Books / Poetry

Never Can Say Goodbye: Eric Sneathen Conjures Gaétan Dugas (Aka ‘Patient Zero’) and Other Ghosts in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

Eric Sneathen’s Don’t Leave Me This Way, published recently by Nightboat Books, is a ghost story. Ok, the book is not a ghost story in any traditional sense. There are no vengeful ghosts banging open closets or throwing silverware around after being summoned by a Ouija Board or, as in Danny and Michael Philippou’s film Talk to Me, a scrawled-over gnarled disembodied hand that may or may not have come from a Satanist. I don’t bring up Talk to Me just for relevancy. Though the film’s plot is fairly conventional, a mix of Flatliners, Candyman, Hereditary, and countless other horror flicks about possession and the idiocy of group mentality-driven teenagers, what Talk to Me does best is viscerally show, through the perspective of protagonist Mia (rivetingly played by Sophie Wilde), the thin line between the world of the living and the dead. The movie also reveals how this boundary can become even more confused through loss and grief. As Mia says after trying her hand (*rimshot*) at the spooky teen possession parlor game, which requires the participant to grab the haunted hand and recite, “Talk to me…I let you in”: “It felt amazing. I could see and feel everything on the other side. I could feel my mom. She was trying to reach out.”

Like the dual commands given to the hand in Talk to Me, Eric Sneathen, a poet and queer literary historian who previously co-edited Camille Roy’s Honey Mine, both communicates with and channels the dead through his collection of sonnets in Don’t Leave Me This Way. Though a sonnet is a startlingly conventional poetic style in which to converse with the beyond, these sonnets are anything but typical. From the wine-dark sea of The Odyssey to the redwood forests of Northern California, through bathhouses and sexual encounters, both real and imagined, Don’t Leave Me This Way is an epic journey, a conjuring, and a deeply affecting literary experiment, proving how William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s favorite cut-up technique still possesses the power to construct narratives that are somehow more emotionally resonant than the sum of their parts. In short, to echo Mia, these sonnets allow readers to both see and feel the other side, to deeply affecting ends.

The ghosts here are many—the significant part of a generation of gay men lost to HIV/AIDS, as well as the freewheeling sexual culture that disappeared along with them. There is a reason Sneathen’s book is titled after that disco classic “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” sung by Thelma Houston in 1976 and resurrected in 1986 with Jimmy Somerville’s quintessentially manic falsetto with his band The Communards. Though the losses are vast, Sneathen returns consistently to one figure in particular as a symbol of eroticism, mystery, grievance, and internalized self-loathing and betrayal: Gaétan Dugas, otherwise known as “Patient Zero.”

As far as angry ghosts go, Dugas has every right to rattle his chains. Ever since he was fingered as “Patient Zero” by Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On, the French-Canadian flight attendant has been central to the homophobic mythology of HIV/AIDS. Dugas became the singular sexually insatiable bug-pusher, spreading HIV from coast to coast, from bathhouse to disco, like a pollinating bee. And, as in Shilts’s book, shocking his easy lovers with his Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions along the way. Not only did the Patient Zero misnomer create a completely ahistorical and incorrect narrative about the virus, placing the blame on one man with sandy blonde hair, but Shilts’s vain and off-putting representation of Dugas rendered him a figure worthy of disdain if not an outright villain. Just take this preening excerpt from And the Band Played On:

“’I am the prettiest one.’

It had been the standing joke. Gaétan Dugas would walk into a gay bar, scan the crowd and announce to his friends, ‘I am the prettiest one.’ Usually, his friends had to agree, he was right.”

Eesh. The evil stepsister vibes are not exactly sympathetic.

Clearly, Dugas is a man who not only needs—but deserves—an empathetic poetic reconsideration. Sneathen resurrects and breathes new life into Dugas’s memory as both an unknowable elder wronged by inaccurate histories penned during an emergency and an object of desire. Don’t Leave Me This Way abandons forging a new history for Dugas—for that, check out Richard A. McKay’s Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, one of the many sources Sneathen draws on. Instead, Sneathen lyrically tangles with the complexity of intergenerational longing, in terms of both seeking chosen father figures and erotic yearning.

