as a series of lyric love poems, all written to HIV, and here is where she first distinguishes herself from the prevailing literature on HIV/AIDS: her lyric poetry is as far removed as possible from journalistic, scientific, and political expression. This is not to say that she is the only or first poet to write lyrically about HIV. Hers is a poetry, however, that stands out for the way it codes the most prosaic experiences in metaphors so imagistic and visceral that the poems overwhelm any influence of those larger, socially prescriptive narratives. While Dent adopts stigma by the very act of writing about HIV/AIDs, she uses it unconventionally; Edelman notes that the prevailing narratives are “strain[s] of metaphor that can appear so natural” that they seem to be true (91), but throughout her poems Dent adopts these narratives in a way so blatant as to make them seem anything but natural. In one poem Dent describes herself in terms of immorality and promiscuity, two prominent narratives surrounding HIV, but conveys these scripts in their most graphic form: “I float, a corpse offered up as carrion . . . / stretched out, a canvas, a salt lick, a virgin, for only a god would seduce a virgin / until she becomes a whore” (XXVII 11-13). The effect is to strip the sex-shaming narrative of its allure by bringing it out into the open and to assert the poet’s individual voice as more powerful than that of the public. But such lines are just as likely to alienate Dent’s speaker from AIDS activists and the language they use. In this sense, Dent leverages alienation to assert autonomy. What we will see, then, is that Dent appropriates certain narratives of AIDS by taking them to jarring metaphorical extremes. She builds, in these extremes, a language for herself that tears itself away from our prevailing notions of HIV.


To better understand Dent’s relationship to those prevailing narratives of HIV/AIDS, it will be helpful to view them through the lens of Erving Goffman’s theory of stigmatization. Goffman outlines this theory in his now-classic book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Examining Goffman’s ideas will be particularly useful in understanding how public narratives of HIV/AIDS often end up determining how individuals with AIDS relate to themselves, to their disease, and to the world around them. Goffman claims stigma is usually attached to some personal “defect,” either in appearance, character, or group identity (4), that prevents others from giving the stigmatized individual “the respect and regard” (8) they are due. That stigmatized individual, says Goffman, ends up internalizing the stigma itself, often “finding that some of his own attributes warrant it” (8-9). The resultant “discrepancy . . . between an individual’s virtual and actual identity . . . spoils his social identity, cutting him off from society and himself” (19). Stigmatized individuals end up playing two social roles as a result of this discrepancy between their identities, and they become adept at switching between those roles. On one hand, they will go to great lengths to identify with other stigmatized people, and on the other, they will go to equally great lengths to identify with the larger public as a normal person (134-5) Although most of the stigmas Goffman mentions are physically visible (deformities, for example) and non-life-threatening (16), the existence of a stigma surrounding AIDS is undeniable. Arguably, the deadliness and visual undetectability of AIDS only add to its stigma by adding paranoia and fear (do they have it? could they spread it to me?) to a disease already conflated with sexual transgression in the public’s thoughts.



As such, we may apply Goffman’s theories to HIV/AIDS narratives and to Dent in particular, reaching the preliminary conclusion that Dent’s extreme appropriation of HIV/AIDS narratives is her way of rebelling against stigma by destroying all trace of the role of the normal within herself. Our analysis is complicated, however, by the fact that Dent does not belong to the demographic that has been most heavily stigmatized for HIV/AIDS in the past: gay males. After all, Couser says of HIV/AIDS that “though it is by no means confined to gay men, [it] remains associated in the minds of many with male homosexuality” (100). At issue, of course, is not whether HIV narratives affect Dent, but whether prevailing narratives of HIV would take her into consideration. As poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum explains, it is not just the demographics of persons with AIDS but the demographics of representation that have shifted; representing AIDS is no longer dominated by gay men. As time goes by, Koestenbaum observes, “heterosexual transmission of AIDS gains publicity, and . . . the dividing line blurs between straight and gay as identities (as opposed to behaviors)” (168). This means that writers like Tory Dent are still inevitably faced with stigma when weighing in on HIV/AIDS, even if that stigma originated from a different sexual demographic. Although Dent might or might not participate in the specific sexual practices that have been stigmatized most in HIV/AIDS narratives (Koestenbaum 168), the blurring of sexual identities with respect to the spread of the disease means that the demographic boundaries of stigmatization break down as well. Given these conditions, the alienation that Dent uses to eke out an autonomous voice can be seen as a consequence of her uniquely alienated position with respect to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: she is burdened with the stigma that affects all persons with AIDS, but she is not a part of the demographic that was originally stigmatized. Her disruption of our expectations of a person with AIDS will be the first of many that Dent leverages to make an autonomous voice for herself.



