木漏れ日

a lone figure intruding upon
the playground of the gods
hiding amongst pine trees
while hydrangeas bloom at the gorge.
cedars stretch their branches towards
the dusk sky, as faint sunlight
filtering through the leaves
presses against my back.

I pause in my tracks,
basking in the songs of cicadas,
marking the time for me to reach
the nearby shinto shrine to offer prayers
and thanks for completing this quest.

the legs like granite jizo statues, the stomach
rumbles, craving for chicken nanban.
silence at Takehiko shrine. sunlight
becomes moonlight. the torii gate
glowing under the komorebi with its
vermilion hues compel me to wander
in the playground of the gods.

as night sinks into the gorge
the distant chimes of the kagura
overshadow the cicadas.
I ask the rising moon:
when will I return here?

YQ is a final-year student at the National University of Singapore who loves learning about Southeast Asia and badass warrior women. She is currently working on an urban fantasy novel that takes place in Southeast Asia. She has been featured in the 2018 Singapore Poetry Writing Month anthology.

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The Reptilian Years

….childhood…demanded a constant wariness, the habit of observation, the attendance on moods and tempers, the noting of discrepancies between speech and action, a certain reserve of demeanor, an automatic suspicion of sudden favors.

            Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself

 

Of my ten years on the ice, almost half were spent skating for reptiles. Not that I wouldn’t have skated had there been no reptiles, but they’d added an extra incentive to perform well. Reptiles had been my mother’s brainchild, her peace offering after a severe scolding for my sneaking a hamster into the house. Furry pets were off limits to asthmatic kids like myself and this was not the first time I’d been caught smuggling one. Shortly after her verbal thrashing, I’d collided with another skater, sailing headfirst into the boards, and ending up with a severe concussion.

Some weeks after the accident, Mother found a catalogue from a reptile supply house in Kansas and sent away for a pair of collared lizards. Ten days later, an emerald male with a double black collar arrived along with his less exciting brown mate in a hole-punched cardboard box. We named the pair Collar and Tie. Celebrating my passing the fourth figure test some months afterwards, Mother allowed me once again to browse the Quivera catalogue. On discovering my chosen basilisk required a few trees (the guest bathroom was on the small side for trees), she’d suggested selecting something less exotic—perhaps an anole—but had, nevertheless, made the four-hour drive from Boston to the Bronx Zoo so I could see a three-eyed tuatara. How, in the pre-internet 1950s, she found supply houses like Quivera or tuatara exhibits, I have no idea.

During these reptilian years, I acquired well over a hundred: tortoises, caimans, an occasional small snake, but mostly lizards. The lizard menagerie came in all sizes, shapes, textures, and colors: silvery, sleek skinks; scaly, plump horny toads; fat, puffy chuckwallas. Some were grey, some brown, a few green, even blue and they varied in size from an inch-and-a half gecko to a five-and–a-half-foot iguana. Nine months of the year, they lived in our guest bathroom (we rarely had guests) where I spent many a happy hour observing them, feeding them, letting a few walk up my arm. All but two were confined to mesh cages that resembled miniature ice rinks. (Mother paid the skating club engineer to build them.) Only the iguana and the gopher tortoise had free run.

Most mothers wouldn’t have tolerated such a hobby, but Mother obviously decided that collecting and chauffeuring reptiles was preferable to having a kid who smuggled furry critters. For the five summers we made the eight-hour trek from Boston to Lake Placid for my training, the menagerie came along. Cages were surreptitiously brought into the exclusive Lake Placid Club under jackets and various costumes.

Departure day started at sunrise with four hours of car packing, squeezing suitcases and skates between cages, making sure everyone had enough air, and cage doors were securely fastened. On one occasion, despite double-checking locks, three snakes escaped en route and we had to stop an hour in the blazing sun while I located two under the driver’s seat, eventually popping the hood to find the third warming himself by the engine.

One Sunday, after a strong performance in Lake Placid’s weekly Saturday show, Mother packed me up in our Plymouth and headed out of town along the Ausable River, eventually pulling into a gravel lot and parking underneath the life-sized image of a king cobra, hood spread, ready to strike. The sign read: SERPENTARIUM.

Hardly the surprise I expected, as Mother drew the line at poisonous pets. I opened the car door cautiously and tip-toed across the dusty parking, my eye on the solid eight-foot fence that surrounded the ranch-style building. Was it high enough to keep cobras out of the parking lot?

Various cages lined the back wall of the lobby. A gecko was walking up the side of a terrarium, the glass magnifying his suction cup toes, while a second was sunning himself under his lamp, his lidless, slit eyes taking me in. I forgot about the cobra.

