Keep Fast Hold of Your Parents

Keep Fast Hold of Your Parents

Mary Jane Zapp

Keep Fast Hold of Your Parents



I was twenty-nine when I was humbled into supplication. At 4:00 a.m. I was admitted into the locked ward. At 5:00 a.m. in the gloom and dull zoo-murmur of the mental ward, I saw the city glittering beyond the sealed plate glass window like a set of keys. I heard the nurse say, “Harold, put your clothes back on! Harold! Put your clothes on! ” I hardly slept in that place. I had entered a dead end. I greeted the morning sun: It expanded through the locked glass windows filling us up with yellow. The visiting doctors trudged in and poked me. My blue paper pajamas ripped as I crossed my legs. The air smelled of Windex, bleach, plastic bags, and hospital food. We ate lima beans the color and texture of old chewing gum. A plastic wrist-band indicated where I belonged.

A nurse entered. “Hello,” she said. “My name is Martha Arthur.” Uttering her name, she smirked. “My name always sounds so funny to me; my name is a sort of linguistic tongue twister!”

Gray-haired, in her sixties, Martha had a feline quality about her, and enormous blue eyes that rolled around comically in her head like the marble eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy. She sat down on the bed with her clipboard. There was something so comforting about her.

“I am sorry,” I said, as the orderly passed by with pills.

“Why are you sorry?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t want to take up any of your time… I …” I couldn’t finish my sentence again. Like all the Reeces, I had trouble looking at people.

“Would you like to hear a poem?” I said, because I wanted to derail the conversation from the personal and how I got to where I was, which was somewhat ineffectual as she probably had all my information on the intake form.

“Oh, yes,” Martha said, almost child-like, “I love poetry.” Suddenly I was back in Ms. Young’s English class. I began to recite Bishop’s “One Art” as Merrill had taught me. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

To tell Martha with her rolling kind eyes that I was a poet with one hundred book rejections to my name seemed unwise. I finished the poem, “I shan’t have lied, it’s evident…” “I am a crier!” Martha said, pulling out little wadded up balls of Kleenex from her jean jumper.

The following day I was instructed on the art of making moccasins in group occupational therapy. I began to tell Martha the story of how I got to the “sad hotel” as Anne Sexton called mental wards. The story jigsawed the air, as I spoke pieces fell into a coherent scene: “My parents have been drinking so much, so we decided to have an intervention. My aunt and uncle had contemplated such a thing with my cousin, but it didn’t work then either. Maybe it was a bad idea. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve never had one single good idea in my entire life. My father has gout, my brother helped me, we had the aid of some professionals, I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do… but I couldn’t go on… it has all been a house of cards, someone was saying. I feel like a failure. I — the thing exploded.” Here I stopped sewing and looked out the window.

I went on. I spoke of lawyers, real estate agents, screaming, fighting, my parents’ fighting, no longer turned on each other, turning on me. My parents wanted nothing to do with sobriety. I spoke of food on their faces after they ate.

“Where are they now?” Martha asked.

“In Oklahoma City.” (I’d visited once shortly after they moved there. The visit had been like landing on the moon, the city big and flat, no people milling on the streets. I felt more separated from my parents, felt like they were going down. Couldn’t fix it.)

“Oh, I see by your intake form you come from Northfield. That is where I live some of the time too!” she said tentatively. It was a risk for a nurse to locate her residence with the mad.

“Oh,” I said, thinking in that moment of my dog, my cat, and the ringing telephone. “My brother,” I went on, connecting the dots from the botched intervention to becoming very alone to my hives to no money to not sleeping to wanting to die once more. I pulled one last thread through the bright beads on the moccasins.

“I am not crazy,” I said to Martha. The bell went off for lunch.


Quickly graduating from locked to open unit like a star pupil, I was allowed an electric typewriter which had to pass by the approval of the doctors; there was some thought if I was still suicidal I might swallow the keys. The medical team asked me if I wanted to go on medications for the depression but I declined. I did not feel what was wrong with me was biochemical but situational. The poet John Clare wrote to his wife from the asylum that everyone he was meeting there had “brains … turned the wrong way.” That was I.

Reciting the poem by Bishop helped me, stabilized me. The days out the window showed a city and people moving in it and a set of large elm trees lining a street ready to show the world their resumes. The people on the street looked so natural — I imagined they had jobs, agendas, cars, mortgages. Bright and simple the inhabitants of St. Paul went by like construction paper cut-outs. But how on earth was I going to be a part of it?

Martha said to me, “How is your plan going?” The nursing team kept asking me for “a plan.” I needed a plan. The day before there’d been whispered talk behind the nurse’s station about 12 step groups and a vague knowledge of a program called Al-Anon regarding my case. I was surprised the nurses knew little about it and I was not surprised. Martha asked now about Al-Anon.

“I tried Al-Anon once, but I found it too much, maybe….” I said.

“What is Al-Anon?” she asked. I was prepared. I’d gone to the in-hospital AA meeting the night before and read a pamphlet they had on Al-Anon to lull myself to sleep in my cot as I had no reading materials in that world of broken brains.

“It sprung off from AA. AA was started by two men, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Then Lois, the wife of Bill, started to find she too had problems… so she started forming groups for dealing with those who had been affected by someone else’s drinking. It got its name from truncating the two words, Alcoholics and Anonymous… They were going to be called ‘AA Helpers,’ which would have been a ghastly name.” I said the last bit with humor which encouraged me. I felt if I could laugh again, I might get back to the world.

“Well, maybe that is a good idea,” Martha said, she smiled at me the way a new friend does.

What was my plan?

“What is your plan?” said Martha the day of my discharge.

“I will go back, go to meetings, carry on,” I said, but even I did not sound convinced. I sounded brittle. I needed to move on, the insurance companies didn’t allow people like me to linger on in mental wards the way they used to in the days of the Confessional poets. Lawyers and real estate agents swarmed over the farm property. I folded my underwear into a plastic bag.

“I don’t normally do this but here is my number in case you should need it,” Martha said to me, whispering so the staff couldn’t hear.


Emily Dickinson didn’t like being noticed. And yet she wanted very much to be seen. These two opposing impulses were always see-sawing in her brain. When she finally sent her letter off to Thomas Higginson, she said. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Higginson had published an article in The Atlantic Monthly encouraging young writers to come forward. Higginson was a Unitarian minister, an abolitionist and an author. A correspondence began. In a following letter, he asked some about her life. Just how alone was she? She wrote back:

You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.

I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their “Father.”

Dickinson leaned against family as she was rebelling against them —her alienation was bound and twined around her family, a distinct helix of support and isolation she needed to write what she wrote. I understand that.

The gay organist (was every church organist gay?) came in to pick me up and take me back to Northfield. In my humiliated state, I felt I could trust a gay Christian more than anyone else to pick me up from the doors of the insane asylum. Without saying anything, I was trusting him to keep this to himself and not turn me into church gossip.

He had a bald head, large horn-rimmed glasses, and a thin wrinkled neck, giving him the exact look of a turtle. I don’t think we said much all the way home as we drove into the empty Midwest countryside. On the long drive home, I thought about the aunt who’d lived her whole life in the nuthouse. Lowell and Plath and Sexton had made much poetry from their mental stays. I wondered if I would. Perhaps something of that world might enter my typewriter, but I felt tentative: The days there were not romantic or poetic and I could not find any winsome enthusiasm to speak to the organist about it. I was so glad to have left it and would be happy never to see it again.

The farm with its seven outbuildings sagging had been waiting — the granary, the machine shed, the barn, the outhouse, the chicken coop, the garage, and the little house itself. The farm! In the three years I’d sequestered myself there, many poems had come to me. Being alone suited me as it had Dickinson, yet, also, like Dickinson, I was tethered to family. Like Dickinson’s parents, mine not only tolerated a poet in their midst, but made allowances.

The farm then had 100 acres of rarely explored nature then. And the nature inspired me the way a church might. Dickinson wrote her famous little triplet:

In the name of the Bee —
And of the Butterfly —
And of the Breeze — Amen!

This little benediction Dickinson winds up like a toy to crawl across the floor of literature, and its simplicity belies its complexity. She’s genuflecting in the name of nature like a priest in drag, irreverent and reverent in the same breath. I’d seen such raw nature in those years on the farm: Snakes had come out of the heating grates one spring like strings of spaghetti; I’d heard wolves howl; I’d seen a deer in a clearing that had actually let me touch it (!); the whole land oozed God. I’d thought at the time I’d have been quite happy never to see the inside a church after a spring there. I felt at home there.

Bats had cradled and crammed their families into the timbers and crevices of the buildings. They bleated at twilight in all the nooks of that place. Their urine and feces caused all the roofs to sink in the centers, which gave the place an ambience of inertia.

Returning from the city, as the car crested the top of the drive all the raccoons, squirrels, muskrats, moles, voles, chipmunks, field mice, badgers, weasels, I could almost sense had stopped and noted my return. I put down my luggage and greeted my cat named Frank, after O’Hara, and Bishop, after Elizabeth, the basset hound. I loved my sanctuary.

The phone rang. “We are selling the property,” Mom said.

“But I thought this was to stay in the family,” I said, ”I thought that —”

“It was,” said Dad, also on the line.

“Not anymore,” Mom said. ”How many times have I said we are private people? That kangaroo court you put us through was the last straw.”

Mom, unhinged, sliding down the walls, unbalanced, wringing her hands, tulips waving from the basement window — that is what I often remembered now of her and it made my heart plummet.

“What is your plan?” Martha had asked.

“To keep the farm,” I had said.

Once more, I argued with my parents. I lost ground. Illogical haranguing depleted me beyond measure. Bishop had once said, “I’ve never seen the point of, or been able to endure, much argument.”


I called the second-hand bookshop in Northfield and asked the owner to come out to the property. I proceeded to sell every book I owned and my mother’s recipe books from which she had made her merry meals: I put the money in my wallet. “I love that dog,“ said the bookstore owner as we carried out our grim transactions and he packed up the truck with all my books of poetry — the collected Frank O’Hara I got at the Grolier with the olive green cover, all the edges of the cover missing like an old Giotto fresco, Elizabeth Bishop’s slim Geography III with the edges turned up like the corners of a kitchen linoleum floor when one has spent years walking across its surface, Plath’s Collected with the copper curlicue cover, Theodore Roethke’s book with the primary colored tree cover, Galway Kinnell’s Klimt cover with his line repeating, “When one has lived a long time alone,” James Wright’s Collected with the “I have wasted my life” poem, an anthology of younger poets with little black and white headshots of Carolyn Forché, Rita Dove, Cathy Song, David Wojahn: I’d memorized their biographies the way boys used to with baseball cards, all of them. I smelled like the books and the books smelled like me.

The owner again looked at the dog, behind the truck of books, the empty iced Minnesota rivers shaking like drawers of knives being pulled open and closed. “Would you like the dog?” I said. The sky above big and cold and the trees were bereft. The bookstore man paused, and he said: “Really?” ”Yes,” I said, defeated, ”I can’t take him with me where I am going.” He pulled the dog into the front seat and Bishop’s eyes tracked me as I looked away. The bookstore owner drove down the gravel road shaking his head and singing, Bishop bouncing among the poetry books. Bishop bayed. Bishop grew small among the huge gray hills, some Indian burial mounds, and steel blue lakes. Winter was coming.

An hour later I gave Frank away.

I stood in the empty kitchen with the uneven floor. I too felt uneven. I couldn’t go down emotionally now, I said to myself. I looked at the paper with Martha’s number I’d left on the fridge with a magnet. I held my breath. I called Martha Arthur. Into the white rotary dial wall phone in the kitchen of the now empty house, darkness coming on, I said: “I can’t stay here any longer.”

“Well,” she said, “Robert and I have a room here. It isn’t much, but you are welcome to it.”

“Can I come now?” I said. Upstairs the rejections slips settled into the wastepaper basket and the black embers of the Playgirl magazines rustled in the fireplace.

“Now?” she said, children in the background, grandchildren, a TV on, someone playing the piano, a house with life in it. She did not pause.

“Yes,” she said, “Come now.” I took nothing with me.

I went to church in those days but I couldn’t see myself a part of it. Yet the hymns cheered me. Robert Arthur, Martha’s husband, British, had gone to Keble College, Oxford, and was a Quaker. He looked like an eagle, sharp blue eyes that surveyed social situations searching for spaces where he could hold forth and speak. He was one of the best talkers I’d ever met: He could talk about anything from business to poetry, history or physics. He liked me for some reason and he loved to talk about both world wars and a new life in America and his children and many other subjects. I loved to let him talk in those days because I had little to say, but occasionally he made space for me to recite memorized poems. He liked it when I did so. He had a birthday once in a hotel and I was the featured performer. I did William Blake, William Shakespeare and Jane Kenyon.

I leaned into Robert and Martha in those days without my family. A legal battle ensued over my unemployment benefits. I had worked for my father for three years and now they did not want to pay out benefits. After the intervention, they’d wanted me fired. Robert paid for the lawyer to defend me with a major firm in St. Paul. At this my parents backed down and let the benefits stand. This money saved me in days when I had little money. The insurance companies would carry me just ten days in the nuthouse and I needed a much longer recovery from grief. Robert and Martha made that possible. I laughed with them. We went to concerts together. The Arthurs already had six children and a string of grandchildren between them — it was a second marriage for both, and somewhere there, in the family photographs you will find me, bespectacled, tall, thin, having just left the house of madness.

The Arthurs had kept a distance from All Saints Episcopal church in town. I encouraged them to go — tiny church, the size of a tugboat. Martha and Robert took to the place, joined the choir, sat in the front row. One day, after dinner, Martha said: “Robert and I went out to Valley Grove and we bought grave plots. We bought three. Three spots. One for Robert. One for me. And, well, one for you…” Three spots, under a maple tree, in a graveyard out of town, on a hill, with two churches, abandoned, that faced each other, like two old people talking in a nursing home.

The Arthurs never said anything about my sexuality. They must have speculated. I could not bring that part of myself to public utterance, like Dickinson in her letter to her brother’s wife, Susan Gilbert:

Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother hers, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?

I appreciated deference.


I was thirty-three. During the days I took many long walks. I’d go for hours in that melancholy college town, walk without speaking, past comfy homes, families, dormitories, little coffee shops. I walked. I walked. On one of these walks I befriended Karen, in a copy store in town. A drifter like me, she had moved to the town from Virginia on a second marriage that faltered, had a kindness, had a Southern sense of suffering, had the generosity the poor possess in large quantity, had smoker’s eyes that squinted.

“There’s a space here if you need to write,” she said.

At her invitation, I took up part-time residence in the copy shop. The copy shop was a makeshift, pre-fab building that might have been a gasoline station beforehand. The floor plan made little sense: a large room, followed by a triangular room. I worked in the back, drank as much coffee as I wanted, and began to work on my book of poems once more on a computer large as a bee box.

I sent the poems out in batches of three or five, folding them twice, attaching paper clips and enclosing an SASE or an IRC (“international reply coupons”). Someone, I hoped, opened them. Someone, I hoped, read them. Someone then sent them back in my envelope I provided and I was never sure if they were read or not: Often attached was a Xeroxed rejection slip. Every single one of those envelopes came back to my continued dismay — month after month, year after year, like dutiful homing pigeons.

Out the window the Canon River tumbled, glinting, rushing. Often we sat with our coffee, for business was never quick, and pondered life without saying much. There was a boss who occasionally visited. Somehow the boss accepted me as part of the business he bought. I typed up poems, some of the same ones I’d been working on at the farm. The sun set early there, gently covering the little town’s brick buildings in orange. I thought about the graveyard on the hill south of town where the elms and oaks and maples shuffled their leaves in a dim nursing home light, where two churches stood abandoned and collapsing, and there on that ground, a place for me, a place to be “called back” as it is written on Dickinson’s grave.


After those three gentle years living with Robert and Martha, I began to find little bits of work here and there on radio stations and for newspapers. Robert would patiently coach me about job interviews, speak in his almost caricatured British accent which included his r’s rolled. “Now my dear boy,” he would often begin. I loved that he loved me and supported me so in those days. Some missing piece of me was filled in. We practically rehearsed my interview for an English teacher’s position at my old high school.

“You’re applying for the English position?” said a chipper woman. Ms. Young had married, had a child, her life long flown from there.

“Yes. I…” I said.

“You know you have to be tough with these kids,” said the woman interviewing me, and it seemed that she was saying something else instead of that, she was expressing doubt I could handle navigating a world of teenagers. I seem fragile, I thought.

“I have this poem I like…” I said. Outside the football team grunted. Students passed by. I got the creepy feeling they were all laughing at me. I felt out of time. Like I was not part of. Like I was the leper from the Gospel of Mark, caged in smelly skin. My head flooded with images of John Steven, bloated and purple. I thought of my gay college classmates covered in cancer spots and another who blew his brains out. I began:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you Nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us
Don’t tell they’d advertise you know.

That Dickinson tune: Almost all her words here are one syllable, lonely notes, true notes, too true sometimes. We know she loved to improvise on the piano and she took some of that energy when she came to improvising her little hymns. They have the habit of changing meaning, suddenly “nobody” takes on a certain authority I never thought it had before. I realized as I sounded out her score no one was going to be advertising me any time soon. I felt dizzy. Why couldn’t I fit into the world? I had just enough paranoia to think the lady interviewing me knew I’d been on a psychiatric ward. I wondered if I gave off a scent of the mad or half-mad or post-mad. I paused too long after the first stanza. The interview was not going well. Questions were asked. I grew stiff. The lady looked over my shoulder at the clock.

“We’ll get back in touch, soon,” she said in a wooden way as the bell rang and the currents of children streamed by nimbly advancing to their futures.

I went back to Robert and told him things had not gone well. I printed out a new set of resumes in the copy store with Karen. With less than five hundred dollars in the bank, I had my name listed at the food pantries. I had radio work.

I had invitations to AA parties with the plastic silverware and paper plates and the sugary frosted cakes for anniversaries. Such was my estate. But I knew the government subsidies and Karen’s largesse couldn’t hold forever. I drove to the Mall of America thirty-five miles north of the town: woods and cows and farm fields suddenly replaced by big slabs of concrete, parking lots and office complexes for medical practices.

I thought how I’d driven Merrill right by these same scenes, how we’d laughed about poetry and how cozy I had felt in a world where there was money to indulge my poetry fantasies and where I could try to imitate Merrill’s upper crust accent.

But now there was no money, and I had a tentative grip on my own sanity. I hesitated to speak of poems. Although Robert continued to enjoy my recitations of Plath and Bishop and Merrill, I wasn’t feeling confident. The manager for Brooks Brothers, Mary Beth, lived in the little town of the Arthurs. She had said to me on numerous occasions in the coffee shop to visit her if I ever needed work.

When I showed up, resume in triplicate, she asked: “Why are you applying for a job here?” Originally from New Jersey, she had a delightful smart-ass way about her, professional with a wink. She said, “You went to Wesleyan and Harvard.”

“Because I have no money and I need to leave this building today with a job,” I said. She hired me. We used the tone one associates with offering respects for the dead in a funeral home. “Just for the Christmas rush,” we both agreed.


Continually getting rejected from book competitions, about ten to fifteen times a year, I worked then in the Mall of America, the world’s largest mall, a sort of battleship stalled on the prairie. This is where I was when I began to write a poem about my coworker Ralph, the effeminate sales clerk I’d brushed up against in high school — when Dad and I brought shirts when I was going to college and Ralph waited on us and I prayed I would never resemble anything close to Ralph with his multiple gold bracelets, his foundation make-up smearing the phone receivers. For one year and a half we worked next to each other.

We, the retail workers, moved around the cramped back of the store breathing in recirculated air without windows as if we were on a submarine. We worked under great stress. Usually the customers forgot who had helped them, our names, our look, even our gender. Many customers came from my old country club neighborhood.

“How am I supposed to remember if the person that waited on me was a man or a woman?” an exasperated customer yelled into the phone.

I became a boarder in the city, renting small impersonal rooms. I’d drive my beat-up car into work, and it looked like a small rowboat against the Mall’s great shiny gunwale.


In my off hours, I hung my dress slacks over the chair. On the desk, my piles of poems I worked on that I kept in a black three-ringed binder —my cathedral of toothpicks.


“What are you doing here?” said Mrs. Lyman from Country Club.

“I needed a job.”

“But you went to Bowdoin right? Our son went there, too.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, why are you here then?” she persisted.

“I had an intervention on my parents and it didn’t work, and they live in Oklahoma now.” As I told this story my manager’s eyes were on me to sell something. My own voice repulsed me. I needed a new story: I was sick of apologizing for my existence. Mrs. Lyman went off with her packages.

I worked shift after shift with Ralph. He had been the top seller for twenty years but I put him into second place. I could sell. I realized if I talked about everything but the clothes I could hold the interest of the customer. I asked about their families and their jobs. I acted the way my mother did in a cocktail party: She was a great listener in those days. Why did I work so hard, pick up extra shifts? I suppose I needed to prove something in that hospital of clothes. I went through three pairs of dress shoes and worked double shifts. Anger and self-hate drove me as I out-fairy-ed the fairy. After the conversation with Mrs. Lyman a voice in my head said, “Time to go.” Maybe that was God’s voice, so clear. It was surprising. Minneapolis is such a rooted community, families staying on there for generations, going to their cabins, living in the same house forever. But then, I pondered, we weren’t really from there, in the end. We had been impostors: we had tried desperately to fit in, but we failed.

I went into the back room where we counted the money and looked at the laminated list of stores for Brooks Brothers across the country from New York to Los Angeles. All mostly placed in wealthy communities from Atlanta to Kansas. And I now had this skill that identified me and was more valuable than literary talent, which the regular arrivals of anonymous rejection slips suggested I might not possess anyway.

On the list was Palm Beach, which I associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Store 28. I consulted briefly with Durell by phone and he okayed this idea of moving. I contacted a friend in Del Ray Beach who’d been encouraging me to visit and he said I could stay in his spare room for ten days. I contacted the store and they said they couldn’t promise me a job but if I showed up they might have an opening. Flimsy as it sounded, I pushed ahead.

On my dinner break, I quickly altered the course of my entire life. I bought a one-way ticket to Palm Beach County International Airport. I felt like I’d jumped off a building. “One way?” said the clerk.

I said into the phone to Durell from the back of the store before my break was up, “Store 28: Palm Beach.”

“That sounds good,” Durell said. He breathed heavily. He sounded distant. He’d stopped going to meetings.

“I bought a ticket. I’m going,” I said.

“You can’t keep a good man down,” Durell replied. He sounded wooden, changed, bereft. He had mentioned recently that his eyesight was failing and that he wasn’t always making it to the bathroom. Nurses had been coming to visit. Why wasn’t the golden promise of happiness of AA he’d told me so much about working for him? I wanted to ask this but I didn’t.

Then he said: “I am a little short on money this month.” My name was paged. A customer was waiting for a trouser fitting with a special order suit that had gone terribly wrong.

“I don’t have that much myself,” I said. Ralph lit a cigarette and looked impatient—it was time for his break.

“That crazy man is out there waiting for you,” Ralph said. What awaited me was an eighty-year-old cantankerous man shaped like a pear who was trapped in his suit and stumbling around the fitting room like he was in a wild game of Twister.

“After all the time I have spent with you,” Durell said, bullying. ”More than a therapist would spend with you.” I looked at Ralph, looked at the clock. I did not want to be abandoned.

“I’ll get something in the mail to you this week,” I said.


Good-bye. Good-bye. Never had been to Palm Beach or the famous Worth Avenue, but I figured there might be more air and light, even if between the cracks of mall doorways and out back doors for receiving merchandise. I’d sold all my winter clothes. Just packed two suitcases. Good-bye. Good-bye. Said good-bye to Ralph and Mary Beth, emptying my tiny locker next to the lunch room. I said good-bye to Robert and Martha which was difficult. Good-bye. Good-bye. Left the key on the entry table to the room I rented. Made reassuring sounds I’d see you or you or you soon. An old friend from prep school drove me to the airport. I saw the old neighborhoods of Minneapolis with streets whose names I knew by heart: Browndale, Bridge, Moorland, Bruce. What would be at the other end? I could remake myself. Good-bye. Good-bye. Just like that I was gone. Twenty-five years in Minnesota, the burial plot, the farm, the house in Country Club, the orange school bus, all gone. Good-bye. Good-bye. The airport buzzed and shook, planes ascended and planes descended. I boarded my plane. I fastened my belt. As we crested into the atmosphere I began to see Minneapolis and then Minnesota shrink out the sealed airplane window.

Minnesota, clean, practical, with cold streams and canoes and pines and hockey teams. Good-bye. Good-bye. Minnesota shrank, then the Midwest shrank — the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the green little squares that make up that deep rich land — and then we were above the clouds, the white plateau of clouds stretched out. Dickinson never had such a view. Or did she? She wrote:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

Her brain was her sky. The plane shot out across America. Dickinson was happy to stay put in her house. She got all the insight she needed inside her bedroom: sending up those poems like satellites that floated for all time in outer space.


The Florida sun shone, sizzling the dew on the puzzles of the ficus hedges. Bright green parrots in the gumbo limbo trees sang. The sea going and going, sparkling in the bright light like crushed glass.

I interviewed for Store 28 and they did hire me. I was Peter in the boat: I just had to look ahead and trust and trust, one false tremble of fear and I’d sink in the water. But hadn’t much of my life been built on such unlikely improbable physics? Accidents formed the best of me.

I began work in Palm Beach County, Florida. I found a little apartment in Lantana after one week. My whole apartment could have fit inside Dickinson’s bedroom. The little kitchenette, sitting area and bedroom were in one of those old Florida motels. “State with the prettiest name,” Bishop said of Florida in her understated way about perhaps the most overstated state in America. People make such fun of Florida: no culture, Disney, heat. I called Durell every other day or so, between my shifts, giving him updates on how my Florida life was going, how happy I felt in this strange and tropical world where everyone seemed to be making up who they were. Sometimes now I regretted calling him because it had become a recital of complaints followed by requests for money to be sent. When he mentioned his estranged brother and sister now he often cried. I didn’t think anyone since his mother had probably heard this man cry.

So I settled there on that peninsula of flowers and bees flamboyant as a million Liberaces. Improbably, there, between all the strip malls and strip clubs, I began to entertain the idea of Christ as a kind of companion. Durell encouraged this investigation. He’d often attended church in youth, had played the organ, but in the intervening years he’d felt estranged from the church. I imagined it was our unspoken difference from the heterosexual world that had nearly everything to do with it. Still the idea of Christ as something I could meld to my life, something practical, began to make sense to me. I started going to church on Sunday. I mainly sat in the back and I didn’t have a Bible yet.


I was thirty-six. What was I doing in retail? Years mounted. Fifteen times each year, the book of poems got rejected.

I worked long shifts at Brooks Brothers. I ate a sandwich on my lunch break in the little room behind the store without windows. I went to AA. I did not speak to my family. My face set fixed into broken sadness. On Sundays, I went to church.

My approach to the church then felt like what I read about Dickinson’s: I was outside of it, looking in, so far. Her church was in her head, not in a pulpit. Religion failed her and for a long time it failed me.

In Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson spent one year, the young women were divided into three self-designated categories: “no hopers,” “hopers,” and “Christians.” The latter group was the largest; they were women who testified to a certainty for salvation. There were 230 Christians, fifty hopers, and the remaining thirty were “without hope.” By the end of the year many of the thirty no-hopers found hope, but not Dickinson. She wrote: “I am not happy… and I regret that… I did not give up and become a christian.” Of all the words she capitalized, here she failed to capitalize ”christian.” The Bible was read at great length in her house. She will quote the Bible in her poems and letters more than any other work.

Meanwhile, although religion was failing her, she was quite industrious at home with her writing. Although less than a dozen of her 1800 poems were published in her life time, she sent out 575 of them in letters. She wanted very much to share those poems. I wanted to share mine too.

I went up to Palm Beach for church where the rich ladies nodded their heads with enormous hats on and I wore worsted cream wool trousers. There was lots of decorum and Christ mainly felt decorative. Like Dickinson I could grab on to the idea of his suffering much more than any promise of salvation. I was not convinced he would want to save me. Maybe these nice rich ladies, but not me.

Durell had been taken to the Brigham and Women’s hospital in an ambulance. Then the apartment building had evicted him. Rent control was disappearing in Cambridge. He would remain in the hospital bed and then be moved to a ward somewhere. He now had no phone to himself. A social worker had called me as I was listed as next of kin. The social worker said Durell was nearly blind.

Left to myself when the shifts were done, I sometimes still snapped at co-workers or customers who alluded to my being gay. Was I nothing more than an irritable closeted effeminate retail assistant manager estranged from family who had a passion for poetry —ridiculous peacock of a thing with a thousand Brooks Brothers ties fanning out from me?


I was suddenly forty. Or was I forty-one? I shrugged, realizing then I was done applying to the Yale Younger Poets prize: the cut-off was forty. At that moment in time I had submitted my manuscript, revising it each time, about 300 times to national book competitions.

I drove home in my blue Dodge Neon with the hand-crank windows rolled down: the AC had gone years ago. I chewed gum to stay alert. I whizzed by strip malls, pawn shops, sex clubs, down into Lantana, which sits south of Palm Beach, a community of servants and workers who cater in one way or another to the rich. I spit the wad of gum out as I made the final turn off 95W. Parked in the big parking lot, walked up the outside staircase to my apartment. Palms blew. My feet ached from my dress shoes. In my hand my keys, my mail containing credit card bills I couldn’t pay off and a bag with a new Brooks tie. (Management from New York had encouraged us to wear more Brooks ties.) Kicked open the door and microwaved dinner. On my answering machine on the unfinished door from Home Depot that served as my desk a blinking red light. Stacks of poems around me.

The message played. “This is Michael Collier. I am calling for Spencer Reece. If this is the phone number for Spencer Reece can you please call me back at your convenience? I am from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.” Played the message again. Then a third time. A fourth. And a fifth time. Maybe ten. The train went down the tracks and shook the apartment. In this room with the green shag carpet was a poster I framed of Lance Armstrong. He was my hero in those days. His perseverance.

For the moment I held myself in check. I felt disbelief and apprehension. What if they were only calling me because I was the runner-up? Isn’t that what they often did? If you won they’d just send you a letter, right? I could not live in that moment with the assumption that I had won after fifteen years of waiting to be told I did not win the following morning.

Dickinson had written in poem 112:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated dying
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

I’d counted and counted my rejections from magazines, from contests, from grants, from prizes. I felt a complete failure.

I played the message again. It made me — I’m hesitant to say nervous, because that sounds negative, and what was in me was nerves, yes, but also a kind of excitement. I took a bath to soothe my aches. I didn’t sleep much. By 4 I was wide awake and thought of how Plath had written much of Ariel at that hour in cold London. Bless Plath. She was still with me.

