The historical archive of HIV

Kayo Chingonyi's latest poetry collection is a powerful meditation on the cycle of infection, death, and mourning wrought by HIV.

Photo by Chris Linnett on Unsplash

Kayo Chingonyi’s second collection of poems A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus, 2021) was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award in January 2022 as well as the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize, and the Jhalak Prize in the same year. At the same time, Chingonyi was appointed Poetry Editor at Bloomsbury’s new poetry imprint—a bona fide rising star of the poetry scene. I ordered the collection as soon as it was published, before the accolades, because of its candid HIV content by a poet I admire, and whom I had worked with briefly via The Poetry Society on Thinking Outside the Penalty Box. I want to add these poems to the archive of writing about HIV I have amassed over the years.

The furry blue jumper worn by the silhouetted black figure on the front cover of A Blood Condition, matches the title’s blue font, avoiding the cliched red that “blood condition” more obviously calls for. The viral pattern of white pencil marks or rubbings on the neck of the black-skinned figure seems to create a negative imprint of rampant Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the skin cancer that frequently signifies HIV infection and the development of full-blown AIDS. Despite this apparently diagnostic disclosure, the identity of the figure is hidden; the back of the figure is either looking away, or looking inside the poetry collection itself.

The image is actually one of Toyin Ojih Odutola’s from 2014 titled “When the Witnesses are Gone” (and the white burnishes on black skin are typical of her work), but its pairing with Chingonyi’s title makes one think about absences, surfaces, and reading skin, how blood is concealed, hidden, and whether blood is infected or “pure.” It also triggers thoughts of the condition of those who are left behind and what they have witnessed. The artist herself describes the image as containing the “notion of turning one’s back away from the viewer to conceal something or, inversely, of waiting for the right moment to turn around and reveal the action depicted in the drawing as an in-between one. I like playing with that.” 

Notions of the “in-between” have been significant in writing about HIV and AIDS, from Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (Sizwe’s Test) (2008) in which Sizwe’s HIV status remains unknown throughout the book, to Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive (2014), in which Lindanathi inhabits a liminal state of adolescence—not quite a man, and not yet at peace with his self-inflicted HIV-positive status. The in-between status of someone who carries the HI virus but is not yet unwell is one of the biggest dangers of HIV transmission, given the length of time the virus can remain dormant in the blood before an opportune infection might require a diagnostic blood test.

Complex theorizations of some of these ideas are expounded in Carli Coetzee’s luminous critical volume, Written Under the Skin: Blood and Intergenerational Memory in South Africa (2019), which explores the archives of South Africa’s past and reads texts differently using the metaphor of blood and blood tests. Here, Coetzee writes that “The trope of a test allows us to think about blood as a richly historical archive as well as a predictive substance, allusive and meaningful with connection and belonging.” Although Chingonyi’s background is Zambian, I think these concepts can be applied to his work as “It is a method of reading that demands historical contextualization, and that seeks out conflicted interpretations. It calls for comparative and intergenerational collaboration, even if this work is disturbing, unpleasant or troubling.”

The “blood condition” is unnamed in Chingonyi’s collection, as is common in most literature focusing on HIV from Southern Africa, and is described in the cover blurb as a “hymn to the people and places that run in our blood,” referencing not only Zambia where Chingonyi was born, but also the parents he lost to HIV-related illnesses. This is where Chingonyi’s point of view differs from those of Sizwe or Lindanathi—rather than being infected, he is that “HIV orphan” whose abandonment featured in so many medical and epidemiological papers written in the 1990s and 2000s. What would become of these orphans? What would be their inheritance?

The question of intergenerational memory very much informs this collection of poetry, which includes a series of seven sonnets entitled “Origin Myth.” The subtitles of each 14-line poem: “Zero,” “Miguel,” “Erykah,” “Viral,” “Results,” “Survivor’s Guilt” and “Origin Myth.” In “Origin Myth,” the reader is taken on a journey from 1920 when a “ghost note in simian blood / is loosed by a novice butcher’s unsteady / knife-work,” to the “millions lost to veering paths already.” 

Each poem is connected in a chain of viral transmission by the linking of each last line to the first line of the next poem—formally known as a crown of sonnets. This repetition brings home the ease with which HIV is passed from person to person over time. Just as in Eddie Vulani Malueke’s poem from the 2004 collection Nobody ever said AIDS (titled after Maluleke’s poem), the poet uses a cyclical style to great effect in her movement from the end of South African apartheid in 1994 to the following decade of AIDS deaths. 