“Texas banded geckoes, Coleonyx brevis.” I motioned to Mother who was standing in the ticket line. Professor Loveridge had taught me the Latin names.

A broad-shouldered man in heeled boots and a cowboy hat came out from behind the counter.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said to Mother in a funny drawl. “How is it a kid knows about these reptiles?”

“She studies them.”

She didn’t tell him about the teas she’d arranged for me with the curator of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“No entry fee for her. One of my sons will take her ’round.”

The son, taller and thinner than his father, appeared momentarily in a ten-gallon hat and hip-high boots.

“We have a budding herpetologist here, Tom.”

I grew at least an inch. Ever since meeting Professor Loveridge, I’d settled on becoming a herpetologist.

“You just missed the milking,” Tom said. His voice was sing-songy like his father’s. The two, I would learn, brought their business from Texas to upper state New York every summer.

“You have cows too?” I asked quietly. I’d never spoken with a Texan before.

“No cows, just rattlesnakes. Venom’s used to make antitoxin for when people get bit. Thirty-five dollars an ounce. Same price as gold. Wanna see the pit?”

I hadn’t seen anyone milk a rattlesnake either, but it could be interesting.

Leaving Mother in the lobby with Mr. Miller, I followed Tom out back. The pit was about twenty feet in diameter, about four feet larger than one of my circles on the ice, surrounded by a five-foot fence. At the bottom were maybe fifty writhing rattlers.

Up until now, all I knew about poisonous snakes came from Clifford H. Pope’s The Reptile World. The back cover photo captured the combat dance of the male diamond back rattler, which Mother had probably overlooked. She’d given me the book the day she suggested reptiles as pets. I remembered flipping through its many pictures in search of a suitable one: the first, a Paraguayan caiman, known to attain a length of eight feet, followed by an alligator snapping turtle that grew to two hundred pounds, and finally a Gaboon viper with two rows of razor-sharp teeth and long curved fangs capable of delivering more venom than any other species.

The seven -footer Tom was currently pointing out was larger than Pope’s prairie rattler that could strike at seven and a half feet per second. “Eastern diamond back. Bad news if you get bit. That’s why we wear these big boots.”

As he explained how the snakes gained a rattle each time they shed, how the loreal pits on each side of their heads were really infrared sensing devices, the snakes continued to writhe and I felt my muscles tighten. When Tom got to the part about hemotoxins and neurotoxins, I got a little lost, but Professor Loveridge often told me more than I understood. How would he talk about these creatures? I remember reading his description of the Tarentola mauritanica: “anterior border of the ear without denticulation, (what was denticulation?) its vertical diameter about half to a third that of the orbit.” Was I supposed to think about these snakes in terms of the ratio of the width of the triangular head to the length of the body? Much as I tried, I couldn’t even see myself standing in the middle of them or injecting a horse with their venom like Tom was describing at the moment. At the end of his talk, I had to unlock my fingers from the railing.

“You can watch when I milk again in two hours,” he said. “Rattlesnakes aren’t the most dangerous species though.” He led me by the hand to the other end of the complex where we stopped in front of a room-sized cage. “Here’s our new king cobra. Killed the previous owner’s daughter, so we got him for a good price. She was teasing him with a rabbit. Bad idea. Her daddy was rich. Flew in serum from a guy who survived a bite. Didn’t do no good though. She was dead seven hours later.”

The idea of anyone dying from a snakebite made me freeze. I stood back from the glass as the twelve-foot snake slithered up its tree, past the feeding door in the back of the cage. How did the Millers put a meal through that door safely? How did some poor rabbit react when it suddenly found itself faced with the cobra? Part of me wanted to see this giant lift itself to an upright position, like the cobra on the parking lot billboard, and go after something. Striking, however, wasn’t on his mind at the moment. When it was, his warning hiss was more like a roar, Tom told me. One of his bites could deliver seven milliliters of venom, enough to kill twenty people. When he’d served in the British army in North Africa during World War I, Professor Loveridge had collected pythons, mambas, and cobras. Once he’d told me, “Probably only a zoologist can look at an uncaught cobra and feel the joy a child feels on Christmas morning.”

“Enough poisonous stuff. Let’s go look at some lizards,” Tom said.

Fine with me.

Pacing to and fro, next to the cobra, was a spectacular five-and-a-half-foot emerald iguana with a reddish-black crest that ran from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. Unlike the other reptiles that seemed adjusted to captivity, this guy continuously butted his nose against the glass. I’d seen plenty of iguanas before, but nothing close to the size of this one. I could have spent more time watching him, but Tom was already moving on to the chuckwallas and leopard lizards.

“How’d a kid like you get into reptiles anyway?” Tom asked.

