Where Are All the Rural Gay Poets?
Bruce Snider on Searching for Poetry that Reflected His Experience
There are . . . two great themes in rural writing:
the theme of departure and the theme of return.
The first gay man I knew was the undertaker. Mr. Dorsey owned our town’s one funeral home, a small redbrick building to the right of the library and across from a beauty shop called Dazzle. From the library’s circulation desk, you could catch a glimpse of a zip-bagged body unloaded from a white van or sometimes see Mr. Dorsey outside in his black suit, with his thin dark mustache and perfect white teeth, sweeping up cigarette butts after a service. Mr. Dorsey had grown up in my town, studied mortuary science at a nearby college. When his father retired from the family business, he inherited it. Which is to say: once you died, you went to the town queer.
The first gay love poem I read was Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” I was a college freshman, and I came across it in a book of gay love poetry in the library’s new arrivals section. I don’t remember the title, but the cover showed two shirtless men leaning toward each other beside a vibrantly blue swimming pool. I hid the book under a stack of magazines and read it on the top floor in a tucked away corner behind some engineering journals. I remember the stab of excitement I felt from the ease of O’Hara’s voice: “because of my love for you” and, as he says later, “the fact that you move so beautifully.” How could one man be saying this to another, and with such manic excitement in a “warm New York 4 o’clock light”? There were references I didn’t understand—“futurism,” “the Frick,” “Nude Descending a Staircase”—but reading O’Hara’s language was like overhearing one side of a conversation that somehow, without even knowing, I’d always wanted to join.
Afraid to check out the book, I copied down the poem on a piece of torn notebook paper. I kept it folded in my pocket, and carried it everywhere—to class, to the library, even back home where weekends I’d help cut wood for my grandparents’ furnace. Sometimes alone in the grove at the back of their farm, I’d take it out and read it to myself, a poem in my handwriting but not by me, and feel for a moment that I was O’Hara: chatty, sophisticated, fearlessly reaching out to take another man’s hand. I’d hear the roar of the chainsaw, see the red scatter of cardinals, smell sheep feed and crushed hickory leaves underfoot; but I could still picture his urbane world of New York art and art museums, of afternoon light I’d never seen cutting across concrete, steel skyscrapers, subway stops. It was the beginning of two impressions that would only deepen the more I read. The first was that if you were gay, you needed to live in the city. The second was that if you were gay and wanted to be a writer, you needed to write about the city.
“Reading O’Hara’s language was like overhearing one side of a conversation that somehow, without even knowing, I’d always wanted to join.”
I grew up in a small Indiana town famous for a 70-pound cantaloupe grown by a man named Verlie Tucker. We had a roller rink, a KFC, a pair of rival grocery stores with a jail in between. In the summer we ate deep-fried Mars Bars at the annual 4-H Festival, where we watched swine-judging and poultry showmanship competitions. Afterwards we’d crowd at picnic tables outside the new Dairy Queen, blaring Hank Williams Jr. or The Oak Ridge Boys. All around us, all the time, were fields of corn, soybeans, wheat; and the population was booming, nearly two thousand at the start of ’82.
Ten miles outside town, my family lived on a lake where we snagged bluegill and perch. On my grandparents’ nearby farm, we shoveled manure, chopped wood, helped my grandmother churn butter, and some days I’d get to feed Napoleon, my grandfather’s champion market goat. When chores were done, my brothers and I would play in the woods, where we built forts, played tree tag, war, hide and seek. I had my first kiss in those woods, from a neighbor boy who smelled like woodsmoke and wore a T-shirt with a fading iron-on of Darth Vader. We were both 13, safe in the crisscross of shadows cast by the shagbark hickories surrounding us. We never talked about it, but we started sneaking away to meet there, keeping an eye out for his older sister or my little brothers. Leaning against a rusted-out wheelbarrow, we never thought about where we were, but if we’d closed our eyes, we’d have noticed the whir of mosquitoes above our heads and woodpeckers knocking the trees and the constant churning of my grandfather’s tiller, far beyond us in the back acre.
