Three Poems

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: In Death the Anal Passage Reveals Signs of Sodomy ::

nothing is sacred when it comes to the [queer] body 
a body on a slab [queer slab] cold slab 
to be examined [prodded and poked]

Roger Casement was hung [not in that way] in 1916
a body executed, swinging [queer] 
a traitor [a hero?] 

the British condemned him to death 
just a few years after knighting him 
[queer] knight 

ransacked his [queer] apartment 
journals black 
and [queer]

bodies of men [queer] men 
naked men in detail 
[queer] detail 

everybody wants proof
[queer] proof
because words are never enough

and [queers] are traitors 
to their sex 
country too if the shoe fits
[queer] shoe

so if in death 
[queer] death 
the anal passage is marked

[queer] anal markings 
with signs [queer] signs
signs of sodomy 

than he must be 
will be [queer] traitor 
case [closed] 


 

:: They Have Wives and Goldfish of Their Own ::

	–Joe Orton (1933-1967)

I am one year older 
than you ever were, Joe Orton.
I’m starting with this fact 
because that is how humans 
work: always selfish. 
I try to be honest about that, 
which I think you’d appreciate. 
I am 35 as I write this
and you were killed at 34. 
You will never be 35 
and I will never again be 34. 
Those are the facts,
which do not change
no matter how many times
I try to reform them in my mind.
I like that you faltered. 
That you failed. 
That your upbringing 
wasn’t anything special. 
That you longed to be an actor
like I once longed to be an actor,
but you weren’t very good at it—
and I never gave it much of a shot. 
You wrote shit sometimes
like I write shit sometimes.
You went to prison for defacing 
library books and I spent a night in jail
and one long year going back
and forth to court 
for throwing a glass in a bar.
It cut someone’s face.
You just cut up books,
which they thought was worse
in 1960s Britain. 
But then you succeeded. 
Became the “it boy” of British theater
and almost wrote a screenplay 
for the Beatles. 
I’m a Lennon boy myself. 
I’ve had my moments in the poetry 
world but never quite an “it boy” 
mostly because I’m terrible 
at sucking up to people. 
Then at the height of it all: 
Kenneth killed you 
out of jealousy or rage 
or unchecked mental health
or maybe all three.
Who’s to say really?
Authority is always foolish 
in the world of your plays.
Less worried with truth
than appearance. 
You worked to chip away at polite 
society—at cups of tea and manners 
and all things British,
which I kind of love
which is why I watch endless 
documentaries on the Royal Family.  
I wonder what you would make
of this world we live in now. 
Authority has become 
an even bigger joke, 
if you can imagine that 
but I think you can 
having written lines like 
Recent figures show that the mad 
will outnumber the sane by the turn of the century.
You were referring to this century 
that I’m in now,
which is already in its 18th year.
In the last century—yours—
my goldfish died so many deaths—
so many fish. But of course, 
there was a first
and I remember crumpling 
into my mother’s arms 
in the living room in that green fuzzy 
chair like algae. 
My first act of grief was for a fish 
or was it a lizard?
I did love my lizards 
and I think of Kenneth—
your friend—your lover—
your murderer—stepping over 
his father’s body to make a cup of tea 
before calling the police 
to report his suicide—head 
in oven Plath-style 
like a scene from one 
of your plays.
Of course, I also think of him—
Kenneth—just a boy—watching 
his mother die from a bee sting
right before his eyes. How do you
ever recover from that?
Maybe you don’t.  
And tonight I dream of meeting you 
in the men’s toilet of King’s Cross station 
like Mike in The Ruffian on the Stair. 
Of you unscrewing the lightbulbs 
and then lowering your pants. 
How I might take you in my mouth—
how you might return the favor—
how my ass might feel pressed 
into the tiles—my skin filling 
each crevice as you deepthroat me
harder and harder and how we each 
might taste to the other. 
And now how we shy away 
from public sex. 
Can U host? 
No. U? 
No. Fuck.
As if there are no other options. 
And I think of being in Paris
in the fall with my husband
for our anniversary: 14 years. 
How we stumbled down
that street and down those steps 
into a small dim bar—grabbed a beer 
and walked the maze 
of cells looking to get off—
two men already at it 
who took our cocks until we came
in the dark in their mouths
no words exchanged
for I am terrible at French
even though I’ve studied it 
for years. But words weren’t needed.
And then a few months ago, 
I was in London 
where I had plenty of sex 
but none in public
for I had my own hotel room
and I saw Vanessa Redgrave 
in a play that was a gay retelling
of Howards End,
which is funny because she’s
in the film version of Howards End
and also in the film version 
of Prick Up Your Ears—
your bio pic—she is your Peggy. 
Gary Oldman played you
and was even kind of handsome
when he did, which you would like.
And it’s odd because he just
won an Oscar for playing 
Winston Churchill. Yes, the same
man who played you played him,
which you might not like. 
There was lots of makeup involved
and many years between the films,
if it’s any consolation.
But I think of your joke
about Churchill’s penis in What the Butler Saw:
your last play which got produced 
after you were killed.
The one many consider your 
masterpiece, but maybe 
that’s because you were dead. 
Kenneth bashed in your head 
with a hammer—they say it was nine blows 
and then he killed himself
with pills. He actually died first, 
which somehow makes it worse,
I think. All that blood. 
You were still warm.
Kenneth stiff. 
Who knows what you would have done next
or how long your fame would have
burned—audiences can be so fickle
just ask Arthur Miller
if you see him. I wish I could say
you are a gay lit hero now, 
but that would be a bit of a lie. 
Few read you, to be honest. 
Your plays are so much of the period
and tastes change. But your life—
your style—and of course your death
make you ripe material. 
Kenneth helped you in that way.
Like the note he left—so simple—
so tragic: If you read his diary, 
all will be explained. And the P.S.:
Especially the latter part.
And then in death you were reunited:
yes, they mixed part of your ashes
with Kenneth’s—I don’t know
if there’s ever been another case
where a murderer and the murder victim
had their ashes mixed together—
a twisted love affair 
or like a line in one of your plays. 
But in a way I understand 
because we have husbands 
and goldfish 
of our own these days. 