I told him about my smuggling and how I got Collar and Tie. How Mother helped me start a mealworm colony in a Maxwell House coffee can filled with oatmeal we kept behind our claw-footed tub. How Collar ate mealworms from my hand. How sometimes I talked to him when things had gone badly in the rink.

Tom laughed.

“These critters here ain’t no pets. Them’s our livelihood.” He pointed at a fifteen-inch lizard with red and black wart-like skin. “Forgot this one. Moves slow, but hangs on real tight when he bites.”

“Gila monster? Heloderma?” I’d never seen one, but this prehistoric-looking creature was just like the picture in Pope. I wouldn’t be adding one to my collection any time soon.

Tom nodded. “How do you know all these names?”

When I told him about having tea with Professor Loveridge, how the curator tried to teach me taxonomy, starting with African geckoes, as our tortoises (gopherus polyphemous, he called them) cruised between office chairs, snacking on a lettuce and strawberry floor salad, Tom gave me this “are you serious?” look. I tried to imagine him going through the binders and skeleton collections in Professor Loveridge’s office, maybe opening the drawer labelled “string too short to use.” I missed the professor and wished he had told me more about his East African adventures before he retired to Saint Helena. Apparently, he’d thought it more important to teach me taxonomy and how to do necropsies, so I could eventually understand things like how a snake’s spine went together. I hated cutting away the stinky flesh of some dead lizard or caiman, the reek of formaldehyde that made my eyes water. But just like my skating coach said I had to learn school figures to be a better free skater, he said I needed to know something of the anatomy of the creatures in my care.

Tom checked his watch and cocked his head towards the front of the compound. “Time to go back.”

I watched him enter the pit through the swinging door cut into the back of the fence. He carried a long metal rod that looked something like a putter, but with a hook instead of a blade. At least ten of the twenty-nine species of rattlers were here, hissing away like steam radiators. As one mounted the toe of his boot, its forked tongue feeling its way, Tom lifted another with the rod and grasped it firmly behind the jaw, the snake wriggling furiously to get free. In his left hand, he held a jar whose mouth was covered with a thin sheet of plastic. As he brought it close to the snake’s head, the rattler struck, releasing its venom into the container. Then he massaged the side of the head to get out every last drop of liquid gold, put the snake down, and grabbed another.

“Not something to try at home,” he said, as the crowd applauded.

The pit was slowly revolving; even the fence was a bit out of focus. How did you practice milking snakes without getting bitten? There were jumps I had done hundreds of times that I still messed up. While the pit was not a place I wanted to be, Tom was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I could follow him anywhere.

On some level I must have been aware that Mother was developing a reward system, that good practices and shows could earn me regular trips to the Serpentarium and perhaps even another reptile. I started paying closer attention to closing my centers, lining up my threes, doing clean brackets. I tried to jump higher, spin faster, hold a better line, and not, as my coach would say, “flap around like a bird” or “have arms that were a fright.”

Skating was going well that summer I was nine until one afternoon between practice sessions. I was doing a flip-flop on the beach when my little toe ended up at right angles to my foot. I limped back to our room and Mother gave me that “what have you done now?” look. She was even more displeased when the doctor taped the broken toe to its neighbor and told her I’d be off the ice for a couple of weeks.

Despite his instructions, two days after my accident, Mother tried to get me into my boot. But hard as I scrunched my foot towards the instep so the little toe wouldn’t touch the stiff leather, the moment I stood up, the air filled with stars. I sat down quickly, gazing at my toes so as not to meet her eyes. She gave up, proposing I watch the better skaters until I could get back on the ice. After a week of this routine, I grew restless. Mother gave in and drove to the Serpentarium.

“Just in time for our latest shipment,” Tom said, as I hobbled into the lobby. “You can help unpack it.”

He led me to the back of the compound where the king cobra, usually darting from one end of his cage to the other, was moving sluggishly, a large bulge in his middle. “Rabbit for breakfast,” Tom said, nodding in the cobra’s direction, as he pointed to a wooden crate about three feet long and eighteen inches high next to the snake’s room. The side slats were dancing.

“Just go slow opening the top.”

I lifted the lid a fraction of an inch. The inside was too dark to make out whatever was in there. As I opened it further, an elliptical head popped out, followed by an iridescent body with every imaginable color. I jerked backwards.

“Beauty, isn’t she? Rainbow boa. Our first,” he beamed. “Let her crawl over your arm. Remember, no fast movements.”

The boa wound itself around my arm, its gaze somewhere off in the distance. My back muscles tightened like they sometimes did before a jump. Collar would look at me directly, but I wasn’t sure about making eye contact with a snake. The five-foot thing was longer than I was. It looped itself loosely around my neck. I took a deep breath and set off to the lobby. Mother was always after me for being afraid of jumps, but I’d show her I wasn’t afraid of five-foot snakes.

