A Meditation at Reaching 67
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Morphine and sleep.
Morphine and sleep.
The cold rigor mortis of peace.
Old as I am, these images I keep.
Grim reaper in jeans. One thing time does is turn
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.
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.
Love and grief the same.
the loveliness of the frame.
Drawing: self-portrait by Robert Natkin, collection of Rick Whitaker
five new poems
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 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,
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
that slide into anonymity, sartorial neglect with no regrets.
(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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.