Long Distance by Steven Cordova
(Bilingual Review Press / Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, 2009)
Not all poetry needs to be written. It can and is written, and occasionally written quite well, but not all poetry is vital or pressing, written with a driving purpose. Steven Cordova’s collection Long Distance is a collection with a commanding urgency on a subject that is talked about too infrequently. Cordova’s poems chronicle the life of young, HIV-positive gay man, dealing with issues of life and death. The collection alters its angle, using realistic, dark and often humorous language to show the struggle and importance of experiencing what life has to offer.
Cordova deals with the trials of both his homosexuality and being HIV-positive with an ironic humor that at first seems to betray the gravity of the subject matter. The poem “13 Things to Do Once I’m Dead” is less sobering at first glance than the title would suggest, amounting to a numbered list of slightly morbid puns, such as “4. Bill myself as an underground artist” and “5. Claim I stand just under 6’.” Cordova uses humor for its greatest purpose. First you laugh, then you reflect, then it takes your breath away. After that, you think. Most young adults do not need to ponder death, but it is a somber but necessary subject for those who are HIV-positive. Other lines hold less humor, but a biting realistic view; “9. Die as many deaths as I died in life.” and the powerful beginning of the list – “1. Stop thinking about death.” This first declaration shows the poem’s need to be written. Cordova writes these poems to cope and survive the inevitability of some aspects of his life.
Cordova frequently addresses the existence and importance of an intimate community for HIV-positive adults. Long Distance includes two poems entitled “Across a Table,” both recounting conversations between the narrator and another HIV-postive man. The first chronicles the two men exchanging lists of medications they are taking, that which brings them “here together / across a table.” The second poem of the same title begins by addressing the unavoidable situation but there is vitality that is shared.
“I’m glad you’re positive.”
“I’m glad you’re positive,
too, though, of course, I wish
you weren’t.” I wish you weren’t
either is the response I expect.
But you say nothing.
The mirror within each stanza is used to demonstrate a common sentiment, the two men as one mind, followed by the gap before the change hits; enjambment giving a pause before the knockout punch. Each stanza changes and reveals, scratching away each surface layer until you find yourself at the bottom. Cordova draws you in, regardless of your experiences and background, and gives you the surface of living HIV-positive. These poems are not about HIV, but about living.
Despite the dark, harsh truths of being HIV-positive, Cordova’s overwhelming message is to live for experiences. “Club St. Vitus Male Dancer” begins with the lines “I dance because so many can’t / I dance because so many can.” The end of the poem reiterates Cordova’s point:
Disease can’t stop me. I dance.
Some would love to hurt me; I dance.
Dance to forget
what my sweet angel daddies told me to remember.
Dance to remember
what they told me to forget.
The anaphora cascades down the page, the repetition hitting the reader with every stanza—Dance, Can, Can’t, Remember, Forget. The dance becomes display of an individual entrenched in the culture of a community. Cordova does not deny the reality of his situation or any others, but instead offers an alternate mentality: life remains, so enjoy it while it’s there. Cordova shows us experiences, not metaphorical situations, that ground this collection in a truth impossible to escape.
Some of the best advice to accompany Cordova’s collection is found in the foreword by Alberto Ríos: “Don’t look for self-pity in these poems, though you will find some. Don’t look for answers, though the book is full of them, unsatisfying as they may sometimes be. Don’t look for sadness, though you will walk on its sovereign ground. Look for the man. Look for the life.” Long Distance looks forward, for that’s the only direction Steven Cordova is planning on moving.
Originally from Seattle, Graham Sutherland is a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. He studies Creative Writing and Latin American Studies, specifically Chicano Literature and Indigenous Studies.
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