Homo Will Not Inherit
Homo Will Not Inherit
© Mark Doty, Atlantis: Poems (HarperPerennial, 1995): 76-79. PS 3554 O798A8 1995 Robarts Library
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Mark Doty's setting for his declaration of gay faith, "Downtown ... / ... up there", at once physically locates and spiritually realizes the typical mid-city bathhouse where the lonely homosexual goes for anonymous sex, for "joy / and shame" (1-3). Bathhouses thrived in the 1970s in big cities across America as ghettoes, gay-male zones (12, 29) demarcated by police. By 1995, when Doty published "Homo will not Inherit," the AIDS epidemic had cut a deadly swath through the gay community, and its bathhouses were mainly shut down. The anywhere "secret city", a nighttime transfiguration of the day's "public city" (34-35), is described here is "failing" (90). A porn movie house, "the Cinema Paree" (9), stands vacant and vandalized. Streets are "shattered" (3), their walls defaced by "indecipherable" graffetti (93-94). Doty's polysemous image for this grungy "shadow-zone" (29) is "towering towers" (36). These, literally the bathhouse steam-columns (5), take on human shape in "the blinding symmetry of some towering man" (38), the nameless male lover encountered in the steam. Both steam and men appear to be "on fire" (99). The steam columns, those "smoldering plumes" (34), rise from gasoline-streaked streets (7); and city gates are "charred" (92). In the bathhouse, Doty has seen "flame flicker" around the outline of men (40). The dominant partner he met many years ago in the baths entered "gleaming" (75) and led him to "burn" (86) in their sexual encounter. From a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint, homosexuals are damned to hell after the Last Judgment. They and their damned city, Babylon (96), as found in the Book of Revelations, are punished forever. The hell to which they are condemned is "inescapable, / ... and on fire" (99). AIDS seemed to the Christian fundamentalist a righteous judgment on the gay community and its bathhouses.
"Homo will not Inherit" expresses one gay man's answer to the "I told you so" triumphalism of the moral right. Aside from the single word "erasure" (56), Doty does not allude to AIDS, the central theme of Atlantis, the collection in which the poem appears (and in which Doty describes the long dying of Wally, his longtime partner, from AIDS), but the disease explains why the "secret city" is failing. The moral right utters, with assurance, a message stroked beside "a xeroxed headshot / of Jesus" (17-18) posted on the blackened front of some bar or bookstore. It paraphrases 1 Corinthians 9-10, which states that "homosexuals ... [will not] inherit the kingdom of God." These words exclude gays from an afterlife, a heaven, and jail them in an eternity of fire and punishment. This threat differs from other expressions written in graffitti on these walls, which usually offer "nothing to read / but longing's repetitive texts" (14-15) -- for instance, combinations of four-letter verbs in the imperative. The message's close, "Repent & be saved" (21), issues another command, to abandon gay sex, "to abandon the body" (70), in return for afterlife ecstasy. The picture that accompanies this negative imperative substitutes the "blonde" Jesus, comprised only of a head, for a "deep indigo" man in a full-length "divine body" (49, 75). Gays have a genuine choice, the message says. Get the "permed, blonde" head later for abstinence now. Given that Doty's poem culminates in a "dirty story" (72), where one man gives his mouth over to another man to fuck with his penis, the "headshot" of Jesus has a certain attractive appropriateness for the place in which it is posted.
Doty's response directly challenges the moral right for its high, moral, spiritual ground. Aggressively, passionately, he repeats five times, "I'll tell you what I'll inherit" (22, 37, 55, 62-63, 69). These repetitions, driven by the same love of the body that accounts for the language of street graffitti, take five arguments to the enemy.
First, Doty states that his "secret's city's boundless" (35), that is, without the constraints that reduce the "ledgered and locked" (35), police-defined "public city" simply to dreaming (25, 29). He tells the moral right that "no one wants" their city. Nothing that anyone desires happens there. (He repeats this later in the third argument.)
