(Prelude) ~Five years ago, there were full-throated protests against Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducting concerts in Verizon Hall. He had already been was dropped from many international orchestras because of the maestro’s very public support Vladimir Putin, who was, among other things, arrested or imprisoned political dissidents, enacted a slate of anti-GLBTQ policies against Russians and had already seized territories in Ukraine.
There were no protests earlier this month against Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev when he led the Philadelphia Orchestra, with guest soloist Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas. When Putin invaded Ukraine nine months ago, Sokhiev was being pressured by colleagues to condemn the war, but the conductor deflected any full-throated denouncement of Putin’s war in Ukraine, but announced on social media and he had, ”decided to resign from my positions as Music Director of Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and Orchester National du Capitole de Toulouse.
Rebuffing any overt political statement, stating “In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other. I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over the other.” As disarming (or dissembling) as that can be inferred, Sokhiev dodged retribution has sidestepped any overt repercussions here.
The program almost filled Verizon Hall to the rafters on Nov. 5-6 conducting an all-Russian program of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and starting with lusty horn fanfares of Alexander Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor, (no Stranger in Paradise idyllic tone-poem here). Sokhiev ramping up the volume of this showpiece as a tune up for the more introspective themes of the Russian masterpieces that followed.
Then Sokhiev’s shaped the lush, evocative orchestral opening of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1, composed in 1911 by the 22-year-old Sergei’s innovative single movement that gives the soloist room for interpretive artistry, (if they can master the technical requirements) and pianist Lukas Geniusas was, technically and otherwise, inside all of the luminous chambers of this piece. Geniusas’ delivering the concerto’s lightning note clusters and spidery keyboard runs, that in a bar, decrescendo with such delicacy.
Geniusas’ unfussy virtuosity delivering all of the lyrical, dramatic, and energy with this orchestra of this masterpiece. Prokofiev’s cohesive structure foreshadows many of the composer’s symphonic ideas and cathartic dramatic motifs in his ballet scores. In its interplay with the Philadelphia Orchestra proved equally nuanced with outstanding duet passages between Geniusas and by flutist Jeffrey Khaner and oboist Philippe Tondre.
The Philadelphia Orchestra is indelibly identified with the ‘long bowing’ Russian techniques of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertory, so it was particularly interesting to hear the 4th shaped by a Russian maestro. Sokhiev conducted sans baton and the energy between the maestro and musicians palpable. The maestro was also very animated on the podium, pivoting and leaning over toward the musicians with lyrical gestures, animated hand dances, sculpting the sounds in the air.
The Pizzicato movement was at its musically wittiest, beyond its initial novelty and the sonics of the Tchaikovsky’s thundering last movement had this audience instantly on their feet with rounds of lusty applause for this performance. Among the outstanding soloists in this performance- David Kim (1st violin) Hai-Ye Ni (cello) Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Jennifer Montone (French Horn) Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), all of the orchestra’s mighty upper & lower strings.
Choreography: Kyle Abraham* in collaboration with A.I.M
Music: D’Angelo & The Vanguard
Philadelphia Film Center
Anita Baker’s 90s hit ‘Sweet Love’ was the tune that set the mood for the almost full house at the PFC Theater for the final performance of choreographer Kyle Abraham’s 2021 dance work ‘An Unfinished Love’ at the 2022 Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Abraham started developing the piece in late 2019 and had to wait out the pandemic shutdowns, before bringing to the stage. ‘An Unfinished Love’ was a hit both at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow and was a curated event at FringeArtsand the show continues on tour across the US.
The piece was inspired by the choreographer’s memories of his parent’s house parties with family and friends, which Abraham chose to soundtrack with the neo soul of D’Angelo and The Vanguard, from the day and especially from the nights.
The set that includes a plush red sofa, end table fern, abstract art & graffiti on the back wall created by Joe Buckingham (whose art for De la Soul albums) and the intimate lighting design by Dan Scully complete the intimate stage pictures. All backdrop for Abraham’s dance-theater comic drama ignited by such D’Angelo classics as ‘Betray My Heart;’ ‘Prayer’ and of course ‘Untitled (How Do I Feel). The choreography just flows, and the music expertly mixed by sound editor Sam Crawford.
