Celebrating personhood and lives intertwined

Posted today at Jack Andrew Urquhart’s blog – a review of my collection of Peter’s short stories, copied here by permission:

Book Review: Peter Marshall Bell’s Nocturne; celebrating personhood and lives intertwined.

Full Disclosure: When my spouse Raymond L. Boyington undertook the editorial role in bringing his former partner’s work to print posthumously, I had not expected to play a role in promoting the finished product.  I had read previously a few of the poems penned by Peter Marshall Bell, who died in 1994, but never any of his heretofore unpublished fiction.  Indeed, save for a minor role in translating one of Bell’s stories from the original French to English, I thought it best to keep my distance from a project that was deeply and privately motivated.  In short, I did not wish to intrude on the editor’s labor of love.

All that resolve vanished when I sat down to read Invitation to the Voyage, the Selected Poems of Peter Marshall Bell, and more recently, Nocturne, the slim volume of his nine stories.  I confess this latter enterprise left me reeling with a sense of loss.  That is because on every page was the evidence of a talented writer evolving toward distinction—an advancement in artistry that continued literally to within a few whispers of Bell’s untimely death from the complications of AIDS at age thirty-five.  Indeed, part of the pleasure and the sadness in reading Nocturne lies in witnessing the progression of Bell’s talent (the nine stories are presented in chronological order, 1979—1990).

The author’s early tales, most notably “The End of Tribute,” “Nocturne,” and “The Enemy,” introduce Bell’s lifelong thematic obsession: the human struggle toward wholeness and personhood, a battle that for many—gay and straight alike—pits a survivor’s instinct against the forces of an externally motivated self-hatred.  It is a struggle that presents formidable and particular challenges for the homosexual and latent homosexual protagonists peopling Bell’s fiction.

Interestingly, the early stories sometimes mirror the author’s own history of personal and familial strife.  Witness Bell’s story “The End of Tribute,” in which Walter, the gay protagonist engaged on a Sunday afternoon tour of Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery (Bell lived in Paris, 1985-86), is inspired to consider his own losses while standing at the grave of the American rock star, Jim Morrison.  Reflecting on the lyrics of Morrison’s classic Vietnam era anthem, “Riders on the Storm,” Walter muses on his rebellious sister’s untimely death (Bell’s own sister died quite young)—and the resulting familial fallout:

“Oh, sister!  She had been the only one in the family who rallied to that music’s cry.  She had angered her family by rejecting accepted American values like fighting in Vietnam.  Now she was dead.

“I hated her,” his older brother had told him, years after … and although they’d drunk plenty of scotch before Ed let this out, Walter realized … a brother hated his sister in defense of his America.  Let him have his America, Walter thought angrily.  Standing before that grave, he knew his sister had been right.”

In the collection’s title story, “Nocturne,” Bell’s thematics find expression in a child’s early recognition of unacceptable difference amply cued by parental disappointment.  Perhaps drawing on personal experience, the author offers almost a case study of how children may internalize and process—usually at the expense of their psychological well being—a steady diet of subtle and not-so-subtle censure.  In “Nocturne,” the resulting damage is manifested (initially) in secrecy and insomnia:

“The important thing was not to be discovered.  His insomnia was his secret world—the fear that kept him awake was unknown to all those around him… He especially feared the derision and admonition of his father, who would only interpret his insomnia as a sign of cowardice and weakness.  “Like a little girl,” he imagined his father commenting with a sneer.”

Indeed, the impetus to avoid discovery drives several of Bell’s protagonists to self-harm—as in “The Enemy,” where two men, complete strangers from opposite sides of a war zone, meet, and manage to bridge their political and cultural chasms in a few moments of almost romantic sexual congress—before one of them self destructs.

These early stories by Bell, an untrained writer whose natural storytelling gifts appear to have been honed through years of rigorous intellectual pursuit and curiosity, showcase a writer’s steady progress toward proficiency, understanding (of the human condition) and a command of language (several languages in Bell’s case).  It is an evolution that reaches its apex, in my opinion, in Bell’s final four stories.  My particular favorite is the wonderfully full-bodied “We Have Always Been the Same Person”.

That the term ‘full-bodied’ should so perfectly apply to a ‘ghost story’ is one of the delightful ironies of Bell’s mature fiction.  For in this tale, the author weaves a richly atmospheric sojourn reminiscent of Henry James—but without the Gordian sentence structure.

