Poem a day #14 Getting Dressed for Work

here’s a little lesson in what first drafts can look like. This not-yet-a-poem wanders all around, taking forever to tell a story which will probably be reduced to a few descriptive details when I’m done blithering and ready to really write. Inside every narrative is a lyric waiting to happen, but sometimes digging it out is not so easy. If I can’t remember the name of the woman I went out with, why is she even here in a poem about something else? And be forewarned that this piece doesn’t end but only gives up, out of time and out of words.

Getting Dressed for Work
1.2

Buttoning my Arrow shirt,
centering my thick leather belt
over the fly of my chinos,
sliding on my Doc Martens,
my mind bounced back
to Orange County, California
in 1986, on my first date
with a woman,
whose name I can’t recall,
in my first lesbian bar
whose name I don’t remember,

where I can still clearly see
the butch women—
the old school butches,
the men’s pants butches,
the starched collar butches,
the gentle hands that could
take you out butches,
the hold the door hold your chair
hold your hand but never let you
win at pool butches—
the butches, who all wore
tiny gold earrings.
Girly earrings, not Harlem studs
studs.

I stared at the butches,
discretely, for I’d read all about them
in my coming-out frenzy,
and also at their earrings,
mentioned in none
of my reading. My date,
as flighty as those earrings were
incongruous,
seemed not to notice.

Monday in coming out group
I asked my mentor Laurie,
who smiled at my description
with only half her face.

The dress code, she said. Don’t you know
about the dress code? When the bars
were raided, any woman wearing
less than three items
of women’s clothing
could be arrested
as a pervert.

Standing in Philadelphia
in 2010, I examine myself.
Men’s shirt.
Men’s style-pants.
Men’s shoes.
Men’s undershirt.
Men’s belt.
No jewelry.
Bra.
Today, women’s underwear.
Black socks – do cotton socks have gender?
Wallet.
Carefully chosen gender-neutral
burnt orange urban messenger bag.

I’d be in the paddy wagon,
my picture spread on the paper,
my job lost probably
my apartment lost
maybe and even if I ran
out the back I could still
have been beaten openly
on any street.

How do you get dressed—
oh that most ordinary
of daily experiences—
trapped between the radical need
to be only who you are
and constant fear
of arrest? How did you find
masculine-looking shirts
that still button on the left?
Shoes just female enough
to keep you out of jail?

How did you invent a world
in a world not ready for you,
oh Butches with gold earrings?
I know you fondled the silky panties
of the femmes with teased up hair,
but did you, secretly, fondle
your own, those bits of nylon tricot,
swathes of practical cotton?

Or was it the women police officers
fondling your panties
when you were stripped in search
of women’s clothes?

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When I was a Boy

As I’ve been thinking about imaginary bodies my mind has wandered to the Dar Williams song “When I was a Boy.” on her album The Honesty Room. Certainly one of my imaginary bodies as a child was a boy—not so much in terms of sex as of gender privilege. I wanted what boys had, all that freedom and independence and roughness that was praised and not scolded.

When I was a Boy
music and lyrics by Dar Williams

I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other’s lives out on the pirate’s deck.

And I remember that night
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe,
someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home.

When I was a boy, I scared the pants off of my mom,
Climbed what I could climb upon
And I don’t know how I survived,
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew.

And you can walk me home, but I was a boy, too.

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor come outside to say, “Get your shirt,”
I said “No way, it’s the last time I’m not breaking any law.”

And now I’m in this clothing store, and the signs say less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

When I was a boy, See that picture? That was me
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees
And I know things have gotta change,
They got pills to sell, they’ve got implants to put in,
they’ve got implants to remove

But I am not forgetting…that I was a boy too

And like the woods where I would creep, it’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired, ‘cept when I’m being caught off guard
And I’ve had a lonesome awful day, the conversation finds its way
To catching fire-flies out in the backyard.

And so I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say, “Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won”
And he says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see

When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could always cry, now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too.
And you were just like me, and I was just like you”

Manly Sappho

quotations from various ancient sources about Sappho, as listed in Willis Barnstone’s translation Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho

[She was called] “manly Sappho,” either because she was famous as a poet, an art in which men are known, or else because she has been defamed for being of that tribe [of homosexuals].
from Porphyrio, in Horace’s Epistles 1.19.28

The manly Sappho tames the muse of Archilochos through her prosody….
from Horace Epode

I always wanted more

from “Adah Isaacs Menken” by Enid Dame in Confessions

You see, most people
stun themselves through life
convinced a half-dead state
is all that they can bear.

I always wanted more:
to mount the world and ride it
through the farthest galaxies,
to feel that power flow
between my legs.