Don’t Leave Me This Way is separated into three distinct sections, beginning with “Telemachy,” a nebulous series of four sonnets named after the first four books of Homer’s The Odyssey. In Homer’s epic poem, the Telemachy is told from the perspective of Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Likewise, Sneathen’s “Telemachy” positions the narrator as a younger person, reflecting on and telling the stories of, as Sneathen quotes Homer, an elder who “wandered and was lost.” Centered around imagery of the sea and sailing, the sonnets themselves are painterly, disjointed, and evocative, unsettled with a shimmering sense of fragility connected to the ever-shifting natural world:

“In coral harbors. In azure seas no longer yet.
The island dawn the sky. Scattered into birds
The night. My hull. The night fell from heaven.
We stayed there for two days listening to birds
Who built upon our hearts sky & sea…”

This idyllic beauty is shown to be short-lived as the poems careen suddenly towards stormy chaos in the form of a raft strewn with bodies reminiscent of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Living in the wake of this tempestuousness, Sneathen’s narrator shifts toward remembrance:

“Sitting on the sea. Says I can remember him.
A man whose heart was full and rotating oars.
Not yet gone or Spring. Stay. Flowers. Stay…”

Of course, there’s a long legacy of fetishized sailor imagery in gay male culture. Just look at J.C. Leyendecker’s painting, Charles Beach, WWI American sailor, from 1918, recently shown at the just-closed Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The somewhat subtle eroticism in “Telemachy,” as seen in the poem, “When He Opens His Eyes and Sees” (“Little ship his body./To seize the tip and land began…”), becomes more overt in the second section of sonnets, “I Fill This Room With the Echo of Many Voices.” Titled after a quote from Derek Jarman’s voiceover in his equally ghostly monochromatic 1993 film, Blue, the reference to many voices in this section should be taken literally. Sneathen cuts up and rearranges any number of erotic stories from the height of the Crisco disco era to the present—fact, fiction, and everything half-recalled in between. Some of these sources are well known, from the aforementioned And the Band Played On to Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Others are slightly deeper reading for the 1970s-sleaze-nirvana-obsessed such as Brad Gooch’s The Golden Age of Promiscuity and Patrick Cowley’s Mechanical Fantasy Box, both of which I’ve shamefully never read and are now on my reading list. And yet others derive directly from Sneathen’s friends who, as he mentions in the book’s epilogue, “delightfully stuffed my email inbox.”

Snipped and pasted together, this cacophony of voices becomes a strangely coherent vision of a fantastical, phantasmagoric, and deliciously filthy sexual bacchanalia—or as coherent as any hazily remembered snapshots after a debaucherous night out. You can just smell the stench of poppers, booze, sweat, piss, and cum wafting off the pages. Though these sonnets present a writhing ecstatic and decadent vision of anonymous bodies, Gaétan Dugas wanders among them like a specter. His name, as well as descriptions of his sandy hair and red checkered shirt, flashes into view and disappears just as quickly. Take, for example, the poem “His Sandy Hair Just So. He’s Inviting Me”:

“Gaétan stripped off his t-shirt and fished
Out the obstacle: his gentle French accent,
The music, the gas was just starting. Gaétan
Like you’ve imagined him, walking backward,
Plunging the deep indigo of two mouths,
Four flanks hypnotically…”

Dugas isn’t always named outright but pointed to tangentially in relation to his known profession as a flight attendant, as in “As a Gay Male Flight Attendant. We Float”:

“…I get to watch them. The choreography
Of tight legs and jobs and uniforms
Tugging at my breath. Gaétan offers
Up his photograph, a signature cocktail
And laughs. He’s everything I can imagine
As a gay male flight attendant. We float
Simply and fuck, but he’s not fully air…”

There is a sense of gleeful playfulness to these sonnets that can dangerously teeter towards laughably bad writing. I’m thinking specifically of the opening of “For Weeks. His Innards Hanging Out Of Mine.”:

“Everyone to the fuck scene! Disco beneath
The bar, the soundtrack’s heinous breath.
Pour me that bottom kid from the 1980s
With a dick as big as Finland…”

But far from being disruptive to the randy romanticism, it’s evidence of a mania brought on by the possibilities of endless sexual freedom. These poems cruise across the page, inviting readers to join in and “fuck the parade.” However, with this wayward drifting from sex club to leather bar, there is an underlying sense of dread. Sneathen imbues these sonnets with not only the presence of Dugas but the shadow of HIV/AIDS through brief references to GRID clinics, “a dry cough in the Autumn of 1983,” and lesions (“…Always the lesions/Defiantly staring back at us having such/A good time…”). Through these occasional breaks disrupting the fantasy, Sneathen places this free-for-all of fucking just on the edge of collapsing into the abyss, recalling the stormy weather of “Telemachy.”

Each section of Don’t Leave Me This Way inhabits a mythological plane where ghosts reappear to party and fuck with the living. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the final series of ten sonnets, “The Bronze Age.” This last section paraphrases an unpublished story by Randy Shilts entitled Ghosts, in which a young, upwardly mobile man whose lover died from complications from AIDS seeks to purchase a below-market piece of land and instead, finds an orgy of male ghosts, including his deceased lover who aggressively dominates this yuppie. As Sneathen writes, “’Ghosts” is a Bay Area creation, so of course it’s about gay sex and real estate.”

More than Shilts’s story itself, Sneathen’s manipulation of language in these final sonnets made a chill prickle down my spine. In particular, he drops in lines from earlier poems, such as “Of the starry Milky Way expressed as circles,” which is a line culled from the prior “Gaétan’s Perfect Finger Draws this Cluster.” This allows the work to take on an eerie sense of déjà-vu that sets the spidey senses tingling. And, as the final poems descend and disintegrate into fragments as if they’re disappearing like ghosts at sunrise, Sneathen reaches farther back to return to the imagery of delphiniums and peonies from “Telemachy.” Likewise, he also flips perspectives in the middle of “The Bronze Age,” repeating one sonnet in the first- and then, the third-person, only backwards as if seen in a mirror. Spooky.

These hypnotic strategies solidify the necromancer strength of Don’t Leave Me This Way. Sneathen doesn’t just write about ghosts or loss, but he conjures the feeling of being haunted as if the ghosts are hovering right in the text. This isn’t easy. Sure, there’s no shortage of queer theory on ghosts such as José Muñoz’s oft-quoted ideas around “the ghosts of public sex,” which, like Don’t Leave Me This Way, forges “a primary relation to emotions, queer memories, and structures of feeling that haunt gay men on both sides of a generational divide that is formed by and through the catastrophe of AIDS.” However, it’s no mistake that Muñoz mostly writes about these ghosts as represented visually in the art of Tony Just. The peculiar and even, supernatural balancing of absence and presence seems to lend itself more to a visual medium.

Yet, through the cut-up and other literary techniques, Sneathen succeeds at emotionally evoking the missing lives, histories, sexual possibilities, and bodies that exist only as absences. Those stories that fell through the cracks, were tossed in the trash by bereaved families cleaning up after a deceased relative, or at the very most, can be discovered within the margins. To return to its title, Don’t Leave Me This Way can be understood both from the perspective of those who were lost and who remain. We don’t want the dead to leave us, but like the figure of Gaétan Dugas, we can’t leave them this way either. As Muñoz spoke frequently about “the need for a politics that ‘carries’ our dead with us into battles for the present and future,” just maybe the dead need us too.

One thought on “Never Can Say Goodbye: Eric Sneathen Conjures Gaétan Dugas (Aka ‘Patient Zero’) and Other Ghosts in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

  1. The new queer cinema musical Zero Patience was an early revisionist narrative of Patient Zero. Sadly it’s disappeared from YouTube. The music is a little bit bland but it takes a very critical position on the Aids crisis for a film that came out in the same year as Philadelphia.

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