Set in the French coastal city of Dinard, Bell’s literary excursion comes complete with haunted hotel, mysterious portrait, and a helpful female spirit named Louise who favors fireside chats that sound very much like a session in psychotherapy.

“Dear Charles,” she said softly.  “I am not trying to do anything here.  We are simply fulfilling our destinies…

I thought this over and realized that Louise was right, and yet still responded irritably.  “I’m not used to having someone around who’s able to see through me.”

Louise smiled slightly.  “Perhaps it’s a level of intimacy you’re not used to.”  She left the window and took the seat next to mine.  “Charles, I’m really not here to vex you.  If I serve any purpose for you, it is as a mirror of your own conscience.”

Like most of Bell’s fiction, “We have always been the same person” does not present a definite conclusion so much as open the door on several possibilities.  In this case, I prefer to think that Charles, the story’s narrator, will—like the story’s author—eventually find safety, self-acceptance.  Love.

And if I may indulge in one final moment of personal reflection, it is strange for me to consider how my life would have unfolded along a different trajectory had Peter Bell’s not been so tragically curtailed.  Stranger still to consider how the lives, perhaps even the spirits, of people who usually never meet face-to-face—an author and his or her readers—become inexorably intertwined through literature.  Such is the wonder and the mystery of the human quest to create and experience art.  That seems to me a good enough reason to play this small role in sharing and celebrating Peter Bell’s Nocturne—in which his spirit and his artistry remain very much alive.  Page after page.

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The [French] education of Peter Bell

From Peter’s UC-Davis junior year in Bordeaux, one of three graded and critiqued papers; the first of seven scanned pages:

The rest of this and the other academic papers will be published … soon.

Meanwhile, Nocturne, the collection of nine short stories available at Amazon, will be offered once more at a 100% discount – all day tomorrow, Sunday. Consider downloading it – (Please!) only if you will post a review, either to Amazon or to this blog.

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My poor students [journal entries, 1987]

19 November—Thursday night

Another school night done.  I had the distinction of correcting THE ESSAY OF NO RETURN.  In which the reader sinks and never comes out alive.  My poor students.  What they must put up with.

Have been correcting papers at J.D. [Just Desserts].  Just for my edification they played Joplin’s Pearl, one of the great artistic achievements left by a brief bright candle of beauty.  How trite.  But I get sentimental with Joplin’s Pearl, and how it takes me back to days of innocence.  I had just returned from sixth-grade camp.  My sister Linda was in tenth, and that date of my return was her 15th birthday.  When I came home, she was wearing one of her gifts, her first long dress.  It was a white blouse attached to a long, light red-print skirt (long skirts were the fashion—part of the peasant look of the fall of 1970, from whence these memories come).  I remember her birthday gift, how pretty it was on her, and what a festive home it was to return to.

24 November

Soon we will leave for the Valley and American Bacchanal—how much turkey can you eat?  For now reading intellectual history and listening to the occasional waltz.  Siren jour on joue une valse au bal public …

30 November

Never to grow old—seniority becomes a luxury for our generation.  A dignified old age—to profit from years of experience.  Savoring warm nights by the fire and long summer evenings …

Oh to grow old!

[Linda committed suicide four years following the event recalled, their mother died the year following; Peter succumbed seven years after these entries.]

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Save the last dance for me

From Peter’s journal, 12 February 1992 [the year is given here; Peter makes it difficult for the reader—he occasionally writes entries out-of-sequence, in different journals, and without the year being noted!]

The prospect of my imminent departure is somewhat alarming… (I haven’t written in this book for ages.)  Alone at home with Vera, I yet again consider the void which I am attempting to straddle with another voyage, a smile.  John, I dreamed of you last night.  Once again, I said I love you, with no reply but your own enigmatic smile.  Is that you up there in heaven, chiding me in my dreams for being the poor mortal I am?  How I carry you with me, year after year, my spiritual baggage.  There must be a heaven, so you may be there.  And if I try hard, I might get there too.  I’m afraid it will come less naturally for me, however—my only hope is that you’ve overlooked my faults and saved the last dance for me.

Meanwhile, down here among the mortals I’m having one hell of a time.  So I could resist the extravagances of this European jaunt, satisfy a craving for a modest adventure—a tour of the capitals.  But here I feel the test to keep focus, to experience fully for once, take it on honestly and fearlessly.

To live through the soul, for the soul, within the gardens of truth, beauty, passion.

