November Links Roundup: Body Positive

Twitter served up this adorable story today about two male lions in Kenya who were observed in an affectionate mating scene. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist captioning the pics “Gay pride” and “Can you feel the love tonight”. If I didn’t already have a lion tattoo, I would consider inking one of these images. The article notes:

While male lions engaging in sexual activity is a rare occurrence, it is far from unknown.

In fact, studies published in the 20th century indicated that about eight per cent of ‘mountings’ observed by scientists had been male lions with other males.

Male lions have been observed courting other lions, including showing affection and caressing, as well as mounting. Lionesses are also known to couple up, however this has mainly been observed in captivity.

Lions are by no means the only animal species where homosexual relations exits. Biologists have recorded same-sex sexual activity in more than 450 species including flamingos, bison, beetles and warthogs.

A 2010 study of Alaskan Albatrosses found that a third of the pairs actually consisted of two females.

Possible reasons for homosexuality in animals include teaming up to protect young and occupying the attention of surplus males. Non-reproductive bonding behavior can still advance an animal’s genetic interests by improving the survival of its social group. Now I want someone to write a children’s picture book about gay lion uncles.

Author and singer-songwriter Vivek Shraya recently released a video of the title song from her new album, “Part-Time Woman”. The video features Shraya and nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon singing about femininity as something that you know inside, not something you must perform to prove your identity to other people. It’s a powerful message delivered in a tender, intimate style.

Holy Foreskin, Batman! Issue 17.5 of DIAGRAM, a well-regarded online journal of experimental and hybrid literature, published this provocative prose-poem by Caroline Crew. (Content note: “Reliquary” is illustrated with a disturbingly graphic medieval painting of baby Jesus’ circumcision. He is definitely giving the mohel the side-eye.) Crew plays with concepts of authenticity, incorruptibility, and holiness. She questions the value that the Church ascribes to changelessness, even as the Church itself has changed its doctrines over the centuries.

f you must imagine the Holy Foreskin still survives, look upward. Prefiguring the Church’s lockdown on this most intimate of relics, 17th century theologian Leo Allatius declared all Holy Prepuces fakes—the true foreskin of Christ had quit this mortal coil, and transcended to space. The rings of Saturn, that was the true location of what remains of Christ’s cock. A body so stopped in time it’s frozen in lightyears. Starlit forever.

A relic of the past. When referring to a person, perhaps whose views are archaic or abhorrent as a “relic,” we attempt to place that person in a history that refuses any connect to the present. We want to stop time, isolate its horrors.

But history is a body, not an object. It moves, and rots and corrupts, and moves on.

Recent relics, according to the headlines: manufacturing, soap operas, marital rape, herbal medicine, mail delivery, national identity, moral relativism, a home cooked meal, slavery, ethernet cables, ambassadors, religion. It is easier to believe in relics than it is to believe in a body. Bodies change. Bodies corrupt.

Let me rot, so I may change.

 

Two Poems from em jollie’s “A Field Guide to Falling”

Western Massachusetts writer em jollie’s new poetry collection A Field Guide to Falling (Human Error Publishing, 2017) is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can’t do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling–in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss–is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.

Specificity keeps these classic themes fresh. A lesser poet would risk pathos with the extended metaphor of “How to Set a Firefly Free” as a farewell to a relationship where love exists but is not enough. This poem works because it is a real firefly first, a symbol second.

Firefly, suddenly setting aflame cut crystal hanging
from ceiling fan pull-chain. Greenish glow in each facet
while all night dogwood salts dark-wet sidewalk
flowers ripped gloriously open in rainpour.

Isn’t that a love poem all by itself? Those “flowers ripped gloriously open” already remind you of your own worthwhile heartbreak, whatever that was. The ending, which makes the personal connection explicit, only confirms what you felt it was about from the very first lines.

…If only
I didn’t know why lightning bugs blink.
If only I wasn’t so wise to the fact that your light
does not belong to me, will not ever.
If only I didn’t know that was right.