Second, Doty explains that, during sex, man becomes a "common, habitable" spiritual entity that is possessed "of the god" (42). In intercourse, bodies forget themselves and become the single "divine body" (49) that is potentially within them. They transcend the falling, grungy night world to enter a "field" in which each is a sunflower, expressive "of a single shining idea" (53). That idea "is the face hammered into joy" (54). It is not clear what this means yet. The only face we have seen, "a xeroxed headshot / of Jesus", is "blurred at the edges" (17-18), a poster boy for self-denial. However, by alluding to Pentecost (41), when one member of the triune New Testament God, the Holy Ghost, descended on the apostles in tongues of fire and gave them the power to speak many languages, Doty shows that he believes that sex transforms a human being at times into an angel (45), bringing a gift from God. These communions of man and god, and angel and man, resemble the Christian mass.
Third, Doty charges the moral right that what gays inherit is not hell but the "stupidity, erasure, exile" of the moral right, and that these fundamentalist Christians "must resemble what they punish" (58). That is, they are hypocrites. They do not want the heaven which they promulgate. In fact, they "adore constraint" (62), the police actions that the gay community introduce into sex as bondage and domination. ("Cops and robbers" is one metaphor for the gay sex games.)
Fourth, Doty reaches into the religious jargon of the moral right and claims the formula it worships, a god who becomes human: "the flesh and the word" (69).
Last, Doty illustrates his case with "a dirty story" (72). The transforming sexual act for him took place "Years ago" (73) when an indigo man gave him the "key" to his room, his "church" (82) and, after they had been "worshipping a while" (82), told him, "I'm going to punish your mouth" (83). In gay slang, the word "church" means `bathhouse' and is associated with a sex act where one man is on his knees before another. The word "punish" means, also in gay slang, `fuck.' This act caused Doty a pain that, like the fire of hell, purified him of shame: "I won't need to burn in the afterlife" (86). Coitus imitates the police actions of domination and bondage that the moral right implements against the gay community. Yet it was more than pain; it was as well one of the "spirit's transactions" (88), a story about "the face hammered into joy" (54). The "single shining idea" that Doty sees both in sunflowers and in men enables one god to enter the body of another god through the face. Punishment redeems him by taking away shame and restoring joy to the human face. That is the "word" manifested in a carnal act of "flesh" in flesh. The very fact that gay sex makes for joy affirms it most against those who would disinherit it.
The poem closes as Doty identifies the graffitti, "Babylon's scrawl", with the joy "written on" -- hammered into -- his face (96-97). This "scrawl" alludes to God's words on the wall proclaiming the end of Belshazzer's kingdom. Is Doty, then, associating his joy with the moral right's graffito, "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT" (21)? The answer is surely yes. Doty reveals that joy comes through not inheriting the afterlife but becoming "a divine body" in life. The rainbow, jewels, and ornamental scripts of his secret city (92-94) take gays to the heavenly kingdom promised by Christianity, that is, a world where god enters flesh rather than denying and tormenting it. The "fire" of Doty's "secret city" comes from "shining" faces and sunflowers. In gay slang, "flaming" means `effeminately gay', and "angel" means an older gay man. The response that Doty's poem makes to the hell-fire threat of the moral right emerges from gay language generally. He writes, not as himself, confessionally, but as one of many.
The poetic form Doty chooses, triplets with intermittent rhymes and off-rhymes, recasts the terza rima in Dante's Divina Commedia for a new urban culture, ghettoized by police and fundamentalist Christian. Like the "xeroxed headshot" of Jesus to which Doty speaks, this form is "blurred at the edges" (17-18). Perfect rhymes like"Paree" and "marquee" (9), and "own" and "zone" (10, 12), occur, but mid-line; and non-terminal assonance links "between" and "steam" (1-2, 5), "roil" and "joy" (1-2), and "azaleas", "gasoline" and "between the steam" (7-8). Tonal regularities abound, but not where we expect them. This form perfectly fits the unruly gay kingdom it celebrates and places "Homo will not Inherit" in a tradition of apocalyptic poetry of the spirit.Back to Line
This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Mark Doty.