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