Maluleke illustrates the true leveling of apartheid that now exists as she details everyone gradually getting infected:

Whether we wore rouge red glossy lips 
Whether we wore khaki brown 
And beat the kaffirs in the prisons 
Whether our faces were covered with soot 
From the mines 
Even if we were old grannies 
With our men living in Jozi 
Even if we were just born 
We all died 
Coughed and died 
We died of TB 
That was us 
Whispering it at funeral 
Because nobody ever said AIDS.

Maluleke uses a fluid narrative voice to lure the reader closer to the text. She shifts identities, first talking of “me,” then “they,” then “I,” then “us,” and then “we,” but it is the honesty of the first-person “I” that is shocking and has the most impact. By the end of the poem, she has successfully implicated the reader in joint responsibility for the spread of HIV. Detailing the illness and death of her contemporaries, she goes further by saying:

Nobody was making love 
That was them 

I was
Making love to a new breed
Of Jimmy 
And Jabu 

They died of TB too 
Then I started coughing 
Skinny as a broomstick 
With black spots 
My sisters’ children 
Coughed and died 
My brother coughed and died 
I was coughing and dying 
The enemy was in our bodies 
Making us cough and die 
Eating us like worms 
But some of us
Still made love 
Still kissed 
And made each other cough and die.

This poem brings the prospect of HIV infection and death so close that its insidious nature is palpable—the language gets under the reader’s skin, implicating everyone in its dance of death. Maluleke brilliantly confounds the reader by continuing the cycle of verses, and the self-replicating nature of the virus is echoed in the repeated pattern of behavior described in the poem. The process of mourning is lent a futile aspect by the ongoing cycle of infection and death. Sex and love are contaminated, and, as first Derrida and then Sontag predicted, “making love” is cleverly paralleled with making “each other cough and die.” Desire is contaminated by connotations of AIDS; the suffocating paradox that “AIDS obliges people to think of sex as having, possibly, the direst consequences: suicide. Or murder,” wrote Sontag in 1989. 

Now, almost 20 years later, in the Guardian review of A Blood Condition, Kate Kellaway surmises that the “poems grow out of gaps, out of the moments when nothing more can be done. The dead cannot be recovered, time cannot be reclaimed, the damage to the river is likely to be permanent, but a poem can be written and take its quietly powerful stand.” But it is not just the poems that make a “quietly powerful stand,” but also Chingonyi himself. He is the orphaned survivor, and the poems do not so much grow out of the gaps, but out of his own perspective on the world. The difficulty of being this survivor is survivor’s guilt. 

In “Guys and St Thomas’s” he asks, “How can I set down / the passage of time?” and the collection attempts to answer this question, particularly when it comes to inter-generational memory. Attempting to escape the association of his mother with the hospital where she worked, he asks again “Who knew a face / becomes less and less distinct / the longer it no longer exists?” Trying to “stop/writing my mother into it,” is something the poet may never stop doing. Her existence is so entwined with his own, and her death, something from which he may never escape. In “Longing” his mother is described as having “drifted beyond the reach / of human medicine” and having “assembled a necklace of denominations”—in the hope of divine intervention. In the four lines of “[Cream of Tomato Soup],” part of the “Genealogy” sequence, he recalls:

Mother’s nakedness—
how bony she was—
she asked me not to be ashamed,
since I was cut from the place I wouldn’t look. (51)

This poem is directly preceded by “[Woodchip Effect],” which “goes back to an afternoon I was nineteen / waiting for the call; my test results. / I had it in my head that it would be bad news.” The poet recalls his haunting with the idea that he would be HIV positive as well. The prospect of a similar demise to his parents is literally mirrored on the facing page, the title of the poem potentially a pun on “chip off the old block.”

These glimpses of the personal, are signs of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the poet, which the seven interlinked sonnets of “Origin Myth” return to in a more concerted way, stretching beyond the personal to the global, the “millions lost.” 

