Orion’s Belt

Orion Constellation

They seem together
from where I stand:
three stars, a row

on a flat, black sky.
My guide book tells me otherwise—
they are light-years apart,

deep, deeper, deepest
into the dark.
I marvel at the stars,

how they burn like beacons
on distant, unreachable shores,
how the isolation

doesn’t diminish the shine.
I studied their names
when I was a boy,

stared at them
from my bedroom window
in a middle-class home

that must have looked fine—
station wagon in the garage,
closets of ironed pants and shirts,

the threesome eating dinner
in a spotless kitchen.
But there were light-years

between our plates, cold space
between our seats in the car.
There was no guide

for that constellation.
So I learned distance.
I drifted away.

Copyright 2005 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of Word Fountain

Afternoon at the Airshow

B17  Catwalk
I went to Truax Field to see a display of World War II planes. It was a chilly day, but a good-sized crowd turned out.

The centerpiece of the show was a B-17 Flying Fortress, a huge bomber that was essential to the Allied war effort. Visitors were invited to climb a metal ladder into the plane’s flight deck where the pilot and copilot sat.

Moving aft through the fuselage, I maneuvered my way along a narrow catwalk in the bomb bay. Next came the radio compartment and the waist-gunners’ machine guns. Looking down, I could see the metal dome that served as the entrance to the ball-turret suspended beneath the plane.

The airman at that station could swivel the turret around and fire machine guns at enemy fighters. But he also was vulnerable to being shot at. If you saw the movie, Memphis Belle, you might remember Sean Aston’s character hanging in the air beneath the plane. If you know Randall Jarrell’s famous poem, you can imagine the danger.

            I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
            When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Exiting the bomber by another metal ladder, I was greeted by a short, white-haired man standing on the tarmac. I checked out the underside of the plane where the ball-turret hung like a metal scrotum. The space inside was so minimal it was hard to imagine anyone squeezing in there.

B17 Outside
I turned back to the white-haired usher. I commented that only a small crewman could fit in that turret. The usher, who stood the same 5’ 5” as me, nodded.

“You and I would have worked that position.”

Copyright 2016 by Brian Dean Powers

My Voice

I always sound hoarse.
Like a radio half-tuned to the station.
It's hard to make myself heard.

I repeat myself often, every day.
It's hard to make myself heard.
That's the voice I have.

I can’t converse in noisy places.
Don't ask me to speak to a group.
I'd rather not talk at all.

It's hard to make myself heard.
There's a furrow in my vocal folds.
There's a flaw that can’t be fixed.

You might not hear my hello.
What can I say?
That's the voice I have.

Copyright 2008 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the Summer 2016 issue of Word Fountain

First Dance with a Man

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.

Getting There: Growing Up Gay

Getting There
[1] Clueless

It’s June of 1969. I am newly graduated from LaFollette High School in Madison, Wisconsin. There is no visible gay rights movement in my world. Homosexuality is never mentioned beyond epithets and extreme stereotypes. I have a male friend who’s gay, but I have no clue.

I watch the Stonewall riots reported on television that summer, and suspect they might have something to do with me. I eagerly read Hermann Hesse’s Demian, drawn to the hero’s longing for his male friend, their eventual kiss. My face feels flushed when the neighbor boy shows up for tennis without a shirt. I’m not sure what all this means; there is next to nothing in my world upon which to base an opinion.

My high school friend and I go to the Eastwood Theater, now the Barrymore. It’s 1970. Under the flashing lights of the marquee, I encounter my first openly gay people. Half a dozen demonstrators protest The Boys in the Band. One of them hands me a leaflet demanding positive portrayals of gay people.

I hate the movie. The characters are pathetic, doomed to a separate kind of life. I don’t know why we decide to see that film, but it doesn’t help me understand myself any better.

[2] Caution

Call it fear. Call it a prudent concern for safety. I walk in the front door of a church on University Avenue. It’s 1985. I’m on my way to the Gay Center, located in the basement. I’m glad my destination is not visible from the street. Its one room is small and comfortable, filled with second-hand furniture and unsteady book shelves. I sign up for a coming out support group, and then just soak up the pleasure of sitting with men like me.

The Center’s library of paperbacks and periodicals is a treasure for the bookish guy I am. I love The Best Little Boy in the World. An acquaintance, knowing my chosen sport, gives me a copy of The Front Runner, which I read so many times it falls apart.

I am disgusted to read in a magazine that researchers are quarreling over who discovered the new virus that’s killing gay men. I have no idea I will one day stand in front of the AIDS quilt and worry that I will find the name of my high school friend. I have no idea a member of my coming out group will die in a few years, and I will stand before his partner unable to speak.

One evening, a staffer takes a call, then hangs up and phones the police to report a threat to the Center. We all walk out into the parking lot in the dark, fearful of who might be waiting.

[3] Community

A gay friend and I are checking out the Gay Liberation sculpture in Orton Park. It’s 1986. I’m puzzled there is so much controversy about these life-size statues. They seem thoroughly benign: two women sitting as a couple on a bench, a male pair standing beside them. The contact between the couples is chaste — a hand on a shoulder, a palm resting on a leg. We’re enjoying ourselves, posing as if we’re part of the artwork. We’re laughing at the hat someone has left on one of the figures.

I’m nervous about my first gay pride march, Madison’s first as well. It’s 1988. Though it’s early May, I notice flakes of snow in the air. I join the crowd on the Capitol steps and shiver in the wind during the speeches. I’m afraid someone I know will see me, even though that’s the whole point of the rally. We take a noisy stroll down State Street, then up Langdon — frat boys gawking and giving us the thumbs-down. I leave immediately after the march. It’s chilly and I’ve pushed my boundaries enough for one day.

[4] Celebrants

Abundant sun greets a buoyant crowd of pride marchers gathering again on the Capitol steps. Motorcycles and floats, people with placards and balloons assemble in the street.

It’s 1998. Wisconsin Christians United rent billboards in town proclaiming Homosexuality is Sin. The afternoon of the march, they hire a plane to pull a banner above us bearing the same message. The women and men at the rally jeer at this display. I’m angry at the attempt to sway us away from our innate ability to love. Three words, printed large and dark, spoil an otherwise brilliant sky that afternoon. Three words that would deny the truth that begins in our hearts and threads always through our blood.

I’m at ease, even defiant, among the rambunctious folks on the steps. We find strength together despite the sometimes crushing weight of others’ disapproval.

[5] Cavafy

It’s 1908. Writing in Greek in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy pens some lines that anticipate a time like ours. Cavafy loves men and finds men to love, but he is secretive in public. “An obstacle was often there / to stop me when I’d begin to speak,” he writes in his poem, Hidden Things. “An obstacle was there that changed the pattern / of my actions and the manner of my life.”

That’s my world, the world in which I grow up.

Cavafy is optimistic about the future. In the last line of his poem, he predicts: “Later, in a more perfect society, / someone else made just like me / is certain to appear and act freely.”

I imagine Cavafy looking up from his writing desk to consider people made just like him in Madison today. He hears you talking openly in the gym and on the bus. He sees you demanding the right to marry. He watches you walking hand-in-hand on our streets.

Not a perfect society. Not totally free. But getting there.

Copyright 2009 by Brian Dean Powers
Published as Pride in Progress in the July/August 2009 issue
of Our Lives Magazine