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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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.

First Dance with a Man

Couple
The decor in Sam's Tavern doesn't scream gay : coin-operated
pool tables on one side, carpet-covered benches around

a little dance floor on the other. Tyler and his date
play several games of pinball on the machine that's free

if you know where to thump its side. Despite his distaste	
for drinking, Ty tosses down two gin and tonics in a half-hour.

He isn't planning to rob the corner grocery or blow up a bridge.
He just wants to dance with a man. When Tyler was a boy, he'd seen

women polka in pairs Sunday afternoons on Dairyland Jubilee. 
Men in his experience never waltzed or two-stepped together.

Now he watches the dancers at Sam's and waits for the alcohol
to find his defiance. When Tina Turner's sultry song begins to billow

from the jukebox, Ty sets aside his glass and follows his date
under the glitter ball. His movements at first are more squirm than sway

but with every twitch a Berlin Wall is coming down. Whatever you
want to do, the singer insists, is alright with me, and by last call

Tyler's relaxed and happy under the floating flecks of light.
It's not just his body that's dancing.

Copyright 2011 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the March/April 2011 issue of Our Lives magazine,
and the 2013 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar

James with His Prize-Winning Chicken

Farm Boys
He smiles into the camera
    from a happy moment
        in 1953,
            where he is ten and slim

and proud of the ribbon
    he won at the fair.
        He crouches in a clearing,
            by a line of trees and a pickup,

with the celebrated chicken
    perched precariously on his lap.
        For an instant,
            the photograph suspends

the white bird’s
    jerky peck-and-strut,
        the swaying tree tops,
            the boy about to stand

into his manhood.
    There he will find his new voice,
        his place at the steering wheel,
            his passion

for men’s bodies.
    And there, when his neighbors 
        approve of his poultry
            more than his choice of friends,

he will find
    that every prize and compliment
        is an opinion about what's good —
            and most won’t fit a James

who wants to love chickens
    and trucks
        and men,
            and be happy.

Copyright 1998 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the October 1998 issue of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change

This poem considers the photo on the dust jacket of Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest by Will Fellows. The book is available from the University of Wisconsin Press.