To discover my strength, somewhere inside me, to come home to the source of calm and happiness.

— and more babble —

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For you, dear reader

Over this past weekend 75 -free- copies of Nocturne were downloaded from Amazon (60 from the US store, 15 from the UK store).  I am so very pleased and thankful for this show of interest and support.

What do you think of the writing?  I hope to read your remarks here or at Amazon.

As a token of my appreciation, here is a rose from our garden, photographed April 1, 2012.

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Weekend (only) sale

Your chance to read my collection of Peter’s short stories, available free(!) this weekend at Amazon:


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Now at Amazon

Nine stories—from very short to very long—encompass the devil, a ghost, romance (straight as well as gay), humanity in time of war, meditation on death and dying … from profound tragedy to high comedy.  Available free (to borrow) for Amazon Prime members and soon – for a brief promotional period – to all other readers…


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Appearing soon at Amazon.com

In 1-2 days:

Nine stories—from very short to very long—encompass the devil, a ghost, romance (straight as well as gay), humanity in time of war, meditation on death and dying … from profound tragedy to high comedy.

Look for the title Nocturne: Nine Stories by Peter Marshall Bell


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Invitation to the Voyage: Review by Jack A. Urquhart

An Enduring Legacy [also posted to Amazon.com]

A brief review, by Jack A. Urquhart

In the interest of full disclosure, I begin these few observations on “Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poems of Peter Marshall Bell,” by declaring that even though I never met Peter, he has been part of my life since 1998.  That is because until his death in November, 1994, Peter was partnered to my spouse, Raymond L. Boyington, who edited this collection.  For the last fourteen years, Peter has continued a part of our lives, his photograph occupying a place in the family gallery alongside children, grandchildren, former spouses, and our closest friends.  His story has been told and retold at gatherings of family and friends across the years.  In short, Peter is very much alive in our hearts and minds.  “Invitation to the Voyage,” lovingly edited and presented by Raymond L. Boyington—with the assistance and encouragement of Peter’s surviving friends—is both a celebration of, and a memorial to Peter’s extraordinary gifts—and his ongoing vitality.

The twenty-one poems in “Invitation to the Voyage” make use of many of the conventional poetic forms—free verse, dramatic monologues, narratives, biography, romanticism, and even an occasional ballad.  In fact, in a few cases, elements of several forms appear within a single poem.  I mention this because Peter was not a trained poet—and neither is this reviewer.  Thus, I make no attempt to critique his work in any traditional sense.  Rather, in undertaking this informal “review,” I rely for guidance on no less than William Wordsworth, who famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…” adding that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I believe that Peter’s poems underpin this broad, accessible definition—often beautifully.

For example, Peter’s poem, “Valentine’s Day” (which the author indicates somewhat ironically, should be read while the audience claps hands 4/4 time with a little harmonica ditty between stanzas) explores in rhyming free verse the often self-sabotaging gamesmanship of modern-day courtship, albeit between gay men in this case.

It’s the dance of hesitation

here in the wild west,

so choose your partners, gentlemen,

and see whose ego’s best.

The question to be sought? to seek?

is many ages old,

and far too often a man’s pride

has quenched the lovelight cold.

Here Bell seems to be poking sad fun at the quest for intimacy in an all too competitive world—a world where raw ego and the fear of losing the upper hand have doomed many a potential love affair.  The poem’s final stanza drives home the point:

So change your partners, gentlemen,

and mind your egos well

so if you loved your partner,

he couldn’t ever tell.

How sad, and true, and self-defeating those final lines.

Bell’s mastery of several languages is on display in the poem, “L’autre ne dït rien” (“The other says nothing”), which appears in the original French alongside an English translation.  One of the more enigmatic poems in the collection, L’autre mingles free verse with the repeated refrain of a traditional ballad.  Whether the poem’s ignored narrator is addressing an earthly (deceased?) lover or an indifferent God is a matter of reader choice.  But there is nothing ambiguous about the narrator’s tone—which alternates between plaintive resignation and outright anger.

“I am corrupt,” he said.

The other said nothing.

“I burned all my bridges,” he said,

“there is no way out.”

The other said nothing.

“I exaggerate everything,” he admitted.

The other smiled.

“But all the same, it’s over,” he declared.

The other said nothing.

For a moment silence reigned alone, then

he said, “You remember, don’t you?  No?”

The other said nothing.

“But where were you then,” he cried out

“when everything fell apart, when I

got lost?”

