Of Fear and Hope: A Phenomenology of HIV in Danez Smith’s Poetry


Romero Juncosa, Antoni


Andrés González, Rodrigo

Alsina, Cristina


Andrés González, Rodrigo

Date of defense



252 p.


Universitat de Barcelona. Facultat de Filologia


[eng] According to estimates, 40.1 million people have died from AIDS-related health complications since the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The official implementation of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996, however, made it possible for millions of people to live with HIV without developing AIDS, and today the health conditions of seropositive people accessing HAART are practically the same as those of seronegative people. Yet, to what extent can we claim the current, medicalized experience of HIV as separate and disconnected from AIDS? Wondering about the psycho-social and emotional legacy of the crisis, in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012) Sarah Schulman asks: “What have we internalized as a consequence of the AIDS crisis?” Indeed, how has AIDS affected our experience of HIV, and of sexuality more broadly? Published in 2017, Danez Smith’s Forward Prize-winning poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead explores the experience of being diagnosed with HIV. Despite the medical advances, Smith’s work is imbued with a set of imagery evoking death and decay. So, how to explain the persistence of this supposedly outdated association between HIV and AIDS? What role may Smith’s social position, as a queer, Black American, play in the association of HIV to AIDS seen in their work? In this dissertation I delve into a phenomenology of HIV in the 21st century based on comparative close-readings of Danez Smith’s poetry. While most literary analyses of HIV and AIDS literature approach the experience of contagion through trauma and stigma, I am interested in exploring the hope and joy that shines through in Smith’s work in spite of the fatalistic imagery, considering the possibility to experience an HIV-positive diagnosis optimistically. Focusing on the perceptive experience of HIV and how it might evolve over time, I read Smith’s poems in chronological contrast, bearing in mind the year of publication and the position of each piece within the volume, but giving most importance to whether the speaker’s perspective in each poem is pre- or postdiagnosis. I suggest that there is a narrative arc spanning Danez Smith’s poetry, from pre-diagnosis fear of contagion in the first collection, [insert] boy (2014), through post-diagnosis fear of developing AIDS and becoming ill in the second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, to ambivalent acceptance of the virus, to embrace, thankfulness, and even love for it in the third collection, Homie (2020). To do so, I draw from literary theory (Augier, Bachelard, Felski, Fuss, Ramazani, Sacks, Spargo), as well as Afropessimism (Douglass & Wilderson, Melton, Sexton, Warren), queer theory (Ahmed, Butler, Berlant, Love, Muñoz, Snediker), HIV and AIDS historiography (Basu, Castiglia & Reed, Cheng et al., Cvetkovich, Schulman) and phenomenology (Esposito, Nancy, Merleau-Ponty, Spillers), among other sources, to shed light on HIV as a flexible ontological experience in the pharmaceutical context of a 21st-century global North. The four chapters of this dissertation approach the impact of HIV with different interests. Chapter 1 explores the impact of HIV on Smith’s style and use of the elegiac mode. Engaging with elegy scholars I argue that Smith’s verse subverts the dichotomy attributed to the distinction between consolatory elegy and anti-elegy through the use of spatio-temporal deictics. Chapter 2 considers the impact of the virus on the speaker’s self-perception as a Black American by contrasting the thought of Afropessimist thinkers to Queer Optimism. In Chapter 3 I study the spatial metaphors used to convey the speaker’s body engaged in sexual intercourse and note the implications of how those metaphors evolve throughout Smith’s verse according to the speaker’s experience of the virus, and what this may say about the possibilities for intimacy before and after the diagnosis. Chapter 4 claims that Smith’s poetry engages with HIV to activate a sense of aliveness through pleasure, thus reproducing its own aesthetics of vanitas. Finally, I suggest that HIV continues to be a crisis and that we must conceive it as one if any social change is to be reached.

[cat] A Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), Danez Smith s’endinsa en l’experiència d’un diagnòstic positiu de VIH al segle XXI. Actualment els tractaments antiretrovirals disponibles no només permeten mantenir un nivell de salut gairebé equivalent al de les persones seronegatives, sinó que impossibiliten la transmissió del virus a altres persones. Tot i així, als poemes de Smith, el contagi sovint s’il·lustra amb un imaginari de malaltia i mort que equipara el VIH al seu estat més desenvolupat i mortífer, la sida. Però a què es deu la continuació d’aquesta associació entre VIH i sida en el context mèdic actual? Per contra, en els poemes que reflexionen sobre aquesta condició amb la distància que permeten el temps i l’experiència, el jo líric expressa no només una acceptació del seu seroestatus, sinó també agraïment i, fins i tot, amor pel virus. A partir d’aquesta ambivalència, en aquesta tesi analitzo els poemes de Danez Smith transversalment i comparativa, des del primer volum, [insert] boy (2014), fins al tercer, Homie (2020), per tal d’estudiar el desenvolupament de la concepció que el subjecte queer i negre dels Estats Units d’avui dia té del virus, així com de l’impacte que el contagi té sobre el jo, la seva auto-percepció i les seves relacions interpersonals. Amb l’objectiu de traçar aquesta evolució, en aquesta tesi comparo l’estil i els recursos literaris emprats al llarg dels tres poemaris basant-me en els estudis literaris, així com en la teoria queer, la fenomenologia, l’afropessimisme i els nous materialismes, entre d’altres corrents analítiques.


Escriptors afro-nord-americans; Escritores afronorteamericanos; African American authors; Fenomenologia; Fenomenología; Phenomenology; Poesia contemporània; Poesía contemporánea; Modern poetry (19th-21st century); Pessimisme; Pesimismo; Pessimism; Infeccions per VIH; Infecciones por VIH; HIV infections; Teoria queer; Teoría queer; Queer theory


82 - Literature

Knowledge Area

Ciències Humanes i Socials


Programa de Doctorat en Estudis Lingüístics, Literaris i Culturals






L'accés als continguts d'aquesta tesi queda condicionat a l'acceptació de les condicions d'ús establertes per la següent llicència Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/
L'accés als continguts d'aquesta tesi queda condicionat a l'acceptació de les condicions d'ús establertes per la següent llicència Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

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