Dixon, Melvin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

  • Date of entry: Feb-12-2018
  • Last revised: Mar-01-2018


Melvin Dixon’s poem, “Heartbeats,” portrays the steady atrophy of someone suffering a fatal disease. The anonymous narrator first appears as healthy and vigorous:

“Work out. Ten Laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room.
Dress warm.
Call home.
Fresh air.
Eat right.
Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.”

An undisclosed illness takes hold and the narrator copes with the impacts of a life-threatening disease:

“Test blood.
Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.”

S/he calls home, diets, tries to calmly recuperate, and focuses on maintaining peace of mind, “Breathe in. Breathe out.” The reality of death, or “It,” cannot be ignored, “Today? Tonight? / It waits. For me.” Dixon uses wordplay for “sweetheart” to bookend the poem.
In the third stanza, the narrator affectionately addresses his/her lover as “Sweetheart”; but, through battling the illness and experiencing its withering effects, Dixon cleaves the word in two in the final stanza, imploring the body to withstand the disease: “Sweet heart. / Don’t stop.”


Dixon’s poem achieves its most haunting quality through rhythmic regularity captured in the poem’s dyadic structure: each stanza of the poem, with few exceptions, consists of two lines, each of which are divided into two truncated descriptions or reactions to illness, using only two words. Even after the narrator’s grim diagnosis, the clipped progression of the poem does not deviate from Dixon’s fixation on doubles and pairs:

“Arms wide. / Nodes hard. / Cough dry. / Hold on.”

The narrator’s physical and mental states are altered by the disease, and s/he questions mortality in relation to time, “Six months? Three weeks?” The structure of the poem, which seldom deviates from this dyadic order, conveys a ghostly horological sound, the steady tick-tock resonance of a timepiece. Reading each line on the downbeat of a clock’s second hand, each word fits snugly in its rhythmic exactitude. Following his/her diagnosis, it would be understandable if the poem’s structure dissolved into a less strictly ordered progression; it would mirror the menacing disorder introduced by disease. By maintaining this dyadic structure, however, each line of each stanza has a ponderous metronome-like quality, endowing the poem with a horological weight that drives the narrator to confront the realities of time and mortality.  

Although the illness is never clearly defined, readers may reasonably assume, based on Melvin Dixon’s biography, that the narrator is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Dixon was an openly gay African-American novelist, poet, and academic, whose literary work—though not all of it—takes up demanding themes of homophobia, gay-bashing, interracial relationships, and sexual violence. “Heartbeats”, which appeared in Dixon’s collection Love’s Instruments (Tia Chucha Press, 1995), can be read as an extension of what he enjoined readers to do in his keynote address for OutWrite 92. With urgency, he states: “As gay men and lesbians, we are the sexual niggers of our society. […] I come to you bearing witness to a broken heart; I come to you bearing witness to a broken body—but a witness to an unbroken spirit. Perhaps it is the only to you that such witness can be brought and its jagged edges softened a bit and made meaningful. We are facing the loss of our entire generation. Lesbians lost to various cancers, gay men lost to AIDS. What kind of witness will You bear? What truth-telling are you brave enough to utter and endure the consequences of your unpopular message?”

Dixon’s paramount fear is cultural erasure, and he calls for black gay and lesbian writers to create lasting literary and artistic works, and to preserve the art of others, that bear witness to their everyday experience. Although at the time of this speech Dixon was already sick, he stressed that wherever art thrives, wherever truth-telling bears witness, “I’ll be somewhere listening for my name.”

[1] Dixon, Melvin. “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name.” Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter 2000. Pages 80–83.

Primary Source

Love's Instruments


Tia Chucha

Place Published

Sylmar, CA



Page Count