The other stared at the line of trees on the horizon

and kept his silence.

Bell wrote the collection’s final poem a mere six weeks before his death.  Entitled “Silent Vigil” (by the editor; several of Bell’s poems were untitled), the poem is steeped in the traditions of romanticism.  I count it the most moving and the most transcendent of the lot.

My soul will want to linger in your


It will take a place quietly near you

As you read at night or in the morning

As you rise to start another day.

Watching over you, my soul will delight

In the love we have shared on this Earth;

And even as it keeps its silent vigil

In a little corner wherever you are

My soul will thrive in my love for you.

And with this love, sustain itself for eternity.

As a writer, I like to think that the reason the poem resonates is that it leapfrogs grim reality—the cold, hard fact that none of us lasts forever (which Peter anticipates for himself in the poem’s first few lines)—to provide a glimmer of hope.  That hope is nothing less than love’s enduring legacy, a message—Peter’s message, in this case—so durable, so generic (in the best sense of that word) that as long as there is language and human beings to appreciate it, will comfort and sustain as well a thousand years from now as it does today.

And if Wordsworth, who held that the poet is charged with recollecting the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, can be believed, then a part of Peter must endure as well.  A part of him alive and well in a little corner somewhere—invisible, and in time, even nameless as we all shall be—wherever we human beings are.  And whenever one of us recollects his message of love.


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We met at the candy store

Whenever friends or family asked how Peter and I had met, that was our stock reply.

We met at summer’s end in 1992, just before classes were to begin for each of us teachers—he was returning to French American International School, I to University High School.  Our first weekend was spent away from one another—at faculty retreats.  He sent me a postcard, the first of a multitude in our all too brief time together.

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center now occupies the spot where we met.  I walked with him the four blocks to his apartment on Fell Street.  He walked with me the one more block to my apartment, also on Fell.  We remained together from that first night—until his last.

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As commencement approaches…

His Honor the Adjunct Consul General of the French Republic, His Honor the Vice Consul General, Distinguished Members of the Board of Directors, Madam School Head, Esteemed Colleagues of the Faculty, the Class of 1994, its Family and Friends,

I have a confession to make: I have always loved graduation ceremonies.  I love to hear the regal chords of the entering processional as the faculty and graduating class take their respective places.  I love graduation drag: the sartorial splendor of long, black gowns which absolutely suffocate a person with distinction; the smart, square-topped caps with tassels dangling off at a capricious and even rakish angle: Mr. DeMille, we are ready for our close-up.

Finally, I love the real purpose of this ceremony.  Here, we gather the graduating class one last time and make it squirm under the afore-mentioned gowns as speakers after speaker invoke—in two or more languages mind you!—the class’s duty to sort out and correct everything that all preceding classes have screwed up.  Indeed, the perpetrators of this ceremony are doing more than just celebrating an academic rite of passage; more nobly yet, we are dumping the mess we have made of things into younger and, we hope, cleverer hands.  If all goes well here this evening, the class of 1994 will leave the podium depressed and anxious, while their elders depart with the refreshing and heart-warming sensation that only passing the buck can create.

In adding my contribution to this endeavor, my experience as a history teacher could not help intruding upon the proceedings.  Through my research of the topic, “Advice given through the ages to innocent youth by guilt-ridden adults,” I have gathered a small collection of documents which may give us a special historical understanding of one generation dumping onto another.

We may start our time travel in medieval Western civilization, when a certain physician wrote to his two sons, who happened to be studying at the University of Toulouse.  Dad the doctor is full of wise recommendations which reflect the concerns of his times.  He does not spare the public works of Southwestern France when, for example, he states solemnly, “Remember about the well water of Toulouse.  Wherefore boil it, and the same with the water of the Garonne, because such waters are bad.”  Not content with prescribing steps to avoid contamination through water, our good doctor adds helpful tips on avoiding flea infestation, leprosy, the common head cold and poor digestion.  Clearly, university study could be treacherous in medieval Toulouse.  This letter offers some wise parting words from parents to children today, although we would probably emphasize water purification less and condoms and Prozac more.

Another source comes very close to the wise words of the medieval doctor, only this time the testimony is a fictional one.  This inter-disciplinary leap from history to literature is a challenging one.  I will risk it, however, since the excerpt is from Mr. William Shakespeare, who was as good a chronicler of his times as he was a poet.  To demonstrate the Bard’s historical worthiness, I have chosen Polonius’ speech to his son Laertes from the play Hamlet, that wonderful dramatic piece in which, as American musical theater describes it, “A ghost and a prince meet, and everything ends in mincemeat.”