We now can turn to Dent’s poems to see how she manages these prevailing narratives by turning alienation into autonomy. What we might first notice is that alienation in Dent’s poems stems largely from the lyric form: the poems are explicitly closed off from the outside world and its narratives, and this allows Dent to create her a language isolated from the politics of HIV/AIDS. Doing so also lends credibility to her subversion of those narratives. Throughout the collection, Dent makes no overt address to her fellow AIDS sufferers or the officials who have controlled the perception of HIV/AIDS. Nor does she attempt to locate herself within a community of fellow sufferers. In fact, she suggests that she does not feel any more connected fellow persons with AIDS than she would to strangers picked out of a phone book; she imagines “[her] name / composed within a disseminating list as if it were from the phone book whence [she] came” (XX 5-6). In this way, Dent rejects any comforting (but ultimately, she implies, contrived) narrative of solidarity as much as she rejects any narrative of condemnation.

As an alternative to any form of community, Dent depicts herself as utterly alone but for her one intimate and addressee, HIV. We see this when Dent writes that in the “amphitheater” of her life’s performance, “[n]o one was there as the beholder but us” (XIV 7-8) – here “us” should not be read as talking to us, her readers, but to her sole addressee. Because Dent is imagining herself and HIV as social actors, we can view her writing alongside another component of Goffman’s theory of stigma. Goffman theorizes that stigmatized people have “back places” (81) where they can be with people who have similar problems and “find they need not try to conceal their stigma” (81). Within “HIV, Mon Amour,” it seems that Dent’s only “back place” is structured into the conceit of the poetry: the space of close conversation between herself and HIV. Other figures only play into the poetic sequence briefly as emblems of the malevolent discourse from which she so pointedly distances herself. For example, take the following lines: “‘I think women who are HIV positive that have children are murderers, don’t you?’ / said the woman on a lawn chair” (VIII 5-7). The clever line break gives us momentary pause as we are unsure who is uttering such mean-spirited words. In response, Dent “look[s] to the swimming pool for alliance” (VIII 8), showing the extent of her alienation from those who stigmatize AIDS as much as her own potential supporters. So while Dent generally writes in a way that alienates her work from the narratives surrounding AIDS, she does feel isolated from them. Her “eyes exempt themselves from compassion, from cultural interests, from the peripheral vision of human potential” (VII).

What does this exemption say about Dent’s stigmatization and her relationship to those narratives surrounding HIV/AIDS? The answer lies in the way her isolation from society and other persons with AIDS allows her to appropriate their stories and iconography in a way that negates the meaning of those narratives. She does not, in other words, simply place her voice within the politicized narrative of HIV. In poem VI, for example, Dent imagines a symbol of HIV/AIDS solidarity, a red ribbon, that “tapes my mouth, blinds my eyes, erases my genitals” (11). That Dent has called the ribbon “simple” and a “factual litany / shaved down to the particular” (9-10) in the previous lines shows that she doubts the validity of the too-reductive ribbon as a symbol at all. The fact that it is the ribbon, not the disease, that she envisions “string[ing] me up, a carcass in an icebox” (12) shows her resistance to what it symbolizes: letting AIDS (in a distilled and palatable form) define her identity and, by extension, her writing. The figure of the ribbon is Dent’s response to what scholar Judith Williamson describes as the “complete absence of meaning” of HIV infection (69). That Dent imagines what is (for her) a trivial symbol as the cause of her own death reflects that the fatal stigma of HIV/AIDS seems arbitrary due in part to the lack of any physical marking of the disease (it needs a ribbon to give it physicality), and also to Dent’s sense of alienation from the community that the ribbon implies. This sense of arbitrariness alienates Dent from what Williamson describes as the “narratives that seem to be going somewhere” and through which “AIDS is invested with meaning” (69-70) in order to fit into a social agenda. Specifically, Dent is eschewing the “melodrama . . . whose sentimentality is the flip side of horror’s brutality” (Williamson 71). The ribbon is a perfect example of such melodrama, drawing persons with AIDS into a united front of solidarity with strangers, celebrities, activists, the research organizations funded by sales, and the merchandisers who incorporate the ribbon into products. By taking the narrative embodied in the ribbon to violent extremes, Dent is alienating herself not only from PWA but from the discourse associated with them, which seeks to subordinate individual experiences with illness to broader socio-political goals.