So naturally I just Googled why lightning bugs blink. Wikipedia says the trait originally evolved as a warning signal to predators that the bug was toxic to eat, but now its primary purpose is to communicate with potential mates. This dual meaning of sex and death confirms the speaker’s sad verdict on this love affair, which earlier in the poem she compared to the bond between a neighbor and his snarling dog: “[w]e said they were so mean they belonged together. Yet there/was something sweet about the belonging.”

jollie has one stylistic tic that I understand is common to the Smith College “school” of poetry, which is the occasional (and to my mind, random) omission of “a” and “the”. I’m sorry to say this is a pet peeve of mine. It creates a missing beat in the rhythm of a sentence, which distracts me. It’s fine to twist grammar to make a more compressed line, but I feel that this works best when the entire poem is written in an unusual voice, not when a single part of speech is excised from otherwise normal English.

jollie has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. It was hard to choose just two! Buy her book here.

Object Constancy

Sand can be grasped in a palm, yes. But wind
will take it eventually. Heart is body’s hourglass,
holding its own beginning
& end, its constant ticking tipping moment into
granular moment, for a while. You could take my skull
in your hands, but you will have to give it back
at some point. As will I.

Sure, Freud’s nephew came to understand
that Teddy Bear was just over edge of crib when it
disappeared from sight. But where is that Teddy now,
if not in some museum, curators desperately
fighting its inherent impermanence? Presence has to be
interrogative, doesn’t it, rather than declarative?
Dust is still dust. What I mean is: how
do I trust more than what I learned in the chaos
of childhood when since then I’ve been ingrained with loss
upon loss, like every human walking wings of light
through time?

Feather the paintbrush of my fingers across your jaw.
Feather the paintbrush of your fingers across my jaw.
We color each other for this moment. Just this one.
Then it’s done, days like hungry teeth devouring
endless could-have-beens into the finite sacred what-was.
I say: I love you (I have no choice)
What I mean to say: I let go (I have no choice)

****
A Few Desires, or How to Hunger

I want to be the malleable soap
your hands sculpt as you cleanse yourself,
as ordinary and as daily and as caressed as that.

I want to be the cutting board, that firm surface
you can lay edges against, that allows you
to divide roughage from nourishment.

I want to be the pillow case, containing all
the softness for resting your public face
and the slim canvas you play your private dreams onto.

Let me suds into joining the stream of water
down the drain, become the bamboo board
oiled so many times until finally, split, I am

placed on the compost pile. Let the laundry
tear my threads until, like the pillow case,
I cannot contain, but let every thriving thing seep out.

But in truth I can be none of these things,
just this tiny self loving you, accepting your gifts,
providing what sustenance I can in return.

In other words, use me up, until I am done with myself.

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”

Poetry from Reena Ribalow’s “The Smoke of Dreams”

I first encountered Reena Ribalow’s accomplished poetry when she won the 2008 prize for traditional verse at Winning Writers. Born in New York City, she makes her home in Israel, and her work is strongly influenced by Jewish tradition. Her first full-length book, The Smoke of Dreams, was published last year by Neopoiesis Press. This stately, melancholy collection of poems is steeped in sensual memories of bittersweet love, be it for a holy city or a forbidden affair. Her roots are planted in Jerusalem, sacred and war-torn, harsh and captivating. Her more personal poems show the same mix of pleasure and pain in romantic relationships. One way or another, history is inescapable. Reena has kindly permitted me to reprint a poem from The Smoke of Dreams here.

Desert Light

Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,”
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
The slant of afternoon in a dim room,
the dazzle after a passing cloud,
a radiance through shifting leaves,
is all that we can bear.

Here people are mad with light,
their nerves raw with it,
their eyes irradiated;
they cannot see right.
Shadows disappear from streets
without dimension,
with nowhere to hide.
Light hunts us down,
relentless as the Law.

Some plants survive, some thrive,
some play dead by noon light,
wakening to moist life
in the seducing dark.

The light of Europe hints,
suggesting immanence.
Civility infuses light:
the safety of umbrellas, of cloudy parks,
of rooms that hold their breath,
gilded with motes of gold;
this is easy, this wears well.

The prophets were born to desert light,
crazed with it, dooming us
to a surfeit of holiness.

We endure, odd growths
on a sun-battered land.
Saints, madmen, artists
offer their strange and mutant fruit.
Eat of it, they plead,
and know in every cell
the terrible truth:
that God is everywhere.

