Andrew Sutherland’s Paradise (point of transmission) is an uncanny journey of estrangement and ‘elation’ focalised around his diagnosis as HIV positive in Singapore, where he had based his life. Unable to continue living there due to the ban on HIV positive foreigners in Singapore (lifted in 2015 to allow tourists with HIV status to enter on a 90-day visa), Sutherland returned to the Western Australia ‘of his childhood’, to undergo treatment and start over again.  

Start over again? Not starting, but continuing differently. Memories of the old life are strong, and there are regrets and a deep sense of loss, but there is also processing. What makes this such a complex book to review – and I have now read the collection of poems four times – are the overlapping concerns of body and colonisation, of infection and haunting, of public and secret lives. As Sutherland states unequivocally, it is for each person with HIV to decide if they want to be public about it, and part of his journey was to be so. This collection plots the possibilities and co-ordinates of a new life, while concurrently investigating and pushing the limits of expository language and its meeting with the mysteries of the figurative.  

With all its pop cultural references, its overtly camp wit and dissections of conversation around sex and desire, Paradise (point of transmission) also analyses the social mores regarding infection as well as ‘subcultural’ manners and mannerisms. There is uncanniness in the disjunction the book presents between a desire founded in ‘wildness’ and its mediation by a culture haunted by the moral, political and medical agendas around HIV infection. It is a work of queer poetry that also reconstitutes queer theory (such as José Esteban Muñoz’s incredibly powerful Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity) in relation to HIV through interfacing and interphasing ways. Sutherland rewrites the ‘survivor’s handbook’, revitalising the possibilities of poetic language for living, growing, and sharing. There is a series of ‘treatment note’ poems (‘found’ from the poet’s correspondence) that question what intimacy and distance are ‘in the context’. In ‘Treatment {20/12/14}’ we process: 

My dearest … you asked me 
to greet the passing time
            in the following ways:   

Rejection: at breakfast / idea 
take a year     …     treat it as 
project management   /   fall 
back   …   oppressive silence 

Hope:      despite how it feels 
if this doesn’t satisfy you 
random act of / see you next 

Exchange: waiting / handing out flyers for  
a Korean church  …  I accepted gratefully 
/   praying to Jesus makes him feel   / 
‘sick or visit?’  …  both are true  
trying to become / he never knew 

And this early treatment might be juxtaposed with treatment in 2021: 

today, after seven years of blood tests 
I feel for the first time a sharp & wearying sting 
on entry            & then it passes 
take note of every yearning smallness 
to be tiny is meaningful enough  
it is a slow growing –  
re-making intimacy day to day 

The sensations of the body mark the passing of time, not as inevitability but as surprise, as the poem records the clarity of work done around the nature of intimacy.

I wrote part of this review during illness when I was super-processing questions of belonging and presence, so that affected my way of reading. We do this with poetry, don’t we – invite ourselves into its matrix of virtuality and empiricism to construct a relationship with our language and our experience? Further, this is a book my partner edited long before I encountered it, and I remember her deep interest in, and empathy with, Sutherland’s ‘project’. I never saw or discussed the text during its edit, though I had taught one of Sutherland’s poems via Zoom to a poetry class in Europe where it was greeted with a deep sense of relevance and purpose. So there’s a variety of contexts I’ve had to process when coming to this work.

For a poet so conscious of the zeitgeist and how he doesn’t fit – and maybe this is one of the essential attributes of ‘camp’ as deployed in this book – I found it interesting that Sutherland spoke so strongly to such different kinds of readers. In part, this is because in deconstructing the HIV positive discourse around isolation and community, alienation and welcome, and acceptance and denial in such a concentrated and ongoing way, Sutherland allows us to step back and examine how we sit as individuals under threat of sickness against a ‘greater’ communal suffering presented by the pandemic. The merging of the private and the public in ‘coming out’ with regard to infection is one of the absolutely necessary threads binding this book. It’s not a matter of ‘owning’ something no one can in fact own, but of defying the bigotries of judgement while also creating a dialogue between body and intellect that sustains the loss of ‘normalcy’.

It’s not just our sense of ‘normalcy’ that gets challenged; Paradise (point of transmission) vitally contests the very nature of ‘resilience’. In Western Australia, ‘resilience’ is a catchword for ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ across many stratifications of society, and is used by education ministers and police commissioners, by militarists and teachers. It is a toxic word that has been readily absorbed by even the well-meaning. Sutherland’s work not only undoes the term, but reclaims it by showing its irrelevance to crisis:

                      & it’s just like when my mother warned me
she didn’t think I had the resilience for living with HIV

but it’s like, you know what, mum, who even has the time
                                                       for resilience anymore
         (‘Ancestor Poem’)

In the same way that Sutherland waves aside the oppressiveness of ‘resilience’, so he reclaims the right for the ‘Poz’ (HIV-positive person) to have a sexual identity against the backdrop of the Grim Reaper-style advertising of the 90s. Sutherland was born in 1991, and in the first part of this tripartite journey (‘narrative’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘paradise’), he notes, with a reworking of chronology:

As a newborn in 1991, I have no knowledge of our connection to the
AIDS crisis, except one sharp & unexpected burst of memory,
in which I recalled my HIV diagnosis back in 2014 —
         (‘Aids Play, 1991’)

As part of the shifting and realigning of time, memory necessarily ‘changes’, becoming neither more reliable nor less reliable, but different. Intense and overwhelming experience changes how we interpret memory, especially when it comes to desire, sex and also love. The enjambment and ‘rough’ line endings are part of the play with memory, and across the book Sutherland explores many different formal approaches, from justified blocks of prose poems, to ragged-edged prose poems, to sharply (de)lineated stanzas, to open form and open field, and to intertextual montages. Terminal articles and prepositions are not so much tears in the timeline as suggestions of different or new ways of interpreting time signatures. His experiments with prose poetry are original and often quite exciting, containing both flow and jolts – often with unpredictable caesuras and shifts in pace, tone and voicing (often the same voice reconsidering something).

The book’s first section, titled ‘narrative’, is characterised in Sutherland’s introductory note: ‘transmission and diagnosis are written as moments of rupture: of sacrifice or violence, of movement and of break; Histories and mythologies, both personal and observed, are recast over the spectre of seroconversion’. Here we are necessarily working with relatively recent vivid memory, but/while memory means something very different with/due to seroconversion – awareness of infection, particularly in the context of those Grim Reaper (‘marked by death’) public health campaigns, brings a profound reassessment of the past. The ‘recast[ing]’ occurs because of stigma, but it’s also the deepest fear being realised and the familiar being discoursed on and medicalised into the unfamiliar. The ‘spectre’ exists because of the risk of death, but also because of the appalling history of the ways the AIDS crisis was dealt with early on by governments and many individuals. Founded in a reactionary religiosity, the polarising rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ intensified into moral crusades against homosexuality and intravenous drug usage/’sharing’. The infected person carried all that baggage, even as antiretroviral and then PreP treatments reduced viral loads to undetectable, inactive levels. The spectre became not the spectre of death, but the spectre of signified difference – you are not living, you are existing on borrowed time, you are living outside the norms of life itself, you are the ultimate other.

Silence is the easiest response to cope with, rejection the hardest. This book is a calling-out of both silence and rejection. An instance of its beautiful affirmation can be found in ‘Sodom & Gomorrah’:

I want my fucking to be rough & oh so languid
          like it was in the old days
                             those days of being wild
                        those halcyon genesis days

I want to try sodgorrah
                just you & I: gomodom
I know that sounds like another joke but it belongs here anyway
                     I am deep & copious; well-watered & green
                                              fuck me like twin cities
                      fuck me like utopia’s coming
                               it’s coming

In this passage, the revisualising reworking of memory is set against a Biblical tale of damnation, and also an earlier watching of Pasolini’s film Salò, with a particular experience and set of ideas in mind. This is more than the memory of desire (which is fine!); it’s a reconfiguring of positionality – a top or a bottom, filling or being filled – in an implosion of language which can only joke and pun its way through pleasure or pain, can only deal with trauma in a familiar register, or by breaking that register. The immense sadness in these lines – caught in the liminality of crisis – is offset by the call of life, of living.

I haven’t separated the person Andrew Sutherland from the core persona in these poems, and that’s been out of respect for his declared positionality. But really, we are journeying with a persona in conversation with the poet himself, and that persona is performing a series of roles, their silhouettes flaunted in front of a changing public (sympathetic, indifferent, hostile). Sutherland’s background in theatre comes through in more or less obvious ways, and the poem is often a stage of chat, disagreement, interior monologue and even TV show promos. In one of the key poems in the collection (which comes straight after ‘Sodom & Gomorrah’), we have the persona-poet messaging ‘Stefanos’ about a possible production of Salomé, in which he might play the lead. It is almost like a Lou Reed ‘New York Telephone Conversation’, but the poem’s pain goes deep and is in some ways the key motif in the section, if not whole book. This line-sentence epitomises the collection:

When I experienced seroconversion, I was rehearsing a shadow
dance for a corporate entertainment gig.