Polonius’ predicament is similar to the medieval doctor’s; he too is sending his son Laertes off to university in France, only this time to Paris instead of Toulouse.  Perhaps the waters of the Seine are sweeter than those of the Garonne, since Polonius does not warn Laertes about boiling his water.  The perils of study at the Sorbonne seem more ethical than physical, as Polonius’ advice is much more directed to his son’s social conduct.  Whereas our medieval doctor counsels his sons in appropriate attire to keep warm and dry, Polonius advises Laertes to dress to impress.  “For,” states Polonius, “the apparel oft proclaims the man, and they in France of the best rank and station are of a most select and generous chief in that.”

This recommendation on wearing the appropriate power suit is the most practical advice that Polonius offers.  Otherwise, Polonius tires his son’s ears with all the good advice that few mortals ever consistently put into practice.  Yet with all his bombastic, pontificating drivel, Polonius’ last piece of advice is not only the surest but also the most challenging:

This above all: To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Such advice is perhaps Polonius’ last great moment, as he ends up two acts later skewered at the end of Hamlet’s sword, and dismissed by the mad Dane as “… a foolish prating knave.”  Up here on this podium, however, I can identify with the human condition of poor Polonius.  Unable to extricate himself from the machinations of Denmark’s greatest dysfunctional family, he leaves his son with at least one wise maxim, perhaps in the subconscious desire that Laertes will succeed where his father failed.

I certainly do not pretend to be any better off than poor Polonius, with the exception that I might do a better job than he did of keeping my sword envy under control.  Otherwise, I am at a considerable disadvantage compared to my Shakespearean counterpart.  Polonius had, after all, one of the greatest writers of all time providing his script.  Without old Will to ghost-write for me, I must fall back on the historian’s gathering of cultural relics which might inform us of past mistakes and point us to a better future.

Indulge me in one final cultural relic; being an official friend of Dorothy’s, it is one of my favorites.  I am referring to Victor Fleming’s film version of Frank Baum’s story The Wizard of Oz.  In the film, Judy Garland plays twentieth-century America’s answer to Odysseus.  Like the Greek hero, Garland’s Dorothy has a whole string of wild adventures in her quest to return home.  Finally the good witch of the East shows up at the end of the story only to tell Dorothy that she could have avoided all those troubles along the yellow brick road.  Dorothy could have gone home whenever she liked by clicking those ruby slippers three times and saying, “There’s no place like home.”

When Dorothy protests that someone should have told her this, the good witch Glenda observes that Dorothy would not have believed that anything so simple could get her back to Kansas.  The adventure of the yellow brick road alone empowered Dorothy to click those heels and hurry back to Auntie Em’ and the farm.

Whether we liken ourselves to the daring braggadocio of Odysseus or the humble vulnerability of Dorothy, both characters represent the adventure upon which you, the class of 1994, are about to embark.  Along your individual yellow brick roads, you will experience the Scarecrow’s quest for knowledge, the Tinman’s pursuit of love and the Lion’s search for courage.  Most importantly, like Dorothy, you will seek that elusive refuge called home, where wisdom, love and security converge upon one special place.  No one here, including myself, can tell you where that place for you will be, because only the adventure of getting there can help you locate it.  A pair of magic ruby slippers would be more than nice; they would look fabulous with our black gowns.  Without them, however, we must hope for the ability to understand wisdom where we find it, give and accept love when we find it, and maintain great courage especially when it seems we cannot find it.  Class of 1994, I recommend with love and humility: Follow the yellow brick road.

[Delivered by Peter Bell to the graduating class at French American International School, San Francisco, 17 June 1994]

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Peter Bell is published!

Or, I should say, a very small fraction of his writing has been published.  At Amazon.com and at BN.com.  The Amazon store is the one you will be taken to if you click on the cover image below.  Here is a link to the Barnes & Noble store: http://bit.ly/J3GuYJ

Now that I have seen something concrete come of my months-long efforts, I will return to organizing the much larger collection of his writing.  Considering your suggestions, I may next publish a volume of his short stories … or all that remains (journal articles, 1-act play, story lines… as well as the short stories and poems).  Let me know what you think.  I have asked a pittance for the poems ($0.99) – nowhere near my ‘hourly wage’ – because I want them to be read and because I am not in this for personal fame or fortune.  The next (final?) volume will cost you a little more for all the work I am putting into this endeavor.  Is there a readership for a paperback edition of either volume?

