Poetry / Stephen S. Mills
:: A History of Marriage ::
I. My parents married in October, 1973. Fall in Indiana. The smell of burning leaves. Browns. Oranges. Reds. The world shrinking down, preparing for winter—dying. 1973. The same year Richard Nixon said, I’m not a crook to a crowd in Orlando, Florida, and the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. The same year of Roe vs. Wade and the opening of the World Trade Center. A year of change. In October, my mother stood in a wedding dress white as Indiana winters. My father in a tuxedo beside her. Friends and family gathered. A minister presided. Vows were taken. It was a wedding that set into motion a life. A family. A bond of two bodies. One man. One woman. It was the same year Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles sold for two million dollars, and a gas shortage closed stations on Sundays leaving everyone desperate for a full tank. It was October, 1973. Leaves on the ground. Fall in Indiana. II. There were days when we mimicked them. When you got down on one knee, a ring in hand. When yes I said yes I will Yes. When we bought wedding magazines, made guest lists, thought of color combinations. There were days when our Midwest upbringing made a wedding, legally recognized or not, seem to matter most. There were days when you felt like a husband. Like my father. Like a shadow of a life I was meant to have. III. Brides magazine says June is the month to marry. Sunshine. Flowers in bloom. The world exploding with new life. A new start. My sister married in June, 1997. I was 14. She was 19. A young bride like my mother. Again in Indiana. 1997. The year Timothy McVeigh was convicted of murder in the Oklahoma City bombing and Princess Diana died in that car crash. Our faces gathered in TV light, crying for a woman we didn’t know. A princess that wasn’t ours to have. Sylvia Plath also married in June. June of 1956. She’d only known Ted Hughes a few short months. She was in awe of him, his poetry, his drive, but that didn’t end so well, did it? 1956. The same year Jackson Pollock drove drunk and crashed his car, killing him and his current fling—not his wife. My sister never read Plath or Hughes. Never stood before a Pollock. IV. There were days when we hated them. When we despised the wedding invitations in the mailbox, the gift registries, the bachelorette parties at the gay club, the girls bouncing up and down with pink plastic penises on their heads, which made us wonder if they’d ever seen a real one. There were days when we felt evolved. Our couple-hood our own. No wedding required. No paperwork. No public announcement. Then there was the day I slipped my ring off my left hand and onto my right. Our symbol. Our sign. Not theirs. V. Grace Kelly married the Prince of Monaco in 1956. She never acted again, but is best known for her roles in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. She died in a car crash the same year I was born. 1982. The year William Bonin was convicted of being a Freeway Killer. One of three. He admitted to killing and raping 21 young men and dumping them beside the California freeway. Sometimes with the help of his friend Vern. He became the first person in California put to death by lethal injection. People say January Jones who plays Betty Draper on Mad Men looks a lot like Grace Kelly. Beautiful. Blonde. Betty marries Don. A picture perfect couple. Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t last. Raymond Burr, another 1950’s actor, who played Perry Mason, had two fake marriages and then a real one, which he annulled a few months later. The time of year doesn’t seem to matter in that case. Summer? Fall? The dead of winter? Later he met a man. They grew orchids together. Fell in love. Grew old. VI. There were days when we spoke of leaving. Of moving to Canada, Spain, South Africa. The poster boys of marriage equality. There were days we felt defeated by our own desires. Our bodies moving in different directions. There were days we accepted the beauty of our love. Our choices. Our rules. There were days spent with other men. Nights in other bodies. Sometimes together. Sometimes alone. There was the day we separated love and sex and placed them in boxes beside the bed. No longer needing approval. There were fights in the bright sunlight of our apartment and in the shadows of night where fights are meant to thrive and eventually die. Then there were days when we could only bear each other. My body on your body. The world outside desperate to define us.
:: Slicing Limes for Dustin ::
“and what does it mean if he tells his wife she’s unpleasant or dull and what does it mean if his wife takes sleeping pills or walks in front of a car?” —Diane Wakoski, “Slicing Oranges for Jeremiah” And what does it mean to stand in a kitchen slicing limes for cocktails? Limes for Dustin? For drinks we will consume which will make us happy for a time then horny angry sleepy depressed and maybe if we are lucky fully alive for just a second? And what does it mean that we can’t eat as many limes as we want? That we can so easily get sick on the citrus? Stomachs aching? What does it mean to care for a sick person? To wash his body? Comb his hair? And what does it mean for a body to show signs of stopping? Or for a mind to get confused? To regret an action? To do the things it never thought possible? What does it mean to stand here taking care of you taking care of me? To find comfort in this knife puncturing the bright green skin of a lime? Green balls of light. And what does it mean to fall in love again and again with limes in drinks and the cutting board smeared with pulp? Or to go out into the city and dance with other bodies? To be on display? To have more drinks with sliced limes? Limes cut by other hands by other men in other places. And what does it mean for an old queen to say we don’t live in the real New York? That it’s gone? Dead? That somehow only one person’s experience is real? And what does it mean to never want to be that old queen? To never be that jaded? And what does it mean that we stood outside the Stonewall Inn and drank cocktails with limes on the day the Supreme Court struck down DOMA? Was that not real? And what does it mean to only look backward? To always be longing for another decade? Another time? And what does it mean for two men to be protected under the law? To call each other husband? And what does it mean to know that if we ever want to leave each other it will have to be official? Paperwork goes both ways. And what does it mean to become a housewife voluntarily? To slice limes for a husband? Limes for Dustin? And what does it mean to be married yet remain queer? Remain two men in love? Bonded together? What does it mean?
From the writer
:: Account ::
I start at the beginning. The very beginning. Meaning most of my poems have a title before they have a body. Titles inspire me and drive my poems. Sometimes I’ll have a title for weeks or months before it becomes a poem. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the title leads to a body, and then through a long revision process, I have a poem worth sending out into the world.
Pop culture also fuels most of my work. I use pop culture like other poets use mythology or religion because it serves a similar purpose. It helps make sense of our lives. We connect to what we see in movies or on TV or what we hear on the radio. We see parallels in our own lives. My poems explore those connections as well as our connection to current or recent events. The news or media often factor into my work.
In “A History of Marriage,” I’m attempting to make sense of the idea of marriage through my experience as a gay man viewing my family’s marriage history as well as the marriages of literary figures, artists, and actors from the 1950s and 60s. I juxtapose the “happiness” of marriage with many terrible things that happened in each year. This poem is the opening to my new collection forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in September of 2014. It sets the stage for the book and all of these figures reappear in some way in the poems that follow.
Outside of pop culture and the media, I’m also pulled in by other poets and interested in how I fit into a broader literary landscape. This can be seen in my poem “Slicing Limes for Dustin,” which is indebted to a Diane Wakoski poem. This poem also explores marriage and what it means to be a gay married couple.
Both of these poems serve as good examples of what I believe poetry is capable of doing. I strive to make poems that use familiar things in unexpected and interesting ways. I also never want to bore my reader. Having a poem of mine called “boring” would probably be the greatest insult.
Stephen S. Mills holds a MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award. His first book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He lives in New York City. Website: http://www.stephensmills.com/.