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.

No More Queer Martyrs: Mourning the Orlando Nightclub Shooting

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a gunman massacred 50 people and critically wounded 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL, during Latin@ Night. News reports are calling it the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history and the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. There is preliminary evidence suggesting that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was a sympathizer of the radical Islamist group ISIS. Other articles mention his ex-wife’s allegations that he violently abused her, which raises the question of how he passed a background check to own assault weapons. (The answer being that this is America.)

I can’t stay silent, yet I can’t find the words.

The script we follow for these never-ending gun homicides is tedious and heartbreaking. Everyone seeks to harness this deadly energy for political change, in some cases by scapegoating another victimized group (Muslim-Americans, the mentally ill), in other cases by hoping that this time the suffering will be great enough to strengthen gun control laws and end the hateful rhetoric against Latin@ immigrants and LGBTQ people.

I just don’t believe it anymore. I don’t see hate being turned to love, or even to repentance, by our spilled blood. I start to gag when I read yet another gay Christian blogger pleading with their conservative brethren, “Won’t you care about us now?” This appeal assumes that those who preach a death sentence against homosexuals don’t really mean it. That they are only negligent and not intentional in dreaming of a world where queer brown people are wiped out. No, take them at their word. People who’ve made peace with the prospect of eternal conscious torment for nonbelievers are too numb, or worse, to notice a few more bodies lying in the street.

We all look for patterns to extrapolate from these shattering traumas, for life lessons that could keep us safe from another terrible surprise. This instant de-centering of the actual victims is part of what bothers me about the heated conversations in my Facebook and Twitter feeds today. I’m hesitant to write the next lines because I don’t want to co-opt this tragedy for my own agenda, either.

This is my personal struggle, in the aftermath of Orlando: It feels like another nail in the coffin of my belief in the Christian God. The moral logic of the Cross seems to have failed. The suffering of innocents is not effective to awaken the conscience of the persecutors. There is not some guaranteed maximum number of lives lost or ruined, past which no wrongdoer’s heart can stay hardened.

Prove me wrong, America.


Advance Praise for “Two Natures” from California Bookwatch

Diane Donovan, editor of Midwest Book Review’s California Bookwatch and proprietor of Donovan’s Literary Services, sent me this great review of my forthcoming novel, Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, September 2016). It’ll go up on their websites in July.


Julian is a Southern boy and transplanted aspiring fashion photographer in New York City in the 1990s;  a gay man facing the height of the AIDS epidemic and professional, social, and spiritual struggles alike as he questions himself, God’s will, and Christian values in the advent of a specific kind of apocalypse.

It’s rare to discover within a gay love story an equally-powerful undercurrent of political and spiritual examination. Too many gay novels focus on evolving sexuality or love and skim over underlying religious values systems; but one of the special attributes of Two Natures isn’t just its focus on duality, but its intense revelations about what it means to be both Christian and gay.

In many ways, Julian is the epitome of a powerful, conflicting blend of emotions. Take the story’s opening line, for one example. Readers might not anticipate a photographer’s nightmare which bleeds heavily into evolving social realization and philosophy: “I woke from another nightmare about photographing a wedding. The bride was very loud and everyone’s red lipstick was smeared across their teeth like vampires, except vampires would never wear lavender taffeta prom dresses. It’s always the wrong people who can’t see themselves in mirrors.

Even the language exquisitely portrays this dichotomy: Julian’s parents are still “Mama” and “Daddy”, his language and many of his attitudes remain delightfully Southern (“You know, back where I come from, that was the first thing you asked a new fellow: what does your Daddy do, and where do you go to church?“), and his experiences with men, female friends, his evolving photography career, and life in general are wonderfully depicted, drawing readers into not just the trappings and essence of his life, but the course of his psychological, philosophical and spiritual examinations.

As Julian explores this world, readers should expect sexually graphic (but well-done) scenes designed to enhance the storyline (not shock it with departures or dominant heaviness), an attention to the social and political environment of the 90s that swirls around Julian and changes his perspectives and decisions, and a gritty set of candid descriptions that probe real-world experience.

Readers of gay fiction seeking more than a casual series of insights into the world of New York City’s culture, enhanced by the deeper perspectives of a young man who spiritually struggles to find his place even as he fine-tunes his career and life, will welcome the close inspection of truth, love, and life provided in Jendi Reiter’s Two Natures, powerful saga of Southern etiquette and perspectives turned upside down and the risks involved in moving beyond one’s safe zone.


Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.


Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.


A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.