The ensemble cast of dancers-actors- Jamaal Bowman, Tamisha A. Guy*, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, Claude “CJ” Johnson, Catherine Kirk, Jae Neal, Donovan Reed, Martell Ruffin, Dymon Samara, Gianna Theodore – all build dimensional characters. The costumes by Abraham and Karen Young casually reveal much about their dance characters.
Abraham’s choreography seamlessly blends elements of ballet/modern, jazz, jive, a dash of B’way, and Vogue ballroom. Abraham’s mosaic is a warm, witty homage to Black social dances past & present- Savoy swing, tap lines, break moves, capoeira flips and laced with balletic aerials, turn variations and arabesques solos that keep moving. And a breezy basso nova tango danced by Tamisha A. Guy and Claude “CJ” Johnson.
The dancers have moments of humorous party dialogue Catherine Kirk’s character Tina mocks Richard, who (Martel Ruffin) sweaty pickup lines. Some of the partiers on the couch gossip about people gossiping. Duos and trio suddenly start to dance, picking up a thread in the music with club moves.
Four partiers are seated on the couch and launch into a series of unison nods, hand dances, leg positions that speak volumes of choreography shade. Just as the party is in full swing Abraham inserts a raucous ensemble scene of dancing and party mingling all in mesmerizing Butoh-esque slow motion.
Catherine Kirk in an elegant pewter jumper and she hypnotizes in her solos and the song central duet with Martel Ruffin. Their dance characters, Tina, and Richard whose pickup lines are getting him nowhere, but they do drift offstage and come back adjusting their clothing, so maybe Tina gave him a test run. Abraham’s choreography conveys sexual desire but emotional vulnerability, it is the central duet to ‘Untitled (How Do I Feel) THE song among D’Angelo fans. This audience swooned as well.
Jae Neal has the most fun with their dance partners and flirting and Donovan Reed with affectionate demands . Neal has a Vogue master duck walk Vogue moment, and then a spasm that has him pitched on the floor as Reed cradles his body. Abraham’s alludes to the 90s era of AIDS devastation in the gay black community. Abraham also commenting on the gun violence against Black men in his works, as an intolerable reality in this era.
This was Abraham’s love letter to Black culture past and present, as well as an affirmation of community. And the private power of loving the one you are with all your heart and soul. And do we ever need to be reminded of that now, no? Cue music!
Abraham is one of the most in demand choreographer in the world, his accolades include the prestigious Princess Grace Award, the 2013 McArthur Fellowship and just this year is also an honoree of the 2022 Dance Magazine Awardee in recognition of their lasting impact on the field.
Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist David Maraniss’s main arena is political biography (Clinton, Obama, Gore, et.al) and culturally defining eras of post WWII American history- from the‘Red Scare’ of the 50s to civil unrest of the Vietnam War. But without doubt Maraniss brings his full game to his bios of sports legends and is again in top form with ‘Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe.’ The latest in a trilogy- (with Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente) about legendary athletes whose achievements went far beyond their fields of play.
There is so much mythology about Jim Thorpe’s truly remarkable life, that the real man and his struggles get lost. Since his Olympic victories at the 1912 Stockholm Games and going on to become a football and baseball headliner on the US semipro teams, he broke records on the field, but set goals for himself that were impossible to achieve in his country.
Thorpe was exploited for all he was worth, and never reaped the rewards he deserved. In fact, he went through periods of near destitute and yet whatever hardship was thrown at him throughout his career, as Maraniss reports, he remained true to himself and rose above everything with dignity. ‘Path Lit by Lightning’ vanquishes all of the myths, good and bad, in Maraniss’s fine-line portrait of the man and his tumultuous times.
As he did with in Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics (with superstar cast of athletes including Mohamed Ali, Wilma Rudolf, et.al.) Maraniss is expert at detailing the political and cultural backdrops of the sports worlds. In Thorpe’s era it is the pervasive layers of prejudice and racism that Indigenous people from the government and the culture that Thorpe, along with millions of others with tribal heritage, had to surmount on a daily basis.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1878, The son of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, when Indigenous nations were being driven from their traditional lands by the ‘Dawes Act’ decree and white landgrabbers and businessmen. His father Hiram Thorpe was a hunter and rough riding bootlegger. His life started in hardship and tragedy. His twin brother Charles died when he was 9 and his mother Charlotte, died two years later during childbirth.