Indeed, Dent attempts to free herself not just from the reductive narratives of stigmatizers and activists, but also from the construal of discourse as a politicized tool that simplifies or categorizes reality. The fundamental unreliabilty of such discourse is a particular issue for HIV/AIDS because, as Lee Edelman describes, the very concept of talking about HIV/AIDS has been imbued with political significance. AIDS stigmatizers have viewed discourse on HIV/AIDS as a direct means of spreading  homosexuality (Edelman 87), while activists have viewed “the production of discourse . . . as a mode of defense . . . against the opportunistic infections of demagogic rhetoric” (Edelman 87-8). Dent rejects these approaches by detaching herself from the use of language as a social tool, which helps to explain the abstraction and inaccessibility of her words as a deliberate attempt to retreat from the political fray. When describing her anticipation of death in poem XVII, for instance, Dent states that the “innocence of abyss arches its trajectory of deletion across the image repertoire of your failures” (2-3). Such lines are representative of Dent’s preferred style of using large words and creating insulated images whose sensory aspects are subordinated to the abstract. This loftiness of tone makes her language difficult to understand in demagogic socio-political terms, but it also makes it hard to understand in terms that might be more friendly to persons with AIDS. Dent’s poems lack rhyme, varying line length, and the other formal features that make poetry more visually and mentally palatable. Instead, they form imposing blocks of texts on the page with long lines and phrases. Thus, the formal structure of the collection rejects inattentive reading and the simplicity of ideas that often comes with demagogic rhetoric. Together, the style and structure of the poems help to ensure that Dent’s poetic idiosyncracies are understood as clues to her complex personal experience, rather than as something more generalizable or applicable, such as an attempt to chronicle the experience of HIV. Dent makes her writing difficult to shove into any prevailing wisdom on the disease.



Given that isolating herself from all socially and politically charged discourse on HIV/AIDS is Dent’s chosen route to creating an autonomous voice, we should ask ourselves an important question: does such an approach not simply construct new narratives that unfairly impose their order on the meaninglessness of HIV/AIDS? Other writers have dealt with similar problems, most notably the authors of AIDS diaries. The scholar Ross Chambers examines this genre of writing in his book Untimely Intervention, in which he reexamines Goffman’s theories of stigma in light of the way AIDS diarists represent their illness and themselves. According to Chambers, autobiographical chroniclers of the AIDS experience are seen to be de-legitimatized as voices because they speak from an “ungrammatical” (61) perspective, meaning that their prerogative for writing about AIDS is perceived to be in question because they dare to perform the suspicious act of taking a stigma onto themselves (61). In order to justify their writing, says Chambers, AIDS diarists become preoccupied with “understanding [their] own rhetorical status” (63) while simultaneously representing their experience (63-4). A similar self-questioning can be seen in Dent’s poetry, which periodically questions its own reason for existence. Within her collection, these moments when Dent candidly admits to her sense of futility end up reinforcing her independent voice and its freedom from the narrative agendas that often color representations of HIV and of persons with AIDS.

To assert her personal identity in this way, Dent expresses doubt in the project of her poetry by acknowledging the conflict between her wish to impose narrative on her life (and, by extension, her poetry) and her skepticism about trying to make any sense of her experiences. This dilemma is introduced in poem I, when she lays out the project of the collection while at the same time remarking on its futility. When she describes “reverberations of light” (11) that “attempt to forestall the entropy of horizon from the sun” (11), Dent is alluding to her attempts to order her experience through writing as regulated and beautiful as light-reverberations, but which will ultimately prove powerless to stop the chaos signaled by “entropy.” The figure is effective precisely because it plays off of the familiar narrative in which the emphasis, as Couser explains,  on the “invariable fatality” of AIDS causes sufferers to “see themselves prematurely as doomed” (82). The vivid and unusual phrasing of the metaphor serves an analogous role to the extreme appropriations of narratives; even though Dent is speaking about inevitability from within a familiar narrative, she asserts her voice by acknowledging the impact public discourse has on her self-perception while making sure that the lyric imagery of her work makes a stronger impact than the imposed narratives. In this way, she lets the individual voice dominate the socially imposed one.