In the first sonnet, “Zero,” the female butcher accidentally mingles blood in 1920 when “Rubies scatter in the mud” and pools into a “haemoglobin beck under her toes”—a ground zero of the “origin myth” which, in the last two sonnets of the sequence, is located in the Congo Basin. The northern English influence on Chingonyi’s language is evident in the use of “beck,” meaning stream, pulling the reader back to ideas of rivers that flow not only from small origins in forests to the sea, but also in drops of blood from person to person into the rip-tide of a pandemic. The “blood-punter” is “already abroad” and spreads between “men who love men” who “sup on the freedom to love,” sometime in the 1970s: “A decade or more before the penny / drops”—and the Human Immunodeficiency virus is identified officially in 1983. This fluid, watery nature is counterbalanced in parenthesis by the weight of the death inflicted in its flow: “(the names of the dead will always be heavy / as a colony of ants drinking from a gourd).”

Miguel, a musician, and Erykah, a nurse, appear to be two people whose lives feature in the next two sonnets, touching the virus but not yet succumbing to it. Voyeurs, facilitators, it’s hard to know whether Miguel’s “devil’s music” which accompanies “a darkened corner’s hungry / trysts,” and Erykah’s “acquaintance with the night” mean they share the “nucleus of an infected cell,” or whether they simply observe its passage via “a friend from forty deuces’s” in hospital. In the following sonnet “Viral” it seems Miguel has survived to become the “ageing DJ” at a Shoreditch hotel, “living after so much death”—and yet the poet’s mother has not. 

The fourth poem “Viral” reveals the reason, “I believed it, too, to my great shame, / as did my mother who refused the pills / that would have her here among us still.” This revelation announces the tragedy of so many who refused antiretroviral treatment (turning to religion or traditional beliefs instead). Like Lindanathi in The Reactive, like Khabzela, in Liz McGregor’s biography of the South African DJ from 2005, this refusal to take antiretroviral drugs (as well as its lack of availability) was an enormous hurdle to HIV treatment in Southern Africa. Beliefs in Jehovah’s Witnesses and vengeful snakes (Khabzela), African potatoes, beetroot and garlic (Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister under former president Thabo Mbeki), or simply the nihilistic belief in nothing at all (Lindanathi), “the sounding of a knell,” the death sentence of diagnosis without treatment, led to the death of millions. 

The fifth sonnet, “Return,” brings us to the poet’s test, a generation later, and though the test is negative “there are depths of fear no words can capture,” which seems to be the heart of the collection. Visions of the infamous adverts during Thatcher’s rule, of falling tombstones “that passed judgement and prophesied rapture,” leads to panic, followed by crying all day with relief “optimism toughened to a rind.” The link to the poem “Survivor’s Guilt” which asks, “What to do, having been granted reprieve, / with what remains of your life?” directs us to address the conundrum that despite surviving, despite success, there will always be “running through the middle there’s this fracture.” This is the legacy of HIV for those who avoid it, whose families are destroyed by it, the “spectres” who remind us that “Each living moment carries a receipt.” Our very survival is rooted in the gaps left by those who have perished.

Finally, in “Origin Myth,” the “story of mutation” returns to the Congo basin, and “the story that attends the very birth of our kind,” reminding us that the story of diseases is part of the biology of humanity. The last line tessellates with the first line of the first sonnet “1920, nine years before Nellie”—the grandmother, Chingonyi’s grandfather promises to marry when she’s still in the womb in the poem “[Chilufya Nellie]” (Chilufya meaning memory in honor of a lost one in Bemba)—a return to historical roots, which approximates the global with the local, mapping the historical on to the personal. The blood condition itself is also given a local name, “akashishi,” glossed as the Bemba term for “the germ/virus” that “took so many.” The tragic legacy, however widespread, is distinctly personal and formative, “Next to my skin I still carry the hurt / finely woven as a cambric shirt.” The poet’s pain is indelibly specific and long-lasting.

The wider local historical context of the whole collection is framed with poems about “Nyaminyami,” the Zambezi river god, a “fish-headed snake,” and a timeless, and vengeful god, whose persistence in local belief systems tests “the limits of human ingenuity.” It is possible that by beginning and ending A Blood Condition with poems about Nyami Nyami, the poet is also reminding us that “the river god / remembers what is forgotten between generations.” There’s a kind of ontological centering of traditional belief at the entrance and exit of the book of poems which sets the reader on a Zambian path, intentionally anchoring the rest of the collection within this formative existential universe. 

Like the river that forged a path through the Zambezi valley (before it was dammed at Kariba), HIV has inflicted/inculcated a fracture in the world of this poet, and all of those touched by HIV.

Further Reading

Poetry as design

Collapsing the binaries hard-wired into the logic and narrative of “uber-gentrification;” the latter representing the conquest of science over art, technology over soul and innovation over old.