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e-Book soon to be published…

By this weekend, expect to see at Amazon and Barnes & Noble (iTunes store, later) a modest volume of poems.  Please let me know what you think.


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Postcard from Peter (also see new photos posted today)

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A request for submissions

I anticipate publishing, within one or two weeks, a small volume of poems (section I in the table of contents – see the blog page “TOC”), followed by the remainder of Peter’s work in a second, considerably larger volume.  To date (25 April 2012), nearly all of his work has been transcribed.  So, the table of contents is reasonably complete in representing what may end up in print.  If you have any correspondence or photographs that you would like to contribute, please let me know via email no later than the end of May 2012.  Thank you.

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-the power of the memory of the dead.

The word abandonment comes to mind—my abandoning John, John abandoning me to his death, a place where I don’t matter to him anymore?  My ego interferes there—my desire to matter to someone, to disprove my unshakable belief that people are ultimately, fundamentally indifferent to me.  Eventually John would have had to become indifferent to me when he could finally see through my weak mortal self, when he would finally have no further need of me.  For the very finite love that limited us in life, there is an infinite love that takes place in the course of survival, a love in which one feels the power of the memory of the dead.

— journal entry, 12 August 1989

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Previewing 20 poems, soon to be published

Domestic Life

Houses always have ghosts

So don’t ever believe you’re alone.

Some dead soul will be watching your every step,

and, being dead, it has an enormous sense of justice.

It knows both sides of the universe, after all.

Remember your house ghost!  It will keep you honest.

It will rattle the panes when it senses a wrong-doing,

and shut off the lights to remind mere mortals

how short a time we have in the light.

Heed your house ghost!  It has years of experience.

It will watch out for burglars and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It will keep the roof patched and lick up the crumbs.

It will keep your cat company.

(Now you know what that cat’s been chasing after.)

A good house ghost will last you a lifetime—and then some.

It will only scare you if you deserve it.

—San Francisco, 2 April 1988

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Old devil moon

I can’t believe I still have it in me.  Old devil moon.  A little sigh of romance at the dawn of summer.  The moon is almost full.  After my exertion of passion I had this desire for some champagne and big, cabbage-head roses.  Somewhere in my life I’d like to have another chance for roses, champagne and romance.  In this mess of existence which has every reason for driving me to the gas oven—I still hope to be spared, to have another chance.

—journal entry, 17 June 1989

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And the ship sails on

E la nave va

Several transparencies later into the past, he realizes what he had been witnessing, or imagining, were ghosts: gorgeous, floating, nostalgia-ridden wonders rippling like old curtains before half-open windows.

“Do you see the bay, the sand?” she murmured.

She stepped aside from the curtains to show the outline of her figure, barely traced by so much diffused light.  God she was beautiful, beautiful; or were these words simply the echo of water lapping against the shores of the bay?  Her costume was turn-of-the-century ivory cotton, lace gloves, a straw hat, an amethyst ring on the third finger of her left hand.

“We have always been the same person,” she said.

She was holding a book too thin to be a bible, perhaps a Collected Verse she had brought along from the other world to read in the park.  No picture could compete with her.  She glowed.  Then she began to move, without the least ruffle or scuffle of shoe sole.  She crossed her right hand to her left shoulder to draw her shawl more tightly over her.  She moved hesitantly and gently.  He feared she was tired from some physical distress; he opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out.  She smiled as if to say, “I understand.  This is your dream.  Really I’m alright.”  She tread lightly around the room, her face drawn always toward the window so that all he could see was her serene profile.  Every once in a while she would turn to smile at him, even though neither of them were really there.  She had possibly been very ill in her life and suffered greatly—he could see that.  “Really I’m alright.”

Her hair under the hat framed her face in dark auburn waves, twisting to collect themselves toward the back of her head, where a glimmer of tortoise shell held it all in place.  For a moment that piece of tortoise shell was the single pin holding the entire universe together.  Had it disappeared the entire dream would have fallen apart as her hair unraveled to cover everything in darkness.  A goddess?  Certainly, as only such beauty could pause for such a moment.

