Dare to Emerge
HIV advocate and poet Mary Bowman shares her journey of self-discovery in a new poetry collection, Emerge
by Alina Oswald
Photos by Naji Copeland
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
The above quote from Dead Poets Society came to mind when reading Mary Bowman’s latest poetry collection, Emerge. Bowman is an award-winning, internationally recognized poet, singer, motivational speaker and HIV advocate raising her voice to focus not only on HIV, but in particular on perinatal HIV. In her poems she often talks about the reality of living with the virus, a reality she knows all too well, having lost her mother to the epidemic when she was very young, and herself being born HIV-positive and living with the virus day in and day out.
She has always found refuge in writing poetry. “Poetry is created, most times, from a place one can’t adequately describe,” says Mary Bowman [A&U, August 2016]. She believes that whenever poetry is written, a kind of magic happens, a kind of magic that, in turn, offers us, readers, “a divine experience.”
Poetry has always provided a safe space for her, a space where she could be herself. Poetry has guided her through her life’s journey and given her the courage to rediscover herself and emerge as a stronger, more confident person. “Poetry,” she says, “was the first place I felt safe enough, to be honest. Poetry holds me accountable.”
Bowman’s love for poetry began when she was in ninth grade. “My teacher gave [us] an assignment, to write a poem saying something about ourselves,” she explains. “I wrote a poem about my mom and her death, a subject I didn’t always feel open to talk about at home. I don’t think anything, besides music and singing, had ever made me feel that free before that moment, so I was hooked.”
Over the years, she had written poems on pretty much anything and everything she could write on—notebooks, her phone and laptop, even on receipts. And then, one day she started typing up all her handwritten poems and added them to a folder, where she had saved other poems on her laptop. When she was done typing, she went to the library and printed out all those poems, to better read and organize them by relevance and category—categories such as family, love found and lost, HIV, and a special category dedicated to the poet, herself. Once she was done organizing all her poems, she realized that they were actually telling her life story, like an autobiography of sorts, written in verse. She called it Emerge, to emphasize that she continues to “Emerge in the midst of it all.”
While Bowman doesn’t have a favorite poem in the collection, she’s often drawn to “the ones that feel good to say out loud,” poems like “Morning,” for instance, the very first poem in her collection. It “introduces you to the gravity of my story,” Bowman explains, “then moves you to the start of the healing that is Emerge. All in one poem. I love the rhythm of it.”
“The morning is sweet. Kind. / You know, the kind of dew like kiss, / that lingers. / All day. / Electric. / The morning, / a freedom dance, / balanced, as the world turns my face / toward the sun. […] Decided against continuing to be who I was, and settled for being who I / wanted to be. / A morning woman. / Intentional, /and whole.”
As she continued to work on her book, categories became chapters. The first chapter, “Blood and Water,” talks about the poet’s experience growing up, from “Secrets” she considers a “second chance given unspoken,” to “Coming Out” and to desperate times when “Faith needed a lifeline.” Bowman explains, “My childhood experience led to the broken, hopeless romantic with a mother complex trying to be in relationships with the women I talk about in [the next chapter] ‘Pre-requisite.’”
The name, “Pre-requisite,” was inspired by the prerequisite courses one has to take in college before taking more advanced courses. In Emerge, the “Pre-requisite” chapter offers a summary of the life’s courses she had to take on her journey. “I always say I didn’t go to college but my relationships, the ones that made the book, were basically my life university,” Bowman says.
The poems in “Pre-requisite” expose a multitude of feelings, emotions and experiences, all building blocks, in a way, of the foundation from where the poet would be able to emerge as the accomplished artist and advocate she is today. Among others, “Pre-requisite” talks about her fears, relationships, and love.
“The pre-requisites taught me what I didn’t want in a partner so I prayed to God for what I wanted, specifically,” Bowman says. “I believe that whatever you ask for shall manifest so I get specific with my requests.” That led her to the love of her life, her soon-to-be ex-wife. She dedicated a full chapter, “The Forever,” to their relationship. “The Forever” talks about love, and the “hairline fracture to the heart” caused by losing that love.
In “The Cause,” the poet exposes the reality of living with HIV, and her own experience being born and living with HIV. “The Cause” takes on various aspects of HIV and the AIDS epidemic, from coming out about one’s status, to the associated stigma and HIV criminalization. In “The Cause” the poet remembers those lost to the epidemic, the fight and resilience of those living with the virus.
In perhaps one of the most powerful poems in this collection, “End of An Epidemic,” Bowman dares to imagine a future world, free of HIV:
“When it’s all said and done / We will pack our pain stained posters / Pins labeled with our lives / And close doors we fought so hard to open / We will say farewell to the days / Our eyes were filled with what seemed an ever flowing river / The days when our bodies painted cities and towns the color red / When our voices strained broken yet kept speaking / […] If we will have enough energy / Or even the desire to ask / What happened / Or why the world was so mean.”
As a poet, she paints with the finest words. And she imagines what the right phrase would be, what AIDS survivors and activists would say “When it’s all said and done.” And the one phrase she can think of is “Thank you / Because it was all worth it.”
Emerge is as much about lessons learned and self-discovery as about self-acceptance and healing, and love—for family, significant others, self, and also God. Her relationship and conversation with God come to life as a common thread, throughout the entire collection. In “The Love of God,” Bowman writes: “In my most humble moments / There lies the sweetest communion / The greatest love I have ever allowed myself to receive / The love of God.”
All of these chapters and the experiences they talk about lead Mary Bowman back home, to herself. “Out of everything I have learned thus far, the most important [thing] is, all roads lead home,” she reiterates. “My emotions let me know how my house is doing. The last chapter is about me, written by me, and for me to revisit anytime I need to remember that I love myself, first. I named the last chapter ‘Love, Self’ and wrote it as if it were the closing and the signature of a letter, a love letter to myself.”
Maybe the most poignant poem in this particular chapter is actually the last poem in her collection. It’s called “This Skin” and it captures a portrait of the poet as she has healed and emerged, finally at peace with herself:
“This skin I’m in today / Honey, it ain’t my yesterday skin / Soft and un accounted for / Nah, this skin is like magic now […] / This skin is proud / This skin is vibrant / This skin is perfect […] This skin is amen / Solace and celebration / This skin is finally at peace”
This poetry collection offers a daring lesson, a course, in life and living, surviving. Emerge is itself a prerequisite, a required read for those who dare to start on their journeys through life. Emerge is dedicated “to those who choose to emerge in spite of,” Mary Bowman says. She’s confident that “the right hands would touch the pages, read them, be with the words for a while and thus gather what they need or want for themselves.”
To contact Mary Bowman and learn more about her work and new book, Emerge, visit her online at: marybowman.strikingly.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.