 

:: What I’ve Got They Used to Call the Blues ::

	–Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)

Roller skates, a swinging door, 
a gurney that held your body—
but it was also you on the skates, 
which made it haunting. 
A little bit fuzzy—soft focus—
very 1980s. And I remember 
being scared of those skates 
and your body gliding through 
and around your other body 
singing “The End of the World.” 
I never liked skating—never trusted 
myself enough to balance, 
to push forward, to survive. 
I remember winning a trip 
to the skating rink during class
in the 5th grade for being on the Honor 
Roll. I spent the whole time 
in the kiddie rink holding on 
to the side and thinking:
what a horrible prize. 
Of course, it wasn’t really you
on the skates or the gurney.
You were dead by then.
This was just a made-for-TV movie
that I watched as a kid.
My mother played your albums
on our massive record player
that lined the front window
of our house. Some people 
called your music too wholesome—
a contradiction of everything horrible 
happening in the country at the time,
but there’s darkness there,
which I always saw—melancholia—
like you were warning me 
of all that was to come.
This world is hard. 
This I know now. 
Maybe that’s why I’m returning
to you so many years later.
I download a greatest hits album,
stare at your picture on the front:
you and your brother.
I pick this album because
of the picture: slightly goofy—
a white hat on your head—your eyes
shifted sideways.
You look playful and happy. 
I listen to it over and over
and the words come right back
to me. You died at just 32, 
which is younger than I am now.
I read somewhere that 
anorexia is like “fascism 
over the body.” How you 
become both victim and dictator. 
A battle within yourself.
And I remember a girl in high school 
who began to disappear
and then went to some place 
in Baltimore and came back cured 
or as cured as any of us ever are
and I wrote a three-part poem about it
called “Baltimore,”
which became the first poem
I ever read to an audience:
my first open mic in college. 
I didn’t really know the girl that well 
and the poem had a few fucks in it. 
Everyone clapped.
Over the years, everyone has tried to find 
someone to blame for your death, Karen. 
The tabloids have had their fun.
Your family always on the defense. 
Like how Richard stopped the distribution
of Todd Haynes film Superstar,
which he made in 1987 
before he was famous,
before he attempted to get Julianne Moore
an Oscar (don’t worry she eventually got one).
But it’s the 21st century, so I found it 
on YouTube. He used Barbie dolls 
instead of actors and as the film goes on
your Barbie is shaved away 
little by little. Barbie becoming 
even more of an impossibility. 
MOMA has a copy 
but has agreed to not display it
per your family’s request. 
And then there is the 1989 
TV movie that I saw as a kid.
That my mother or someone
recorded on VHS—which then
could be replayed anytime.
And it was those skates—that opening
scene—that always gave me 
an overwhelming sense of dread. 
Of what was to come in this life. 
In my life. In your life. 
I have managed to survive 
longer than you. But still move 
through this world with fear 
and an overwhelming lack of control. 
Eating disorders are often associated 
with control. If nothing else, 
we can decide what goes into our bodies.
What we consume. 
But control turns dark so quickly. 
Doesn’t it, Karen?  
Power is dangerous:
a lesson we must learn over 
and over again. 



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

We live among the dead. What they left behind: sto­ries, music, plays. These poems explore how we relate to the dead. How we often reimag­ine them in the con­text of our own lives—our own time period—our own sto­ries. These poems are from a larg­er project I’m writ­ing called The Homo­sex­u­al Book of the Dead, which exam­ines these con­nec­tions and threads to var­i­ous dead peo­ple but also to the ideas and fears around death as well as death prac­tices.

The fig­ures in these par­tic­u­lar poems have a con­nec­tion to the gay com­mu­ni­ty. Roger Case­ment and Joe Orton were both gay, and Karen Car­pen­ter is often con­sid­ered a gay icon. They also all had trag­ic ends and died rel­a­tive­ly young (51, 34, and 32 respec­tive­ly). The LGBT com­mu­ni­ty often has a trou­bling con­nec­tion to death, from hate crimes to sui­cide to the AIDS cri­sis, death has often been a touch­stone for our com­mu­ni­ty: some­thing to fear—something to survive—something to prove wrong. These pieces touch on what is left behind and how we make sense of lives tak­en from us.

 

Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lamb­da Award-win­ning book He Do the Gay Man in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es and A His­to­ry of the Unmar­ried, both from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He earned his MFA from Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. His work has appeared in The Anti­och Review, PANK, The New York Quar­ter­ly, The Los Ange­les Review, Knock­out, The Rum­pus, and oth­ers. He is also the win­ner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poet­ry Award and the 2014 Christo­pher Hewitt Award for Fic­tion. His third poet­ry col­lec­tion, Not Every­thing Thrown Starts a Rev­o­lu­tion, is now avail­able from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press. He lives in New York City with his part­ner and two schnau­zers. Web­site: www.stephensmills.com