Then it was the morning before my shift with the sun laying down its bacon strips across the bright sea that sizzled into another Florida day of sweat and tang and salt. I made coffee. People started going to work in my neighborhood: keys clanging, kids sighing with backpacks, van doors sliding shut. Lance Armstrong on his bike stared at me from the poster. I talked myself into behaving as though this was just like any other day. I dialed the number.

“Hi, this is Spencer Reece, is this Michael Collier?”

“Spencer Reece?” said Michael in an affable way, like the guys at the fraternity parties who used to throw me out when I got too drunk.

“Yes, it’s me,” I said, waiting.

“Well, you won. We’re calling to say you’ve won. Louise Glück is the judge and she wants to know if you are willing to work on edits with her before the book goes to press.” Pause. Silence. I stood. I did not know what to say next. Are you nobody too? / Then there’s a pair of us.

This moment. The nectar of acceptance, the flag of victory. In that moment, all of my Florida was a church. A certain stillness in the air. Time slowed like it must have for Lance Armstrong on that bike, his bike chain clicking. Silence had been a more faithful partner to me, more than any man I attempted to date. I thought of my compatriots in the nuthouse. Were they still making moccasins? I thought of Martha Arthur. My plot. I thought of Robert Arthur tutoring me before interviews: “You can do this, my dear boy!” The little streets where I lived in Lantana accompanied me. The sun was expanding, turning everything around me gold and yellow, gold and yellow.

“Hello?” Collier said.

“Yes. I am here.”

“Well?” he asked.

“Sure, sure, I will speak to her.”

Fifteen years I waited for that call — in the cell of myself, like Dickinson waited, like Julian of Norwich waited, waiting in the corporate conference calls with New York on why we weren’t “making plan,” waiting in the business meetings for AA and Al-Anon and deciding whether or not we could bring coffee into the church room with the carpeting. I’d waited evening after evening in that apartment and listened to the freight trains click clack down the tracks the way Dickinson had heard the train hooting near her home in Amherst. Like so many characters do in the Bible, from Adam and Eve to John waiting for revelations in his cave, I had been waiting like everyone who waits in that big book. The moment felt eerie, and faith lurked in that moment, something of the spirit, something of a little entrance into a communion with others, a change that Dickinson never knew. I slid down the wall in the second bedroom with the ugly green shag carpet the same way my mother had slid down the wall in despair when I was young. But now, hope — feathered, fluttered. Hope, hope, hope was in the air. This fundamental recognition which Dickinson pondered and scoffed at in the same breath, was now coming to me in real time. Maybe it was a grace it was coming to me when I was a little older?

Dickinson had written back to Higginson, with more insolence, once she realized he wanted to tidy up and change her verse:

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.

You think my gait “spasmodic.” I am in danger, sir. You think me “uncontrolled.” I have no tribunal.

Would you have time to be the “friend” you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.

She would go it alone. I would not. I felt some luck in that. Elizabeth Bishop had commented on Dickinson to Robert Lowell in a letter:

I never really liked Emily Dickinson much, except for a few nature poems, until that complete edition came out a few years ago and I read it all more carefully. I still hate the oh-the-pain-of-it-all poems, but I admire many others, and mostly phrases more than whole poems. I particularly admire her having dared do it, all alone a bit like Hopkins in that.

I had dared much alone for a long time and now that was at an end. I placed a call to the hospital where Durell was. His heart is giving out, the nurses said. His leg is all gangrene, the nurses said. I called the nursing station because Durell was not coming to the phone anymore.

“Can you leave a message for him?”

“Yes,” said the nurse. “He keeps talking about you all the time,” she said.

“Tell him the book has won, and I am booking a flight to come and see him and celebrate it.” Dickinson: The distant strains of triumph. Yes, they did feel in that moment distant, and they did “burst agonized and clear.”


Phone calls began. Louise Glück became Louise. Ring ring. “Hello, is that you?” “Yes, it is I,” Louise would say. Usually we would go for two-hour stretches. Sometimes I simply wanted to know more about poetry, the world of it. Other times I could just hear the pages of my manuscript moving rapidly through her hands, it sounded like a gold prospector shaking the pebbles in the riverbed. I would jump as she mentioned specific poem titles and images. It would take me a while to adjust to the fact she’d read the book. When not on the phone, I worked my shift at Brooks. I told no one for several weeks what was transpiring at my house. I thought no one cared much about poetry: My fellow workers needed to pay their mortgages.

Several weeks into the edits, the cords and wires of our two land-line telephones were alive with the black and white heated crackle of poetry. Our talk was charged with her input and my output, her insights electrifying rapid rewrites. She prodded. She prompted. She joked. She whispered. She cajoled. She bolstered. She marveled. She protected. In a poem, “Memoir,” Glück had written, “A few words were all I needed: nourish, sustain, attack.” I felt her fierceness and her love. I erased. I tossed. I pulled. I rearranged. I rethought. I sighed. I thanked. I stalled. I praised. I rewrote again. And so the poems began to fall into place, reordered, refined, readjusted, cleaned and set, like a dining room table where soon a reader would be welcome to sit and eat. And as they began reading it, Louise and I would exit stage left. There was a mysterious hush sound as I laid down the phone for a final time into the receiver with Louise. What great fortune I (or the book had?) to have these visits from Louise, a poet whose sensibility was eerily suited to me and I to her.

I had been waiting, roosting on hopes, for a long time, working, bowing my head, dealing with customers, waiting for the store door to be locked, driving home, paying my bills, hammering away at poems, going silent so much of the time, and now, suddenly, that was at an end. A book!

A book looks like a door as you open it, with hinges. I’d made a thing: a few people were going to walk across its threshold. Not many, after all: It was poetry. And perhaps that was the art that most suited the public declaration of a Reece. But what I didn’t and couldn’t have realized was I had also carpentered that book, all those long years, so I could walk across its threshold.


Louise said: “So few of these poems are published.”

“Yes,” I said, “just a few, one in a high school magazine.”

“Let’s send the title poem to The New Yorker,” she said in the tone I associated with wizards in fairy tales.

“I’ve tried them for nearly twenty years,” I said, a hollow sound to my voice.

“There’s a password,” she said. I swear I could see her smile at the other end of the telephone even though I’d never met her yet in person. ”The Clerk’s Tale,” the title poem for my book, ran on Father’s Day in 2003.

The live-long June Florida day felt portentous and strange. I went to work that day for the early shift, 7 to 5. People literally started calling me from around the world as that poem landed on doorsteps and in beauty parlors. I was dizzy.

When I got home, I took off my dress shoes and listened to all the messages on my answering machine. The last was from Durell’s sister. She said, in a brief message, she was sorry to call with the news but that Durell had died that day at 2 PM. A heart attack. The heart burst its valves.

I never did celebrate the book with Durell. The flight had been booked to Boston. His sister and I, instead, buried him. At the funeral at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, which was ridiculously rich and large for our humble moment, I recited the Elizabeth Bishop poem as Merrill had taught me with the accent falling on the right syllables. Hardly anyone came.


Above us was the Florida sky, day after day, without fail, a huge bright blue infinity with gulls flecked and flocked across it. I’d want to mention it in a poem. I was looking out the window at this sky one summer night, the news of some shooting still fresh with us, and more shootings to come, as Mary Jane drove her white suburban Toyota Highlander into the heart of Palm Beach. A whole new century had begun. FOR SALE signs were stacked in the back, her car full of real estate calling cards, photographs of houses sold or needing to be sold, crinkled Xeroxes of listings, second-hand scarves purchased at World Thrift, pamphlets for the twelve steps, one faded fire engine red pamphlet that read: ALCOHOLISM: The Merry-Go-Round Called Denial.

It was off season in Florida — my favorite time. Maybe it was June. I love a place after everyone has left: Florida in the off season had that eerie feeling of a stage set struck, the audience long gone, just a couple gardeners chit-chatting. Florida in summer and I was finally at ease there, the way most Reeces would be — the way my aunt and uncle, especially after the murder of their son, loved being alone more than with others. Reeces were introverts, hiders, first persons to leave the party. Then, in seconds, the sky transformed to dark purple and brackish blue, flared with yellow and green, a storm sliding in. “What is the difference between a friend and a sponsor?” I queried Mary Jane, who was both my friend and my new sponsor as we pulled into the parking lot and the heavy summer rain started pulverizing everything, shredding the hibiscus. Florida summer rain comes at you sideways and up into your armpits.

The truth is I had asked Mary Jane to sponsor me by default. I’d asked another man in the program a few weeks after Durell died and the man had said no but he said Mary Jane was available. Something about Mary Jane intrigued and scared me. For one thing she was in Al-Anon and I had a hunch there wasn’t a pamphlet in those meetings that didn’t relate to me. I was somewhat hesitant to work with a woman in the matters of my soul but then again I began to have a hunch that there was more healing that I needed to do with women than I realized. I’ve a theory gay men often have more problems with women than with men. I needed a genuine sister. This theory was burgeoning in those days. So I’d asked Mary Jane and she’d said yes immediately and then later had said she’d been watching and waiting for me. She’d said to herself, “He’s mine.” “A sponsor takes tweezers to your bullshit,” Mary Jane said. Then she and I ran for cover, the two white car doors like stiff wings of a gull slamming back into her hard body. We dashed into the Jewish deli Too-Jays, where she had once been a waitress. Mary Jane was a real estate agent in her early fifties (the age I am now as I write, the age Dickinson was when she died). She had a vague feel of the old hippie about her: she had moony watchful Joni Mitchell eyes and long blonde hair.

A few days before she told me she had been so depressed after her second marriage ended that she made plans to swim out into the Atlantic Sea and swim and swim until she drowned. Because she wasn’t melodramatic this statement stuck out, like her teeth.

“I don’t know if I can reconcile with my parents or my brother,” I said abruptly, my glasses still covered with rain drops. “What do you want?” she said, smiling her big-toothed smile. Then Mary Jane said: “And once you know what you want, what are you willing to do to get it?” She spoke directly, in lightning bolts, as if her odd last name, Zapp, from Transylvanian relatives, was bestowed upon her to emphasize her brazen style.

“I want…” I said. I felt awkward. For so long I’d talked around the margins of myself. Perhaps that is why I started writing poetry in the first place, as a Reece I needed to speak around myself. And what art is more indirectly direct? No one loves a disappearing act like poetry. We tolerate and expect these sleights of hands in the art. But prose explains. No Reece I ever met possessed the conversational directness of a Mary Jane Zapp.

“I want to try to reconcile,” I said, quietly, maybe even surprising myself somewhat, for there was a part of me that was afraid of this idea. What kind of poetry would I write if I began to contemplate forgiveness? Yet hadn’t Louise pushed me to change? As we laid that first book to bed, she said through the wires, “Now comes the real challenge, to make something new again.” The damage I’d catalogued lyrically in my first book brought me into print. Now what? More damage? Or?

Or what? “God gives you more than one chance,” Mary Jane said, staring at the waiter.

“Now that’s finesse,” she said, commenting on how the man traveled through the deli with plates in his hands. “That’s the sign of a good waiter. Always have something in your hands. Never leave your station without something in your hands.” The rain drummed like a typewriter on the windows. “I want a world that is expanding,” Mary Jane said. When she smiled in Too-Jays her overbite increased, revealing a large top gum. The lower jaw was smaller than normal, the top part adult, the bottom child. “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” she zapped me. That rainy evening in the deli, the two of us wet as the newly baptized, my anxieties diminishing, letting go of the justified anger left right and center, I commenced once more my great tragic story, the gigantic taproot of my misery.

“Where to start with my parents? Ten years without speaking to them. My brother not being in touch with me. I’d been mad for so long, now it all seems ridiculous.” I sighed. My sigh cooled my chicken noodle soup with matzo balls. I’d refined the recital of my family dramas masterfully: the drinking, the estrangement. Wasn’t it tragic? I wanted a sober family hugging each other in church basements collecting coins and cakes. I raised my head. A tear fell out of my eye. I’d gone to the nuthouse, worked in retail for over a decade and been disinherited. Here Mary Jane stopped me. “Disinherited?” I did not like being stopped.

“Yes,” I said, “disinherited.”

She tweezed. “Your parents went bankrupt after you ceased speaking if not before, so you weren’t disinherited. That’s bullshit. There wasn’t any money. And it wasn’t your money anyway. That’s entitlement. Finally, inheritance concerns money given to you after someone has died and they aren’t dead.” Her teeth gleamed.

I resumed, despite the huge hole in my story. I leaned in. I laid my victim cards before Mary Jane, one by one, like I had a Tarot pack: “See this!” and “See this!” and “See that!” Just as I got to the part about my mother, some egregious slight of hers I thought worthy of justifiable anger, Mary Jane stopped me. Mid-sentence. “Your job,” she said, “is to leave other people alone.” Her gums and teeth bloomed. I stopped. Miffed.

“I’m a scary bitch,” she said, “Do you hate me?” I paused too long. No, I did not hate her. Yet what followed was an awkward pause.

“You know,” Mary Jane said, in the quietest voice, “I know I have bad teeth.”

“They’re not so bad,” I said, softening her frank assessment, but I knew I’d been staring at them.

“The boys in high school used to harass me for being ugly. They used to call me an ugly bitch and then I would pray for the ground to swallow me up.” I knew the desire to die in high school. “People stare at me, you know? Kids laugh at me in stores. All my life. When I was in high school a dentist kept pulling my teeth out. My jaw was too small, as you can see, so they figured they needed to make space for what was there. This went on for many years, years and years. The dentist would keep saying to me that he was going to make me a pretty girl. The prettiest girl in Long Island. That is what he kept saying to me.”

The whole deli got quiet. “After about ten years of being in surgery with my jaw I told the dentist to fuck off. They wanted to break my whole jaw apart, reconstruct my face, so I ran out of that office in Long Island, ran and ran, graduated from high school, got married. But, I wish to God I’d listened to him now. It’s too late now, I think.” Here Mary Jane’s regret was palpable. “But now, well, I think I am getting used to these teeth, this mouth.”

“We better go,” I said, “Aren’t you chairing the meeting?” And off we went, the sky putty-colored, every trace of thunder and rain gone. The Flagler Memorial Bridge thumped behind us like a beautiful heart, the FOR SALE signs slid off the back seat, and down South County Road we went, date palms swooshing. The sea going in and out, the palms waving. Florida, Florida, your particular sound of insistence followed by release.


Nothing can be changed until it is faced.

— James Baldwin

I had trouble saying “Gay AA.” I kept hearing the damning voice of my mother, in a self-pitying tone in front of guests: We are such a small family, I had hoped for grandchildren. Over forty, I needed to face men. And if that meant putting a name tag on me, then, so be it. I needed to try to date. So I went to Gay AA — a subset of a subset. There in the middle of Gay AA I saw P. — intelligent, butch, legs spread wide, a fine blue vein ridged across the top of each bicep, an engineer in the construction business. To his straight talk and sports updates, my talk of poetry and landscapes.

The clubhouse on South Dixie Highway where we met was called COMPAS, an unassuming building that had been a gas station. The title COMPAS stood for something which I can’t recall now, however it does seem symbolic, as if the needles in my compass had finally set me off in the right direction. P. was the first man I ever dated openly. The men in the circle supported and giggled and I think they knew we two were destined for one another. That felt odd and good. Joy rippled through the meeting when I wore his sweatshirt that advertised DRY WALL FOR REVERE BEACH. A timid lesbian who taught math encouraged us. We represented success to her. She shared that she sat at home every night with her algebra tests when not watching women’s basketball, afraid to pick up the phone and date. These circles of Gay AA meetings with their gay faces that had suffered in their ways spun round us in those days like an affirming carousel. P. was better looking than most people but he never thought much about how he looked, which increased his handsomeness: eyes blue and forlorn, eyes that said a lot about Boston — growing up tough and Irish and those Catholic repressed lesbian nuns and their admonishments, P. wishing he could be part of Harvard but knowing he’d never be part of Harvard, closest he got was washing dishes in the student union. Oh, and of course, there was his Boston accent —the r‘s sinking into the cave of his mouth, the nasal constant swear words, the expanding vowels that gave me a hard-on. Thick grey hair, drill sergeant walk — God was he something. Most people thought so. He had about him as well that Irish-quality in that he was convivially detached, so I was never sure if I knew him. Did I? He was jokey and unknowable. He was older: fifty-two to my forty-one. He’d lived in the closet his whole life.

Butch/fem, Ireland/Britain, left/right brained — we snapped into each other like puzzle pieces.

My love story is not extraordinary, or it is only extraordinary because it happened to me. P. liberated me and even if he is now long gone, liberty and how it enters bears repeating. He was calling me in. The fact he arrived at the same time as resolving deep estrangements with my family bears repeating. He was my bee and my butterfly and my breeze.

We sat on a bench by the sea. The waves like a poem that was getting rewritten over and again.

“You never played with a doll or dressed up as a girl or…” I asked. The sea roiled.

“No, I just wanted to work with my father’s tools,” said P.


It was a sorry business to see him change as he progressively died.

— Julian of Norwich

As the book went to press, Louise Glück was named poet laureate. She invited me to read from the book in Washington DC. I went from standing behind the cash-wrap at Brooks with receipts in my hand to standing behind a podium at the Library of Congress with my poems. Afterwards, people asked for signatures.

When I got back from that trip, Martha called to say Robert stubbed his diabetic toe back in Minnesota. Martha reported that the toe was green. A few weeks later the doctors amputated the leg up to the knee.

After the surgery he called me. “Spencer, dearrrrr boy,” Robert said, the sounds of nurses and hospital pages behind him.

“Yes,” I said, smiling, customers floating by my counter.

“Martha and I are indeed proud of you and we wish to visit you,” he said. I knew what he was saying to me. He was saying, “I want to see you before I die.”

With my sharp tailoring scissors I cut the alterations ticket from a set of linen slacks and covered them in a plastic bag and handed them to the customer with the phone in the crook of my shoulder.

Martha was on the phone: “He won’t stop talking about it. He says he must do it.”

They came. Robert and Martha talked softly in the next room of that tiny apartment, unpacking their suitcases. I held in my hands The New York Times. The ink came off in my hands. We were all startled they’d written me up, and startled more by the photo of me on a table with an umbrella in hand. I looked like Mary Poppins. They talked about how I had jettisoned out of oblivion. That was right and that was not right. So many had shepherded me. What about Robert and Martha who had helped me start again after the locked unit? That evening Robert and Martha slept in my twin beds. I slept on the fold-out coach in the living room. Through the door opened a crack, I saw the artificial leg, the straps.


“I can’t fucking walk,” said P. a few months later on the phone. We had been seeing each other at meetings. Whispers went on that we were dating. Were we? I wasn’t sure what to call it. My gay brethren applauded us. We went to AA conventions. We slept in a hotel room in separate twin beds. We hadn’t kissed deeply. We went to lots of meetings. We mainly spoke. We were Victorian. P. called a transsexual from our group “Big Tits Randy” and I told him to lower his voice, scolding. A lover’s scold. Yet, we’d hardly touched. One night, in my humble second bedroom with the lime green shag carpet, we kissed. He said, “Haven’t done this much.” He backed off. Looked scared. A horse not broken. And quickly he went home. I watched him go. My Florida town went on and on. The Wal-Mart in the distance. Kitchens full of hissing fried plantains mixed with tsk-ing. I wanted a life with P. in one of those little kitchens with the Wal-Mart in the background. Then came a call, piercing through the salty jalousie window slats. “Can’t fucking walk.” He had spine problems. Some said it was emotional. Others said it was related to his obsession with wind surfing. P. loved windsurfing. He loved to be on the sea, writing his body’s instincts across the surf. But the intense pressure of his upper body controlling the sail took its toll. Or fifty years of repression pinched every nerve. He’d been poised for years like a question mark.

“I can come and help you if you need it,” I said. My heart thumped just like the tires thumped over the drawbridge’s meshed mouth on Flagler Bridge. A proposal. A pause. ”Well, I have an extra bedroom here,” said P. — close as he got to asking me to stay with him. And so I moved in. Like that. One day led to three. Three days led to five years. And for five years I would stare out that window and smell the sea, hear its murmur and see its salty striptease. I would smell the cleaning products that P. liked to use, scrubbing down his kitchen and the bathrooms.

P.’s interior was masculine and simple: blue carpet, white tile in the bathroom and on the kitchen floor, tables of blonde wood, and a sectional couch in blue. A bookcase with more family photos than books, one photo of him bare-chested on the beach on Cape Cod that made my knees weak. We lived at separate ends of the house for the first year.