Two Poems from Alan King’s “Point Blank”

My first poetry book recommendation of the year is Alan King’s Point Blank, published in 2016 by Silver Birch Press. A three-time Pushcart nominee, King is a Caribbean-American poet, the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago. His family roots give his poetry a robust and celebratory quality, whether he’s writing about the spices of home cooking, the seductive musical soundtrack of his parents’ marriage, or the father-son dynamic of power struggles and wordless affection. King appreciates women’s sensuality in a way that reminds me of the late great musician Prince, an unashamed desire that has enough reverence in it to avoid objectification. Yet certainly the life of a black man in America is far from idyllic, as King shows in his powerful narrative poems about racist microaggressions and police shakedowns. His relationships with his family and students sustain his life force in an environment that is ready to dehumanize all of them.

Point Blank is a pleasurable read that is also an important document of black American life today. He kindly shares two poems from the collection below. Visit his blog for poetry videos and essays on social issues.

Bound

On the bus in rush hour, he enters
with the brim of his baseball cap
over his left ear, where a snubbed out
Black & Mild sits like an aromatic
marker with its black tip exposed.

You checked the weather today.
Cloudy skies with a chance of rain.
Your boss called you into his office,
talked about the economy and running
a struggling paper, how he’s got to let you go.

Think of it as a paid vacation,
he said. You look up at the guy
with the Yankees cap and phone to his ear.
I’m on my way, babe.

His smile says his destination
is a garden hidden in a labyrinth,
where the sun slides its iridescent tongue
over a tamarind-colored woman,
oiling her skin while she sleeps
among orchids and birds of paradise.

You imagine that garden
on the other side of your front door,
where you’ll open like morning glories
when your wife
descends on you like dew.

****
Freeze

A man sits handcuffed on the curb
while his trunk and back seat are searched.

You watch from across the street,
heading to your car. His woman
was making a Malaysian chicken dish, sent him
to pick up coconut milk and curry.

It’s night. The sound of car tires
on wet street makes you think of paper
torn slow in long strips.

The officers, thorough in their search,
remind you of thieves you once saw.

You couldn’t say what you felt,
watching them take their time,
as if instead of searching for money and CDs
they were detailing the interior.

The man is every WANTED poster
you saw on TV, in the papers,
in post offices.

He is that night years ago.
When you followed your mom to return a rental,
and lost her in traffic, when the red and blue
flashes made you
a cornered cat.

You tense up when that moment
on the street gets just as close. Your keys
in one hand, sorbet and cookies in the other.

At the sight of what flashed in his mirror,
he knew he was tagged in a game older
than Jim Crow. Tonight, the sirens
and police lights say, Get off the street
unless you want trouble, too.

But the wind shoves you down the block,
muscling you back to your car
and to everything you love. You think
of the handcuffed brother
and his woman growing restless,
trying not to worry.

Poets in Memoriam: Ritvo, Kelly, Perillo

Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day in the Episcopal Calendar, when we honor and commune with our dead. In our tradition, saints are not only the officially canonized heroes of the church, but all members of the community, just as we are “a priesthood of all believers”. This fall, the American poetry community lost several notable figures I’d like to mention on the blog.

Max Ritvo studied under Louise Glück at Yale, taught poetry at Columbia University, and was an editor of Parnassus. His collection Four Reincarnations appeared posthumously from Milkweed Editions. In August, he died at 25 from a rare pediatric cancer, which was the subject of many of his dazzling, edgy poems. Read more about him in his New York Times obituary. I discovered his work in the Iowa Review just days before I learned of his passing. In “Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death”, he wrote:

Sure, I wish my imagination well,
wherever it is. But now

I have sleep to fill. Every night
I dream I have a bucket

and move clear water from a hole
to a clear ocean. A robot’s voice barks

This is sleep. This is sleep.
I’d drink the water, but I’m worried the next

night I’d regret it.
I might need every last drop. Nobody will tell me.

Boston Review in 2015 featured a seven-poem sampler of his work, selected by Lucie Brock-Broido. Here is the beginning of “Afternoon”:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—
and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
My favorite is “Poem to My Litter”, published in The New Yorker this past June. In tones that are tender, sardonic, and melancholy, this poem addresses the laboratory mice that have been engineered to carry his tumors in hopes of finding a cure.

I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,

but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
They don’t know they’re named, of course.

They’re like children you’ve traumatized
and tortured so they won’t let you visit.

