In his latest book of poetry, 13th Balloon, author Mark Bibbins remembers the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and offers an intensely personal elegy for the loves and losses of his generation. The book-length poem was released in February 2020, and is excerpted here courtesy of Copper Canyon Press. — Public Seminar

From 13th Balloon

What might anyone have made

of you and me as babies

born into the mess and ferment

of the late 1960s

Working-class babies born to parents

who themselves were babies

during World War II

Were they worried already

about Vietnam         or about some other

monstrous hand that would grab us

from our cribs by our feet

and throw us

into the war that would be

the war after that

They could not have known

that our war      because everyone

                         lands in one

would be with a virus     or that one

of the hands that failed to close

quickly or tightly enough around

it to stop it from killing you

would also belong to the state       

At the beginning of every war

every baby is replaced

with a picture of a baby

In every eclipse the sun

is replaced with an x-ray of the sun


What is it they say about water

something about it seeking itself

and how did jokes like this one move

so quickly through the world in 1983

What’s the hardest thing about having AIDS

Convincing your parents you’re Haitian

Did they spew out of fax machines

were they blurted over happy-hour beers

by somebody’s uncle

who worked for the state     or by another’s

brother who worked in a garage

their jokes attaching themselves like leeches

to the swollen host of suffering

ugly but not useless

in order that we might endure

whatever side of suffering we’re on

            What does GAY stand for

            Got AIDS Yet

How many other acronyms crossed the membrane

that separated my rural high school

from the rest of the world and entered

the gym one afternoon

filling it like a syringe            Which boys

among us had just been watching

our friends in the showers

imagining their bodies

sliding against our own

like water seeking our own water

Which boys then saw the word aids

on the blood-filled test tube

on the cover of Newsweek

while other boys hooted and passed

the magazine around the locker room

Its own level      that’s what water seeks

and which of these boys       

was it only me          which of us

among any of these boys thought   

now I know       now I know how

I’m going to die


Mark Bibbins is the author of four books of poems, including 13th Balloon (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) and teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School. @markbibbins From 13th Balloon, copyright 2020 by Mark Bibbins, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press.