Sickness of the Sprawling City

By Alex Holland
11th grade, Montgomery Blair High School, MD
1st place contest winner

With lines from the following Pulitzer Center reporting projects:

"Glass Closet: Sex, Stigma, and HIV/AIDS in Jamaica" by Micah Fink, Gabrielle Weiss, and Lisa Biagiotti
"An Uneasy Stasis for LGBT Ugandans" by Jake Naughton

"Why the South is the Epicenter of the AIDS Crisis in America" by William Brangham, Jason Kane, and Jon Cohen


The words he said are tucked between the knobs of my spine
I am drowning
In this sprawling city
Every man passing on the street has his eyes
The eyes drowning in multitudes of stories
Drowning in the nectars of memory
Mama told him
"Do not love"
Said "Do not fall"
Said "Do not start"
But who ever told him
How to stay above the water
How to stay well
In the smoldering epidemic
That sweeping sickness of falling
In and out of love with a boy
He set up his bed
In a fragile glass closet
Only for the walls to crash in on him
Mama told him
"No goddamn child of mine"
Said "I wish I'd killed myself at 17"
Said "I hate the only thing I made"
He said
Nothing at all
The pain dull as butter knives
So distant in the clouding sickness
This epidemic is forgotten but not gone
Filling his veins and drowning him
From the inside out
So he builds a new glass closet
Hides his loving from the world
The truth suppressed in his blood
His arteries choked
With the secrets he's keeping
In the mirror
He told himself
"This is normal"
Said "I am normal"
Said "I won't fall in love with a man"
But this is how the heart beats
Slow and steady
But never slow enough
Arteries tied in knots
By the cauterizing sickness
The plague of loving
Of loving outlawed
The doctor told him
"This is the danger of loving"
Said "Of loving like...that"
Said "You came far too late"
Mama never got to say goodbye
The sickness swept him away
Drowning in the sprawling city
Of a demonized sickness
The words I forget him saying
Stitch themselves into the skin
Stretched over my ribs


Alex Holland

Alex Holland is an 11th grade student in the Communications and Arts Program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. They are an avid reader and writer of poetry, as well as an aspiring actor. They are also an involved activist in matters of LGBT+ rights and gun control. They are honoured to be included in the world of journalism that the Pulitzer Center creates.

Read more winning entries from the 2018 Fighting Words Poetry Contest