Gil Cuadros' 'My Body Is Paper' - Unflinching honesty in stories and poems

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday July 2, 2024
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Author Gil Cuadros
Author Gil Cuadros

Gil Cuadros' long-awaited posthumous new book of short stories and poems, "My Body Is Paper," was recently released by City Lights Books. Although Mr. Cuadros died in 1996 of AIDS at the age of 34, the book's editors Pablo Alvarez, Kevin Martin, Rafael Pérez-Torres, and Terry Wolverton worked to bring this new book to fruition.

The first book written by the East Los Angeles native, "City of God," was published 30 years ago in 1994 by City Lights Books as well. The title is a nod to St. Augustine's book by the same name, published in 426 A.D. in the Roman Empire in what is today Algeria. And like it, Cuadros' work is a masterpiece.

Lest anyone wonder whether this second book will live up to the promise of his first, there is no doubt that "My Body Is Paper" is just as good if not better than Cuadros' debut book.

As Justin Torres writes in the foreword, "Here are the poems and lessons and suffering and illness and grace that make the poet. Here is Gil, always Gil, uncompromised and uncompromising, and without doubt one of the sexiest and most important writers I've ever read."

Author Gil Cuadros  

It is also an unflinchingly honest look at the AIDS epidemic. In 1987, Cuadros received the devastating news that he was HIV+. At the time it was a death sentence. He was told he had six months to live. Nonetheless, in 1988, he joined Terry Wolverton's writing workshop for people with HIV at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

"Writing literally saved my life or at least extended my life," Cuadros wrote. The author lived another eight years.

The genius of Gil Cuadros, while very much appreciated in the gay community, has yet to be fully recognized.

The beautifully heart-felt story "Hands," told in the first person, is vaguely reminiscent of the radically honest works of Truman Capote. These are tales of heartache and love in a world that is ashamed of love. But love is everywhere to be found by those who have eyes to see.

In "Hands," Gil Cuadros recalls having attempted suicide at age 12. In particular, he recalled that the ambulance technician cried, saying he'd never seen a little boy attempt suicide before. The reader remains in the dark about what prompted such drastic action.

His family took him to meet with the Archbishop, who taught the young boy that he could never go to Heaven if he killed himself, no matter how ill, no matter what. The words stuck with him now that he was ill, waiting on the steps of the church to go to lunch with his partner who works across the street.

While waiting, he offers to help the Mexican woman who arranges the plastic flowers around the statue of Mary that lost its hands in the earthquake.

"I started to notice the meditative quality of working this soil...something like a warm charge I received from the earth, that I became more spirit than being."

He listens as she begins to tell him about her son, who loved plants and used to arrange the flowers around the statue. "I saw pride I wished my own parents could give me."

Everyone praised her for her son's devotion, his love, and praised her for raising such a fine son, but no one saw how lonely he was. She wasn't surprised when her son committed suicide, she explained. "It was many days before I cried; somehow, I knew it was all my fault."

Cuadros writes that he wanted to ask her why, "but I knew... He was a man who wanted to heal and to be healed."

A few lines later he writes that he imagined what her son must have looked like, "His smile must have been dazzling." The story concludes as his partner arrives and, emboldened, he kisses him "lightly on the mouth."

"Hands" is a powerful story told through the eyes of love, one day in the life of Gil Cuadros, full of tragedy, comfort, humanity and real human connection.

In preparation for his own death, Cuadros writes that he carried a pocketful of change for panhandlers. His catechism training from his childhood returned to him, "those who help the lowliest...I don't believe I have long; my blood has turned against me, there is no one here to heal me."

The poem "If She Could" is about his mother's shame. Here it is in its entirety:

She would cut out
what is wrong with me;
my body is paper.
She'd leave the edge sharp,
a hollow space at my crotch,
my mouth clean of sperm.

And even her bruiser, my father,
is rock silent about how ill I've become,
claims the plague will clean the cancer.
I tell them about my tumor
scare them with the word "biopsy"
above the lungs, malignant.
"The CAT scans really aren't clear,
and it might be something from birth,
a congenital disorder."

My mother refuses her part,
as if I grew out of a man's weak leg,
nursed on clammy balls and ass.
We weren't put down here for that,
she insists, and if that's prejudice
then it is.

I tell her it's good that we argue,
scissors and paper, mother and son;
but she has to win with the last words.
She says, "It's like you killed me."

'My Body Is Paper: Stories & Poems' by Gil Cuadros, City Lights Books, $17.95

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