Certain Men of Small Towns in the West of Virginia
have heard through some trembling of their web
of acquaintance that I am here, and from
the academical villages where they teach English,
French, piano, and design, from small museums
called jewel-like by the locals, where they docent
and curate, have come to hear me read some poems.
They served in the army, never married,
live close to their mothers or with them.
One drove fifty miles over the mountains, across
the James and past the stink of the paper mill.
One seemed terrified when I began but afterward
shouted an invitation to visit his carriage house
and was I maybe interested in antique cars?
One left a number in my box, offering a drink
called The Famous, eleven parts dry vermouth
to one part sweet. They dilated on the photos
of handsome sailors on their mantels and pianos,
played Steber and Ferrier at me and drank
perhaps too deeply.
I had a job there, but now
I can steal away, their lilacs full of incense
in February notwithstanding, their pears full
of bees, back to the Greek granges of the north,
meetinghouses plain on the commons. Away
from their plantation pillars, and the burden,
not of all they needed to receive, but of the hidden,
shamed, choked-back love they longed to give.
On the cover of TV World,
December 1954, 25 cents, Liberace tells “What I Want in a Woman!
The old parents of my gay Japanese friend in Kyoto set him up on omiai, matchmaking dates with
women. Isao dutifully attended these formal lunches into his 50s, though he’d owned a house with his American boyfriend for over 25 years. His parents even knew and liked roommate Larry-san. As a white-gloved senior docent at the music-box-and-automata museum in Arashiyama, Isao had only one day off every two weeks. But he spent some of them attending these “honorable-look-meets,” because of honne/tatemae, the difference between what one thinks and what one says. At least one of the women was queer herself, and Isao give her a t-shirt he’d painted with a flower called “Under-the-snow.” They kept in touch.
The parents died, and the lunches ended.
Every day, Isao feeds paper into a slot, so a small audience of tourists can watch the Writer Boy automaton perform. Elegant in his gestures, the brass discs that drive him have hills and valleys, which a mechanical follower translates into movements that go out to the drawing hand. His repertoire includes poems in Japanese and English, and four intricate drawings, one of an old-fashioned clipper ship under full sail.
Now Larry is sick.
Isao peels ginger un-
der Thunder Mountain.
Remember my poem about Keats, I asked Diane a year or so after we had showed each other our poems about Keats. About not being able to write in the Amy Clampitt house, though I was paid to live there and write. For a long time that poem had been “forthcoming,” poets always waiting for something to happen about our work, and then finally it appeared, in Poetry Northwest, accepted by Keetje Kuipers. Who “lives with her wife and daughter on an island in the Salish Sea,” a biography seemingly out of a muliebrous fable. Or idyll. Muliebrous, from Latin mulier, “woman,” cognate of mollis, “soft.” And source of “mollify,” a softening of hurt or anger. One isn’t supposed to talk about po-biz in poems, it’s not spiritual.
One is supposed to
care about rice wine under
the petals in spring.
Is it true that I get a better hearing at higher-tier journals when the editors are queer? Gerald Maa at The Georgia Review also lifted my poems out of the slush, a cold call on my part, and oh my his photos are handsome. If that’s true, isn’t it a little bit awful? It’s not true that I first read Bate’s biography of Keats in the Clampitt house, or that it was her copy I read, as I implied in my poem. I read it in grad school as early as 2003 and tried to write a Keats poem then but failed. It took Clampitt, it was she—was it she?—who moved my hand to bring her seven copies of Keats together on a single short shelf, like a shrine. I thought I got away without her hurt and angry ghost touching me, because with sympathetic magic I propitiated the idea of the ghost I’d been warned about. After I left her house, I wrote what I wrote and thought that I was special and smart in relation to
the dead, and in general.
At least twenty de-
tached human feet have been
found on the beaches
of the Salish Sea, which sits in a depression formed by the collision of tectonic plates and then the advance and retreat of ice, after which the scarred landscape filled with seawater. Then, millennia later, the people who run the Clampitt house sent me a new biography of her, and what do I read but that, when she was asked if she wanted any Keats read at her memorial, she said “Keats, Keats, I don’t want Keats! I don’t want to be anywhere near Keats!” I realized then that she was in my mind. It hadn’t been my queer idea to touch her Keatses and gather them. Why did I gather them, what was wrong with copies scattered all over the house? I assembled them—into a kind of battery—because “The dead (wo)man touch’d me from the past,” as Tennyson put it. She may still shake, does she shake, her chains in my brain?
Keats Keats Keats Keats Keats
she said in the night without
words. His name her ghost.
Graves off 5 and 10
Where jewelweed at the untended edges
overruns the revolutionary slates.
Where metal detectoring, stone rubbing,
skateboarding, alcoholic beverages
and rough sleeping are disallowed.
Where a couple with a long marriage
had a marker made from a millstone—.
Where Josh, beloved son and brother,
is remembered with a bas-relief guitar
and the motto “Punk is not dead.”
Where an unfilled hole gapes, dirt
pyramided on plywood, neat rolls
of sod for later.
Where an overturned bucket
warns “BEES,” and a swarm
issues just as Homer said,
forever in fresh bursts and hangs like
bunched grapes under the flowers.
Here’s a photo of the baby
who rode his trike into the pool.
Here, a laminated page refuses
the notion that “Hell is in this world,”
for while he lived, it says, the baby
was a happy man.