Book review: The Scarlet Moment

Book review: The Scarlet Moment

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

Reviewed by Warren Summers

‘In this life, I pick up stones wanting explanations about their enigmas …
‘Do stones dream?
Stones wait patiently for children to pick them up, throw them into the air and return them to the earth, becoming falling grains of sand in another life.’



The Scarlet Moment landed, as a grain of sand, in my life earlier this year: an unassuming collection of images, dreams, stories, and reflections, told as a multiform cascade of poetry.

This 28-page chapbook (a short collection of poetry) by Peter Mitchell focuses, in part, on the emergence of HIV in Australia.

The subject matter is the stuff of insight and embodiment. The existential tropes of meaning-making, im/mortality, and impermanence are unfolded from the ordinary with a use of language that is in some ways plain, but also lyrical.

Many poems document the experiences of patients on St Vincent’s Ward 7 South (later redesignated Ward 17) – the first hospital ward dedicated to HIV/AIDS care in Australia.

These works depict visceral and moving moments from the early years of HIV, contributing to, but not dominating, the tone of the collection as a whole. I write this reflection as a young gay man who was still blissfully drifting through preschool during those early days of HIV in Australia.

Although I have had the chance to hear stories from my elders about those days, to watch documentaries, read books, and consider research – I am acutely aware of both how little I know, and how entwined my life is with that history.

Somehow, despite this difference of perspective, I felt welcome in these poems. This collection was an opportunity for me to contemplate the more subjective aspects of a history that is often told in numbers or buried behind grand narratives. Mitchell resists the urge to tell a definitive story, to generalise, to moralise, or to lecture.

Instead we focus on the mostly internal reflections and observations of the narrator/s as they move through different states from lucid consciousness to surreal dreamscape – eventually blurring the two.

In ‘Man in the Next bed’, the narrator speaks of having the same name as his ward neighbour. Their names linking their fates: ‘A parallel universe mocks me, his/ ill-health a hologram of my future.’

As reader, I wonder if the narrator is hallucinating, projecting himself (and the reader) into his own nightmare?

I hear echoes of John Donne: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ … ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee’.

The shared experience of dying bringing together the bodies of everyone in Ward 17. There is a depth here that will perhaps speak to older readers or people with a lived experience of HIV.

I wonder what nuances of history and detail are invisible to me in these poems? I get a hint of it while reading ‘Pin-Cushion Arm’ where we meet ‘One-Go Jo’, a nurse in Ward 17 with a gift for (usually) inserting cannulas first go.

In an earlier edition of HIV Australia I read that nurses on Ward 17 had to take blood and insert cannulas because pathology staff refused to do it. Combining these two reflections, we witness the courage and compassion of these nurses in a time of social and political crisis.

And what of this Scarlet Moment that titles the collection?

Here the narrator finds themselves newly diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the moment of diagnosis and reflection sinking in. The narrator hovers, suspended somewhere between the known-benign and the known-malignant.

It is not quite a moment of the unknown, it is a moment charged with life and nausea. There is a chaotic aliveness in that moment as the person reaches for meaning and finds it dissolving.

The ordinary detail of daily life takes on extra significance in the face of mortality. It is not hard to imagine that we might all have these moments in our lives. Mitchell balances these moments of intensity with others of joy, nature and intimacy.

In these times of big data and empiricism, poetry becomes a space in which we can develop a subjective, experience-near, and multilayered perspective on the stories that many of us may think we know.

The Scarlet Moment is a grain of sand that will grow each time you read it.

Warren Summers looks after communications at the National LGBTI Health Alliance. Warren is passionate about using words, music, and movement as creative responses to inclusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *