A Collection of Intersections: On Gil Cuadros’s “My Body Is Paper”

Gabriel X. Hendrix reviews Gil Cuadros’s “My Body is Paper.”

A Collection of Intersections: On Gil Cuadros’s “My Body Is Paper”

My Body Is Paper by Gil Cuadros. City Lights Publishers. 164 pages.

“I DON’T BELIEVE I have long; my blood has turned against me, there is no one here to heal me.” This sentence from “Hands,” the opening prose piece of Gil Cuadros’s My Body Is Paper (2024), immediately demonstrates a strong sense of betrayal by one’s own body. In “Hands,” the speaker first introduces his relationship with his partner. While his partner dreams of their possible shared pursuit, the speaker focuses on feelings of dissociation and detachment from his own body.

Gil Cuadros was an influential gay poet and essayist writing during the AIDS crisis and the burgeoning Chicano movement in Los Angeles until his untimely death from AIDS on August 29, 1996. He grew up in Montebello, California, which influenced his earlier work, including his first and only book, City of God (1994). Now, we are gifted with a new posthumous collection, characteristically vulnerable and brutally honest. My Body Is Paper is a book of dualities, filled with sadness, lust, love, and the bitter agony of feeling one is at odds with oneself. Balancing both the past and present, Cuadros invites us into his everyday life, where he juggles maintaining his romantic relationships with confronting health obstacles, the concerns of his Chicano community, as well as sexuality, religion, and toxic masculinity. One poignant moment in the collection appears very early and involves the speaker’s encounter with a handless statue of the Virgin Mary. The missing hands jar the narrator and suddenly shift his perspective, moving him to offer a meal to an unhoused man, give up many of his own belongings, and interact more with others during support groups.

My Body Is Paper reads like a collection of intersections. In life, Cuadros moved fluidly between different communities much the way he moves among poetry, fiction, and autobiography. “Would I do it to myself if I got really ill? What if I start losing my mind? What if I start looking more like a freak than I already do and people start staring? What if it becomes to[o] painful for Marcus to be with me?” Here, despite writing in prose, we find lyrical elements of repetition. The poem “Recovery” portrays the speaker’s utter shame after his parents decimate his character. He presents himself as if he were a paper doll and his mother as if she were God, willing to cut out the best part of him. The mother’s utter shame plunges the speaker of the poem into darkness by challenging his identity. In the poem “Father Figure,” the speaker laments how his mother loathes the kind of men he finds attractive. In another poem, “If She Could,” Cuadros recounts how he might have a congenital defect due to an illness at the time of his birth, something that his mother refuses to acknowledge because she did not pass it down genetically. His parents strongly believe that his queerness is a curse; as the speaker writes, “[E]ven her bruiser, my father / is rock silent about how ill I’ve become / claims the plague will clean the cancer.” The speaker’s parents insist that his queer identity is much deadlier than AIDS, and both believe that the illness will rid him of his own being. The speaker implies that both the silence and the opinions thrown his way are themselves deadly.

In much of his prose and poetry, Cuadros is distraught and anguished by the complexity of his relationship with his parents. His shame reaches a peak in the poem “A Netless Heaven,” in which his mother’s homophobia, upon hearing news reports about Magic Johnson contracting AIDS, is on full display. Cuadros writes, “[H]e’ll do a lot of good, he’ll beat this thing / and like an unspooled movie I saw she didn’t cry / When I told her, face furrowed in disappointment / said she knew I’d end like this.” The speaker is in utter shock as his mother shows a significant amount of hope for a public figure while oblivious that such a fate would befall her own son.

Cuadros’s work feels alive both because he takes us from adolescence to his final years and because he discloses the intimate details of his experience such as the side effects of his HIV medicine, something he must endure to sustain his life for as long as possible. The medicine tastes metallic, and Cuadros relates how his body slowly becomes thin, weak, and almost weightless. In the poem “Recovery,” the speaker witnesses his body deteriorate: “I can hardly move my arms to help / to lift myself from the bed / Kevin’s strength is there for me / I imagine he could cradle me in his arms / I am that light.” This is a pinnacle moment—the speaker is in a state where he has little to no capability of movement, where his body gives out and he must now depend heavily on a past lover to give him strength. In the essay “Discoloration,” Cuadros addresses another insult of illness as he searches for the right cream to cover the marks that AIDS has left behind: “I walked swiftly through the pharmacy to the aisle where all the skin care products were. No luck.” Again, he watches as he loses muscle mass. Even the water from the shower takes a toll as it stings his decaying body. His body betrays him to the point that his boyfriend needs to assist him in going to the bathroom.

