SAWYER, MICHIGAN, JULY
In the kitchen I begin a list of things that rise naturally
or have the appearance of rising:
smoke and steam, the sun, the ocean, seas.
But today from the neighbor’s yard
a constant train of smoke is traveling
dependably sideways through ours.
From the moment I woke up it was so.
At first I thought it was a fog
but then I saw her, a woman
raking wet yard waste over a flame.
I come here sometimes in the summer
or at Christmas after I have made
the rounds, slept on everyone else’s couches.
My aunt puts me to work around the property.
She makes jewelry. My grandmother this July
is in the basement making quilts
for her daughter’s shop. We talk little, but some.
Her husband died early of AIDS so now that I’m older
each of us is learning what the other thinks of the gays.
This whole side of the family is made up of devout women.
Even toward the end of her life when my mother couldn’t speak
one coherent sentence she managed to produce
a line from scripture one morning over breakfast, that her
redeemer lives. Besides this, I think of the time I was very young
when she said that gay men, although she had nothing
against them, were going to hell.
My aunt hands me a pair of gloves and tells me
what needs moving that she hasn’t been able to move
because of her hip, what needs to be weeded.
I ask about a tree that looks like it’s dying but she says
it’s just naturally weepy, and then, Well what
do you expect, she says, living as we do on sand.
No such thing as a weed, I like to remind myself
while I’m weeding, only the question of which plants
don’t you want growing around your house.
My aunt loves what she calls black grass and lets it grow.
When my mother died it was her sister
who showed me what it means to let things rise
around you, standing in the driveway between
pillars of coffee steam and Virginia Slims smoke
which she balanced in her hands.
At night there is a train that comes right by the house,
so incredibly close and so loud that I wake up each time
in terror thinking the sound has come from inside me.
About the house across the marsh from ours
my father had the theory that it
belonged to two men who must have been
lovers on the weekend.
This was based on the architecture
(Bauhaus) and something about
how the cars would be parked in the driveway.
We knew so little about the plague we underwent
Even now I must review it
In life I had been stripped sucked paid for scraped
In every Atlantic seaboard town
Sex was my green trapeze my scanty armor
I preferred men the gendered accoutrement
Of the French-Canadian duo their arms around me
The way a bachelor fellow if he loved you
Would tie your wrists to a high branch with a thousand knots
Beauty the betrayer
Was a mountain I moved through my first and last muse
To have adored an ass an old man a roomful of people
I worked hard to erase the heavy netting strung between
One stranger at a time O you must dissolve inside me
According to early reports the first cases took hold in the most promiscuous
So no one stands on a rug that cannot be pulled out from under him
I have been waiting to say this I’m waving my arms now
Courage dignity a forced bloom
You do not belong to the family you believe you belong to
Author’s Note: “On Anonymity” is an erasure poem. The source text, Anonymity (1994), was written by my late mother, Susan Bergman. Reviewer Meg Wolitzer described the book as “a stark and angry account of the death of the author’s father from AIDS and the family’s subsequent uncovering of his covert homosexuality.” Original word order has been preserved and words have not been added or altered.