His mother told Jim that he was a direct descendent of Chief Black Hawk. Jim ran away but was returned to his father and stepmother who sent him to the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School when he was 16. a former Revolutionary war military barracks now established by Col. Richard Pratt in 1878 as an institution to indoctrinate Native American children with the stated goal to “Kill the Indian and make the man.” Assimilationist and culturalization
Among other indignities the institution would force the students are not what was derisively termed “blanket Indians”- dressing in buckskin, ornamented in tribal beads- as well as forbid them not communicate in the tribal language. Carlisle hid the fact that many escaped at their first opportunity. And the institution covered up the many deaths from diseases that the compound was not prepared for. Seriously ill students were sent back to their native territories to die, but many were buried in a hidden graveyard at Carlisle, denying their relatives a proper tribal burial on their own lands.
‘ Many Indigenous leaders rejected this type of ‘education’ in the words of Sinte Galeska (Chief Spotted Tail) of the Sioux Nation, through an interpreter, told Pratt that “all white people are thieves and liars.” citing being deceived by “the government on the Black Hill treaty. We refuse to send our children because we do not want them to learn such things.”
But many Carlisle students were the sons and daughters of tribal chiefs saw Carlisle and other government boarding schools for ‘Indians’ as their only opportunity to survive in the US after generations had been driven from their lands, and the near total genocide that US government perpetrated against Indigenous Nations.
The students were also forced to go through summers of ‘Outings’ being required to work as domestic servants for further ‘cultural assimilation’ (as Carlisle School phrased it) in neighboring family farms and town homes of white families ‘sponsors’ of Carlisle, the students, at $5 a month. In other words, it was indentured servitude. Thorpe was 19 and in grade seven, when he tried to run, but as a noncitizen ‘ward’ of the state, was tracked down and forced to return.
The first legend of how Thorpe ended up on the Olympic team is walking past the Carlisle Track team, wearing overhauls and casually jumping over the high-bar that was too high for the other athletes, but Thorpe, untrained in the sport, cleared easily. The coach immediately recruited him for the team.
The Carlisle football team played against Yale, Harvard and other elite institutions, even though they racked up impressive wins, they took hits by those institution who claimed they were a rogue team. And as Maraniss tracks, newspapers used racist language covering them.
Thorpe did not want to continue at Carlisle after his five year course, he returned to Oklahoma with plans of playing making money in the minor leagues, with plans to homestead in oil rich country. He was lured back as a ringer for the Carlisle’s football team by Carlisle’s legendary coach Pop Warner and to train with track teammate Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi long-distance runner, for the US Olympic team.
Carlisle’s rout against the U.S. Army team the ‘Indian’ team was symbolically more than just a grudge match, it was historic and Maraniss’s account is one of the many play by play highlights of the book.
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Thorpe one of three native nations athletes joining all mens’ American teams. Crossing the Atlantic on the SS Finland, just two weeks after the Titanic sank. Reporters jumped on the story that Thorpe had injured himself training, but it didn’t stop him from winning a medal on the first day of the Stockholm Games.
Thorpe won two Olympic Gold Medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon, came back home and was the star football player for the Carlisle School. The most celebrated athlete in the world and he was not an American citizen. Stories were spun about him in the press, most laced with racist tropes, many outright fictions about his behavior off the field, he wanted to be away from the spotlight. The press was making an issue that he had been paid seasonal player in NC minor league baseball two years before.
Pop Warner and other officials denied that they were aware of Thorpe, like many other students were earning money during the summer playing summer minor-league professional sports for extra money. But instead of backing him up,
Thorpe took the fall and was summarily stripped of his Olympic Medals. IOC official Avery Brundage made the permanent decision that Thorpe had to forfeit the medals because he played and was paid as a semipro baseball two years before. Even as everyone from President Dwight Eisenhower, and a host of other Olympians lobbied Brundage to return the medals to Thorpe, he would refuse, even as he would hypocritically praise Thorpe as the greatest athlete ever.
Thorpe was contrite, unnecessarily, but accepted it with grace. Meanwhile baseball teams were scouting him. And even though baseball was his weakest sport, teams knew he would be a huge draw. Thorpe went with the Giants. He had just married Avi, and they were off on an overseas tour to Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.
Pro football was in its infancy and completely deregulated, the safety of the players was rarely a consideration, it was a true blood sport. Collegiate football was more of the money game and taken more seriously, but still the rules were all over the place. Thorpe was voted in as the league’s first president for the inaugural pro season, but by the following year, it was decided that a businessman should take charge or the organization.