As the body changes, the virus also performs, and the shadow dance is in some kind of conversation with this process. The ‘corporate’ aspect of the gig was at odds with the private nature of his crisis. This mode of ‘easy’ segueing to create interior juxtapositions is a marker of both Sutherland’s technique and the use of the text as body, as performance, as a representation of Salomé while concurrently ‘in conversation’ with ‘Stefanos’, who is a very real presence. There are bodies within bodies. In the apparent casualness of Sutherland’s language-usage is a devastating intensity.

If one of the main concerns of Paradise (point of transmission) is how much language, especially as compacted into poetry, can be both revelation and therapeutic procedure/processing, how it might offer a critical framework with serifs of ‘hope’, lines such as these provide an answer:

without metaphor. Seroconversion, with nothing nice to say. I
want something that poetry can’t have. I want to say: not this time,
poetry. Not this time. I want to hold it tight, like the as-yet-
undiagnosed rash spreading ‘cross my torso. Mottled red: a
smudging parody of snakeskin. No, it sounds too beautiful, still.
Like: ibis-necked. Like: public health. Hold tight my ulcered inner
cheek: remind me all the viral space I’ve yet to swallow up.
  (‘Aesthetics (new Sodom)’)

Because of its specific focus, it’s easy to miss how skilfully the poet merges the external and internal, especially when it comes to detail from the natural world. These details, which evince a search for symbols that can adequately ‘stand for’ a human experience, are also true in themselves as engagements with the world.

This is a book of constant engagement: Buffy, the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (featuring Tom Cruise), or even Star Trek (though in the poem ‘public health the silence of god’, Sutherland wishes Bergman had made it instead), Angels in America – these are cultural referents in which some of the symbol-image processing has been done by the showmakers, actors, and fans (of which Sutherland would certainly be one), but they are also markers or points of contact with life outside the event of the body while paradoxically being entirely about the event of the body. Horror might then be an expected genre marker, but Sutherland is always maverick, mixing horror and immunology, horror and performance … the ‘Be my’ both enacting and displacing. In ode-like meditations that diverge into branching diagrams of personal associations, a prose poem such as ‘Anna Paquin’ proffers:


feels real
anymore, except, of course, until it is. Recently, a tweet told me that
all the social isolation was negatively affecting the psychic vampire
community, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How do you even
stake a psychic vampire? Then I went to the bathroom and caught
my reflection in the mirror and thought, oh.

Isolation functions as a reminder of Covid, but also as a marker of difference, even amidst the ‘camp’ irony. Even at his most seemingly flippant and playful, Sutherland is a deadly serious poet, never placing his voice in a position of superiority. He acknowledges certain privileges, but regrets them. There is ‘acting’ in this, but the actor is looking at their reflection and seeing the person affecting the world around them by a performance that is also of themselves, their interior.

In ‘metaphor’, the second section where ‘the poems track the movement between spaces, tracing the shadows of residence, citizenship and the self in the gap between Singapore and Perth’, we are invited to ask questions of metaphor itself – as qualifier, transitional mode, and deliverance – and the answers are in flux, as unstable as a metaphor’s constituent parts. The poet can only doubt, almost laugh it off with distress, and process the slippages that make connection as we work a way to commonality in expression:

Echolocation doesn’t work if nothing’s
there in front of you. I don’t compare advice;
no point wondering what to think. I just
enjoy the luck – and not so lonely, either.
Wan Ching’s yet to see her guest. Finally, I
type: do you think maybe the bat is a metaphor?
She says, the bat might be, but the shit is real.

In the poem ‘breed’, the physicality of sex and the experience of the ‘twink’ (Sutherland always ironises personal roleplay), of the ‘bottom’, is wry but erotic, participatory and ironic – ‘pythonic’. Likewise, the vampire as motif in the book is both taker and giver, and as the poet wonders how long blood takes to flow around the body and watches for the direction it flows in, he is the fallen angel and then the Angel (via Buffy the television show) that has reclaimed his soul.

Rejected by Singapore because of his illness, Sutherland seeks pathways of validation that still involve his ‘old life’, rememorised, to make the new. The Singapore-Chinese cultural ‘fusions’ and cross-conversations with friends, associates, strangers and lovers are powerful, respectful, and entwined with a new sense of self, testing memory of interaction and textuality in various ways. The poems are also enquiring of appropriate modes of performativity, from speech acts to Asian performing arts. There is an act of recovery in rewriting ‘positive’, in rejecting the colonisations and colonial discourse on ‘infection’. Such double-sided metaphors make a reading of this book difficult but rewarding. There are no easy binaries.

