A review of A Quilt for David by Steven Reigns

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

A Quilt for David
by Steven Reigns
City Lights
Paperback, 132 pages, ISBN-13 978-0872868816, $16.95, September 14, 2021

Like the AIDS Quilt itself to which the title alludes, A Quilt for David is a memorial to victims of the AIDS epidemic that swept up hundreds of thousands of lives in the last forty years, in the same scary way the COVID pandemic has killed so many people in 2020. Only, this memorial for David Acer memorializes more than the victims of the HIV virus. It also revisits the homophobic hysteria that drove so much of the narrative. “All of them emboldened by…a mute president,” as Reigns writes in one of the 79 untitled meditations (both poems and prose pieces) that make up this breathtaking collection. “HIV was the new leprosy in 1989,” he writes elsewhere, characterizing the frenzy that led to so much fear and hatred. 

Dr. David Acer was a dentist in Jensen Beach, Florida, on the east coast midway between Orlando and Miami. He became infected with HIV after a gay sexual encounter, and eventually, this manifested itself as AIDS, the horror of his Hepatitis B and Kaposi’s sarcoma detailed in more than one poem. However, Acer continued to practice dentistry. “Facing death and mounting medical bills, was David supposed to forfeit his practice, his only income? Instead, he took more precautions.”

Several of Acer’s patients accused him of transmitting the HIV virus to them while he was working in their mouths, more than half a dozen, ultimately. Prominent among these accusers was Kimberly Ann Bergalis, who would testify before a Congressional committee, one of whose Republican members, the legendary bigot Senator Jesse Helms, advocated for 10-year prison sentences and huge fines for healthcare workers who failed to disclose their HIV status. Bergalis was featured as a victim on a sensational cover of People Magazine. In a 1986 New York Times op-ed piece, William F. Buckley Jr. had even suggested tattooing the infected, like Jews during the Holocaust; the hysteria of mob mentality sometimes seemed to be getting out of control.   DNA comparisons, which were later shown to be misleading and worthless, not based on solid science, were used to implicate Acers. His name was dragged through the mud, convicted in the court of public opinion. As Reigns writes in a poem addressed to Acer:

The infected patients lined up,
to point a finger
to give a just cause
to not be blamed themselves.
You were dead, couldn’t refute,
couldn’t countersue.

Elsewhere Reigns writes:

David was easy, the harder things were easier
to forget: the night one blacked out from drinking,
the one-night stand, the shared needle.

Indeed, in a couple of poems, Reigns compares the vilification of David Acer to that of Typhoid Mary. Mary Malloon had not believed she could transmit typhoid through food preparation and didn’t stop. David didn’t stop working either, but he took precautions.

The difference:
Mary infected people
unknowingly. David
might not have
infected anyone
at all.

The hysteria got to be so extreme, Reigns writes, “Television ads showed a woman entering her dentist’s office with her own pouch of tools for him to use. You could buy them too, by simply calling the number on the screen.” Acer’s accusers went on Larry King Live, 20/20 and Good Morning, America.   

Reigns documents a laundry list of accusers, some blatantly opportunistic, others simply in denial, wanting to shift the blame. There are Barbara Webb, a retired schoolteacher, Richard Driskill, a citrus worker, Lisa Shoemaker and John Yecs, among them. These people, too, are AIDS victims, of course, like Bergalis, who had withered down to sixty pounds by the time she testified before Congress.  They are no less memorialized than Acer, for all their misguided homophobia.  But Bergalis and Webb – “the virgin and the grandmother” – became the poster children for the victims of the “monster” Acer.  Reigns notes: “As gay men died alone in hospices, hospitals and home across the country, people wanted to save these two women.” 

The damage done to Acer spread to his stepfather, who committed suicide after fielding all the lawsuits and listening to the hate speech about David. On March 27, 1995, he “put a gun in his mouth / and pulled the trigger.”

A Quilt for David, then, is ultimately an attempt to restore some balance here, in the rush to blame, the impulse toward victimhood.  As Reigns, the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, writes in his Preface, comparing his project to the way Bergalis and Wells and the others were put on a pedestal of martyrdom: “What if, through poetry, I could offer as equally empathic and compassionate view of David? These poems also serve as a way to memorialize him and what his story tells us about humanity, homophobia, and our history.”

Many of the poems address Acer directly, as “you.” “The grandmother sued, / blamed you, and / won the settlement,” he writes of Barbara Webb.  “You also died / long before Barbara Webb ever got tested.” “Brownish-purple lesions covered your legs and throat. Your hair patchy, deep circles under your eyes, weight loss hollowed your cheeks, front teeth protruded. You lost a career, future, and your looks.”

Yet it is in the final poem in the collection that Reigns, who has rigorously researched the story, finally inserts himself into the discourse. (An eight-page bibliography accompanies the text, and in his Acknowledgments, he extends thanks to the many, many people he interviewed as well as the people who hosted and housed him in Florida.) He is in the building that once housed David Acer’s dental practice. It had become a nightclub for a time – Club Envy – before becoming an arcade in this later incarnation. He writes, “On the last day

of my last trip to the Treasure Coast,
I stood in the building where all of it
happened. This was where history
was made and rewritten and misinterpreted
and misdirected.

He plays a slot machine, the quintessential symbol of Fortune’s spinning wheel, and he reflects on taking risks. David took risks. The patients took risks.

No one comes out clean.
Everyone feels cheated.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.