Poetry Highlights: Madelyn Garner’s The Hum of Our Blood

Madelyn Garner’s The Hum of Our Blood (3: A Taos Press) takes the AIDS epidemic in the eighties and nineties head on. Poems share the moving journey of a mother’s son–his life, illness, and death; lyricism is original and the imagery is haunting is this collection. Garner’s debut elicits empathy for her son, his partner, and gay men who suffered from HIV/AIDS.

In “Surgical Mask in the Time of Plague,” the mother kisses her dying son through a surgical mask; he turns away as he is dying from AIDS-related complications. A mother chooses to love her son rather than to accept the fear based opinions of the day.

For days I have kissed my son
through paper—
sail billowing with each exhale.

Now watching him again turn away
from me as if a stranger,
I choose.

While the content is reminiscent of Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats (1992), here, the perspective is unique. Through terse, yet musical language we hear a mother’s view of her dying son. The opening poem, “At the Beginning,” leads readers towards seeing the wickedness of illness, setting the focus of the entire book into motion. In this first poem, Garner starts with the sensuality of touch between men who,

…kissed each other on the mouth,
danced like brides until mirrors swallowed them,
……………….spit them out


skin a shrink-wrap

The Hum of Our Blood is a title that comes from a question about the death of the speaker’s son in “Drum,” where she writes,

Why didn’t the angel come at that moment
of sun on our skin, the hum of our blood,
when his heart was beating its four-chambered drum?

Furthermore, many poems deal with violence towards gay men such as “Another Gay Mugging,”

flush my son out

smash his face with fists and steel toed boots
leaving death’s bloody footprint on him

“The Baths, 1982,” Garner depicts an eroticism that runs throughout the collection.

mouths French kissing, possessed cocks,
engorged and driven like pistons, exploding
in each pink-cheeked Mozart-creator of complex études for four hands.

Then in the second section is a poem, “Triptych: Days of Diagnosis” that contains three poems, “As Ouija Board,” “As Etch-A-Sketch,” and “As Playground Swing,” where a patient is compared to the object in the title. For instance, “As Playground Swing,” Garner writes,

some moments it is about ascent, his eyes on vapor trails like white
threads seaming a sky so blue it could be untrue.

Feet out front, toes pointed toward the place above the canopy of trees
he reaches for apex.

In addition, suicide is addressed in “After Braverman’s Suicide Suite, Gallery Show Los Angeles, 1994,” where HIV-positive friends discuss ways in which they might end their lives.

One selects his apartment’s gas stove,
lying down on a checkerboard
floor, holding his breath at each click
of the aperture as if inhaling
the sweet scent of the Stargazer lilies
he says counterbalance
the sweat-filled night.

In “Side Effect as Match” the son’s condition worsens,

His bones smolder

to marrow, skin-wet stink
of creosote and Sulphur,
once beautiful body-molten.

Especially relevant, is the love the mother has for the son is timeless. It comes across so in lines such as the following,

Love’s umbilical cord, invisible, absolute,
threads air.

Garner writes about a father who rejects his son’s lover after the son dies in “Twenty-Four Hours”:

The very next day his father served
notice to vacate the apartment
to Tony’s lover

AIDS leper lying in extremis

on a soiled mattress in the corner
without hope of resurrection

What they didn’t take, they doused with gasoline:

Finally, the last section of the book is titled “Triptych: His Final Days.” The book ends with “In This Photograph,” which is fitting since the son was a photographer and artist.

the archived hands, paint-splattered
moving across a canvass. Where
is the sunlight as if some
angel restored the livid places to white?
Where hair once the color of graphite,
……………….and curly?

There is nothing that shows
him whole –
……………….this figure made of light
as in lumen

and I am betrayed
……………….not by cone and rod,
but everything I thought I knew
about dying could be

We see the son as a young boy and then as an infant in “Redshift:”

Among synapses sparkling like
Dorothy’s slippers;

his red kite rising, turning back
on itself as Möbius strip
above Carmel’s shore-line spray. How
many years ago—
thirty-five or is it forty?

His first breath: stunned blue eyes
staring into the space
between us: we shift red.

Hum of Our Blood swells with lyricism and powerful scenes which are memorable long after having read the book. The imagery springs off the page and shows us the stark reality of illness and love. This short review does not do the collection justice. Garner manages to evoke a reader’s empathy without sentimentalizing the mother son relationship, and the language is always fresh and surprising.

Madelyn Garner’s Hum of Our Blood, selected for publication in the Tupelo Press July Open Reading, will be published by 3: A Taos Press and distributed by Tupelo Press, spring 2017.  She is the co-editor of the poetry anthology, Collecting Life: Poets on Objects Known and Imagined (2011). Garner’s recent writing has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2015, The Florida Review, Nimrod International Journal, The Pinch, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and the anthology Beyond Forgetting, Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Sheryl Luna’s Pity the Drowned Horses (University of Notre Dame Press) received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Seven (3: A Taos Press) was also a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Recent poems have appeared inPoetry, Taos International Journal of Poetry and Art, and Pilgrimage.

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