P.’s back got better through acupuncture. One night after the last of the pins had been removed, we decided to sleep in the same bed. That solemn night something sacred stirred in the room. P. said, “I have nev-ah slept through the night with someone.“

“Never?” I said. “Once when I was eleven, Jimmy Sheehan had me over for a sleepov –ah, but that was it…” P. had paid young men to sleep with him, but none of them ever slept through the night. We lay. Two men, two men, side by side, in boxer shorts with T-shirts. I did want to touch him, but if I did what we had might collapse. So we talked and said good-night like two night watchmen. Then he said abruptly: “God damn insulin.” He looked at his waterproof sports watch and jumped out of bed. I stared at his beautiful body close, its rough musculature. There was no bed frame. The walls had no pictures. There was a mirror without a frame, a lamp. I couldn’t help but think of a porn set.

P. was diabetic. Since his thirties he had required two shots of insulin, one at night and one in the morning, pricking himself and checking monitors for his sugar levels and writing them down on sheets of paper. Long curled-up sheets of paper that he examined. Because the science of monitoring his sugar levels and the amount of insulin was inexact it frustrated him. He pricked himself with one of his needles, pressing down on his vein the way I had pressed down on the paper to write a poem. And then back to sleep we went.

Around four in the morning everything turned upside down. He went into insulin shock, his body flipping around in the bed like a porpoise. Coated in sweat, his eyes dilated and rolled into the back of his head. I thought he was having a heart attack. I called 911.

By five in the morning, firemen and ambulance drivers and EMTs were in the bedroom with us. They strapped him into a stretcher, gave him adrenaline. I stood beside in my boxer shorts. I heard the firemen laughing.

“He’s diabetic,” I said.

“And what is your relationship?” said the fireman, repressing a smirk.

“We are…. friends.” I said.

The EMT worker said P. mixed up his insulin and took the short acting one instead of the long acting one. All these years living alone and he had never done that.

When P. woke in the hospital the nurse told him I’d saved his life. When she left and pulled the blue curtain closed, we held hands and looked into the distance, not at each other.


Dickinson felt publishing her poems ruined them:

How dreary to be Somebody
How public — like a Frog
To tell one’s name — the live-long June
To an admiring Bog.

Like Dickinson, I was not drawn to self-aggrandizement. The school of anonymity had taught me much and continues to. Yet, there I was, in the world with my poems now, and hadn’t I wanted that, sending it out all those times? A part of me did. And Dickinson sought it too, however briefly. Sore need I had had for a long time without the nectar. The silence in which I had carpentered had been long and had, in a sense, given me a certain solace, like an invisible church. But now, no going back.

I kept working at Brooks Brothers. I accepted reading invitations to San Marcos, Texas and Los Angeles, California for the fall. I would travel as I had longed to do for years in retail but had been unable to because of lack of money and the limited vacations my job allowed. When I was young I had traveled some with my parents and had loved the adventure of it, and most especially the unique humbling sensation that an entire community and world carried on without any knowledge of me.

“What will you do now?” people asked. And I was not sure what I would do. I sat. I waited. I traveled. I went onto more and more college campuses. Knock, knock: It’s me. I told audiences that came to readings, especially aspiring poets, that I had thought the contests rigged. I emphasized Louise did not know me or even the screeners that screened for Louise. It had been blind. Blessed are those that do not see.

I went back to retail work. I’d spent the last decade now in Palm Beach County, the narrow strip of wild land that squiggles down the side of the state — a ragtag collection of coral rock islands and isthmuses and half-formed mangrove clumps. Florida was becoming home to me — my “admiring bog.”

Usually by the time I would head to work in those days my parents would have left several messages. Then they would call five minutes after I arrived.

“We need money,” my father would yell into the phone. ”You owe us!” he would yell harder. The sea a few miles away, whistled, the waves arced, their foaming mouths hurled in seizures. We fought without meaning.

My mother would yell in the background, like the mad, “Tell him, tell him… TELL HIM!!!! We paid for his god damn education. Tell him he owes us, he god damn owes us every nickel and dime we paid out for him… that is what any normal child would do… Half that grant he won is ours!“

I hung up the phone. I worked. I slept near or next to P. I worked on poems. I never talked much about the poems. My art left me often inarticulate. I’d cultivated it alone for twenty years.

Yellow and orange and light pink colored the hours. Lavender and violet were rubbed in. In that little white cottage not far from the mall, P. and I found two dogs from a shelter — “faggot children” someone from Gay AA said, smirking. I grimaced. Above us that sky, before us that sea — a jaw, opening and closing the days. The octopuses floated in the deep with their multiple hearts that circled around their throats like necklaces. The two dogs snored.


Two years passed. P. and I were practically married. Sometimes we held hands under the wild oaks, scrub pine and the gumbo limbo trees.

At a restaurant, P. said: “I am not physically attracted to you.”

Confused, I said: “But you said you love me.”

“I love you spiritually, but I am not attracted to you. I am only attracted to men in their early twenties,” said P.

I ordered Key Lime pie. Flat flat Florida flattened more in the twilight. Undocumented workers returned to their trailers. In the brightly lit lonely restaurant, we’d come for the early bird special.

I said: “Did you take your insulin?”

We drove home. The sea greyed with garbage and sharks. The two dogs looked on us dumbly. Then we began to argue.

Dickinson wrote in a letter to Sue:

I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e’en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I was losing him. The more we argued the more I wondered how long I could call home home.


I was forty-three. Or I was forty-four. The numbers melted before me. I had trouble at times fixing the correct number. I stood at a crossroads after my first book of poetry was done: I was not sure if I should stay in retail or perhaps I could search for a job teaching poetry at a college. Or what? I’d seen a few of these colleges and their jobs. At times the poetry professors looked like they were sucking on lemons all morning and had been trapped into a Kafka-esque existence of repeatedly killing poetry through teaching indifferent undergraduates. I felt sometimes like Bishop who said flatly, “not my line at all.”

I decided to drive the car to hospice. Why? Why did I do this? Not sure. Puzzled by my choice, I trusted it, the way I’d learned to lean into the mystery when I wrote a poem. I’d grown up in doctors’ lounges with ER intercoms and sanitary wipes. So it felt familiar. Yet my resume showed ten years of retail. I didn’t feel credentialed for the work. I was a homosexual cliché, blanching with self-hate at the thought of that and it truly, I say to you, almost stopped me from walking in the door. But something pushed me. (God?) Hospice took me. After an initial training course, I started rounds.

“Follow me,” said Frank, the head chaplain, well-dressed with his name tag, looking like a banker, “You don’t see this often.” I’d braced myself for all kinds of versions of people on the brim of the abyss — after all my father had been a pathologist and as a boy my father took me to the morgue with those pickled liquids and brains in jars while he did autopsies — but what I certainly was not expecting to find was a baby. The baby, born without her brain’s frontal lobes, gurgled on the nurse’s chest. The baby was living longer than the doctors expected. The face tiny — the size of a sonnet. “Our little bundle of chocolate love,” said the nurse patting the soft cranium where the brain was missing. The family of the Haitian baby was unable to care for the child in their home. Machines surrounded the tiny body like a foreign city. Fugitive thing, I would come in to see the baby with my Brooks Brothers khaki pants and my rep tie with a clipboard and a stack of books of poems, and sit clueless, unmonitored. And all that silence. What on earth was I doing? I prayed. Nothing. Many Christians love to convert, but that just continually strikes me as arrogant and not my nature. A revival tent suddenly pitched next to the oxygen machine felt slightly distasteful to me, aggressive and pushy and presumptuous. I had a Connecticut grandmother who had been religious. I began to think of her more now. She’d had a passive strong faith, never asking anyone to attend her church. She was probably the most anonymous undetected evangelist that ever lived. I doubt her Catholic priest noticed her in her nearly fifty years of attendance. But her faith shone bright to me precisely because she never once tried to win me over. That’s what I wanted to model.

A week later the baby died. Words failed the nurses. Words failed me.

That one syllable word “faith” still felt fuzzy sometimes and often I felt the invisible thing was carved with nothing but doubts. I thought of Dickinson. As Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and Henry David Thoreau Walden, she sat behind her locked bedroom door and at the height of the Civil War wrote nearly a poem a day. Trunks and drawers filled with the poems. In a letter she commented, “But we thought Darwin had thrown ‘the Redeemer’ away.” But it was she who flirted with tossing off redemption. In the poems she called Christ her “tender pioneer.” I identified.

Yet could I become (here in my thinking I paused, and said something so quietly to my mind that even I had a hard time hearing it) — could I ponder being a priest even with my doubts? I’d discounted this thought as foolish in my twenties. But here came the thought again. Could I salvage the Redeemer? Could I redeem me? Could I follow that tender pioneer?


I came home, placed my plastic nametag with the censor from hospice on the kitchen table and said to P., “I think I want to be a priest.”

“What are you talking about?” he said, having just finished masturbating to videos of young men ejaculating.

“I think this is what I have been moving towards for a long time,” I said. I was saying it like a dare, to provoke him.

“But it is like a calling, isn’t it?” P. said, and as he spoke he became part of my past, fading from animate into two dimensional and rendered by my memory. I knew then that I would write of him. We were failing, and like a figure in a myth, P. transmogrified: His limbs sprouted metaphors; his mouth flattened into an emdash.

P. turned away, walked out the back door and did not touch me. I worked my shifts. He worked construction. On my days off I went to hospice. The truth: We loved each other. We’d come together and cracked each other open like eggs — our passions launched and spent, falling back with animal exhaustion. And yet. The lie: We loved each other. No matter which way we seemed to come at it, P. remained sealed off at some level, hard-boiled, impregnable, not, certainly, mine.

Time passed elliptically at hospice, the sky swallowed the months like painkillers. A room at hospice filled with life, and upon my return it was scrubbed down with the bed sheets hospital tucked — a new name on the door.

Out the window, beyond the cars swooshing, the sea pushed and retreated, pushed and retreated. That was Florida. A coming in and a going out. A coming in. A going out. I’m Nobody. Who are you?


One rainy day in Florida, my aloe-spiked town oddly introspective, Mary Jane came by the house while P. was away on his construction site. I had been speaking to her about my brother.

“Do you want a relationship with your brother?” she said suddenly, after too many conversations about my parents’ failings or injustices. We’d left my estranged brother alone for most conversations.

“I don’t know if I can. I am so busy. With readings,” I said.

“That’s not what I asked you. Do you want a relationship with him?” she said.

“Well, yes, I think I do,” I said vaguely, yet knowing I missed him.

“But — ” began my brain. The dog lay down on the white tile with a clatter of bones and sighs, like a bag of tools. So simple, the dog: his desire, his life. How had things become so complicated for me?

“Then what are you willing to do to get it?” Mary Jane said again. I took less offense to her frankness. She said, “Write him a letter and we’ll send it, but don’t send it before I’ve seen it.” The sea glistened outside the window. I remembered again George Herbert describing prayer as a “heart in pilgrimage.” It began to come to life for me there in Florida with Mary Jane. I wanted to be a pilgrim of the heart. I needed to journey back to my brother now. I prayed. And this, then, is how prayer works.

The following week I was fingering the poem about my brother on the plane up from Florida to New York City. As we flew into La Guardia, I thought, “My brother is here. Somewhere.” New York City hummed. Possibility moved like electricity in the bones of the buildings, possibility moved in the complex networks of plumbing, possibility clung to the moldings, the window frames, went up the chimneys and down the laundry shoots, possibility bumped along with me in the taxi as I peered out the window of the taxi.

Interviewing me on New York public radio, Leonard Lopate asked: “Would you like to read a poem?”

“Yes,” I said, “It is about my brother.”

Eight million New Yorkers. Some listening to Leonard Lopate on public radio for those glorious, rich, God-given five minutes. One was my brother, working in the backroom of a florist shop, arranging pussy willow stems in a glass vase for the rich, the people we used to be.

My words vibrated in my brother’s ear drum.

Lopate announced the reading’s time and location. My brother came that night. I saw my brother immediately across the sea of people, standing at the back of the room. A forlornness in his eyes. My brother, in the line, buying the book and slowly putting it under his arm, waited for me to sign it. The crowd emptied. He came forward, quietly and said, “Don’t stay angry.”


Mary Jane sat across from me at the kitchen table. P. on his job site. The two dogs slept like disciples. “Are you going to show me the letter?” she said.

Several weeks had passed since the uncanny encounter with my brother, as if my original wish to amend things with him had called it into real time. “Yes,” I said with resistance, for I felt I was the writer, I had won a prize, won a grant: I knew how to write a letter to my brother. There was an awkward silence. Mary Jane was a real estate agent. Not the writer. Dogs snoring. The sea said something so softly we couldn’t hear it.

“You can’t send this,” Mary Jane said after she read it.

“What do you mean,” I said, irritated. I was hurrying to get something done, but where was I going? Why was I being difficult when I asked for help? Why was I so defended?

“You are justifying all your behavior in this letter, you don’t own anything, you use ‘but’ all over it which negates all your apologies, you don’t want to change anything,“ Mary Jane said. She was not afraid to say the ugly thing. Where did she get this courage, I wondered.

“But. Well —” I stumbled.

“What is your part?” Mary Jane insisted, putting her finger on that nerve.

“I… he is just not a letter writer, my brother.” I looked over my shoulder as if someone was going to walk through the door.

“I don’t want to hear about him,“ she said. “This is about you, your part.”

Why was it so hard to get to my story? “Okay, years ago,” I began the story of how I had outed him and how he ran away and rarely spoke to me. Like in church, when the gospel is done, and the priest returns to his seat and the congregation settles into their pews, there sat between us a religious, old wood-smelling silence.

That is your part.” she said, “You were a shit.”

I sent the letter (much revised, with some embarrassing resistance at first). I waited. Waited. Waited. Waited. Seasons passed. Hurricanes came and went. Christmases passed. I worked. I slept with P. in complete celibacy. Nothing for a long time.

“Can I call my brother?” I asked Mary Jane.

“No,” Mary Jane said in the Jewish deli, biting into her pastrami and rye. She smiled and a string of sauerkraut dangled from the edge of her mouth.


Love makes one generous.

—James Merrill

My mother read the poem about Ralph in The New Yorker while getting her hair set. Later she called me. This time, something inside each one of us softened. Not sure what or why. Maybe it was the love I had felt with P., a handsome man who had been vulnerable with me like no one else before in his life. I’d taken Mary Jane’s suggestion to do “anger work.” Maybe that contributed? I’d gone into quarries and smashed quartz boulders and yelled fuck to release pent-up anger over family imperfections. Maybe it was all these things. Maybe it was the poem? Maybe the poem made a bridge between us? Maybe.

“No one’s perfect,” I thought, with regard to my mother. Truth was, when I asked myself what I was so angry about with my parents, what had happened in the home, the slop of drink drenched in forgetfulness of who harmed whom, I could not, with all the time gone by, recall which wires to fuse together to jump-start the engine of my anger. Just as a part was theirs, a part was mine. I’d never been able to entertain that before. It occurred to me, unpleasantly, that in some ways I’d adopted the stance of fundamentalists with them regarding their drinking, as if I knew best, disturbed by anyone preaching a gospel contrary to my own.

I’d studied Keats’ idea of negative capability — two opposing truths held as valid — but it always seemed abstracted. Keats made sense now. “Would you like to come and visit?” I said to my mother one afternoon after we’d had a series of these calls. I think it was just after I’d discovered on the computer that P. was signing up for paid escorts again.

“Yes,” she had said, without much hesitation, “How about March?” March came. After ten years of hardly speaking, I stepped out of the cottage to see my mother coming over the hill in a rented PT Cruiser. I could see she had just been bickering with my father. I could see the expression on her face of determination. I recalled the toilet stall where she entered with fresh trousers in a grocery bag when I was a kid after I’d wet my pants.

We four sat on the light blue sectional coach. We looked like we were contestants on a game show and outside the kafuffle of waves was a murmuring audience.

“Here we are,” my mother said. Pause.

“We are so proud of you,” Dad said. I looked away. Mom led the talking as she always did, sometimes Dad and I resented this, suffocated at times by her ability, but that Florida moment we leaned into her talent.

“Tell us about your job,” my mother said to P.

“I am a manage-ah on construction sites, I’m a field engine-eh.” I think she felt at home with his Boston Irish accent, although she had adopted an upper-class Connecticut sound.

“How long have you lived in Florida?” Mom asked.

“About twelve years now,” P. said. The strong Florida sun came through the Venetian blinds underlining our aged faces. My mother surveyed the spotless living room: the minimalist décor with the carpet combed in rows caught her attention.

“We’re not cleaners!” Mom said under her breath after P. got up to go to the bathroom. “You weren’t raised this way.” She took pride in our mess: I recalled the Bloomsbury-like interiors we’d lived in, a mad nest of newspapers, drinks, antiques and books — a sort of Greek Orthodox church with an explosion of images, throwing the eye into paroxysms. P. returned from the bathroom with his hands smelling of soap and disinfectant, and I recalled my Dad’s pile of books, on top of the pile a pumpernickel sandwich with mold.

“So here we are,” I said.

“So here we are,” Mom said.

“Yes,” said Dad. Us three.

“We are so proud of you,” my mother said again. We looked away again, we often looked away, and we kept looking away like people do in the waiting rooms of hospitals. We rarely would speak of our separation after that, why I’d been mad, who’d done what, it was over, and now an urgency claimed us, time’s wave crashed at our backs: if we were to rescue an emotion now it was love. Then we four went off to dinner for the early bird special.


The next day my parents came to hospice for my pastoral care class. As we tentatively walked down the hallway, my agonistic, Southern father said quietly to me: “I am glad to hear you have let go of your anger, Spencer, there really is nothing worse than an angry religious person.”

Down the hallway, the patients, like so many fish thrown on a dock with oxygen tubes hooked into their noses, gasped.


I was forty-five. In the churches, a committee of priests questioned me between my Brooks Brothers shifts. At the time the policy in the diocese of southeast Florida was that if you were gay you needed to be single — no attached gay men allowed. Gay partners were not allowed into the process. (Things with P. were unraveling. “That works out rather nicely,” I said to Mary Jane.)

One Episcopal priest, married, questioning me, asked: “Now what happens if you meet some man in seminary and fall in love? Are you willing to drop out of the process?” Odd constricted man, his face pinched, he loved floral arranging and read Southern Living.

I said: “We will cross that bridge when we come to it.” Deacons and priests around the kidney-shaped table picked up glasses of water, moved stacks of papers and opened Bibles.

Just to give you some idea of how untutored I still remained, I often needed to be prompted prior to these meetings. Just as in my early days in AA, I needed to memorize responses, I was a fairly empty vessel when it came to church business. I had to simply talk the talk before I knew the talk. I had, much as Plath and my father had done, to provide an accent that would be acceptable. I learned to say priests have a passion for the ABCs: that meant priests desire to absolve, bless and consecrate. We become priests very often to be conduits as we perform our shazam number over the bread and wine. Turns out I very much enjoy this moment in the church now that I am a priest, but I didn’t know that then, I had to guess at it. By the end, they decreed I return to seminary for three full years.

“Do you think this is crazy?” I asked Mary Jane after the final session, while eating a Rueben, juice dripping from the corners of my mouth in the deli before Al-Anon.

And she, a disaffected Catholic, said, “Oh yes, I see this, I can see this. If God wants this to be, there’s no stopping it. God has your back…” Together with our matzo balls and sauerkraut, we were moving along in the heart’s pilgrimage.

At home, in those days, P. was rejecting me.

“It isn’t you,” P. said, in despair. He resolved himself to his attraction to the young. P. had a strange look in his eyes, like he had decided to enter a barrel and go over Niagara Falls.

“I am standing in your way of loving the person you are meant to love,” I said, “You need to go out there and find this young man, this mythical young man, make him three dimensional, I am never going to be that person for you.” It hurt me to say what we knew.

“No one has to know, if it makes sense to us, we can still have sex,” said P., bartering. The two dogs looked at us.

“But you aren’t attracted to me,” I said to my love, hoping he might counter. He didn’t. He never did.

“So we must keep apart,” Dickinson wrote succinctly in a poem.


I disappeared into New York City one weekend, sinking into the masses of humanity the way everyone does in that city. I was giving a reading with the poet Ilya Kaminsky at NYU. Afterwards I had a dinner date with my brother. At Two Boots, a pizzeria in the West Village, and close to 10 pm, having surrendered the idea that my brother would ever address my apology, with the charged intimate Village streets ambushing us, my brother said, suddenly, out of nowhere, “You know that letter you sent.” The world paused. Two or three years had passed since I’d sent my letter.

Neither irritated or rushed, he picked this moment deliberately. Where was Mary Jane? Something was finishing along with the daylight in Greenwich Village. The Three Lives Bookstore closed its red door, all the gay men in the Village retreating, returning to their intimacies.

My brother continued: “That is the first time anyone in our family told the truth.” When we were kids I’d thrown a wood plank that closely missed his beautiful eye and gave him a scar. I still felt terrible I’d done this —brothers. The scar was a sort of branding that reminded me of my awfulness. The half moon scar next to his eye orbited me, the lights of New York illuminated it, where the stitches had been. I looked at the scar. Looked out the window. Then back at the scar.

My brother, adopted: My parents’ generosity lived on and in and through my brother. I was glad not to be an only child: Some I’d met were solipsistic and unaware of others. I sat next to my brother. I was close. When Dickinson lay dying her brother wrote, “I was near.” So, too, with me. I was near.


“Mom? Dad?” I said into the phone from Florida. I had not slept all night and waited until the reasonable hour of six to place the call.

“Yes, darling,” said my mother, all of comfy Connecticut in that voice. Not disturbed by the time, I paused, and I thought, how like a mother not to be bothered by a six am call from her son.

“Sorry to call so early,” I said. My words stalled. “My relationship is over. We decided yesterday. I will leave on Friday. Some friends are coming to help,” the words leaden in my mouth. Silence. The sun rose. Gulls dropped their clams on the rocks, eating their gooey emasculations before the muscles grew cold. I could hear my father on the other line, rustling, breathing, not speaking.

“We’re sorry to hear this, he was so lovely.” Then a diplomatic pause, “It is okay, darling. We’re here. Best to leave quickly,” said my mother finally.

“Come home, son,” said my father, and the clarity of his demand broke my idea that I somehow knew something more than these people. I was humbled. That I had spent a great deal of time judging their marriage suddenly embarrassed me into silence. I knew little about little.

I never “came out” with my parents. Yet, here I was, telling them my gay marriage was finished.

We were a family. I had them now, maybe more than ever. My anger had not broken the bond. Queer. Was my reserve cowardice? My sexuality went from unacceptable with my mother to acceptable: Maybe dignity was in the ellipsis? Queer. I’d said “I am” about other things easily: “I am an alcoholic” for instance. “I am a Christian” was difficult to say like “I am gay” and “I am a poet.” Christian, gay and poet was something understood more than said.

“I am alcoholic,” needed to be said to live. Queer what we say as opposed to what we are.

Queer because I didn’t “come out” but rather “came in.” I came into focus. I came into myself after being long outside myself. I came into AA. I came into my body. I came into the church.

Perhaps the most important things of one’s very existence, if they didn’t get said at a certain critical moment, never got said: They got, instead, assumed. In that dark hour with my parents over the phone, out the open window, the sea soothed me, abandoning its arguments on the knees of the shore. And Durell was dead.

Lavinia Dickinson wrote in a letter after her sister was dead and she was alone in that house, parentless, “Keep fast hold of your parents, for the world will always be strange and homesick without them.” I was going home.


Friday appeared on the calendar and I retired from Brooks Brothers: all those years and years of circling a calendar with week after week of shifts and now it was over. My colleague said over her shoulder, “Don’t forget us now, you hear?”

Time bent. There I’d been, waiting patiently, folding clothes, all those shifts, attending folding seminars with my plastic board, thinking I would be there in that shop forever. We had spent much time together. Twelve years, day in and day out, punching a clock, taking messages, answering the phone, standing alert for corporate visits, firing employees for stealing, and here it was finished. My last day after twelve years. Out the door I went. Was it possible lurching towards those meetings with Mary Jane the way people lurch towards Lourdes had released me? No longer trapped inside glittering high-end retail, with the recognition of the book, Louise Glück miraculously fishing it out of the 1000 books in her Cambridge second floor condo, there had been a click, the latch to the cage unhooked. Out I went.

My head turned up. My spirit lifted. The sound of the shoppers diminished behind me, the soft scrunch of the sneakers of the elderly walking the perimeter of the mall every day grew softer. The non-threatening cheerful music piped in faded. Down the hall I went, past the security guards who knew me well, I could hear their jangle of keys. The whiff of cleaning disinfectant that smelled sugary fading. I pushed my hand against the shiny metal doors and out I went into the parking lot, into the sunlight, the bright Florida sky that had shepherded over us always. Out I went. Out, out — and the unending line of retail work ended and I was now circling back to where I started.

Saturday morning rolled in crystalline and fair across Florida. I headed out in the Mini Cooper the Guggenheim grant bought. The Atlantic on my right, the Palm Beach mansions on my left. Seagulls arranged and rearranged themselves in the sky. Over the Flagler drawbridge I went — thump, thump. I loaded the car onto the Auto-Train outside Orlando passing the wild river in St. Augustine where they drowned John. The window scenes went by like the drafts of a poem: trees, then fields, then parking lots, then buildings, then cities — vast lonely America. I began Holy Orders on Monday.


I’d picked up the gigantic Sewall biography about Dickinson. I read she died in 1886, four years after her mother died. After, she reversed her former critical attitude about her mother. She had complained bitterly in youth she had no mother. According to her, her mother was a simpleton.

Then, in a late letter, she commented regarding a friend’s mother’s death, with awe, unlike the stance she had taken with her own mother. To that friend she wrote, “To have had a mother — how mighty!” Mightiness jolted my heart: Perhaps I was not built for lovers to last but now I stood strong framed with family. I had them back. How mighty.

One of the things that had kept us separated had been my friendship with Durell. My mother was convinced he’d brainwashed me to have the intervention. She solely attributed our reconciliation to his death and she made no apology for her gratitude over the news. I didn’t correct her anymore. I didn’t elaborate. I recalled my mother met Durell at my Harvard graduation: A quick awkward handshake passed between them, as AA bumped up against my mother, as two Americans born in the 30s, raised in the 40s, products of the 50s, met, each having suffered their restrictions but not having compassion for the other.

Durell always needled me to write a poem about him. “Will you write a poem about me?” he’d say. I would do my best to deflect the subject. “I bet you’ll never write a poem about me.”

It was awkward, these moments I had with him.

I thought writing about him would be nearly impossible. How to write a poem about such a complex person, someone who’d helped me so and was to many extremely unlikeable? I paused a moment in my thinking realizing how in some ways he and my mother had a few things in common: firstly, they were brave people; secondly they were difficult; thirdly, I was I as a result of them being them.

In the years after Durell was dead I began the poem. I thought to myself, “Okay, my friend, I will try to write about you now.”

It would take seven years to complete. The drafts and notes were all around me in those days. I would write the same line a hundred times and still not be sure of it.

In the days before leaving Florida, I annually showed drafts to his sister, who I’d gotten to know when we had Durell’s funeral. As I had estranged myself from my family, so had she estranged herself from her brother: gayness bred estrangement.

His death made us a pair.

She had a second home in nearby Boynton Beach where she wintered. Always introducing me at the country club took a few runs at it before people grasped the relationship. On one of those last visits to her country club before I returned to the Northeast, showing her a recent draft of the poem that had grown quite long, she paused between our blintzes during the big Florida Sunday brunch in a room the size of a small stadium. She said, “There is something you don’t know.” Ominous. I stopped eating.

She said, “I’ve never told anyone this before. Durell was gang-raped in the Army. No one knows. Not my husband, not my children, not my grandchildren. I’d prefer to keep it that way. I am telling you so you understand perhaps that’s why he was the way he was.” The way she said it shocked even her, I think. Then she cried a little. Decades of estrangement dropped off her face as she seemed to grow closer to me or Durell or herself or God, although which exactly I couldn’t be sure.

Suddenly, all his defensiveness, his need to make a better life for me, which was a practically daily battle-cry, the inordinate amount of time he’d taken with me made poignant sense, it fell into place. If he couldn’t save himself, by God, he’d save me. There in my heart a kind of gratitude set in that surely can only come with age, for one of the pure gifts of age is hindsight and hindsight softens what time has made hard.

“Oh, I see,” I think I said, rather stupidly. She didn’t talk about it any more.

“You know,” she said, artfully keeping her mascara in place, “You look a lot like my brother.” Elegant, proper, private, old New Englander, her sad look had buried him long before.

Intuitively, I knew I’d need to leave this out of the poem. I needed to honor this confidence by his sister. Yes, he was dead, but he was still with me in many ways and I knew he wouldn’t want that in his poem. And his sister was alive. I’d need to reference it obliquely which suited the subject as the subject was an oblique cypher from start to finish. I would make of him a monument no one could ever quite see. That, I thought, he’d like.

I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous exchange with Robert Lowell when he began lifting directly the love letters of his ex, Elizabeth Hardwick, in Life Studies. Bishop was appalled by his action and said sternly to Lowell: “Art just isn’t worth that much.” It wasn’t. Not to me. I wanted my art to be about continuing conversations and not ending them, even if the subjects were dead.


My belongings all packed up once more: how transient I was. Christening my latest departure, I read one of the last poems Dickinson wrote:

To fail within a Chance —
How terribler a thing
Than perish from the Chance’s list
Before the Perishing!

Was “terribler” even a word, I wondered. I liked its oddity. What seemed “terribler” was behind me: hangings, murders, black-outs, estrangements, gang-rapes. I grabbed onto my second “Chance,” with Dickinson’s upper case letter. My family was back in my court “before the Perishing!” with Dickinson’s exclamation point. We four were once more. I’d tried at love with P. and seen it fail. The world was strange without the man I’d loved. Yet the absence of romance gave me a platform to write. What was more important to me?

The men? Or the chance to write another poem?

I headed off to Yale Divinity School. I headed home. My family loved me for who I was. I had the bounty of family support Dickinson lived long enough to fully appreciate. I stepped back. I leapt.

Spencer Reece

Spencer Reece is the author of two collections of poetry: The Clerk’s Tale and The Road to Emmaus, which was a long-list nominee for the National Book Award. The Little Entrance: Devotions, is an autobiography mixed contrapuntally with the biography and poems of seven poets who influenced him. It has been fifteen years in the making.

Mary Jane Zapp

Mary Jane Zapp is a lifelong photoseeker and photographer. Her photographs have been published in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, newspapers in Italy, Madrid, Arkansas, Poetry Magazine, and in the anthology Counting Time Like People Count Stars. She has been a featured artist in several fundraisers for Cancer Treatment Centers, 12 Step Programs, Voices Beyond The Wall documentary, and Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras. She enjoys travel and history and often gets lost in her work.


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