The earliest poems I wrote about gay love or desire were set in vague unnamed cities with subways and skyscrapers, club-going drag queens, strangers cruising in dark, cavernous bars. This was, I assumed, what gay life was about, so I decorated each poem with the set pieces I’d found in the work of gay writers I admired. In addition to O’Hara, I’d read Mark Doty’s “63rd Street Y” (“The nude black man two windows over / is lying in bed . . .”). I’d read Tim Dlugos’s “Summer, South Brooklyn” (“gusher in the street where bald men with cigars / watch as boys in gym shorts and no shirts / crack the hydrant”) as well as James Schuyler’s “This Dark Apartment” (“I lived / on East 49th, first / with Frank and then with John, / we had a lovely view of / the UN building and the / Beekman Towers. They were / not my lovers, though).
Only years later would I read Mark Wunderlich’s “Take Good Care of Yourself,” but it captures much of what I imagined back then. The poem opens in The Roxy, Chelsea’s legendary gay bar, where the drag queen onstage is “all black lacquer / and soprano laugh,” where “the one bitter pill / of X-tasy dissolving on my tongue is the perfect / slender measure of the holy ghost.” What’s especially striking, however, is that, midway through the poem, the speaker suddenly imagines himself outside the club, outside the city entirely:
There’s no place like the unbearable ribbon
of highway that cuts the Midwest into two unequal
halves, a pale sun glowing like the fire
of one last cigarette. It is the prairie
I’m scared of, barreling off in all directions
flat as its inhabitants’ A’s and O’s. I left
Wisconsin’s well-tempered rooms
and snow-fields white and vacant as a bed
I wish I’d never slept in. Winters
I stared out the bus window through frost
at an icy template of what the world offered up—
the moon’s tin cup of romance and a beauty,
that if held too long to the body
Here—as in so much of the gay writing I read back then—the rural, if it ever appears, is fleeting. It’s the past, what’s left behind, full of emptiness and regret, where love and beauty can never last, where a gay man can never belong as the speaker belongs, if only briefly, to the dance club, “shirtless” in “a sea of men all muscle, / white briefs and pearls” while “whole cities of sound” bear down on him.
A few miles from the funeral home past the fairgrounds, Mr. Dorsey lived with Mr. Metzger, a red-haired man from Ohio known for breeding Plymouth Rock chickens. Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Metzger never held hands in public or kissed each other, never came out publicly, but they were together, a fact understood by everyone, as certain as the cornfields and creeks, the feed trucks that zoomed past the farms up State Road 101. They were, as I’d heard people say, “Dorsey and that other queer who live off Bear Road.” High school kids toilet-papered their maple trees, soaped their car windows with Fag and Up the Ass. Even my math teacher, Mr. Miller, imitated Mr. Dorsey, his voice veering toward falsetto as his wrists went limp. His favorite punishment for boys: make them stand in front of the class and hold hands. Shape up, he’d say, or I’ll send you to that funeral home.
When I entered sixth grade, Mr. Metzger became my geography teacher. Stocky and square-jawed, he’d stand at the blackboard, smoothing his red beard, a thumb-sized nugget of Skoal chewing tobacco in his lower lip. He opened each class with a new geography joke: What did Dela-ware? A New Jersey. Or, Where do crayons go on vacation? Color-ado. He loved maps and collected old ones of Scotland, England, and Ireland; he’d spread them out on the floor for us to walk around, reading out: Cork, Waxford, Dublin. Sometimes he’d tell us stories about the chickens he raised, how they stampeded the coop door, how he nursed the sick ones with an eyedropper.
He never mentioned Mr. Dorsey. But sometimes, in his wood-paneled, windowless classroom, I would try to imagine them at home, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, side by side on the couch. What did they talk about? What did an average day look like, home from work, dishes drying in the dish rack? Did their coats hang one on top of the other on pegs near the entry? I wondered if other towns nearby had their Mr. Dorseys and Mr. Metzgers. Could the gas station attendant in Merriam be harboring a secret? Was the checkout boy in love with the bearded man who carried my aunt’s groceries?
