Walter Holland

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​​​A Meditation at Reaching 67


1.

My desk with scattered pens, paperclips and paperweight of city night

gloriously old. Above me through the ceiling

a slow processional passage of music,

some hands moving across piano keys,

not easily but now and then sublime almost,

a sadness that attends this end of day.

They, gone. Lights across the way,

window lights and glass towers encaged in urban light.

A pandemic around me again, and you and they return.

The night is still as silent as it was then. A richness to darkness,

draped from the sky. Why? At sixty-seven

I’ve learned the unlikelihood of heaven. Too many body bags.

Too many stretchers, too many narcotic addled faces,

delirium and blank stares. My parents

gone, my past gone to indifference.

But how handsome

were they, like madrigals

sung, laughs and pleasure, the sleepiness of close strangers.

A radiance that fades.


2.

Am I trapped in grief? Did I wish to be?

Green lawns and agony, the dirt of words

tumbling from my hand,

into a sunken grave. The pride parade. June. New York City.

In the eighties. Foolishly possessed by

tight tank tops and full lips, the gym-labored arms, the bodies

glittering with sweat,

high up the hands waving, a motorcade with rainbow flags.

ACT-UP protesters

falling on the pavement

supine, still to a hush.

This much I see moving by—the young day, the anger, the taut

chords of neck, down to the bone, emaciated chests.

Medieval almost.

An everyman show.

There the pilgrim, there death.

I learned to count breaths, touch hands, feel for fever, make

calls after midnight, anticipate phone messages.


3.

This monologue. Modern? I think not. Soliloquy?

Players strutting on the stage of rage and brevity. Mortality

given out around me at random?

Which room? Which yellow gown?

Which hour to return? I became adept

at standing in the half-light

staring at a voiceless face

studying the features

my mind soon erased. 

Friendship under white sheets.

Friendship injected.

Morphine and sleep.

Morphine and sleep.

The cold rigor mortis of peace.

Old as I am, these images I keep.


 

4.

Grim reaper in jeans. One thing time does is turn

us away.

One thing it does is tells us not to pray.

There is no second day.

They do not stay.

Youth goes away under harshest light. Why was I so polite?

What do manners

get us? Rooms

seem to be our inheritance.

Filled or empty.

They are dark chambers of the private heart or they are the brightest

parts of the past.

Where we surrender to the old and beautiful. Where we surrender to things

young and turning.

The precipice of change.

The precipice of beginning.

5.

We sew a quilt and then at night tear it down

and start anew. Penelope

saw the long years through, waiting.

I journeyed a long time, but not as the hero, incapable of epic words,

the story trailed off

for me, the thread

fine but useless. Grief can be woven into art

but in the end, in the inevitability of the dark

it must be taken down,

only to be threaded again and again years later.

There is a coarseness now to those forgotten days. I run my hand across it,

a certainty that I can no longer believe.

There but not there.

Why did I preserve it? Why put it back together? I clutch it

to me, deceived for a moment by its warmth.

Sadness unravels.

Horror unravels.

Love and grief the same.

And art

remains

torn from

the loveliness of the frame.

 

 

 

Drawing: self-portrait by Robert Natkin, collection of Rick Whitaker

five new poems



Proust Redux

 

Many say that his dispassionate stance in his novel was caused 

by his own inner ambivalence toward being a Jew

 

and a lover of men. And by making his narrator a gentile 

and distinctly heterosexual he enacted a kind of wish-fulfillment,

 

to reverse his own humiliations in the salons of the ancien regime,

where he moved among whispers, anti-Semites who still disparaged

 

this Jew, this queer, though even as the century was running down, 

its aged society crumbling, like mastodons every last one with their 

 

elegant dinners and petrified gossip; even he knew that change was on its way, 

the damask would finally be drawn away to reveal the vulgarity of harsh

 

sunlight, the chinoiserie crated, the dusty ornaments of gold sold. 

He rejected realism, the notion that mere jotting things down, scribbling 

 

truthful descriptions behind palm fronds, raising a monocle to observe 

the eclipse of all that gilded history would on its own suffice. Memory 

 

to him was a literary device, and so like a painter he portrayed the decay

of those midnight soirees filled with carnations and camellias

 

like Age of Innocence, or The Magic Mountain, he recreated 

a fearful opulence of deathly manners fast rotting away. Proust trained 

 

his more modern gaze less to moralize than to show how indeterminacy 

and uncertainty would rule the coming Modern Age. And so

 

I imagine I’m standing in time’s doorway, looking back and ahead, 

a witness to vast ending years and forward to a bitter new clarity.   

For Luis

(For Luis Nuñez, taken by Covid-19, 1966-2021)

We were young queens in the Pines,

dizzy from the wine and pot,

and the idle day—

we took a walk at night to see the moon rise,

and by day lounged on the beach,

beside the sparkling ocean waves, turquoise and green

a joyful tide coming in and going out—

how blithe and unconcerned

we lay upon our beach towels,

against their foolish patterns, pink flamingos, 

palm trees. 

 

Luis, your slender arms and face,

your questioning expression,

still getting the joke, you succumbed

breathless and weak, 

walking into the ER on your own, I’m told,

an hour later placed in a body bag; fifty-five,

another friend gone.

My Life in Fashion (As It Were)

Given current circumstances of age and waist-

line and quarantine, 

the cycle of what I wear, once acutely evolved, has now 

come to closure. In grade school I existed as an adherent

to innate freedom, what I wore

was so much like an exercise in free association, 

embracing “whatever’s close at hand.” But that all changed

when I became a man.

For high school, the default was casual khakis, the bland conservatism

of southern young manhood, which called for no-frills

but a propensity for collegiate

clothing. Manly loafers and tailored suits by the men’s shop downtown. 

Twice a year I was told by my father what to buy: with a total disregard

as to why, an understood

decorum or code of conduct and suitable formality always applied. 

The focus was on how pleasing I appeared for first the grown adults

and then for young teenage girls

as prospective wives. At college I was in for a big surprise, as I discovered 

the anarchy of sexually-driven, drug-filled highs, including the realization

that I was bi. Dishevelment

and the hasty shedding of clothes seemed the only wardrobe for us

the “fashion-unwise” who hung about the student union. My move to the City 

brought the full-on gay: 

off-white carpenter pants with tank tops in shades florid and bright, 

 

like on TV in “Miami Vice,” a fiasco in pinks and neon blues;

Adidas sneakers, white socks, 

and short sleeve shirts of loose design, or silky dress shirts with French cuffs, 

 

an unbuttoned top spread open wide better to disco and glisten in with the damp

aroma of sweat and musk; or to glow

and spin in strobe-lit wonder. Even a foray into cowboy boots —but that ended

 

quickly when the “Wildwood” closed; then the eighties brought clothes of

a  perfect size; the preference “tight”

with an emphasis on thighs and a belief that when out there was nothing to hide. 

 

Shades came along as middle-age arrived, high-cost wardrobes and all that fashion

to encourage guys

at the clubs or chic bars to fantasize. Glitz and glamour, black tee shirts

 

tailored pants, wealthy Rolex knockoffs to denote trendiness

and impeccable taste; 

and of course the visits to Fire Island: an endless succession of bright Speedos

 

for crotch-watchers to garner invitations to some A-crowd party. 

But affluence soon fell to plague 

and protest; shirts with two men locking lips, the bone white letters of “Silence=Death” 

 

and the jackboots of East Village anger; torn denim and pavement burns,

leather bracelets, pierced 

tongues, the smell of weed and AZT, its cloying sweetness of illness and fear. 

 

After those tragic years, drawers emptied and friends’ clothes laid out on their beds, 

the need to pick what they’d

wear to their graves until the nineties cocktail appeared and the dying were saved.

 

I went to work, took a corporate job; decked myself in a series of suits, ties from Rome, 

Kenneth Cole shoes—outfits to match my favorite 

martini. The lounge with the unmarked door. Then to a short academic life: corduroy pants, 

 

button-down shirts; the discussion of poetry, critical theory, offering historical insight; 

sometimes the same dour sweater worn for weeks; 

the mirror image of your father, your father at middle-age; hefty weight with protruding 

 

middle; addressed as “Mr.,” or “Sir,” the formality a habit of youths

who could see through your lengthy lectures, 

spot your insecurities, your long pauses, your frequent fudging of facts. 

 

I fled the classroom for a life of retirement, the giving away of my unused things, 

my lengthy days

returning again to comforts and conveniences; the resurrection of

 

old outmoded clothes, the search for pants that fit; the growing feeling

of invisibility, 

that slide into anonymity, sartorial neglect with no regrets.

  

The Doctor

(In Memoriam,  Dr. José Luis Fernández de Albornoz, January 30, 2021)
 

I believe the art of healing is much like the art of poetry,

it’s a task of giving, administering compassion and empathy

 

to others, much as words and images assembled on a page

can convey a salve to the most wounded heart, and comfort 

 

in measured syllables. Both doctor and poet strive to stave off death, 

but death nonetheless willfully arrives, despite our knowledge

 

our study, our skill. We think we possess the only cure. 

We deal in grief and lines that end. And know we

 

will fail in the end, that pain cannot be delayed forever,

nor can we ameliorate the affliction of being, the wounds of

 

loneliness or the paradox of human existence, though we

search for a reason. We know the body. We know desire.

 

We have felt by touch and healed by listening;  

been called upon to explain what is unexplained. 

 

But we cannot change mortality. Your instruments are put 

away now; you examine no more the world, or chart 

 

its symptoms. And so I am left to examine a nothingness, 

find the faintest pulse, count the seconds and write it down.

  

Ode to Dawn Wells 

(1938 – 2020)

“A three-hour trip” and there was always sunlight

and you as Mary Ann, the bright-spirited waif stranded

 

on that island of canned laughter. Yours was the girl-next-door

role, cast in the sheen of 1960s full-on dayglow; white

 

people only, no one indigenous, no one clearly

disadvantaged. Fun and unbothered, always 

 

in a dither of kooky plans, pratfalls of no real account, 

no racial or social advancement; a kind of stagnancy

 

in the long-run; a gated-community before there

were any. The Billionaire and his Wife, the Skipper

 

and the Movie Star … American hubris, simmering

jealousies, no violence, ever, though in the streets people 

 

marched for Civil Rights, rallies were held against 

the War and Manson formed his “family;” 

 

you could not have anticipated the shipwreck of today, 

marooned in a Covid ward, succumbing at 82. 

 

What did your cast and crew see on that distant horizon?

American promise? American dream? You were denied 

 

residuals, pocketed just $750 a week, the producer got

90 million. Rescue of course wasn’t imperative back then, 

 

for we knew if it came that would end the series, leaving

its writers in the lurch; as it was the show lasted only three years;

 

but to us sixties teens, yours was a world of fantasy and 

you were perpetually perky, never too worried or

 

aggrieved about the state of democracy; days evading

or playing at male flirtation, the familiar displays of gender. 

Existential teleology back then need not have concerned you. 

No sea rises. No mass of refugees. No crowded raft adrift 

 

with seventy standing exiles, patrol boats waiting to turn

you back. No, haughtiness versus glamour or sensibility, 

 

the doctor’s scientific ingenuity and Gilligan’s comic stupidity 

and gullibility, that was the only diversity back then. So farewell 

 

young lady, young actress. Farewell to the shiny and breezy past; 

now you are truly castaway to that great nowhere on a lost map. 