After helping settle the boa in her new cage, I went to watch Tom start another show. I’d seen the milking several times now, but every time was a little different. Some ten minutes into the performance, after he’d milked several snakes, he excused himself, heading to the pit door. Someone else, he said, would be out to continue in a few minutes. There was no alarm in his voice, but I sensed something was not right, so I followed him into the side room of the main building where he pulled off one of his thigh-high boots. When he drew his knife from his belt and slit his jeans from the top of his hip all the way down to his ankle, I guessed what had happened.

“Dang thing came up over the top of my boot and got under my pant leg.”

I couldn’t see the bite from across the room, but I watched as he unsheathed his knife. He was about to cut into his thigh, when the room started revolving like the rink at the end of a layback spin and I leaned back against the wall.

“You best wait out front,” he said, when he realized I was still standing in the corner. “This ain’t purty.”

In the lobby Mr. Miller assured me Tom would be okay. He had antivenom in the fridge. I didn’t get to see him inject it, nor did I see him suck the venom out of Tom’s leg. On hearing about the incident, Mother whisked me out to the car. She was quiet all the way back to Lake Placid and I worried she might never bring me back.

She’d always said you could avoid accidents by being careful, but snakes were just unpredictable. What if the cobra had bitten Tom? No cobra antivenom existed then. I tried to dismiss the incident, but serpents gradually crept into my practice. Sometimes I heard a rattle. Occasionally, in the middle of a change double three, a cobra would raise its head, sway from one side to another. Other times I’d be going into a double salchow and see the rich man’s daughter dangling the rabbit by its hind legs, the cobra striking at her hand.

I never mentioned my cobra visions to Mother, afraid she’d stop trips to the Serpentarium. She’d be against anything that might interfere with skating. I was relieved to discover that, despite Tom’s accident, she was still willing to make the thirty-five-mile drive once a month. Because Mother said I couldn’t invite skaters to the Club, the Millers had become my most important friends. While I may not have loved all their snakes, I loved their lizards and their company. I tracked my training by the number of days to the next Serpentarium visit. On only one other occasion did it come sooner than expected.

I was sitting on the balcony of our room at the Lake Placid Club, allowing Collar and Tie some out-of-the-cage time. Collar was running up and down my arm when some insect must have caught his eye and sent him scampering at a neck-breaking speed across the deck and through a crack in the barrier. Peering over the railing, I saw no sign of him, but presumed he’d fallen to the ground a floor below. In a flash I was down the hall, through the lobby, out the back door, and under the balcony in the grass on all fours. After five minutes, I found him, stunned, but still alive. Back in his cage, he lay limp, showing no interest in a mealworm. Tie gave him a wide berth. Over the next three days, I watched him closely. He was still not eating. Mother, a sucker for injured animals, noted that his tail flesh had begun to wither.

I hated to lose any of my menagerie, but especially Collar. He and his mate were the first pets I’d had since the age of three, when Mother sent my German Shepherd away because of my asthma. And Collar was almost sociable.

“I’m losing him, Mom. I don’t know what to do, but Mr. Miller might know.”

 

Mr. Miller examined Collar, shining his snake-hunting flashlight right through Collar’s leg. The bones lit up like an X-ray.

“That’s the femur,” he said, pointing to the larger bone, “And there’s the fracture.” I struggled to see the faint line. “Most lizards die of a broken leg, but you can try to splint it.”

He drew a diagram, suggesting one of those things a doctor uses to look in your throat to tape Collar’s broken leg. My splinted toe had healed, so maybe Collar’s leg would heal too. When Mr. Miller finished his instructions, he led me to the far end of the compound. There was something I could help him with, he said.

“It’s this guy here. He pointed at the handsome iguana. “Charlie’s not adjusting to his cage. Keeps rubbing his nose.”

The better part of his nose was covered by a dark scab. Pussy fluid oozed from beneath it.

“What can I do for him?”

“You can give him a new home where he won’t be surrounded by glass. No charge.”

The iguana cocked his head and eyed me suspiciously. We wouldn’t be back to Boston for another six weeks and he wouldn’t be easy to hide in a Lake Placid Club guest room. The chambermaid came at odd times.

Back in the lobby with Mother, I described the nose sore, the possibility of spreading infection due to the degree of cavitation—Mother liked me to use big words and Professor Loveridge had taught me this one. She was always prodding me to study, to learn from the best skaters and dancers, but I never analyzed their elements with the same attention to detail as I gave to a reptile.

“If he doesn’t get a new home, he’s going to die.”

“If anyone can save him, Ma’am, she can,” Mr. Miller said.

