|Three Lindsey Brothers and Father, 1953, Columbus, Mississippi|
Today is Mark Doty's birthday. It also happens to be my brother's birthday, and I note in this piece about Doty at Box Turtle Bulletin that my brother and Doty were born on the same day in the same year. Doty's Heaven's Coast, chronicling his partner Wally Roberts's long battle with and eventual death from AIDS, was one of the more moving narratives I read during the acute years of the AIDS crisis, as many of us lost friends and family members with a regularity that made the heart beat lead, day following after day. (The other, and perhaps my favorite, memoir in the same vein that sticks particularly in my mind is Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart).
Here's an excerpt from Heaven's Coast at the Modern American Poetry website:
I was raised on apocalypse. My grandmother--whose Tennessee fundamentalism reduced not a jot her generosity or spiritual grace--used to read me passages from the Book of Revelation and talk about the immanence of the Last Days. The hymns we sang figured this world as a veil of appearances, and sermons in church characterized the human world as a flimsy screen behind which the world's real actors enacted the struggles and dramas of a loftier realm. Not struggles, exactly, since the outcome was foreknown: the lake of fire and the fiery pit, the eternal chorus of the saved--but dramatic in the sense of scale, or scope. How large and mighty was the music of our salvation!
When the Hog Farm commune came to my town in an old school bus painted in Day-Glo colors swirled like a Tibetan mandala, the people who came tumbling out into the park had about them the aura of a new world. Their patchouli and bells and handmade sandals were only the outward signs of a new point of view. We'd see things more clearly, with the doors of perception cleansed; fresh vision would yield new harmony, transformation. I was an adolescent, quickly outgrowing religion when this new sense of the apocalyptic replaced it with the late sixties' faith in the immanence of Revolution, a belief that was not without its own religious tinge and implication. Everything promised that the world could not stay the same; the foundations of order were quavering, both the orders of the social arena and of consciousness itself. I couldn't articulate much about the nature of the future I felt was in the offing, but I could feel it in the drift of sitar music across a downtown sidewalk, late summer afternoons, and in the pages of our local "underground" newspaper, The Oracle, with its sinuous letterhead as richly complicated as the twining smoke of the Nepalese rope incense I used to burn. I was sure that certain sorts of preparation were ridiculously beside the point. Imagine buying, say, life insurance, or investing in a retirement plan, when the world as we'd always known it was burning?
Happy birthday, Philip, in case you're reading my blog (and I hope you're doing something more rewarding on your birthday). I still remember as if it's yesterday the day Mother came home from the hospital carrying you, a newborn little brother, in her arms. I was still in my believing in Superman phase when Mama told me you'd been born, and was hopping down her stairs, one step at a time, a towel clothespinned to my back, as I hoped that with one of those hops, having eaten the cereal whose box promised I could become Superman, I'd suddenly take flight, the cape unfurling behind me.
Apocalypse in our dreams, too. I imagine you remember the warnings (Mama again, with her Tennessee-born father) that if we disobeyed, sassed, used hateful language, lied or stole (unthinkable, both of those sins!), failed to say our prayers or took the Lord's name in vain, the Devil would reach from beneath the ground and pull us down to abide with him--warnings that led to hysteria the day our baby cousin Donna unearthed a catseye marble in Mama's backyard, and realized she had found the Devil. Who was there to claim her as his own, since simply by living and breathing, we were all those bad things against which we had long been warned.
Have a good birthday, devoid of apocalyptic imaginings--and I hope to talk to you later in the day.