City Lights. 2021. 128 pages.

Reviewed by James Davis

The batting of Steven Reigns’s book-length poem A Quilt for David is a story of fear and scapegoating from the height of the AIDS crisis, a tale woven through tabloids of the early 1990s but since largely forgotten. Reigns sums it up in an epigraph immediately following his dedication page:

In 1990 a young HIV-positive woman in Florida claimed she was a virgin and that her infection came from her gay, dying dentist. The media believed her, seven others came forward, and a monster was born.

Like so many maligned figures, the monster that becomes David Acer, the book’s titular dentist, was a creation of a public’s panicked instinct toward self-preservation. On his deathbed, Acer was blamed for infecting his patients with dirty instruments, including a grandmother, who likely contracted HIV from a blood infusion. Each of the claimants had their own, particular circumstances of infection, none of which had to do with David. With the help of faulty evidence from the CDC and sensationalist journalism, David and his practice took the fall. It has taken years to exonerate him, and he still inhabits the role of “monster” in many of the minds that remember him.

Onto this heavy foundation, Reigns stitches a hybrid poetry, patches of prose and strips of free-verse sewn together with no strict pattern—connection, not order, is the goal. None of the poems is titled, which tightens each page’s connection to the next. Naturally, Reigns’s Quilt refers to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the awe-inspiring 53-ton cooperative art project begun in 1985. In fact, the inspiration is made quite explicit. In one of several sections of free verse that address Acer directly as “you,” the speaker reveals his wish to “sew you into that larger quilt because / no one else has.” Kimberly Bergalis, his first accuser, has multiple panels. The injustice of David’s effacement and Reigns’s labor of restoration make the book a meaningful artifact, as well as a moving work of art: “If I were to prick my finger / and bleed, I wouldn’t regret / a single drop of blood.” Like the AIDS Quilt, Reigns’s project is dutiful and composite in a way that cannot bring its dead to life but does afford them dignity in death.

A quilt’s beauty rests at least as much in the evidence of its making as in what’s made. One surprisingly moving exhibit of Reigns’s process is his nine-page Selected Bibliography, just shy of a hundred separate sources, most from the early to mid-Nineties. Reigns’s sources—the fabric of his quilt—range from People magazine to the Annals of Internal Medicine. They speak to his devotion to the truth. “I decided not to use poetic license,” swears the Preface to this poetry collection. My eyebrow may have raised reading this, but I understood: Reigns wanted to be as careful with these lives as other writers hadn’t. The Preface, too, testifies to the care put into this Quilt.

A loving portrait of David Acer comes through the book’s hybrid patterning. The book’s first lines of verse introduce David amidst a historical, racialized context:

162 in your graduating class
161 men
159 white people
1 Black person
1 Asian person

Part of the accelerated class of 1974
received doctorate diplomas
in March, not June.
Common for Ohio State graduates
you joined the army.
Captain in Germany for two years.

Not the time or place to be out.

The reader sees David as a color and as part of a pattern. He is a white man in a white place at a white time. He is his degree and rank, his “[c]ommon” though hard-earned markers of status. The verse, like David and quilts, isn’t glamorous; it’s sparing with figure, muted in tone, and often cut roughly, in the middle of phrases or after each item of a list. This lends sobriety to the book’s memorializing. While not fussy, the lines are careful, intentional. This first verse page ends on an image that brings David into sharp focus: “The youngest in your class, / you were described as agreeable, shy. / Your white lab coats always pressed and exceedingly neat.” This cotton fragment of David’s coat sewn into the book’s first verse patch reveals the author’s quiet, quilter’s wit. The photo of a handsome, wheat-haired David on the cover is ensouled through such loving gestures.

The Quilt’s other main character is Kimbe