The Carlisle athletes were in the ‘bush’ and semipro teams, the press continuing to cover them as undisciplined , hard drinking, carousing ‘Injuns’ among other racial tropes, Maraniss writing “The pervasive view of the debilitated Indian athletes failed to consider the corrosive effects of a dominant culture that left them straddling two worlds, constantly fighting against the odds, romanticized, and dehumanized at the same time.”
Thorpe was in his mid-30s and still bouncing between football and baseball. Wowing the crowds in spurts but dealing with injuries and money pressures. Iva stood by him, but she was fed up with his long stretches away from the family and especially his drinking. His press got nastier and always laced with racist tropes. Every season, he vowed to quit the games, but money concerns lured him in. He still drew crowds.
Iva and Jim decided to separate. Jim stayed on the road, Iva and their three daughters went back to Oklahoma. And a year later she got full custody of the children in their divorce settlement. Jim was then
trying to make smart career moves off the field starting with landing small parts in the movies and as an ‘Injun’ consultant. But he got mostly work as an ‘extra’ on scale pay gigs.
He married Freeda (Libby), but he remained on the road trying to hustle jobs as player-coach. Maraniss has 2 chapters of Thorpe’s love letter to Freeda in the book, which strike as filler and seem out of balance, since. Maraniss he doesn’t delve very deeply into either marriage very deeply. Like his father Hiram, he was on the road a lot of the time. When Iva filed for divorce after 11 years of marriage, she and their daughters hadn’t seen Jim in over a year.
Thorpe and Freeda had three sons and they were making the best of things in California; Jim was getting gig work as an extra and also advocating for Native Americans to be better represented in pictures. Eventually the marriage broke apart, their sons sent off to boarding schools.
Thorpe’s 3rd marriage was equally disastrous in different ways, as he was on an endless road to “keep hustling” for jobs in his field and eventually, anywhere he could get work. Patsy Thorpe driving him with one scheme after another in various business that would capitalize on his celebrity. They ended up broke and he suffered two heart attacks in their years together.
The 1932 L.A. Olympic officials did not invite Thorpe to the opening ceremony until a government official intervened. Thorpe took it all in stride, but he was lobbying once again to have his medals restored.
He became a spokesman for the cause of his people at schools, sports, and civic organizations, reminding his audiences:
“Indians, you know, are misnamed. We aren’t Indians we are Red Men, and we settled this country long before the white people ever came to these shores why then should we be deprived of citizenship until we can qualify with a written examination none of you here is a government ward you are citizens because that heritage has been passed on to you, but red men are wards of the government.”
The IOC restored Thorpe’s standing as an Olympic champion, but only with a symbolic ceremony in returning his medals had presented them to his children, 30 years after his death. Officially he was named as co-winner with the 2nd place athletes, who all along refused the medals from the start, wanting Thorpe to remain the gold medalist in his events.
But as Maraniss movingly details, the Thorpe’s ultimate victory lap was the achievements of his seven children writing”
“For all of Jim’s troubles– his struggles with alcohol, his nomadic lifestyle, his Sisyphean cycle of finding and losing jobs, his bad luck and mistreatment, his dysfunctional marriages, his time away from his sons and daughters when they were young– the Thorpe family did not wither but thrived from one generation to the next, producing military officers, government workers, college graduates, and Native American activists.”
The scope of this biography, in its meticulous research and rigorous prose style should make Maraniss a contender for a third Pulitzer, meanwhile it’s definitely a must- read sports bio-histories of this or any other championship season.
British poet Thom Gunn was just out of Trinity College when he published his first collection of poetry ‘Fighting Terms’ in 1952, even though he avoided poetic styles of the era-such as blank verse, confessionals and other devises were the rage. Instead, he wrote with in an anonymous voice, for instance, emulating the Elizabethans, as well as poetic meter. By the 60s, Gunn had become one of the most acclaimed poets of his generation in both the US & England, along with his peers.
As he was establishing his writing career, the literary closet was still very much a reality, but even early on he abstracted ‘otherness’ metaphorically in such poems as ‘Wolf Boy.’ But by the 60s, he was not holding back, with gay themes and imagery, sexual and otherwise. In collections ‘‘Moly’ ‘Boss Cupid.’ In 1993 his collection ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ was elegiac collection of loss and survival written during the height of the AIDS epidemic. A year later Gunn won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (Genius) Award.
