Karline Tierney still can’t really talk about it all these years later — that day in October 1995 when she flew to San Francisco International Airport to figure out what had happened to her son.
Karl Tierney was 39 and had lived in the city since 1983, lured here by the thriving gay community and its prominent literary scene. He was a poet and got 50 pieces published in magazines and anthologies. He twice had been named a finalist for the prestigious Walt Whitman Award. He was active in the Harvey Milk Club and marched in the Pride Parade.
But then he stopped returning his mom’s calls. He’d told her he’d been diagnosed as HIV-positive, and the last time she’d seen him, he’d been in a lot of discomforts, struggling with thrush, an oral fungus, and unable to eat much, she said.
“That was when we went to San Francisco to see what was wrong,” the 93-year-old great-grandmother recalled by phone from her home outside Baltimore.
Things had gone very wrong.
“He had left a note,” she said, pausing for several moments.
Crowds arrive early on the opening day of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Feb. 18, 1939.
“Yeah, I don’t really want to talk about it,” she said.
The note implied Karl Tierney planned to kill himself, but had he? How? And where? Together with his friend David Lamble, the film critic for the Bay Area Reporter gay newspaper, she posted flyers around the city with her son’s photo and the words, “Have You Seen This Man?”
“We were trying to figure out what had happened — it was quite a mystery we were trying to solve,” Lamble recalled. “It’s like you’re sleepwalking. This vibrant man is gone, and you have to be a detective.”
Karl Tierney’s body was never found, but his bicycle was located at the Golden Gate Bridge, and his parents and friends assume he jumped to his death to avoid an even more painful end from AIDS.
San Francisco has lost more than 20,000 people to AIDS — most of them gay men — since the first death from the disease in 1981. Tierney has become part of a small but growing literary trend of posthumously publishing the work of gay men who died too early.
For the first time, Tierney’s poetry has been published as a collection. The book is called, fittingly, “Have You Seen This Man?” A reprint of the flyer his mother and Lamble posted is included inside along with 120 of his poems. It is dedicated to “all the boys who jumped to live.”
Alysia Abbott, who lives outside Boston, wrote the 2013 memoir “Fairyland,” about losing her mom in a car accident and being raised by her gay dad in San Francisco. After he died of AIDS in 1992, his daughter inherited the rights to his work. All of it had been out of print until this new book, for which she wrote the afterword.
It was edited by Jamie Townsend, a genderqueer poet, publisher and editor who lives in Oakland. Townsend will be at the library event along with Abbott and Cory.
“There are these younger writers, editors, and scholars who are basically interested in finding artists and writers who died of AIDS, who may be kind of never achieved their full potential because they died young,” Abbott said. “Instead of letting these figures languish in the realm of being out of print, they take an interest in their work and bring it back to life.
“For a lot of queer editors and writers, it’s like their ancestry,” she continued. “It’s digging your heroes out of trash cans.”
She added that her dad was unusual in that he had a child who can help keep his memory alive, but most gay men who died of AIDS didn’t.
“Who remembers them?” she wondered. “These younger queer editors are the inheritors. They are children.”
Abbott is now 48, the same age at which her dad died.
“I made this vow to myself. I want to live the hell out of this year,” she said. “Aging is a privilege he didn’t get to enjoy.”
Her dad and Karl Tierney ran in the same circles, and “Fairyland” includes a mention of Tierney. So it’s fitting both books will be celebrated together at Sunday’s event.
Tierney asked Cory, his longtime friend, and fellow writer, to be the literary executor of his estate five weeks before he died, and by December 1995, Cory had boxes of his late friend’s work.
“His poems got better, stronger, deeper and smarter as time went on,” Cory said.
Cory was able to get some published on their own over the years, but no publishing house was interested in a book until now. The collection was published by Sibling Rivalry Press, and Publishers Weekly called it “historically significant” and “groundbreaking in its content.”
Tierney’s sister, Mary, will be at the Sunday event, but his mother cannot make the journey. Karline Tierney said she is ecstatic about the new book, which can help her son live on in some way.
“Oh, I was thrilled to pieces!” she said. “I’m happy his work is getting the recognition it deserves. It’s wonderful and not often the case once an author has passed.”
Tierney’s friend Lamble is also delighted.
“If you’re an obscure gay poet, it’s a long lead time, but I’m glad it’s happened,” he said. “I just wish Karl was around to see it.”