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Poetry Review: “The Worrying” by Paul Monette

Best American Poetry 1990

Author: Paul Monette

Poem: The Worrying

I was originally drawn to this poem because of its unusual form. There was no punctuation to separate sentences which, as I read the piece, was a very effective way to express the franticness of his thoughts. There were a few phrases in all capital letters, “PLEASE DON’T MAKE HIM SICK AGAIN,” “THIS IS CRAZY RIGHT,” “WHO WILL EVER LOVE ME.” The first line is a continuation of the title which I found to be a recurring theme throughout this particular set of poems.

The first time I read the poem, there was an evident sense of panic but I couldn’t quite place what it was about. It was difficult to tell where one idea ended and the next one began and I considered finding a different poem. However, there was one line that I found powerful enough that I couldn’t abandon it. “To hell with cholesterol that’s for people way way over the hill or up the hill not us in the vale of borrowed time.” I don’t know why it resonated so much with me but there was something about “the vale of borrowed time” that I found enticing enough to delve deeper into the poem.

There is a theme of sickness and loss in this poem. I originally thought the narrator was detailing his experiences with OCD or germophobia but, after researching more about Monette, I found that he was instead conveying his experiences as his partner dealt with AIDS and was eventually killed by it.

There is a lot of self-blame in this poem, especially leading up to and after his partner’s death. He writes, “How did the meningitis get in where did I slip up what didn’t I scour I’d have swathed the whole city in gauze to cushion you no man who hasn’t watched his cruelest worry come true in a room with no door can ever know what doesn’t die,” and “Thanksgiving morning I went to the grave two over beside you was six feet deep ready for the next murdered dream so see the threat was real why not worry worry is like a prayer is like a God.”

In 1990, the AIDS epidemic was much scarier than it is now. There was very little you could do to slow the rate of death. Because AIDS is an opportunistic disease and needs an illness other than itself to kill its host, the compulsive cleaning and disinfecting the narrator does in this piece makes sense; if there are no viruses in the house, they can’t get his partner sick. Though Monette takes this to a definite extreme, it’s much more understandable upon researching his personal life.

It is obvious throughout the entire piece how intensely Monette cares for his partner. At one point in the piece he expresses how hard it is for him to have his partner in the hospital, where he can’t limit the amount of disease exposure, but stays by his bedside the entire time. After reading it through a few times, the strength of the piece is almost unbearable, especially after his partner’s death.

In his self-blame and extensive cleaning and worrying, it is easy for the reader to see that Monette’s trouble with his partner’s sickness is inhibiting him mentally and physically. He ends the piece with, “Oh my one safe place there must be something just say what it is and it’s yours.”

This piece was originally published in a collection of poems Monette wrote, titled Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog, Rog being the first of two partners Monette lost to AIDS. On Friday, February 7th, 1995 at 9:30pm, Monette died, also due to complications with AIDS. Researching Monette’s personal life allowed me to better understand the severity of the feelings he was having at the time that he wrote this piece and the intensity of the pain expressed.

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