With the ferocity and confidence of a seasoned storyteller, Cuadros offers the most heartbreaking moments with absolute lucidity. In “Doppelgänger,” Cuadros recounts the time that he feared his mother held a knife close to his brother’s ribcage. He writes: “As if mirrored silk, the knife slid through my brother’s ribcage, revealing organs still throbbing, like holy cards of Catholic martyrs. My voice became enclosed in old black lead. I wanted to scream the harshest words I could use; my face dripped jewel-like tears while my body thrashed.” Fearful of her disappointment in him, the speaker has night sweats that drench his entire hospital bed. As she slices his brother, his mother’s fury elicits the speaker’s empathy: “My heart ceased as if being crushed between two firm hands.” The poet’s battle with AIDS leads to bouts of depression, doctors trying to address his emotional wreckage and navigate dark times. Even on days when he visits his boyfriend Marcus at the nursery, he is filled with shame for fear that the customers might see him and spread rumors perpetuating stigma. Cuadros includes multiple prose-poem elegies for friends who have died from AIDS, narrative encounters with religious figures that test his principles, and confessions of losing his own grasp on reality as he slowly gets sicker.

Throughout the collection, Cuadros emphasizes his father’s toxic masculinity and his mother’s increasingly firm rejection of his very existence. The poem “If She Could” explores a bond that I believe seems relatable for many queer Latin boys and their mothers. Culturally, we are raised to believe in this closeness, and yet it is the unexpected in the poem that gets the better of us: “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.’” Never able to live up to the expectations, particularly his mother’s, he shows how a simple game of rock paper scissors leads to constant loss. This theme of parental disappointment leads Cuadros to seek emotional support and acceptance from past lovers who provide him with the love he deserves.

My Body Is Paper reads like the best memoirs because of the way it holds up a mirror at a slant. In conversation with other vulnerable collections such as Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls (1992), Cuadros uniquely dials up his attention to physical and emotional distress. In the essay “Need,” Cuadros shows us jealous fights; in the short story “Eric,” Cuadros details sex after tragic news; and in the poem “Ardent Letters,” he shares his nightmares. Over and over, this book reveals what it means to have your body and faith tested to their limits. My Body Is Paper chronicles one of the most difficult times to be a gay Latin man suffering from AIDS. Surprisingly, Cuadros simultaneously expresses hope throughout the book. He hopes, for instance, that his boyfriend won’t suffer loneliness or severe grief when he is gone: “It comforts me to think he will survive after I’ve gone; he is the part of me that will continue. I don’t want to believe anything else except I worry who will love him after I am gone.” Cuadros demonstrates that selflessness, however heartbreaking, is a crucial necessity of love.

Interspersed among his poems and essays, Cuadros’s fiction reads as semi-autobiographical. “Cigar, Cigar” is about a young child escaping his mother’s abuse and leans more into exploring his sexuality with another boy. “Surveillances” presents two characters who are nearly caught having sex in a dressing room. In “Flight,” two nameless lovers journey through what love can do for one another. The compellingly BDSM story leaps into the fantastic when one of the men develops wings. Cuadros incorporates magical elements like physical transformation, blurring the erotic with the terrifying: “He asks the lover to speak again. The lover doesn’t repeat; his body arches as if some mystical part has made its escape through the belly.” Cuadros refuses to take love for granted.

In the standout poem “Recovery,” Cuadros writes: “[B]ones define my body / papier-mâché man / from the Day of the Dead”—the momentum of My Body Is Paper is driven by illness claiming the body and death approaching. And yet, at the center of these poems, the spirit remains intact. In fact, what coheres these poems is the speaker’s desire to be healed despite knowing he is dying, that ongoing human need for compassion and warmth. If this book begins with shame and fear, it moves finally and triumphantly toward intimacy and tenderness. At last, invisibility is no longer an option. Cuadros is not the first poet to remind us that love wins or that queer suffering is real, but this cross-genre portrait of the poet in illness is a testament to queer love’s endurance.

LARB Contributor

Gabriel X. Hendrix is a Latinx writer and the recipient of the Ricardo Salinas Scholarship from the Aspen Writers’ Conference as well as fellowships from VONA and the Key West Literary Seminar.


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