Once, between classes, I saw Mr. Metzger give Kevin McEntire, an eighth grader with ripped jeans and heavy metal hair, detention for talking in class. As Kevin turned to leave the classroom, he said, Fag, under his breath. What did you say? Mr. Metzger asked. Kevin shrugged, said nothing, then Mr. Metzger grabbed him by the neck and threw him against the wall. Say it again, he said, what did you say? His hand trembled around Kevin’s neck. Mrs. Hunt, the Home Ec teacher, leaned out of her classroom, looking into the hall. Kevin burst into tears and Mr. Metzger, finally, let him go. The bell rang, and I ran to class.
The next year, Mr. Metzger was gone. He quit teaching to open a plant nursery across from the pharmacy. Sometimes I’d see him out front in green overalls watering flats of tomato plants, carrying plastic bags of fertilizer. He grew flowers in a small greenhouse, a steady stream of carnations, white roses, lilies that each week he gave to Mr. Dorsey, who arranged them inside the funeral home, spring through winter, around the bodies of the newly dead.
In her essay “The Gay Sublime,” the poet and scholar Linda Gregerson identifies “an American canon” of poetry by gay writers that reconfigures and essentially queers the notion of the Romantic sublime. Unlike the natural landscapes that spurred the recollections of Wordsworth and Coleridge, however, the landscape of this canon, she writes, “is urban; its characteristic vistas are the intricate fields of social nuance, material surface, manners, wit, and cultivated artifice.” It’s an observation that in some ways echoes “Late Victorians,” Richard Rodriguez’s essay about San Francisco architecture and AIDS. Since society has long rejected homosexuality as a sin against nature, Rodriguez speculates that historically “homosexuals have made a covenant against nature. Homosexual survival lay in artifice, in plumage, in lampshades, sonnets, musical comedy, couture, syntax, religious ceremony, opera, lacquer, irony. . . .” For both Gregerson and Rodriguez, the emphasis is on a mastery of surfaces, on the cultivated and urbane.
To support her observations, Gregerson looks at, among other poems, Mark Doty’s “Crepe De Chine,” in which he writes, “That’s what I want from the city: / to wear it.” In one line, he fuses the urban and, as Gregerson describes it, “the aesthetics of drag.” In fact, the conflation of homosexuality and the city undergirds much of Mark Doty’s poetry. One of the most celebrated and influential gay writers of his generation, Doty used the names of cities as titles for three of his earliest collections, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, My Alexandria, and Atlantis. And the city as metaphor recurs throughout his work. His poem “Homo Will Not Inherit,” for example, describes a man the speaker picks up in the gay baths, then turns outward:
. . . . This failing city’s
radiant as any we’ll ever know
paved with oily rainbow, charred gates
jeweled with tags, swoops of letters,
over letters, indecipherable as anything
written by desire. I’m not ashamed
to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be?
It’s written on my face as much as on
these walls. This city’s inescapable,
gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.
Here, Doty makes the city into the preeminent metaphor for queer desire. It’s Babylon redeemed, “Paved with oily rainbow, charred gates / jeweled with tags,” “gorgeous” even as it burns to ash.
In my senior year at Indiana University, I took a class on the literature of rural America. Our main text was Late Harvest: Rural American Writing, edited by David R. Pichaske. In the introduction, Pichaske observes that Americans have from the beginning attached “a peculiar moral [his emphasis] glory to the countryside.”
. . . our national experience has something to do with America’s impulse toward the rural. While most of the world’s population lives rural lives, Americans especially have, until very recently, lived country, on farms, in villages, and even in the wilderness. For a long time we congratulated ourselves for being an agrarian people. Nineteenth-century Americans, weary of complacent Frenchmen and Brits proclaiming that an unhealthy climate and bad diet made Americans sickly and both physically and mentally underdeveloped, had formulated a contrary argument: urban (European) man, enfeebled by what William Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles” (of London, in Blake’s case), would, transplanted in the American wilderness, grow healthy and robust—spiritually, mentally, and physically.
When I first read this passage, I was a 21-year-old who had just come out to his father over Christmas break, so it seemed ironic that as we made our way through the anthology, I didn’t encounter a single writer or character that I could’ve identified as gay.
Although I understood Pichaske was arguing for a rural literature defined in part by a generalized moral virtue rooted in American nationalism, I couldn’t help but wonder if the omission of gay voices in his rural canon gestured toward a more pointed claim, that the “moral glory” of the American countryside somehow prevented, or at least denied, the existence of gay men and women. And yet I’d grown up in a world much like those described by the anthology’s authors: Sherwood Anderson, Garrison Keilor, Gary Snyder, Bobbie Ann Mason, Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and more. Like William Gass in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” I’d seen trucks weighed on grain scales, the wind “blowing the smell of cattle into town.” I’d even watched, behind my own childhood home, a “tremulous ripple thrill the water,” as a muskrat kit emerged, “paddling from its den.” (Annie Dillard, “Seeing”.) I could imagine these worlds vividly, but the anthology seemed incapable of imagining people like Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Metzger, people like me. Despite this, of course, I knew that gay people lived in rural America, and as I was beginning to understand, always had.
A year later, I came out to my grandparents. You’re not the first in our family, my grandfather said. He told me about his aunt Charlotte and her best friend Bonnie, who’d lived together in a small house five miles from the family farm. They were avid poker players, famously good cooks, and staunch Democrats who once refused to shop at a bait store with a picture of then President Eisenhower on the wall. When my grandfather took them fishing, as he did each summer, Bonnie often fell asleep with her head on Aunt Charlotte’s lap. Nobody ever said it, he told me. Didn’t need to.
In Object Lessons, the poet Eavan Boland writes that “what we call place is really only that detail of which we understand to be ourselves.” If that’s true, I can say that my early years as a writer were spent uncertain how to claim the details of myself in the small area of northern Indiana where I’d grown up. How could a gay poet claim his sexuality in a so-called “natural” landscape if, as Rodriguez has argued, what we consider to be the aesthetic of contemporary homosexuality is urban, predicated on a resistance to the natural? How could he render his first same-sex kiss if it happened near the buckshot-dented water barrels at the back barn? Coming of age as I did in the shadows of poets like Frank O’Hara and Mark Doty, it was difficult not to internalize the growing tension between what I perceived as the language of “legitimate” gay culture and the language of the place where I was born. As another gay writer once said to me, “Nobody wants to read about some queer milking a cow.”
In the end, my literary coming of age involved a search for works that challenged these assumptions, a kind of shadow canon that hadn’t been included in what I’d been taught. I discovered Don Schueler’s memoir, A Handmade Wilderness, about a gay, interracial couple in 1968 who bought eighty backwoods acres in southern Mississippi. I read Jim Grimsley’s gay-themed rural novels, Winter Birds and Dream Boy, as well as, long before it became an award-winning movie, Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Though I’d been taught Whitman as a poet of nineteenth-century New York City, I found passages that celebrate love between men in a natural world: “To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean, / On his right cheek I put the family kiss.” I discovered James Wright’s poem “Sappho,” about a rural woman’s love for a married woman, as well as Adrienne Rich’s “For Julia in Nebraska,” which contains the lines “for Willa Cather, lesbian, / whose letters were burnt in shame.” These works, I learned, existed, but weren’t widely anthologized, weren’t part of how I’d been encouraged to imagine what it meant to be rural or gay.
“It’s taken a couple decades but more gay writers are beginning to claim their rural Americas.”
One essential discovery was the poet James L. White, also born and reared in Indiana, and the author of a single volume of poetry, The Salt Ecstasies, originally published in 1983 and out of print for decades until it was reissued by Graywolf Press in 2010. Many gay poets—Mark Doty among them—have hailed White as a pioneer of contemporary gay poetry because of his early and frank depiction of love and desire between men. What particularly struck me when I first read his work, however, was that this frank expression of sexuality was located in a landscape that I knew well. Although the poems aren’t entirely rural, erotic longing is paired with glimpses of the agrarian Midwest: “I leave you first in sleep,” writes White, “. . . then take the early bus to Laurel / away from the raw and nameless // Some farm kid presses against my leg. / I look at the long backs of men in the fields / and doze to dream you’re going through me/ like winter bone . . .” (“The Salt Ecstasies.”) Throughout the poems, his lovers aren’t gym-sculpted Adonises from gay bathhouses; they’re working class men—a “guy who hauled parts for a living” (“The First Time”), or a man who fills “the room with gasoline smell from [his] overalls” (“Making Love to Myself”). White’s was not the urban gay world modeled by poets I admired deeply, but couldn’t fully enter. It was a world I knew first hand, had grown up in, and finally, it seemed, might be able to reclaim for myself.
It’s taken a couple decades but more gay writers are beginning to claim their rural Americas. Michael Walsh, one such young poet, won the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for his first book, The Dirt Riddles, which includes “Haying the Fields,” “Morning Milkings,” and “Barn Clothes.” Amongst these renderings of Midwest farm life, there’s “Wish”:
When I kiss him, weed sour
and tomato green
after hours in this garden,
I taste the darkness
suspended between bone and skin,
the loam and manure
we eat through bright leaves.
In his pebble-torn hands
I’m white butcher paper,
unwrapped outside for the feast.
My nipple ripens
fast in his mouth. But
first, in my hand, the
its hot spray into the grass.
I’d like to be the jet of water
that breaks over his skin,
the lucky stream that touches
and tastes him all at once,
every finger a tongue.
In Walsh’s hands, the language of the farm—“weed,” “tomato,” “loam,” “manure”—becomes the language of queer desire, an embodiment of Salman Rushdie’s claim, in Imaginary Homelands, that “description is itself a political act,” that “redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it.”
I’ve long wondered, what particular rural America would men like Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Metzger have described, if given a chance? More gay writers have begun to complicate the myth of open farmland, heterosexual masculine know-how, and pioneer spirit that stretches back to our country’s origins, and which has gone on to be recorded and revised by generations of American writers. As queer icon Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz shows us, a journey to the Emerald City only returns you to Kansas. All roads lead back home.
Visiting Indiana almost a year ago, I went one night for a drive and found myself by chance on Bear Road, passing wheat fields and crumbling barns until I reached the house where Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Metzger lived. I hadn’t seen them for almost twenty years. I’d heard that Mr. Metzger retired but could still be seen some days helping Mr. Dorsey at the funeral home. I stopped for a moment in front of their driveway. A small chicken coop lay to the right beside an old unpainted barn hunkered in shadow. The porch bulb lit up a red windsock hanging slack near the front door. Their curtains were drawn, but I saw shapes pass behind the lit windows. I sat in my car wondering if the two of them could ever know how much they once consoled and troubled me. Their presence had assured me I wasn’t alone, yet I feared my fate was to become them—subject of smirks and eye rolls, the town joke. What I couldn’t imagine then was what it was to be them, what they endured, what pleasures and duties kept them there. What would’ve happened if I’d had the courage to ask? What would they have said to me, a boy they might have barely noticed, a boy so hungry to understand his world through the books he read?
After college, I returned home for short visits to see my family. I moved to Austin, Texas; briefly New York; then to Washington, DC, and San Francisco, always looking for that city I’d imagined as a young man. But all the while I carried with me my memory of the aluminum fish shed beside the cattaillined lake, the vinegar stink of sheep manure mixed with tractor fumes, even Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Metzger feeding chickens, staking their claims on the vast distance between official history and the more complicated past. I’d like to believe that one day they’ll be buried together in the cemetery off Route 9, but all I know is that eventually they’ll vanish from the landscape sharing the voice of Percival Sharp, one of the talking dead from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology: “I stirred certain vibrations in Spoon River / Which are my true epitaph, more lasting than stone.”
Note: names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of people in this essay.
This essay originally appears in New England Review Vol. 38, No. 3.