I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
Even my suffering is good, in part.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other honors. She passed away last month at the age of 65. When the news broke, my poet friends on Facebook shared many of her sensual, profound poems. I was especially moved by “The Leaving”, from her debut collection, To the Place of Trumpets. It begins, “My father said I could not do it,/but all night I picked the peaches.” Instead of a literal narrative about girl power or individuation, though, the harvest becomes a mythic task that stands in for every occasion when faithfulness to mundane work brought us into transcendence:

I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.

In a similar vein, she wrote in “Blessed is the Field”:

In the late heat the snakeroot and goldenrod run high,
White and gold, the steaming flowers, green and gold,
The acid-bitten leaves….It is good to say first

An invocation. Though the words do not always
Seem to work. Still, one must try. Bow your head.
Cross your arms. Say: Blessed is the day. And the one

Who destroys the day. Blessed is this ring of fire
In which we live….How bitter the burning leaves.
How bitter and sweet.

Lucia Perillo was a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2010 collection Inseminating the Elephant. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, she passed away in October at the age of 58. From the New York Times obituary:

In an interview for The American Poetry Review in 2014, she presented her situation straightforwardly. Asked about battling her disease, she said: “I don’t battle M.S. I relent to its humiliations.” How did she manage not to fall into despair? “I’ve already fallen. This is the voice from the swamp.

The above-cited interview includes the poem “A Revelation”, which begins with the narrator watching prostitutes in Nevada buying their groceries. She concludes:

…If you follow
any one of the apparitions far enough–the
fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves
and liars–you will find that beauty, a
cataclysmic beauty
rising off the face of a burning landscape
just before the appearance of the beast, the
beauty
that is the flower of our dying into another life.
Like a Mobius strip: you go round once
and you come out on the other side.
There is no alpha, no omega,
no beginning and no end.
Only the ceaseless swell
and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.
Watch the way brilliance turns
on darkness. How can any of us be damned.

May these poets be blessed in the next world as they have blessed us here. Lux perpetua luceat eis.

Sisters in Healing: Poetry from Margaret Gish Miller’s “Blood Moon Weather”

English Literature teacher Margaret Gish Miller may be retired, but she’s not resting on her laurels. At age 70, she has published her first poetry collection, Blood Moon Weather, through Dancing Moon Press. In it she lovingly depicts the bond between sisters healing from paternal incest, and looks back with wisdom and self-acceptance at the formative moments of her growth to womanhood.

The poems are written in a simple narrative mode, without stylistic tricks, yet a close reading reveals how nonlinear and complex the story really is. The gaps between facts are not visible on the page but in the mind. Small sensory details and isolated events are vividly remembered while the significance of their juxtaposition is left for the reader to ponder, like retrieving a traumatic memory in non-chronological fragments. At times the incompleteness left me unsatisfied, wanting to know the context for an anecdote, or to draw closer to characters who fascinate from a distance. But this is the kind of personal material that a writer often has to approach in stages, relieved, as here, with lighter and life-affirming poems about love and desire in her long marriage.

Margaret has kindly allowed me to reprint a sample poem below. Read Ed Bennett’s positive review in the July 2016 issue of Quill & Parchment.

Jellyfish

Like lingerie
suspended in
space inside
an aquarium

their pastels delicate,
soft as roses with thorns.
For they say jellyfish

have no heart and
sting in self-
preservation, a part

of their seductive
water dance.
I must have

had the heart
of a jellyfish
at twelve.

For that man, in his
fisherman’s fascination,
caught me. Kept me
as his own. And I
repeatedly stung
myself for this.

This debris
of my heart so sore
I soar into this space

and time
to gather the girl
that was you.

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “High School in the Fifties”

Reiter’s Block subscriber Donal Mahoney offers us this thoughtful poem prompted by this weekend’s hate crime against queer Latin@ clubgoers in Orlando.

High School in the Fifties

In my all-boys school
sixty years ago there were
two boys who were different.
All four years they walked
to classes together, books
clasped to their chests
the way girls walked home
carrying theirs.

I never saw another
classmate talk to them,
perhaps because like me
they didn’t know what to say
or they had nothing to say.
But I never heard anyone
talk about them either.
It was as if they weren’t there.

Now 60 years later
the school sends out
alumni updates and lists
the two of them as missing
and asks if anyone might
know where they are.
I doubt that anyone does.
We didn’t know where
they were back then.