Ornamental items prompt considerations of privilege, colonialism, and roles that are constructed, imposed, and chosen. We read in the first part of ‘Guanyin’ (styled as a prose poem; the second part is stanzaic, an itemised ’word’ poem):

Some days past my return, I notice for the first time that atop a
corner bookshelf in my parents’ apartment sits a ceramic
statue of Guanyin. When had she arrived? Had she preceded
me home, or had she appeared while I was sleeping? I finally
ask my mother. We picked her up visiting you in Singapore.
On the street with all the temples. I don’t know who she is, but
I thought she looked beautiful. She’s the Goddess of Mercy, I
tell my mother. I say it’s a very touristy thing to do; but I
suppose everything is when you’re a tourist. I feel a deep
unrest to see her there: this goddess that does not belong to us,
and all the mercies we can never account for. Still, there is
something imposing about Guanyin sitting up there: assured
and stable upon an otherwise mediocre shelf. The weight of
her. I see myself taking apart all the shelving stacked in every
home I’ve lived; all beneath Guanyin. When I move, I bring
her with me. My housemate, years away from Taiwan, calls
her Ma; speaks to her when wi-fi fails. My boyfriend, who
never knew his mother, doesn’t cast his eyes over Guanyin at

In this is an involvement of different perspectives, all of which are distant from the intent, meaning, and spirituality associated with the statue. But a different ‘distant’ is mediated through each personal response, and the question of ‘access’ and cultural specificity is placed under pressure. This embroiling set of contradictions appears to be set casually in tone, as so many Sutherland poems are, but it is laden with an ongoing sense of responsibility and anxiety. This argument between aspects of the self is not casual at all – it is an expression of a crisis of memory, of past ‘acceptances’ being reconfigured, bringing a broader questioning of access to this past into play. All of this while the basic question of appropriation is being foregrounded.

There’s an uncanny tangent or maybe parallelism to this regarding what we do and don’t ‘own’ in our bodies in the poem ‘Ancestors’:

sometimes it occurs to me 
that somewhere between seroconversion & diagnosis 
I inherited perhaps dozens of bloodlines, dozens of lives 

Poz status is also a specific moment in which reconsideration begins, not out of an essentialism, but out of a rebuilding of self. None of this is about innocence or guilt, about victim or perpetrator, about the aleatory or the fated. What we have instead is a lens for examining prejudice and the exiling of the body by normative prejudice, for allowing the othered body to be repositioned and viewed differently. This is the revelatory nature of the book. Love is both a background effect and possibility overwhelmed by love-making. 

This is not a book of regret, of finding alternative realities to cope. ‘Paradise’, as the last section is titled, does indeed have paradisaical qualities, even if riven with irony; even if beauty is ibis-like, an exquisite bird dismissed by some as a ‘bin chicken’. In the final poem of the book we read:

I wonder if we don’t sometimes 
confuse exhaustion 
for a kind of love 

and the blurring of desire and love via the body becomes a reason for love, is love:

but I would drip fatigue 
down our worn-out length 
if it would be enough 
to keep us bound 

But even then, there’s a shifting outside the conventions, a play on the courtly that was only ever about control. And it’s more than irony – it’s a statement about something persisting well beyond the self-doubts, self-damnations: 

like ibises, like longkangs 
our newness drooling
into drains 

We know that paradise is imperfect and exacting. Throughout the book, the ibis is a symbol of maligned beauty in a project that unsettles aesthetics, and as such is an essential part of a conversation about the poetics of now and the recoding of the virus that opens our eyes to the possibilities of a more just and flexible future. ‘Echolocation’ is another motif, working as both connection/finding and having to do so with ‘other methods’. The deployment of animal/bird motifs is an expression of deep alienation, but it is done with an equivocal touch.

The great formal variety in this collection is a contesting of the constraints of form and mortality. Even in its most confronting juxtapositions of distress and the quiddity of the world, it aims to test what a poem can do. There is a consistent exploration of the line, and also how the conversational can parse into a paratactical referential interstice. There’s something to be written about ‘the sprung line’ in Sutherland’s poems, not as a rigid pattern, but as a surprise, a fractal moment.

The concerns of the ‘paradise’ section, Sutherland says, ‘coalesce into a different set of hauntings: attempts toward new signifiers and new mythologies, in which continuous or persistent living-with-HIV is characterised by Queer modalities of intimacy, yearning and transformation’. I would suggest that the haunting is really a reworking of memory to illuminate the intensities, desires, and intimacies of ‘the now’. Loss is always, and a friend/lover has their spectres, too, and breaking up brings longing, but also the feeling-thought that ‘I was more afraid of losing than loss’. Paradise is lost, but there’s also the realisation that paradise was always wish-fulfilment, and that it can exist anywhere there is community, sharing, love, desire and even art (in its myriad iterations). In the end, terminologies are shifted, even turned around. In the end, this is a sex positive and deeply life-affirming book.