Rhymes for the Dead & Dying
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
I was digging through boxes of old paper, I have many. Birthday cards, receipts for clothing I'll never wear, the hastily written phone number of a forgotten lover. "Last night was wicked," Jeremy wrote, "I hope you call me." I thought about the note for most of minute, unable to remember who Jeremy was but missing him nonetheless. I found a concert ticket for Skinny Puppy and Severed Heads playing at an old cathedral in Oklahoma City; it cost $16. Where did my life go wrong, I wondered, why don't I see bands anymore?
I wish Jeremy was here, so we could sort this out.
I also found some college papers, assignments from a creative-writing class in San Francisco. The paper has yellowed and the wonky font is from a typewriter because I didn't have a computer. Reading them now, the text is unfamiliar; I remember only my teacher. She was young, thirty maybe, and looked a bit like the notorious Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss so I was instantly enamored.
The homework was from the fifth week of that semester, early October I think. Standing in front of the class, everyone read the poem they’d written that weekend. Mine was a dispassionate but polite suicide note from a lonely man to his seldom-seen roommate. It thanked the roommate for sharing his pot of morning coffee, and for always being quiet, and it asked the roommate if he wouldn’t mind feeding the cat.
After class that day, in a hushed voice, the writing teacher asked to speak with me privately. She was worried, she explained, that I had written about death and suicide for every assignment, all semester. As she spoke, I saw the worry wash over her tired eyes, behind their clumsy mascara and prescription glasses (the kind of glasses Heidi Fleiss might have worn to tally escort receipts on a big Unisonic adding machine). "You have lots to live for," she promised, "and a big bright future."
I was a bit embarrassed, and honestly surprised. I hadn't intended to threaten death, and I'd completely overlooked the overarching anguish of my oeuvre until the teacher pointed it out, poem by poem. Is that who I am, I wondered, am I morose? I listened quietly and thanked my teacher sincerely for her concern, and I assured her I was too eager for Halloween in the Castro to consider suicide just then.
Me at Halloween, c. 2008 (photo is from my book Oklahomo.)
Really, I remember the incident so well because the teacher’s concern was so alien, and so genuine; I couldn't remember anyone ever showing such candid care for my wellbeing. Not my mother's family nor my father's, and none of the Jeremy's who had scribbled their names on those little bedside notes. There were no frat parties or homecoming games in my college experience, my favorite memory of art school is the Heidi Fleiss lady asking me to stay alive.
The next week, I was determined to write something deathless. The assignment was to include conversation in some vernacular so many of the students wrote their stories in southern voices, and a few of the white kids wrote as if they were black. I wrote mine in the slang of drag queens I had known, the ones I toured with when I was a teenage runaway, traveling state-to-state, lipsyncing my little songs and collecting the dollar tips that would feed and house me until I was old enough to get a job. I didn't know it then, but that homework and those memories would become chapter twelve in my Oklahomo memoir.
I don’t recall my writing teacher's name—I think of her as Ms. Fleiss—but I did thank her in my book. And I haven’t found that poem from the suicidal roommate (I hope he's alright.) I did find two of the others though. If you have the tolerance for gothy teenage art-school rumination, they’re just below. ▼
I Know Why the Blackbird Sings
The Sun and I will soon rise
With careful steps across the floor
We’ll inch our way to the door.
I’ll run a bath and have a shave
And wax my hair to make it stay.
I always wear my hair this way.
I’ll pour a glass half-full of juice
From plums I strained the night before,
And then for dinner… something more.
I’ll pass old friends in the hall,
Our faded photos on the wall.
I’m younger then, and twice as tall.
And when the sky is dull and red
I’ll scrub my face and go to bed,
A dry towel on my dampened head.
Then, as shadows stretch across the floor
I’ll close my eyes and want for more.
But I know not to wish for things,
Cause I know why the blackbird sings
(he hides my death under his wing)
And the Winter Sun will slip and set
On this small room, and my regret.
At 3 A.M. I’ll lift my head
To show the world that I’m not dead.
I’ll stretch my neck and point my ear
Toward the wall to strain to hear
The hurried chase of speeding cars
And sounds of women home from bars.
I’ll hear them, they won’t hear me
Because the rustling of a tree
And the wind will drown my cries,
Its chill will sting and dry my eyes.
After the ladies settle in
I’ll pull the sheet over my chin
And across my face, except my eyes
And then I’ll wait for the sunrise.
A fly may fly near my head,
I’ll hold my breath, appearing dead.
On the eve of my leave from this place,
When a distant voice (obscured by rain)
Creeps inside and calls my name from the street,
I will stumble out toward the shout of the girl I long to meet
On 5th and Main, freckled by rain drops on her cheek.
She’ll tell me things about my life, about my daughter and my wife.
She’ll know the hour I was born, and of the parents that I mourn
Buried somewhere in the South.
Her tiny voice will hiss and crackle (from a fire in her mouth).
Then at last she will say, “It’s time for you to fly away from here.”
And when my head begins to spin upon its axis,
As streetlights unite in blinding lines of red and white,
And the blue-green eyes of passers-by meet mine
With expressions most reserved for dying cats,
On each rotation of my head… I’ll tip my hat.
Toward the end, when my neck fails to bend,
Suddenly without a hint, just as a break without a splint,
My head will wobble like a ball
And my dancing shell will trip and fall to the ground
And would sit upright but won’t be able,
(Like a patient anesthetized on a table)
And finally then, my dizzied head
Will pluck itself from the dead and rise in flight
And blow a kiss to say “Goodnight.”