Nobody had ever expressed faith in me as a healer before. I liked the idea. If I wasn’t up for catching cobras or milking rattlesnakes, maybe I could be a doctor.
Mother agreed to look at the iguana.

“Good God. It’s about six feet long,” she said, when we came to its cage.

“Only five and a half.”

“And where do you think we are going to put a five-and-a half-foot iguana in the Lake Placid Club?”

 

Three bellboys descended on me when I entered the club lobby with a six-foot box under my arm.

“I can manage,” I protested, clutching tightly the box with the scratching iguana. “It doesn’t weigh anything.” I sprinted up the stairs, Mother on my heels, trying not to laugh.

Once in our room, we locked the door and opened the box. Charlie strutted out, did three push-ups, and climbed the porch screen, signaling approval of his new home.

We did get caught a few days later during an unexpected thunderstorm when the maid came in to close the shutters and went screaming down the stairs about a dragon in the room. Mother resolved the issue with some pastries and a little cash.

I made Collar a birch bark splint, taped it to his broken leg and forced vitamins down his throat. A few days later, he accepted a mealworm. Charlie spent every afternoon doing acrobatics on the porch and his nose began to heal.

Mother was delighted with their progress. While she wanted me to have pets, she also viewed reptiles as a means to a blue ribbon. She used her art training to make my every science fair terrarium a miniature scene from Arizona Highways, something sure to win first place. But for me, the great pleasure of my reptilian world was that it was mostly not judged. I knew I could add to my collection by doing well on the ice, but I never considered the possibility that my menagerie might be used as a punishment. Until one afternoon.

A March Saturday morning at the Skating Club of Boston, some five months after I was last at the Serpentarium. I was attempting my fifth test for the second time. The first time, the third circle of my change double threes had been badly out of line. This time my coach had given me what seemed like a foolproof plan: the first figure was an easy to line up one-foot eight. I would use its two circles as a partial template. On its completion, I moved the next start point up about a foot and a half for the troublesome change double threes. The referee, unfortunately, figured out exactly what I was up to, and decided that, although my plan was not against the rules, I should not get away with it. He indicated, instead, a clean section of ice without so much as a hockey line that might be used as a guide. As there was no arguing with this stern man, I tried Mother’s trick of imaging him in his long underwear before reluctantly choosing a spot on the unblemished ice where I laid down threes at least eight inches out of line. Shortly thereafter the results were posted: Hanlon – failed.

Mother didn’t turn on the radio during the ride home. Her eyes, glued to the road ahead, never wandered up to the rearview mirror to see me fixated on her knit brows. Mother, artist, scholar, prodigy kid accepted to Harvard at thirteen, Mother, the hard act to follow. After a while I looked out the window. A lone scull was making its way down the partially frozen Charles. Even in the drizzle, the Charles seemed a more hospitable place than the back seat of our Plymouth. The silence continued. Maybe she was going to skip the scolding.

About ten minutes from home, at the Storrow Drive exit onto Beacon Street, she finally spoke. “If you can’t concentrate better, Collar and Tie will have to go.”
My stomach did a double loop. Would she really take them away? I said nothing, but once home, I went straight to the guest bathroom, closed the door, sat on the cold tile floor. When I opened Collar’s cage, he came out, sat on my hand for a minute, before climbing up my arm. I plucked a mealworm from the can and let the crunchy thing walk on my palm. Collar cocked his head, ran down from my shoulder, and pounced on it. My most trusted companion. Not one to tell me I didn’t line up my threes because I wasn’t thinking.

During the following week, I waited each day for Mother to mention Collar and Tie again. Determined she wouldn’t notice how nervous I was, I avoided the guest bathroom until I’d completed my homework. Only then would I feed my menagerie and clean their cages.

We never spoke of her threat. Perhaps she had only made it in frustration. Looking back, it was the first time I realized that failure could have extended consequences. But it was years before I understood that I had been an extension of her, that when I failed, she’d failed too.

Something changed that day, although I was unaware of it at the time. My dreams of being a herpetologist or doctor faded, not to reappear for many years. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to allow my collection to dwindle, but when a reptile died, I didn’t ask to replace it. Never again did I skate for one. Although I continued to care for my remaining specimens, I distanced myself from them emotionally, vowing they could never again be used to hurt me. Collar lived almost two years after his porch accident; Tie survived him by four months. Charlie was with us another three years until the winter night the furnace broke and he froze. I don’t remember feeling very sad when they died.

Lorraine Hanlon Comanor was the 1963 U.S. figure skating champion and U.S. team member. A Stanford/Harvard-trained physician, she has authored or co-authored about 35 medical publications. Her personal essays have appeared in New England Review, The RavensPerch, Ruminate, Gold Man Review, and SKATING.

