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
ransacked his [queer] apartment
bodies of men [queer] men
naked men in detail
everybody wants proof
because words are never enough
and [queers] are traitors
to their sex
country too if the shoe fits
so if in death
the anal passage is marked
[queer] anal markings
with signs [queer] signs
signs of sodomy
than he must be
will be [queer] traitor
:: 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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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