—19 October 1988

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A story fragment to whet your appetite…

The End of Tribute

Sundays, he’d been told, is like the day before you die.  He remembered so many Sundays, wrestling through the inactivity and boredom, the endless cups of coffee and doughnuts, the smudgy Sunday paper with the ink of the funny pages leaving an unwholesome, grimy touch to the fingertips.  Sunday was a day in limbo, of rest ending in restlessness, spent in anticipation—the day before you die.

Walter had felt this about Sunday for quite some time, long before he’d ever heard that particularly apt simile to define it.  He had lived it for years in the house of his childhood, then in other places as he moved for study and work.  How funny, Walter thought now, to be in Paris and find Sunday as morose and dreadful as ever.  It was a muggy, grey day, and he was on the way to Père-Lachaise cemetery, ostensibly to see graves of the great, but intuitively to surround himself with deaths past as if to weaken Sunday’s premonition with something real, achieved, and entombed already.

He could feel it in the métro, where the normal profusion of passengers had been considerably diminished by the Parisians’ August exodus from the city.  In the barely populated subway, air moved through the tunnels as if through a skull, raspily whispering, “Paris est à vous!”  For you alone, Walter thought, this empty labyrinth, with all the other passengers just as easily ghosts as they were strangers; with the names of stops and transfers coming together like some rapid transit official’s trance: Nation, Auteuil, Quai d’Orléans, Père-Lachaise.  And the subway cars rattled like a skeleton, or they whispered the skull’s legend, “Paris est à vous!” in a whir through the tunnels.  The cars stopped, their doors opening and shutting with a hesitance which unreliable but necessary machines often seem to display to their subjects.  Leaving a car to make a transfer, Walter couldn’t help but look back in distrust as it clicked it doors shut menacingly before speeding off to another stop down another cold, black stretch of tunnel.

Passing in transfer at Nation Walter found a flower vendor who seemed as indifferent to the stillness of the métro station as to his merchandise, three or four pails of pale, pink roses.  Walter bought four roses in a muted exchange with the vendor and stuck them in his bag to avoid the clumsiness he felt when walking with a handful of flowers.  Walter filed past movie posters and lice repellent advertisements to reach the next train, all the while hoping that his umbrella wouldn’t squash the roses….

—Paris, September 1979

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all the courage I need

In August of 1985 I was a tourist in New York on the Staten Island Ferry, in transit to my ultimate destination, a year’s study in Paris.  As I was once again leaving my country on a pilgrimage to Europe, I was feeling a nostalgia for the unknown.  Something like hope and expectation was welled up within me, and I was susceptible to the emotion which would arise from a viewing of the Statue of Liberty.

It is August, 1985.  My mother has been dead for over nine years, and she is riding on the Staten Island Ferry with me for a viewing of the Statue of Liberty.

A nostalgia for the unknown?  It was a nostalgia which came from expropriating someone else’s memory, not my own.  I had never been on the Staten Island Ferry before in my life, and still the romance of treading water and swaying to the ferryboat’s rhythm took me by surprise.  Then I saw the Statue of Liberty and it all made sense.  I could see my mother in a white dress from the forties, on the deck of the ship, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

(Give me your tired, your poor)

She was the frightened little girl from North Carolina who went to live in upstate New York with her older sister when their mother died.  Kids made fun of her for her Southern accent.  In nursing school, on duty in hospital, she was sent from ward to ward asking for a fallopian tube, a prank orchestrated by her more senior peers.  She had been through the pranks, the jokes, the taunting, and persevered through it all.  She had earned the passage on the Staten Island Ferry, I thought, as I imagined her looking up at the green-grey Liberty with her own green grey eyes, both of us seeing our Mother within that great mother of all—

(Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me)

She must have been at her best then, I thought, somewhere in her twenties, at the bow of the ferryboat gazing up at the Statue of Liberty.  I decided to get out of the cabin and take a closer look at her.  I actually got right next to her on the railing without disturbing her gaze at the statue.  She was altogether there, years before the four kids, the unhappy marriage and alcohol ingested in an attempt to make it all tolerable.  Years before my sister’s, her daughter’s suicide, the hysteria; before all of that, she had been a courageous young woman, with nothing in her eyes but a reflection of the Statue of Liberty.

When I was six or seven, I once told her, “Mommy, you’re not fat,” perhaps in the hope that by pronouncing that lie she would turn into the thin, elegant Jackie Kennedy figure which I would have preferred.  My mother was fat, and haggard.  She cleaned the house and made all the beds like a maid and cooked dinners and drank too much vodka on the weekend to forget it all.  Mommy you’re not fat.  You’re this vibrant, young woman in her twenties, on the town in New York City, on furlough from nursing school, viewing all the key points of interest.  You’ve had a late lunch at the Automat, or maybe taken in a matinée at Radio City Music Hall.