True, employing her own poetic voice at times becomes a chore for Dent, who in poem XXII expresses her frustration that she must keep making figures of speech and images out of prosaic life because “it’s not enough to love . . . work . . . pray” (5-6). These moments, like the self-questioning in Chambers’ AIDS diaries, might seem at first to be a compromise of her literary ideals, but in reality they serve to enhance the writer’s credibility. Allowing cracks of exhaustion, self-doubt, and anger at her project to appear through the veneer of beautiful poetic imagery emphasizes that Dent is not giving us an idealized portrayal of HIV; the tone of the poetic sequence seem to fluctuate based not only on what is most artistically sound but on how well Dent might be feeling on a given day. These reflexive self-doubts increase in frequency towards the end of the collection. In poem XXXII, Dent wishes she “could fast forward, dismiss my stand-in, cancel / my performance . . . fulfill my misery quota and be done with it” (2-4). Once again, we see Dent attempting to appropriate and subvert a particular AIDS narrative – this time, the perception (as identified by Couser) that “seropositive individuals . . . somehow [are] deserving [of] their disease” (83), as if Dent could do penance for it to stave it off. The difference between this particular appropriation and her other, more extreme, violent, and vivid appropriations of narratives, is this: her language here is unadorned and even falls into cliché with “fast forward” and “misery quota.” Where the earlier appropriations were made extreme to take back the language of HIV/AIDS, this one is so half-hearted that it becomes a poignant expression of Dent’s humanity in the face of possible death. Because the numbered cycle can be interpreted as a chronological record of Dent’s experience with HIV/AIDS, making the poems retain lofty imagery all the way through would itself ring false. Instead, letting her image-making capabilities vacillate with her vacillating health preserves a vital component of Tory Dent’s autonomous voice: the jarring reminder of her existence and her real experience beyond the page.



The reader of Dent’s “HIV, Mon Amour,” then, is presented with a chronicle of deceptive humanity whose sometimes prohibitively lofty or jarring language can be understood as part of a poetic mission of appropriation, subversion, and willful self-alienation in the quest for an autonomous voice. Numerous features of Dent’s poetry, from the central conceit of HIV as a lover to the entire scheme of conquering narratives by adopting them, reflect a deep understanding that social stigma and public narratives are inescapable for the individual person with AIDS. These features of Dent’s poetry also reflect the understanding that countering the effects of these stigmas on one’s self-image requires more sophisticated measures than simple denial of their efficacy. As Koestenbaum says, by “[s]peaking about AIDS, one becomes a citizen of it, and obeys its rules. The first rule: . . . [e]very word takes place within the syndrome’s parameters” (169).

Dent’s ingenuity in breaking these parameters is a large part of what made “HIV, Mon Amour” a remarkable achievement for its time. In the context of HIV/AIDS’ politically fraught history, Dent’s poetry put the insidious potential of language out in the open and affirmed that the narrative of HIV/AIDS can be reclaimed from within. Today, however, the discourse on HIV/AIDS is in danger of falling silent altogether. “HIV, Mon Amour” was published in 1999, arguably past the peak of HIV/AIDS’ media attention, and since then it seems the issue has only grown more distant from the public’s mind. In 2009, the nonpartisan non-profit Public Agenda released a report on attitudes towards HIV/AIDS among the general public; by and large, the focus groups they interviewed felt HIV/AIDS was “no longer a serious issue” and noted that there was “little to no continuing dialogue concerning AIDS” (13). As such, we have compelling reasons to revisit Dent’s poetry today. While combating the stigma of HIV/AIDS is an important task, works like Dent’s do more than subvert stigma and oppressive narratives – they create their own narratives  that assert the complex human lives behind the statistics and red ribbons. No matter what the era, Tory Dent’s poetry will remain an exemplar of how personal, frank, and potent HIV/AIDS representation can be. Whether in literature, film, art, or journalism, portrayals like hers have the potential to sway minds and sympathies. They have worked well against hysteria; perhaps they will be able to do something about apathy.























Works Cited


Chambers, Ross. Untimely Interventions : AIDS Writing, Testimonial, and the Rhetoric of Haunting. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2004. Print.


Couser, G. Thomas. "HIV/AIDS and Its Stories." Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life-Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1997. 81-176. Print.


Dent, Tory. HIV, Mon Amour: Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow, 1999. Print.


Edelman, Lee. "Equations, Identities, and "AIDS"."  Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994. 79-117. Print.


Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Print.


Koestenbaum, Wayne. "Speaking in the Shadow of AIDS." The State of the Language. Ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: University of California, 1980. 163-70. Print.


Rochkind, Jonathan, Samantha Dupont, and Amber Ott. Impressions on HIV/AIDS in America: A Report on Conversations with People throughout the Country. Rep. Public Agenda, May 2009. Web.


Williamson, Judith. "Every Virus Tells a Story: The Meanings of HIV and AIDS." Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics. Ed. Erica Carter and Simon Watney. London: Serpent's Tail, 1989. 69-80. Print.