He shared a home in San Francisco’s Haight with his lifelong partner Mike Kitay, an American theater director, who he met when at Cambridge in at a cast party for ‘Cyrano’ in 1952 and fell in love and shared an open relationship for the rest of their lives. And in Gunn’s case a sexually adventurous one, he loved the leather bars, dance clubs and the baths in SF, New York, and London.
There has been no biography, but there is now a virtual autobiography with the publication of ‘The Letters of Thom Gunn‘ A sprawling collection of his correspondence. A sprawling (& addictive) collection of Gunn’s correspondence selected by editors Clive Wilmer, Michael Nott, and August Kleinzahler, that are meticulous and thorough in their sourcing and annotation for narrative context. The first correspondence to his father from a 9-year-old Thom in 1937 and the last to his brother Ander, the year of his death in 2004. In between, Gunn is a habitual letter writer- to friends, family, editors, scholars, colleagues as well as his close friends from the leather bars and sex partners.
Gunn remained guarded about certain aspects of his tragic childhood in Britain post-WWII, his parents, both journalists, were divorced, his mother committed suicide, when Thom was 15 and Ander 12. It was only in his last book of poems ‘Boss Cupid’ (2000) that he wrote about his mother’s suicide. He sent the draft of ‘The Gas-Poker’ to Ander first, wanting his opinion about how he represented the tragedy. When Thom was 15 and Ander 12, when they discovered their mother’s body on the kitchen floor next to the oven. There are a few references about his parents in letters to close friends. His most affectionate letter throughout his life were to the two Aunts who took him in after this horrible tragedy.
Gunn came to the US in 1954, when Kitay was stationed in Texas. Gunn wrote gorgeous love letters- intimately confiding, lusty and spilling his guts and without pretention (except deliberately).
Gunn came to the US in 1954, to be with Kitay who was finishing his service in the Air Force in San Antonio. They weathered a scandal after the military interrogated Kitay about being homosexual. It came to nothing and Kitay was honorably discharged.
They converted a large house on Cole St. in San Francisco, and it became a refuge for their friends, artists in need, lovers, and other strangers. The fun and dramas all described in his letters as well as Gunn’s passions for cooking and gardening. Gunn enjoyed a strong bond with fellow British expat Christopher Isherwood, who prose style he much admired.
He was also an academic poetry lecture circuit, even though he was not that comfortable reading his own verse, eventually embracing the format, and even reading his work for broadcast. He never warmed up to the exclusivity of the book world more than professionally necessary. Thom much preferred checking out the leather bars in Frisco and New York.
Gunn himself admits to being bored and was sexually active into his 70s, with much younger men, even as he joked about why anyone his age would be interested. His personal life might be part of the theme in his poems and in his letters, but doggedly doesn’t want to bore. As his letters plainly reveal, it was a concern he never needed to worry about.
The letters are intimate, candid, witty, lusty, and charged with energy and wry observations about everything from poetic form to his prolific sex life. His correspondence is a paints a vivid self-portrait of the poet and private man, and his uninhibited and gregarious life.
Sean Hewitt is author of ‘J. M. Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism’ and the award- winning poetry collection ‘Tongues of Fire.’ He has just published ‘All Down Darkness Wide’ his harrowing memoir of love, loss and self-discovery. its evocative imagery and raw intimacy, you can almost forget that is nonfiction.
The title is from a poem by Gerald Hopkins that is engraved on the broken stone structures, in a Victorian era cemetery, referring to ghostly lanterns on, “paths leading me on to this navel of the city.” its labyrinths and shadows also a cruising ground and drug enclave.
Hewitt is there to soul search and escape to deal with his grief. And to keep vigil in remembrance of the gay men who have disappeared from violence, intolerance for decades and in Hewitt’s time, the generation of gay men from HIV/AIDS. Hewitt communes with those realities on this hallowed ground to make sense of his life now in the aftermath of his breakup of a five-year relationship with Elias.
Elias, a Swedish student who Sean met by accident when they were both traveling in Columbia. Hewitt had finished his degree at Cambridge and wanted to travel and begin his life as a writer.
