Through the shadows

HIV-positive poet's near-death experience becomes impetus for first book

By Jerome Stuart Nichols

Some of the world's greatest works of art were forged in the midst of tragedy. Craig Allen Combs, an openly gay poet living in Toledo, hopes that his debut collection of poems, "Taking Tea in the Black Rose: Singing Through the Shadows Until We're Dancing in the Light," will soon be counted among them. He will appear at 4 p.m. April 28 at SH\aut\ Cabaret & Gallery in Ann Arbor for a reading and book signing.

For Combs, the journey to published poet began in the spring of 1987 when the then-high school senior found inspiration in the music of The Doors.

"I'd always loved The Doors' music," Combs says. "I wasn't really into Chicago or things that were about weekend fun. I was inspired by the groups that had a message and it took some effort, intellectually, to understand the meaning. The Doors pretty much fit that bill for me."

Although he was inspired, it wasn't until he was taken in by The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison's collection of poetry "The Lords and the New Creatures" that his love for poetry truly blossomed.

Combs soon found his new hobby offered him a release from the familial stresses of his teenage years. "I grew up in an alcoholic family, so I had a lot of time to myself. I put all my energy, back then, into trying to make something of myself."

He also had to deal with the internal conflicts surrounding his homosexuality.

"Knowing that I was gay, even back then," he says, "I was pursuing poetry to try to understand myself."

After high school, Combs continued to write poetry through his matriculation at Kalamazoo College, world travels and his eventual relocation to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

It was during his stay in Fort Lauderdale that a health insurance-related medical exam alerted him to the possibility that he might be HIV-positive.

"The first thing that went through my mind as a gay man was, 'This is it,'" Combs recalls.

After a visit to his doctor in April of 2004 his fears were confirmed.

"I was sitting on the table, (my doctor) came in and he sat down next to me and he put his arm around me and said, 'Craig, what happened?'" Combs says. "I can relive that moment like it was yesterday."

"I got choked up and I looked at him and said, 'Carlos, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"

Although reassured by his doctor that HIV was not a death sentence, the revelation of his HIV-positive status made Combs feel the breath of his mortality.

"I went through a huge depression," Combs says. "I was a mess; I went down the drug path. I basically didn't want to live. I kept telling myself, 'You're a piece of crap. Why'd you go and do this to yourself? How could you be so stupid?'"

The pattern of reckless behavior lasted for about eight months. By January of 2005, Combs pulled his life back together. But it wasn't the last time that he would stare into uncertainty at the hands of HIV, except this time it was the outstretched hand of death that would force him to step back and reevaluate.

When he was diagnosed with HIV in 2004, Combs decided that he would forego traditional medicines and instead chose a holistic path to treatment. He was able to maintain a purely holistic treatment plan until April 2010 when his HIV got out of control.

Starting with a T-cell count of around 600, which was within the normal range of 500-1,300, he was now down to 67 with a viral load of more than 750,000 and facing the possibility of death.

At the insistence of his doctors, Combs began taking a more modern approach to his HIV treatment. Unfortunately, a few days into the new regimen, a rush of opportunistic infections landed him in the hospital.

Although conceptualized prior, it was during that six-day hospital stay that "Taking Tea in the Black Rose" was born.

"When I came out of the hospital, it was the only thing I wanted to do," Combs says. "I didn't know that the next day I wasn't going to be dead. I swore to myself that I would not be leaving this planet without a legacy."

Fast forward to today: His HIV is under control and the compilation of poetry is completed and published.

Now that his legacy is assured, Combs spends his time sharing his stories and experiences in poem form at open mics around the state.

For Combs, his story is not one of shame or redemption, it is a story of a man who unabashedly did it his own way.

"I am who I am today," he says, "not in spite of my experiences but because of them."

For more information on Craig Allen Combs or his work, visit http://www.blackrosetea.com.

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