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musings of a front-porch priest

I hope in heaven there are thunderstorms,
the kind that coming cause an egg-blue sky
to cloak the waiting world in mouse-skin gray.
Tonight, the mottled robins out front all eye
the soaking soil, anticipating worms
they know must rise for air then scatter streets
to punctuate the morning’s pavement page.

On bouncing branch, a blood-drop cardinal quakes
in spittled breeze as pinky-finger grubs
go knuckling across the yard with rhythmic flex.
They cork the cardinal’s yellow beak and plug
his throat in a feathered flash of red. He breaks
their jelly backs, then bloated, flutters back
to perch his limb. I hope that heaven is big—
big enough to hold this holy wildness.

L. R. Harvey currently lives in Chattanooga, TN, where he teaches high school English and coaches baseball. His desire is that his poems, as Joseph Campbell writes, “see the life value of the facts round abound and deify them, provide images that relate the everyday to the eternal.” He holds his BA in English and his MA in Teaching, and he is hoping to pursue his MFA within the next year. His most recent work has been accepted by Eunoia Review, Street Light Press, Ancient Paths, The Write Source, The Tennessee Magazine, and WestWard Quarterly.

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Aperture

            ~ Glencar Valley, Ireland, 2019

Fog in the valley, then
searing sunlight.

A bouncy lane
to a glacier lake.

Water without wind,
a slow-moving sky.

Remote—impression
of Alps—a raven

watches us—glistening
in this vastness.

M. J. Iuppa’s fourth poetry collection is This Thirst (Kelsay Books, 2017). For the past 29 years, she has lived on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. Check out her blog: https://mjiuppa.blogspot.com for her musings on writing, sustainability & life’s stew.

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Gay Is…

Gay is the boy who just started working with flowers
and gestures so immaculately that everyone has always known
that he is a gay boy. He loves his job, you can tell.

Gay is the thin guy who has no use for the gym.
He’s fine and good for the man who loves him. Starting out,
a new love and so animated in their discussions at the bar.

Gay is the old man walking around shirtless because he loves
the attention, with a far-off boyfriend somewhere, ready
to visit him one more time and be together, embraced in a kiss.

Gay is Allen Ginsberg and his young boyfriend. If only we could mirror
their relationship. I wish I was half the poet and had the following
that he had. Laurent and I could tour together and celebrate our love.

Gay is the big guy in the “Daddy Issues” T-shirt or dozens
of other beefy bears, secure and confident in their image and eager
to meet more of their own kind, blocking the way and laughing in their groups.

I grew up in a household
where it was probably allowed,
but unspoken, so I would read
my sister’s teen magazines
and watch Davy Jones
of the Monkees
in his rare shirtless appearance,
frolicking and enjoying
the other guys around him.

Tarzan was on every Saturday afternoon,
with sometimes a double feature.
Or we’d go outside and play soldiers
or Tarzan or cowboys and Indians.
Anything to be male and young boys,
grow up male
and as normal as we could,
with three brothers and one sister,
Midwest gay developing.

Gay can be skanky and as sleazy as you can imagine, in dark
alleys and hallways and businesses built around carnal activities.
It’s embarrassing but sometimes necessary for quick releases.

Gay takes your breath away when it’s a crowd out for Pride,
partying and celebrating and truly proud of being who we are,
taking over the city or the world as one large group in solidarity.

Gay is just out with friends, frivolous and inconsequential,
dancing the night away, sipping cocktails, oblivious to any struggle
or history. Put the movement away for a Saturday night, and have some fun.

Gay comes creeping up on boys and girls, unsuspecting. Sometimes
their families know, maybe even before them, but they realize it at long last,
accepting, or sometimes rejecting, but it’s there to do with what they want.

Gay is the emotional roller coaster that grabs people and makes them find
whatever their identity will be. When they finally find love, it will be the high
of their lives. When they meet with the bullies and persecutors, take cover.

My youngest son is gay,
but was afraid to tell me.
I hope he was fine with it
afterwards,
because I never had a problem with it.
We shared New York City Pride
together around 2012.
Father and son bonding? Perhaps.
At least it was gay generations together.

My wife knew about me soon after we met.
Bizarre, but true, in the interest
of total transparency and honesty.
I came out to her and one other guy,
who took it weirdly and acted strange.
She handled it well, and we went on
to live together, marry, and have
three wonderful kids. My first
true love, my partner.

Gay is S&M culture, pain and power dynamics, Sir and boy,
Master and slave, and dozens of other roles to capture the imagination.
Play it out in private or public, any sort of fetish or interest.

Gay is the most tender of feelings for the man I love. It took me too long
to meet him, but now that I have, we want to be together every moment
of every day. He’s alive and young and the most beautiful of boys.

