Gavin Harrison was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1989, a time when medicine to fight the disease was almost nonexistent and such a diagnosis was basically a death sentence. His new book of poetry and prose, Petals and Blood, is an exuberant declaration that after all these years he is very much alive, passionately thriving and ceaselessly creating.
Upon opening his new book, I was swept away by the photography: a joyride for the eyes that includes images of African wildlife, ocean scenes and landscapes of the author’s adopted home, Hawaii. Harrison’s poems superimposed upon the photos belong to the tradition of Rumi and Hafiz. Although his poetry recalls Sufi chants, Harrison’s sentiment and self-referencing (there are several references to “Gavin,” i.e., the author himself) reminded this reader of such disparate bards as Kabir and Whitman. Even if Harrison’s free verse does not follow traditional poetic forms, it flows with enthusiasm and humor:
Now [God] has taken me
by the scruff of the neck
and hauled me through
the debris of my forgetfulness.
Prose pieces open each chapter of poetry with titles such as “Fire,” “Love” and “Longing.” These short essays recount heartfelt stories of formative years spent in South Africa, childhood sexual abuse, life in Iran, love affairs and years of meditation. The book’s final chapter, titled “Gratitude,” recalls young Harrison’s experience as a student joining a protest against South Africa’s apartheid culture. One evening an Afrikaner woman offers the student protestors freshly baked pies, and then, just before digging in, someone discovers that the pie filling includes ground glass. The story is starkly offset by a close-up image of a pair of black hands gently cradling a bright green apple. Harrison follows this with “Across the Veld,” a love poem to Africa containing these lines:
. . . flat on my face
I feel the roar of Africa within me
blessing and privilege.
all inhibition to the Love
that lives here now.
In his foreword to the book, vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein writes, “Petals and Blood is a fitting testament to [Harrison’s] amazing life.” I agree.