First though, Hewitt recounts his affair with Jack, his first love at Cambridge. who he found out had recently died when he tried to get back in touch with him after his breakup with Elias. Sean’s memories of their first dates together so moving in their immediacy and eroticism as he sheds his shyness and caution, sexually and emotionally.
Hewitt’s generation of GLBTQ+ visibility but, as in many countries still navigating homophobia manifest in entrenched biases and socialpolitical norms. He lost touch with Jack after Cambridge and two years later when he found a photo of Jack, and tried to contact him through the internet, he came across his obituary.
With Elias it was an instant emotional attraction. At first, Elias was elusive, but eventually their casual friendship bloomed into a full romance during their journey. They soon were back home, Sean in England starting his career and Elias in Sweden, finishing his degree. They maintained a long-distant affair, visiting each other when possible, and when Hewitt was on a writing fellowship, they stayed at Elias’ parents, then got their own apartment together as Sean’s pursued a writing career.
Over time, their lives began to unravel, as Hewitt became aware of Elias’ pulling away into his own world of depression and despair which drove him to attempt suicide.
The causes of Elias’ depression that brought him to attempts at suicide, Hewett does not attempt to explain, other than wait helplessly, by Elias side, for a month while Elias was treated in a psychiatric hospital. The worry and crisis consuming his life as he tried to finish his professional commitments.
It is an intense, interior memoir, of a young life examined in real time and the paralyzing reality that he couldn’t Elias from killing himself. His feelings of inadequacy and his eventual resentment that he was put in a position of not knowing how bad it was going to get day to day. Elias becoming emotionally distant and self-isolating. They struggled to deal with the issues of Elias’ increasing mental decline.
Then on an otherwise normal appearing morning, Elias was upbeat and headed off to a busy morning at school. A short time later he called Sean in distress, but he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He was on a cliff ready to jump and didn’t, but he did swallow the hundreds of pills stuffed in his pockets. Hewitt and Elias’ father save him, get him to the hospital and after he is detoxed, for a month long stay in a psychiatric hospital for further treatment, Sean at his side every day.
When he was released and they returned to their apartment, they both realized that, everything between them had changed. They went through the motions, but they both were fearful that he would do it again. Hewitt’s unblinking and account of the desperation they both experienced of trying to make it work Elias continued to spiral into unrelenting depression.
In its unblinking honesty and beautifully crafted prose, this is one of the GLBTQ+ titles of the year. It belongs on the shelf with Paul Monette’s ‘Borrowed Time’ and Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Hours.‘ Even with a few episodes of drunken forays in Liverpool’s cruising grounds, that strike as too massaged, that said, ‘All Down Darkness Wide’ is altogether courageous in its emotional truths.
British poet & scholar Jack Parlett was on a fellowship from Oxford in 2019 to research cruising rituals of gay men. and his study brought him to the beaches of Cherry Grove and The Pines. Parlett covers that waterfront and much more in his book ‘Fire Island’ a social history of America’s fabled gay utopia
The queer lore of Fire Island reaches back to the 19th century with tales of visits by Wilde and Whitman. Even without electricity, in the 1920s, it was an idyllic getaway for Broadway performers, and soon a haven for artists and for countless others it was an escape from systemic oppression and rabid homophobia. Parlett chronicles the arc of the history and symbolic importance of what Fire Island represented for gay Americans over the course of a century.
‘Fire Island’ chronicles the tales of famous visitors including Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, Janet Flanner, James Baldwin, Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, Jared French, Patricia Highsmith, et, al.
And from there weaves his own his own experiences of self-discovery, exploring the clubs, the social strata and navigating the boytoy beach culture and sexual freedom including forays into the sexual playground of the dunes (immortalized by former dancer Wakefield Poole’s gayporn classic ‘Boys in the Sand’) and the notorious Meatrack.
But before that Parlett had his own symbolic ritual, the first thing he did was etch the name of poet Frank O’Hara in the sand on the exact spot where the poet died in a sand trawler accident in the 1950s.
One of the most stirring chapters in ‘Fire Island’ titled ‘The Plague’ chronicles the harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic is a stirring commentary on the history of loss, community, and activism. It opens with Parlett was part of New York’s 2019 Queer Liberation March organized Reclaim Pride Coalition, a group seeking to return the GLBTQ Pride month celebration away from being commercialized and depoliticized.