***

Author’s note: “Donal Mahoney attended a Roman Catholic boys-only high school in the early fifties. The Orlando massacre reminded him of two apparently gay classmates from six decades ago. There were probably other gays in the school as well who did not fit the same stereotype. These two classmates were never picked on to his knowledge and they were not shunned, either. He feels to this day straight kids at that time simply did not know how to communicate with them nor had any interest in doing so just as there were some straight kids who did not ‘fit in’ as well. There was no bullying because neither the administration nor the students would have tolerated that kind of behavior. If you wanted to heckle someone, he had to appear to be your equal physically. It was not a good time for anyone who was different but maybe just a little better than today.”

I wonder about that last claim. Speaking for myself, even in the 1980s, in a liberal arts school in Brooklyn, I didn’t know any students who were “out”, though in retrospect I can guess at a few. That didn’t make it a safe space from bullies, by any means. One could argue that with greater visibility comes greater backlash, but perhaps there were just as many hate crimes that were not reported as such, because sexual and gender identities were not an acceptable discussion topic. Our erasure from history is a loss that continues to affect the current generation of LGBTQ kids. In any case, I appreciate this poem’s effort to bring those long-ago boys into the light of acceptance and truth.

Winners of the 2016 ASPS David Kato Prize for LGBT-Themed Poetry

David Kato was an Ugandan activist for the rights of sexual minorities, who was killed in a probable hate crime in 2011. For several years since then, I’ve sponsored this prize for poems on the theme of LGBT human rights, as part of the Alabama State Poetry Society award series. Thanks to award coordinator Jerri Hardesty, 2016 First Prize winner Christine Riddle, and Third Prize winner Lynn Veach Sadler, for permission to reprint these winning entries. (The last line of each stanza of Christine’s poem is indented; apologies if that does not show up properly on this blog template.)

Defixio in the Heartland
by Christine Riddle

A curse tablet or binding spell (‘defixio’ in Latin) is a type of curse found throughout the Graeco-Roman world, in which someone would ask the gods to do harm to others. These texts were typically scratched on very thin sheets of lead in tiny letters, then placed in tombs or nailed to the walls of temples. Some texts do not invoke the gods, but merely list the target of the curse, the crime and the intended ill to befall them.

Elvis is dead,
and Barney and Floyd,
Bella, Princess, and Ethel.
And Buddy, still wobbly on legs one week old,
and Love, ironically, full with foal.

Epona alone the vigil kept
that Paschal eve. As Lucifer crept
from stall to stall,
she crafted from her cloak nine palls.
With roses white she plaited manes,
anointed with her tears each blaze,
fed them apples from her lap,
and stroked the cat.

But where was god that Easter morn
when daybreak found the stable door,
when dawn exposed the binding spell,
seared and scorched but legible,
“FAGGOTS ARE FREAKS” “BURN IN HELL”,
when loving a man was deemed the sin
that sparked the blaze made starlight dim,
and trapped the innocents within?

I’d like to think that at sunrise,
to consecrate the sacrifice,
as feathered cantors’ chants arose
he joined the blessed requiem
amid the smoldering skeletons,
and sang their spirits home again.
And sang their spirits home.

****

He/She
by Lynn Veach Sadler

He was my mentee in poetry.
A brilliant nerd, IT Specialist.
I was the first to cotton to the coming change,
had some small part in helping prepare the way,
was proud that a computer whiz would be female,
that a poet would have the opportunity
to live and sing the lives of male and female.

People talked, pointed fingers,
Though he had been appreciated, even loved,
for his long hours, individual help,
extraordinary expertise…

He/She was quiet, dignified,
kept all under wraps as those in power cautioned
until consent was gained to show herself
in heels, wig, dress…And she was (is) beautiful.

All seemed well when my husband and I moved away.
Then I heard that she’d been fired. I quested,
learned the story from her, was pledged to secrecy
but know the hurt, the plunge not just to ignominy
but poverty. She’s doing whatever job she can find,
now wearing Stoic, intent upon surviving
(will survive if worth and goodness have their day).
Will funding be found to complete the change?

We received a Christmas card from a friend
at the place we moved from,
the place where He/She used to work.
Among the enclosed messages was this:
He/She “got fired because of her alleged
inclination to watch porno on the computer.”
Not so!