March, 1981, San Francisco: at a presentation made by a gay men’s community group to a field-trip class on community service, I was incensed at how some of my peers were more concerned with challenging the men’s sexuality rather than learning more about community needs.  By speaking out I was, perhaps for the first time, coming out.  A mother of one of the gay men nearby told me, however, that mothers always know.  Could I introduce myself to the young woman on the bow of the ship as her future gay son?

My mother was driving my sister and me to a camping spot.  As we sped through a town, she recited, “There’s the church, there’s the steeple, where the hell are all the people?”

The sun is going down.  Maybe if I spoke to her…

“Beautiful day isn’t it?  Silence.  She calmly continues her ferry ride, ignorant of me.

“But the wind is cold for August,” I suggest.  Silence.  Of course she doesn’t talk.  Since she’s just a hallucination, I loosen up a bit.  I tell her how glad I am to find her in all her youth and vibrancy on the bow of the Ferry, and what an honor it is to view the Statue of Liberty with her.  I tell her how sorry I am for the pain and disappointment in store for her, how much pain I felt in her death, and how I will never forget her.  I tell her I forgive her how sorry I am for the moments of hysteria when she acted so hatefully toward me, and how much I needed this cleansing vision of her at the bow of the ferry, perched agilely as if she could fly off into the wind and perch on the tip of the statue’s torch.

(I lift my lamp beside the golden door)

You and the statue are all the courage I need.  I’m going away for a year, and I don’t know how things will turn out, and I feel very alone in this world, and am running off to Paris almost as a cultural fugitive.  But you and the Statue are superlatively one, and you will be there on my way home, always vigilant as a vision of courage, the young, defiant student nurse, and Liberty, watching over us all.

(I lift my lamp beside the golden door)

—untitled journal entry, January 1st 1993

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Jane Trash waits for a plot

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to connect the reader more directly with the author – I attach scanned fragments from a few of Peter’s papers:

  • “Un Tableau Balzacien” submitted during Peter’s year in Bordeaux (15 Jan 1980)
  • “A Myth on Night and Day” in its first draft (1992?)
  • on the opera Carmen written in faint pencil (30 Dec 1992)
  • journal entry from the hospital, 14 Aug 1994, with Peter suffering from toxoplasmosis

and to illustrate

  • this editor’s challenges and choices
  • effects of age, experience, illness … on Peter
  • Peter’s revisions and/or absence thereof

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pilgrimage in Israel and Egypt

2 July 1994

Today we wandered along the shore and up the hillside overlooking Galilee—“come and I will make you fishers of men.”  Washed my feet in the River Jordan, and thought of Black American spirituals, the whole Idea of crossing the river into a better—or another—world.  “Yes we are gathered by the river, the beautiful, beautiful river…”

The trip up Golan Heights, past more fields through a former battlefield which could be easily fought over again.  Lord, save these people from any more wanton destruction.  May everyone have a home in your creation to exercise love and justice.  And may I learn from this trip through this holy land.  Amen.

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Storyboard for “A Life from Pirated Film Clips”

My earliest cinematic influence was The Wizard of Oz.  (Clip—Judy singing “S.W.O.T.R.”) By seeing this film yearly between the ages of five and ten, my destiny was clear; from that point on, I would remain a Friend of Dorothy’s.  In the debate over whether being gay is a consequence of nature or nurture, I personally support nature.  Millions of kids sat through those annual broadcasts of The Wizard—and within some of those millions, there was a seed, a chromosome, that made Dorothy, the Wicked Witch and Glenda our muses for a sensibility which, in our early years, would have to remain secret.

My next influence film-clé came from my mother who cultivated within me a cult-like devotion to the film Gone with the Wind.  I first saw the film at the age of nine, by which time I was also reading the novel.  At that age I could not really understand some of the plot’s dynamics, such as the scene where Scarlett is lying in bed singing like a bird the morning after an especially good fuck by Rhett.  But I did understand adultery and the red dress preceding that scene—living in suburban America in the late sixties helped me understand that much.  But the scene that made the most to me is Scarlett, alone and afraid in a shelled-out field trying to eat some dug-up turnip, retching it and making her vow.  It would take me half the intermission to stop crying.

19 December 1993

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