Larry Kramer gave his last speech at that march, before his death in 2020. Kramer was shunned on Fire Island after his novel ‘Faggots’ a satire on 70s hedonism in New York, when he became the fearless voice of AIDS awareness and activism. And as Parlett recounts, Kramer was challenging a new generation of gay Americans, intoning “What does Pride mean to you?” in front of 45,000 people in Central Park, as he called for more community solidarity and activism.
Parlett evokes all of the real and symbolic promise of Fire Island as a GLBTQ+ mecca as a vital chapter of American history. And a reminder that we must always be ready to fight for our place in the sun. Cue music!
Jack Parlett also pays tribute to the Violet Quill era of writers of the 70s including Fire Island denizens Edmund White, Vito Russo, Felice Picano and specifically Andrew Holleran whose defining 1978 novel “ Dancer From the Dance’ he cites as the “eulogy for the era’s dance floor and for many the ‘Great Pines novel.”Holleran’s latest work ‘The Kingdom of Sand’ is both fascinating and challenging.
The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Andrew Holleran’s 1978 gay literary classic ‘Dancer from the Dance’ captured the spirits and momentum of the gay sexual liberation in New York and Fire Island. His subsequent novels- Nights in Aruba, The Beauty of Men, In September, the Light Changes– have autobiographical threads, His last was ‘Grief” was published in 2005, and ‘The Kingdom of Sand’ picks up the story of its unnamed narrator, a gay man in his 60s, who has returned to Florida to take care of his dying parents and doesn’t leave and sets up a new one, in a barren and hostile environment.
Urged by friends to sell the home and resume his life, but he drifts into inertia, set in his ways, no healthy relationships outside of his friend Earl, a closeted neighbor in his 80s in failing health.
Holleran’s portraits of elderly gay men living dystopian lives in the retirement near Gainesville, Florida. Clinging in desperation to any sign of gay connection, resorting to haunting an old-timey porn arcade for anonymous sex or spending afternoon at a remote dock to pay hustlers to suck them off. Then recoiling into their isolation, trying to live with some dignity, in retirement in otherwise hostile hetero-dominant communities.
For both men, their only direct gay sexuality is to go to the video porn arcade (yes there is still that in this narrative), or a remote beach dock and hookup spot, which now is subject to police shakedowns circa 1955. For the narrator he relates watching porn on the laptop in the spot where his father would play solitaire. He spends many evenings with Earl watching old DVDs. and keeps an eye on a handyman who runs errands and fixes up the house for an increasingly infirm Earl.
Holleran is as obsessive as his main characters, listing, for instance, a laundry list of Hollywood gay cult classics that Earl watches, when a couple of flicks would make the point.
The prose imagery is bleak, some of it this side of Proustian. But he lingers on indulgences, itemizing things for instance, describing two men consumed with passing their evenings watching classic movies, in one section he lists a dozen of them, when one or two would make the point.
Even though the narrator casually mentions that he has a regular sex buddy for 20 years, it is mentioned in passing as he obsesses about the objects in Earl’s home. Forensic bleakness is struck over and over. It is more than a bit heavy going.
Holleran’s subject is death, and the fact that elderly single GLBTQ people face unique challenges. But that worthy subject gets buried in stream of consciousness, elegiac rambles. Doubly frustrating when Holleran’s imagery and symbolism about the natural environment and the flora and fauna is as elegant as ever . Meanwhile, there are long passages the narrator’s stream of consciousness rambles on about detoured roads and boarded up businesses, which after a while are redundant filler.
That said, the dynamics of the unnamed narrator and his friend Earl, in his 80s, are poignant and dimensional. You get glimpses for instance, of Earl and the narrator’s younger lives, oblique references to their past lives and relationships, flashbacks of their more fulfilling experience as a gay man, before the forensic bleakness drags on hitting the same motifs, and it is fascinating that if you hang in, you end up caring about the narrator and Earl.
But their stories are seem a bit out of balance. They are after all old enough to have survived eras of no legal civil-rights as queer men, and post-Stonewall liberation, then the , then community solidarity of the AIDS decades, and the codification of GLBTQ civil rights legislation. Somehow, it fascinates though in the arc of Holleran’s novels from Dancer.’ But only up to a point, as he abandons his characters in queer no man’s land.
Paul R. Deslandes investigates the generational dictates of what constitutes ‘masculine; appearance and behavior in his book ‘The Culture of Male Beauty.’ The book spans almost two centuries of interconnective analysis with the ongoing subtexts of straight, gay, genderfluid and racial sensibilities.
