Emma Lee reviews Peter Mitchell’s ‘Conspiracy of Skin’

‘Conspiracy of Skin’ by Peter Mitchell
Published by Picaro Press
ISBN 9781760416614

‘Conspiracy of Skin’ tracks a journey from suspicion to diagnosis of HIV, through chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and into remission. A partial memoir in poetry. The journey starts in the 1980s when HIV sufferers was tainted by the double stigma firstly of being HIV positive at a time when treatments were still in their infancy and the secondly the prejudice against the gay community which is where most transmissions were found. Prejudice is where the collection starts with ‘HIV Transmission’ where the cat dashes

‘down the stairs. Breaking glass echoes. I jolt
upright, shove the bedclothes off, pull the blind

back. I look right, my nostrils flare. Ash dusts
the air. Nerves roil my stomach. I look left
down the row of terraces. Flames ruby

the morning. My sister stirs in the next room’

Someone unknown has thrown a Molotov cocktail, endangering not just the poet’s life but his sister’s and the cat’s too. Fortunately, all three survive this time. But it’s a warning. The next poem starts with detailing flu-like symptoms, in ‘Sero-conversion’, which ‘fade yet echo and re-echo.’ It signals HIV, which, back in the 1980s held limited treatment options. The poet attends a clinic and receives his diagnoses – two positive tests, one negative. After a funeral, in ‘Life Sentence’, a friend, Tim calls, to talk

‘about Ted. How is he? I ask.

He’s been diagnosed with full-blown
AIDS. The words slash my skin.

You know, Tim, Ted and I ex-
changed bodily fluids.

A storm hovers above
my body and the heavens knell.’

In February the poet leaves the clinic where he is now a frequent visitor and meets Ted outside. However, by ‘June./ Ted’s obit/ is in the/ Sydney Star Observer’, which is the community newspaper for the LGBTIQ subcultures. Presumably the mainstream news outlets don’t regard deaths from AIDS as newsworthy enough to include or just exclude them. The poet remains ‘Asymptomatic’ and ponders his situation,

‘Now,
          the virus is a penumbra, a grey area;
          its intensity diminished over these years.

I live in a riddle.

Does going to the doctors
             name this illness?

By avoiding the doctors, will my world
articulate itself through sunlight, leaves
               and shadow?’

In 1992, some seven years after first showing symptoms in 1985, the poet is admitted to hospital, ‘Bed 11’,

‘In this ward, some shining lives become
future dark. Bones protrude their parchment

skin, their bodies trolleyed to the room
of no-return: the end of

the line. Other lives look up.
I sing a blue tinge lyric,

its verses resilient against
     the shadow proclamation.’

He is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Generally, a treatable disease but complicated by the poet’s immune-compromised state. He is given a course of chemotherapy, described in ‘Bumblebee Words’ where the poem is centred, shaped like a bee’s stinger,

‘pores
open for
the prick
of the
stingers.

In the
frenzied air,
broken
picket fence
teeth gape,
yowling
mouths
squalling
at me.’

He is kept in hospital where he can be monitored and observed and can do little more than think about and record his thoughts, in ‘The Book of Night

‘Fingers of morning grey digit the ward. I rage.
The pen scribbles to page one hundred and forty.

Why me? Why not the man in the next bed? At 6.10a.m.,
I sit up, back straight, alone in a glass cube. Pen

in hand, I tap tap the empty page. Will long
walks be described in the pages ahead?’

The combination of treatment, resilience and thoughts of a future or at least having something to write in those blank pages further into his journal, the poet survived into remission. In contemporary times, HIV is no longer a death sentence. Retro-viral drugs enable those with the virus to live something like normal life. Discharged from care, in ‘Never to be repeated’, the poet moves into a new home,

Okay. I turn around, stand in the doorway
and look into the room. The boxed summation

of my life sits before me: my past and present
all tidy. This moment will never be repeated.

Dust motes like remembered half-memories
from 17 South are suspended in the sunflower-

yellow bright. Tentative feet step forward.
I open the gift of living with welcome

              arms and smiling face.’

The brightness of the room brings hope. The poet’s past and present are waiting to be unboxed, rummaged through, re-lived and opened into a yet-to-be known future.

Although specifically about HIV and lymphoma, the poems in ‘Conspiracy of Skin’ reflect an emotional journey recognisable by anyone who has been through or cared for someone watching another go through a life-threatening illness. The poems are not just a journal through HIV but also reflect on the social stigma and changing attitudes towards those diagnoses and how better treatments offer a future. Peter Mitchell has captured both a personal journey and a slice of history.

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