In Santiago de Compostela for a Conference on Drug Users and AIDS
by Sam Friedman

    Standing before the monastic medieval hospital,
    now a hotel replete with ornate furniture,
    art of the Renaissance
    and the honored guests of the Conference,
    I watch the red-tiled roofs blend into the mixed greens
    of misty morning fields
    through which the pious once crawled to the lofty cathedral,
    knees kissing misty earth, from Paris and beyond.

    In the mornings, we confer on AIDS.
    We eat away our afternoons
    discussing drugs, wines and the relative merits
    of Italian and Galician cuisine,
    while spider crabs, pulpo, and leather-skinned barnacles
    fill our tongues with textures and tastes
    quite unknown to most Americans.

    On the stony stairs behind the Cathedral
    and in farms misty amid gentle green,
    young and old also speak of drugs
    as they savor needles,
    heroin,
    perhaps a lingering kiss
    of HIV.
    Their skeletal cheeks and protruding eyes
    meander through the misty rooftops
    of our tipsy minds
    as we lick our last liqueurs
    from sated lips.

    On our final evening
    in this city of mystic pilgrimages
    and of haunted seekers of chemical bliss,
    the bishop opens the cathedral for a devotional service
    for the pilgrims of research.

    As a keynote speaker at the Conference,
    I stand behind the altar,
    an altar topped by St. James and horsebacked angels
    whose swords scythe sinners from their heaven above,
    far, far above the ancient benches
    where peasants once trembled.
    My eyes exchange ironies with Jaap Goudsmit
    as we cannot forget
    ancestors driven from this land of beauty
    by Los Reyes Catolicos,
    for whom they named the hotel
    where we have slept amidst aristocratic luxury;
    and I think of the bombs of Catholic authority
    dripping scant years before my birth
    like the Santiago mist
    in this ancient country of pulpo
    and of workers' revolution.

    I stand behind an altar of sword-wielding angels,
    myself an icon in a rite of unity against a virus,
    in a world where unity dissipates like the holy incense
    blessed by the Monsignor of the cathedral,
    flaming incense soaring high above
    its giant urn restrained by a rope
    pulled and released by aged men in splendid robes.
    The urn plummets like a gargoyle unleashed,
    flames roaring earthwards,
    smoke like the breath of a gasping Satan
    pouring over the congregation
    and over the pilgrims of AIDS research
    while the evening plummets downwards
    like the flames,
    bringing the joys of a cold Friday evening
    to addicts
    shivering
    without.






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