Steven Reigns, a poet and educator from Los Angeles, has authored an impressive curricula vitae: two collections of poetry (Inheritance and Your Dead Body Is My Welcome Mat), more than a dozen chapbooks; he also edited My Life in Poetry, a collection of the writings from his first autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBTQ seniors. To this list he now adds A Quilt for David, a collection of short poems and prose pieces that recounts the forgotten story of Dr. David Acer, a Gay dentist accused of infecting his patients with HIV, most notably Kimberley Bergalis.
Gay Men of a Certain Age may remember the bare bones of David’s story: an HIV positive Gay dentist, eight of his patients sued him for infecting them with the HIV virus, despite there being (still!) no reliable evidence of a dentist infecting a patient. During the hysteria of the late 1980s, when a diagnosis of HIV was almost an immediate death sentence (David himself died two years, ten months, and twenty-nine days after his diagnosis), there was no reliable treatment, but there was a lot of fear surrounding the disease, and misinformation about how it spread. (For example, it was claimed that AIDS could be spread through mosquito bites.) David was called a “murderer,” while his patients were “innocent victims.” Kimberley Bergalis, possibly the best known of his “innocent victims,” insisted on her virginity in court: she eventually had statues erected in her honor, a beach named after her, a cover article in People magazine; when she died, an article in the Palm Beach Post proclaimed (unironically) “Hundreds Mourn Bergalis: Fort Pierce Woman Was ‘Voice of All AIDS sufferers.’” David Acer, one such AIDS sufferer, died in a hospice four hours from his home, under an assumed name, unmourned.
A Quilt for David is replete with these contrasts. Perhaps the most dramatic contrast is that David himself has no quilt panel memorializing him in the NAMES Project (hence the title of this collection):
I’d sew a quilt for you.
I would grab a needle,
put the thread in my mouth,
moistening the ﬁbers together.
I’d pierce into the eye.
I’d hem, backstitch, sidestitch
a remembrance of you.
I’d put your name in large letters
wanting no one to forget you died of it
too. I’d sew you into that larger quilt because
no one else has. I’d select patterns, design a quilt
representing your lifelong loves.
Kimberly has four panels, photos, and a large starﬁsh.
Of course, David’s story is bound up with Kimberly’s, and Reigns weaves her story as well as the stories of Richard Driskill, Michael Buckley, Sherry Johnson, Lisa Shoemaker, John Yecs, Jr., and an unidentified man. A nine-page bibliography with ninety-seven entries attests to Reigns’ extensive research: much of what Reigns has unearthed runs counter to the long accepted narrative of the virginal Kimberly and the others, maliciously infected by David. Reigns wisely lets the facts speak for themselves, without poetic embellishment. David’s story, long untold, is retold simply, with stark power.
Reigns has performed a valuable service, recovering the story of David Johnson Acer and reminding us all that often what is designated as “history” or “fact” or “truth” is only the narrative that gets repeated the most, and/or the narrative that typically serves the powerful majority.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske