By Don Adams
When I look back on it, it seems to me that I have spent a significant part of my conscious adult life in the active and sometimes arduous process of being gay. The prose poems below have been a part of that process. From a personal and perhaps generational perspective, these poems, written over a period of years, seem to me as much historical documents as aesthetic objects. For generations of the future, being gay may well seem, one hopes, a mere fact of life, like being American or Chinese, tall or short. But for young men and women of my generation, and in many situations of course still today, being gay was and is a predicament.
Psychology can help. In graduate school I pored through Freud and Jung and their disciples in an effort to explain to myself my inclinations and identity. Modern psychology admittedly has a long and sad history of being used in the service of bigotry and oppression. But at its best, psychology is an effort at understanding, and “to understand is to pity and forgive,” as Somerset Maugham, a once celebrated and now critically neglected gay writer, assures us in his nearly forgotten autobiography.
Maugham is a case in point in regards to the at times torturous evolution of gay identity in recent history. When he was writing his drama and fiction in the first half of the 20th Century, Maugham was compelled by societal prejudice and indeed legal stricture to omit any direct reference to homosexuality. But when we read him by today’s standards and assumptions regarding sexual identity and awareness, his work all too easily appears the product of a hopeless closet case. To comprehend that work sympathetically, we have to recreate in some measure the assumptions and prejudices of the society in which it was appreciatively received, and which it in no small measure condemned and critiqued. For in its broadest existential sense, to understand is not only to pity and forgive, but to accept that one has an ethical duty to challenge and attempt to change.
Maugham’s work takes up the challenge of changing a bigoted world in a courageous but necessarily coded way that requires some teasing out. The poems below, written in a less dire time for sexual minorities, are correspondingly less circumspect, but they exhibit nevertheless many signs and symptoms of the cultural and psychological closet from which they were attempting to emerge. When I read them now, some years after composition, and from the relative security of a less bigoted world, it seems to me that they were attempting to compel an ignorant, indifferent, or even hostile reader into sympathetic comprehension. Perhaps they were addressed in some sort of unconscious way to my parents (who conspicuously appear in them but never to my knowledge read them), kind-hearted individuals who were compelled into psychological cruelty toward their gay son by religious stricture and societal prejudice. But the crucial audience for the poems as psychological and therapeutic objects was even closer to home. For it is true, as Maugham said as well, that there is no one in greater need of one’s sympathy, or for whom it is more efficacious, than oneself.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD
I thought like a child, a simple fact. At the dime store once, my hippie cousin bought us hats. I chose a floppy denim number with orange and yellow flowers embroidered on the crown. When I got home with the prized purchase, my mother, glancing up from her recumbent position on the couch, pronounced a casual curse upon it, “Why are you wearing a girl’s hat son?” Seeing my face tragically altered by the fact, she said to my cousin, “You know what he is going to do now, don’t you?” And there were tears beneath the brim.
Some years later the young man’s mother, driven to distraction by repeated rebuffs, took the matter in hand one night while riding home with her son in the car, “You think you’re better than us now, don’t you?” She got, as usual, no significant response. His thoughts on the matter he was keeping well under the ubiquitous brim of his hat. Read the rest of this entry »