In this daring poem, James Siegel takes us back to gay, American leather bars in the 1980s, paying tribute to an almost mythical subculture–a minority within a minority.
Ghosts in Leather
I’ve seen ghosts
black and shiny —
a raven gliding
on the backdrop of midnight.
Boots spit cleaned,
they take shape
the way smoke does
rising from an ashtray.
I’ve watched them
watching the living
in art house bathrooms,
bath house mazes.
I’ve seen them
the way I see you —
a motorcycle gang of angels,
bandana in the back pocket,
finger hooked through a belt loop.
It shouldn’t be possible —
The dead are meant to wander in petticoats
in crumbling Victorians waiting
for 1906 to rock the foundations again.
They shiver in the fog
that floats above Fort Point,
muskets at the ready,
cannon fire rumbling on The Bay.
They certainly shouldn’t be hovering
in the head rush of video cleaner,
in the heat and heart race
of the men’s only fitness club,
drifting like divine steam
from sauna to shower and back again.
And yet here they are,
puffing on cigars
in the glow of some VHS fantasy,
in the scratchy film and flesh
of dad teaching his boy a lesson.
Here they are like 1985
never died and faded away.
Perhaps heaven has no dungeons,
no black label on draft,
no hanky code or nod of the head
that says, Follow me,
my door is unlocked
Perhaps these earthly places grab hold,
All this yes sir,
all this horse play and good dog
yanks a leash that tethers
the next life to this life.
All this beard on beard,
denim rubbing denim,
it lights a cigarette,
throws open a fire door
from the great eternal
to the back room of a dive bar,
to beer-soaked floors,
the tattooed arms of boys,
the salty taste of night’s skin,
the tequila and tobacco tongue.
When we release spirit from body,
this is what I want —
to stumble back,
knocking into the universe,
walking through whiskey walls
to a mirror ball limbo.
A shadow of a shadow
swaying along the sidewalks,
cruising the taverns and pubs
for those masters of mixology,
for those slaves of the physical world,
for the bartender who knows my order,
where my tab is always and forever open.
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