(Gilligan’s Island 1964-1967)

Cherry Grove Suite

(after viewing “Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove,”

May 15, 2021, New-York Historical Society Museum & Library)

1.

You the fickle queens of yesteryear’s gleaming sea,

in your tight swimwear à la fifties; barely I was born

when you pranced and sashayed along the boardwalks

cocktails in hand, show tunes and necklaces, giant girlish

hats, pretty in your lean and manly swagger, party for

an afternoon, some shrill “see you soon, Doll” and

carrying a silver tray of canapés, shakers full of gin.

 

2

Chorus boys and cherubs, lesbians by wine bottle

candles, Carson McCullers and Mary Mann, Janet Flanner,

a far remove from Paris. Think back you wayward spirits,

clever harbingers of silly and liberated days. On this

sand bar purely having fun, the brash, inane, irreverence

and sacrilege of everyone. Auden on the steps in the sunny

sunlight, his britishness, his air of being polite, camping

with the rowdies at the bar, the drag man in fishnet stockings

smoking a cigar and posing like some pin-up gal, Auden

a titter, then a boyish prep-school howl, jolly good and

happy, with his pale and gangly arms; 1945, as Europe

burned and felt a long ways off, you reveled in intoxication.

 

3

Would I be some movie star, young man of the 1930s,

or a Forties teen star, quiet on the set, a run of bit roles

too easy to forget, a few years of screen time and then

the long episode of fading notoriety maybe in that cliché

way, hounded by sad regrets? Finding in the titter-tatter shacks

with campy names a camaraderie that most of American

straight life sorely lacked. Fiddle-dee-dee to lesbians

without bras, to boys of summer wearing theirs like pointed

Alpen peaks, trotting behind them some pretentious pets,

matching sets of yelping poodles. Would I be truly so unruly?

My glamor photos with signatures in curlicues of attitude; 

I’d never return from this island of blithely safe sincerity.


 

4

Some were arrested, flagged down for faggy behavior,

handcuffed to a dock before they could be ferried

back to face a mainland judge, spend an hour or two in jail

until a rich queen posted bail. Back by dinnertime—

a common fact of life for not having a wife and Von Trapp

brood in tow. Dancing cheek to cheek or wearing pumps

and panties, the do’s and don’ts, that ever changing list; still

you’d persist, limp-wristed, talking with a lisp, etc., etc. All

the Black or White “ladies” being frisked, threatened with

exposure—though the cops always looked the other way if

you’d pay the customary bribe to back away. By day, sun

and sex, by night, sex and sex, bevies of beauties, boys

and gals poking fun at a life of social roulette, roleplaying

the first or second sex, faked charades of cliché dress to spare

a small-minded world from having to second-guess.

​​

5

You queens, Black, Brown, White, sipping drinks on

the hotel’s deck, no one quite knew what to expect,

what sparkly nights would beget. Legs and garters of the half-

and-half or passing in-between, here you could stop being

repressed—lose your pants for pantalettes or some “wicked”

cocktail dress; a few hours of joy not to be inspected, grilled

to confess and pass all of their silly tests, always, though,

suspect. Bless your queer hearts, dead now beauties

wilted with the rest, I can attest to how your excess

helped me reject a life of threat—

may you rest in queenly tombs,

may we not forget.

Walter Holland is the author of three books of poetry "Circuit" (2010), "Transatlantic," (2001), "A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992" (1992) as well as a novel, "The March" (2011). A forthcoming book of poetry “Reconstruction” will appear from Finishing Line Press in August of 2021. His essays, book reviews, journal articles, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in many fine journals and anthologies over the years. A few of  his most recent poetry credits include “Exquisite Pandemic,” “HIV Here and Now,” “Cutbank Literary Journal,” “About Place Journal,” “Mollyhouse,” and “The Decadent Review. He is now retired and lives in New York City.  For more information visit walterhollandwriter.com.