Gay is a history of Oscar Wilde, Liberace, Dom DeLuise,
and Paul Lynde. Hiding in plain sight and setting off the radar
of all but the least astute of observers. Obvious and undeniable.

Gay is Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and James Dean,
and the list goes on, known to those in the industry, leading men,
keeping it under wraps as best they could.

Gays have always been around and always will be, and are even present
in the animal kingdom. Each new generation figures it out anew,
with the full support of the ones who went through it all before.

John was my first love,
my best friend, who
happened to be straight.
It could have been beautiful,
but it was a beautiful friendship
instead. Two teens sharing
intimacies, experiences,
and growing up together.
Trusting and loving nonetheless.

Now I have Laurent,
the new love of my life.
Sharing in all that is great
in my past and my present,
there for the long-term future.
He’s young but mature,
caring and complete,
and totally in love
with me as I am with him.

Gay is the plague, ignominiously originally named for us,
but shared with Haitians and drug users swapping needles.
It’s not over yet, but it has moved on, still a worldwide epidemic.

Gay are the smartphone apps for cruising and meeting,
quick hookups and maybe even something long-term.
The place I met my young lover, against all odds.

Gay is the 40-year-old married man, finally figuring it out
and the lesbian couple finding each other in the oddest of places,
love surfacing and surviving against the harshest of obstacles.

Gay is marriage at long last and an end to discrimination
in some places, but not all. Bathroom bills are a cynical ploy
and adoption and hospital visitations remain in jeopardy.

Gay is the guy still in the closet, living in a small town
and driving miles to meet someone where he won’t be recognized,
in fear of being discovered and the presumed dire consequences.

The closet is an odd place,
basically learning to lie
and covering your tracks,
making up girlfriends
or telling your parents
you’re seeing
the same old straight male friend
time after time.

Coming out is so freeing,
sometimes gradual, but for some
all at once. Exploding forth!
Like my son who
told everyone within a few days
and helped me reveal
my Clark Kent identity
to the last of my relatives.

Gay are the old couples who have fought the long battles
and won the rights and privileges that we can almost take for granted.
Secure in each other’s arms, fending off any new attempts at oppression.

Gay are the poets Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, writer James Baldwin
and many others. Playwrights, writers, actors, and designers,
any creative outlet to burst forth with that pent-up energy and frustration.

Gay is the Stonewall Inn and the night of fuming desperation,
when drag queens, transgender people, and black boys finally fought back,
to claim what should have been theirs all along, safety and security.

Gay is years of meeting guys in bars and speakeasies just under the radar,
easy to find if you know what to look for. Now rainbow flags and Eagle bars
are welcoming sights, an oasis and refuge whether in a strange or familiar city.

Gay is the Pulse nightclub, just out to let loose and some drugged-up dancing,
gunned down senselessly and targeted shamelessly
for daring to love and party with the people who share their lives.

I’ve frequented many bars
and nightclubs in my time.
I can tell you the gay history
of so many cities.
Looking for a soulmate,
satiating my thirst
and the interminable quest
for the next conquest.

I’ve volunteered
and helped where I could.
Likely with only minor impact
in the overall scheme.
Phone hotlines, organizing,
recruitment of volunteers,
protesting, research,
contributor and friend.

Gay is over the top, flamboyant, feminine affectation,
prissy and sissy, the queer queen boy. Everyone knew
why he was picked last for every team in sports and first in theater.

Gay is sedate and quiet, bookish and studious, serious
and turned inward, studying Michelangelo’s David in exquisite detail,
going to see David Sedaris and laughing out loud.

Gay is looking back at your family tree, noticing that unmarried uncle
and spinster aunt who still seemed happy and fulfilled. The unspoken stories
and details of their lives that were just glossed over.

Gay is lusting for the high school athletes, the pretty jocks,
and whoever was on the cover of whatever muscle magazine,
and everyday guys at the beach in their Speedos, showing some skin.

Gay is hyper-masculine like Superman and Tarzan, G.I. Joe,
or dozens of super-defined heroes designed for us to admire
more than we will ever know. Feeding our young gay thirst.

When I was 15,
my family went camping
as we often did, set up
next to a family with a
muscular older teen boy
who loved posing and
showing off his body.
His dad apologized to my dad.

I read my Superboy comics,
stealing glimpses
of his perfect body,
totally surprised to find
my hero in real life.
I’m sure my glances
were as obvious as
his strutting and teasing.

Gay is finding an outlet when everything is suppressed and repressed,
brothers, classmates, neighbors, friends and circle jerks.
Not always healthy, often illicit, experimenting, curious, innocent and natural.