The coverboy of Paul Deslandes’ book is Edwardian gay poet and star athlete Rupert Brooke in fact was so comely in physical appearance that he was a model for E.M. Forster’s gay classic ‘Maurice’ which the author withheld from publication until after his death.
And Deslandes deconstructs Britain’s oppressive inequities of a century of obsessive sexual mores, propagated by religion, politics and society at large. Most of the rules which only seemed to apply to the lower classes or those trying to live openly on queer street.
Indeed, the hot-house all-male environments of Oxford and Eton, being on the not so down-low was normal rite of passage, but the offense was of course owning it and god forbid, saying it out loud. The repressive rules prohibited any realistic or healthy discourse about sex, straight or gay, sometimes even in marriages.
Deslandes’ chapters on male appearance after WWI are expose the insensitivity toward soldiers who were somehow survived the trenches in France and Germany, returned home with severe injuries and was considered disfigured faces, the victims of mustard gas, bomb shrapnel, bayonets, starvation.
British Military were well aware of promoting the images of handsome, groomed men in uniform that would attract men from poor backgrounds. As much as they would try to hide the images of men returning from war with devastating injuries to their faces.
Of particular interest . Deslandes tracks the trends of ‘beauty’ trends of men in post WWII Britain. The image makers of fashion houses, salons and increasingly, gay culture at large. But in all three areas, exclusion ‘effeminate’ men and black and brown men.
Deslandes’ investigation on the experiences of soldiers who survived, with devasting injuries to the face and body, is sensitively written and critically important cultural history of Britain’s cynical view in this era of a person’s worth in terms of physical appearance. 60 years later the British tabloids would publish gruesome images, with the stink of homophobia, of HIV/AIDS patients with emaciated bodies and faces swollen and scarred with Kaposi Sarcoma.
The elimination of decriminalization of homosexuality, led to the flood of gay pornography in Britain in the 60s, was part key in gay cultural openness and visibility. The liberation march of living openly or expressing their sexual identity was a sea change for the country who convicted Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi enigma code and was a pioneer in developing computer technology, Turing was sentenced for gross indecency because he admitted he was gay. The court gave him the option of jailtime or medically induced castration. He chose the latter, and the side effects were so severe they drove him to commit suicide.
Culturally, that was another matter as politicians, religious leaders and straight communities continued to demonize, harass, attack, discriminate and oppress gay people. This also is the subtext of Deslandes’ study. As is the politics of GLTBQ visibility.
It is also a unique history of queerness as expressed in open, subversive, or coded ways in eras of culturally oppressive environments. From the inherent understanding that the naked statuary of a male wrestling with a huge python was purely academic in 18’’ just as it was understood in the 1970’s nude photos of queer men of color in magazines such as Zipper were not about diversity but about the fetishization of black and brown bodies by white publishers.
Comprehensive cultural research to debrief (sorry) such topics as the influence of the ultra-beefy ‘clone’ look of 70s gay men in the US as it became trended in British gay skin mags, for instance, is inadvertently campy by now, There is a lot of valuable history here in Deslandes’ comprehensive approach. Admirably he delves into the negative and unhealthy concepts of proscribing what and who determines what physical attributes are beautiful. And the how notion of attractiveness and masculinity.
Aside from pornography, Deslandes examines the commodification and exploitation of models by the fashion industry recognizing the open market of gay consumerism. The cultural phenomenon of British sport star David Beckham launched as an international underwear model with a huge gay following. As silly as such campaigns always are, the marketing targeted to both straight women and gay men as a profitable campaign changed the corporate fashion and the impact on representation of queer visibility. A picture is still worth a thousand words right, no?
will I come home to illusion that mocks this place
We fed on the knowledge of iinfinity & wanted so much more
that we knew nothing in the end.
So we blinded ourselves with the end in view
from The Reading Tarquam
His heaving blue shoulders face away from the rust moon singing Father of Water naked on the dead soil pierces ground fly on the specter of the dove crowned in the avian principality foretold in jagged mountain hidden beyond thunder masque of creativity closing her eyes in the afterburn of quicksilver rainbow
Iris transmoon she feels a livid sun thrown by the shade of the lost digs her feet into the root envisions the Earth unwelt from its axis echos radiant seed sounds