Remembering Gay Poet, James L. White

James White

James White’s book, The Salt Ecstasies, first appeared in 1982. A new edition was published by Graywolf Press in 2010, augmented with a superb fourteen-page introduction by Mark Doty.

Born in Indiana in 1936, White and his generation matured in a world before Stonewall and marriage equality. Doty describes the speaker in White’s poems as “overweight, desperately lonely, grateful for whatever scrap of joy and affection sex will bring him.”

While the poet’s unhappiness seeps into every poem, there are passages of love and connection. 

In The First Time,  he describes a memorable encounter.

          We’re bunglers when it’s really good:
          bow legs, pimply backs, scrawny chest hair,
          full of mistakes and good intentions.

His poems are filled with the details of working class life, as in Making Love to Myself.

          After work when you’d come in and
          turn the TV off and sit on the edge of the bed,
          filling the room with gasoline smell from your overalls,
          trying not to wake me which you always did.

He’s often suggestive, without being explicit. In Summer News, White describes a tender encounter.

          He undresses me, telling me how tired I am,
          that friends have brought me their truths all day.
          He seems as beautiful as I wish my life was
          in the boiling light of our slight sweating.

In my favorite of his poems, Skin Movers, he finds deep joy in the mere presence of another.

          How still we are in sleep
          as though morning holds its breath.
          Our bodies rinsed with light
          like soaked birch.

Skin Movers ends with a moment of transcendence.

          Good love is like this.
          Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
          this being out of myself for a while.

The corrected galleys for The Salt Ecstasies were on White’s bedside table when he died of heart disease in 1981. In Mark Doty’s estimation, “his consideration of desire and loneliness reaches beyond any categories of identity.”

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The Lantern Room

Night Forest

Under a star-stuccoed sky, we wander
in the cold among the pine furnishings, we

tramp a parquet of bark and brown
needles. We say truth is found

in the clear shine of day, but
lit by the room’s lunar lamp 

we might know something more
for seeing less. Distinctions

dim, until who we are
is second to the blending. Light

flakes off the moon
and fuses with the freezing air.

Copyright 2007 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the 2009 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar

Honoring Gay Olympian, Eric Radford

In every Olympics, I seem to gravitate toward one standout athlete. This year it’s Canadian pairs skater, Eric Radford.

In pairs skating, it’s common to describe the man as a stem and the woman as a flower. But Eric is more like a tall and solid redwood.

According to Outsports, before Radford “no elite figure skater on the world stage has ever come out publicly at the height of his competitive career.”

Radford is the first openly gay man to win a gold medal in a winter Olympics. He also goes home with a bronze medal as well. He won a silver medal in 2014.

Ursula Le Guin’s Challenge to Writers

Ursula K. Le Guin passed away January 22, 2018. She was one of my favorite authors, writing science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and poetry.

I devoured the Earthsea series. I admired her incredible story of gender-shifting people in The Left Hand of Darkness.

I’ve read The Lathe of Heaven half a dozen times at least. In that novel, a man has “effective dreams” that change reality retroactively. It’s a story about the limits of meddling with the world, built on the ideas of Taoism.

“I think hard times are coming,” she predicted, “when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now.”

Those times are here.

A Community Chorus

Snowy Pine

Each of the men
wore a white shirt
with a silver tie
and a black sport jacket.

Fresh wet snow mounded
the evergreens and stair-
railings outside the hall. 
Walking single file into

the auditorium, the chorus
—thirty novice volunteers,
assembled themselves 
on a three-tiered riser.

With almost flawless harmony
the singers began by wondering
whether old acquaintance
be forgot and never brought

to mind. A soloist
came forward from
the front row, and
—well, he had trouble

staying on the intended
pitch path. But
how could we be harsh
when he so cheerfully

suggested we drink
a cup of kindness?
When he stepped back
the group-voice

returned to smooth out
individual flaws.
Thus, for an hour or so
in the bleak midwinter

of snow on snow,
snow on snow,
the whole
outshone its parts.

Copyright 2016 by Brian Dean Powers

Can You Say It in Just Two Lines?

Blake Manuscript
When I first started writing poetry seriously, it took years to learn how to make longer poems with fully developed ideas. Lately I’ve been interested in the opposite challenge: how much can a poet pack into a couplet?

Here are some examples, some of which you will probably recognize. I’m also posting one of my own.

Richard Wilbur included this work in his collection, Mayflies. Although the poem was published in the 21st century, it’s written in rhyming iambic pentameter.

     A Short History

     Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.
     Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

This example by Mark Doty is from his book, School of the Arts.

     Shahid’s Couplet

     Your old kitchen, dear, on Bleeker: sugar, dates, black tea.
     Your house, then ours. Anyone’s now. Memory’s furious land.

Walt Whitman put this little poem in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass.

     The Untold Want

     The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
     Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

This famous poem by Ezra Pound was written in 1912.

     In a Station of the Metro

     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
     Petals on a wet, black bough.

This tiny poem with the enormous title appears in Mary Oliver’s Redbird.

     Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to 
     Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

     That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
     But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

This is my first attempt at a two-liner.

     [Broken] [Shine]

     I don’t know who broke my bedroom window.
     Sunlight blazes the long edge of cracked glass.

So what do you think? Do these poems feel satisfying, or do you want more? Is it fair to say this brief form sometimes requires a good title in order to succeed?