Gay is out there so obvious that everyone knows. Nobody dares talk about it,
but if only they could. Stories guarded, left untold and unfulfilled.
Pent-up energy for the most futile of reasons, locking up a secret.

Gays are trampled and crawl out in the oddest of ways,
not always ethical or mature. Priests and pedophiles and guys
under bridges. They’ll be there but can be easily and safely avoided.

Gay is misunderstood and attempted conversions to anything but that
by supposedly well-meaning but sanctimonious preachers of love,
practitioners of hate and intolerance. Pray they fail every time.

Gay is deep hurt leading to suicide because the world is harsh,
intolerant, and unforgiving. Bleak and lonely when people can’t find welcoming arms.
Violence and Matthew Shepard and people with targets on their backs.

There are so many gay lives
I could have lived.
So many places
I’ve discovered and explored.
Each one might have been
exquisite and true,
happy and fulfilled.
Each path a different adventure.

I had fantasies
and still do.
I’ve lived out some of them,
proving the power
of hope, confidence,
and most of all persistence.
Looking for love.
Finding it at long last.

Gay is every man’s dream according to our deepest fantasies, yearning and pining.
Step up. You’re next. Every innuendo an invitation to experience it with us.
Straight is just a point on a spectrum, shifting all the time.

Gay is gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, queer, inquiring, and so many other things.
Gender-fluid and an encyclopedia of sexual interests and proclivities.
Finding our own, fitting in and figuring out exactly what turns us on.

I suppose gay is Dorothy, musicals, show tunes, and drag shows,
and code words like “Friend of Dorothy”, awkward but effective,
pink triangles and rainbows of their day, emblems to find your tribe.

Gay is The Castro, Boystown, and Montrose, gayborhoods when the trod-upon
needed their ghettos to inhabit, gather, and coalesce, only to lose to gentrification.
Success and upward mobility slowly eroding communities.

Gay is Pride month and all its celebrations, now throughout the year
as you travel across the globe. Parades, festivals, low-key performances in a park.
More like protests and political movements when and where it’s most oppressed.

There’s a comfort
in having our own world,
not exactly a refuge
but familiarity.
Like a foreign traveler
relieved to find an enclave
of others who speak
the same language.

We haven’t shared
anything more
than what it’s like
to be gay.
Raised that way,
surviving and finding
a niche that feels right.
True pride,
taking each step.

Gay is drag, puppies, and swishy boys, not everything making you as proud
as you’d like to be, but testing your tolerance, whether you identify with them or not.
They don’t have to represent you as long as you represent yourself.

Gay is an attitude, a resolute confidence to mask all insecurities,
to walk among your fellow men and hope your fellow man notices you,
even if he’s straight but especially if he happens to be gay.

Gay is maybe genetic or possibly environmental or developmental.
In any case, it’s a condition without an origin, or any need to explain or justify,
so let it be and let it flourish to blossom as it can.

Gay is Harvey Milk, Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, Frank Kameny,
Dustin Lance Black, Ellen DeGeneres, and so many others paving the way.
PFLAG, allies, and rainbow umbrellas providing shelter and support.

Gay is sex, erotic stimulation, love and tenderness,
caring and affection and building lives and families together,
relationships with the same vagaries and joys as everyone else.

Gay has always been and always will be. For now, it’s both squashed and supported,
driven out and allowed to thrive. Nothing is needed to keep it alive.
Gay is around us, between us and among us. Gay just is.

This is a reprint of work originally published on http://getoutmag.com.

Stephen Schwei is a published poet with Wisconsin roots, now living in Houston. A gay man with three grown children and four wonderful grandchildren, he can be a mass of contradictions. Poetry helps to sort all of this out. His website: https://www.stephenschwei.com.

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Venous Daylight

What we once had: cubes of light
falling through the windows.
Bandage your fingers, hug tight,
and safe from the day.

The heat is rising and we won’t
make it through without a hold
on the sun. Heliocentric? Yes.
The warmth in my core cannot
be accounted for by anything
less than a star.

This skin is a buffer to shield sight
from my spine. From the column
of daybreak/noon/evening that holds
my head up high.

Jade Riordan’s poetry has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, CV2, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Outrageous Fortune, Room, and elsewhere. She lives north of Canada’s 60th parallel and volunteers as a selection committee member (poetry reader) with Bywords.

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Fractured Promise

Sarah falls
like the half-night

turned chorus of crows
as they lose their way

beyond the fragile
promise of morning,

past weeks
without fractured bones.

Jade Riordan’s poetry has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, CV2, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Outrageous Fortune, Room, and elsewhere. She lives north of Canada’s 60th parallel and volunteers as a selection committee member (poetry reader) with Bywords.

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