Cherry Grove Suite

(after viewing “Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove,”

May 15, 2021, New-York Historical Society Museum & Library)

By Walter Holland

 


 

1.

You the fickle queens of yesteryear’s gleaming sea,

in your tight swimwear à la fifties; barely I was born

when you pranced and sashayed along the boardwalks

cocktails in hand, show tunes and necklaces, giant girlish

hats, pretty in your lean and manly swagger, party for

an afternoon, some shrill “see you soon, Doll” and

carrying a silver tray of canapés, shakers full of gin.

 

2

Chorus boys and cherubs, lesbians by wine bottle

candles, Carson McCullers and Mary Mann, Janet Flanner,

a far remove from Paris. Think back you wayward spirits,

clever harbingers of silly and liberated days. On this

sand bar purely having fun, the brash, inane, irreverence

and sacrilege of everyone. Auden on the steps in the sunny

sunlight, his britishness, his air of being polite, camping

with the rowdies at the bar, the drag man in fishnet stockings

smoking a cigar and posing like some pin-up gal, Auden

a titter, then a boyish prep-school howl, jolly good and

happy, with his pale and gangly arms; 1945, as Europe

burned and felt a long ways off, you reveled in intoxication.

 

3

Would I be some movie star, young man of the 1930s,

or a Forties teen star, quiet on the set, a run of bit roles

too easy to forget, a few years of screen time and then

the long episode of fading notoriety maybe in that cliché

way, hounded by sad regrets? Finding in the titter-tatter shacks

with campy names a camaraderie that most of American

straight life sorely lacked. Fiddle-dee-dee to lesbians

without bras, to boys of summer wearing theirs like pointed

Alpen peaks, trotting behind them some pretentious pets,

matching sets of yelping poodles. Would I be truly so unruly?

My glamor photos with signatures in curlicues of attitude; 

I’d never return from this island of blithely safe sincerity.


 

4

Some were arrested, flagged down for faggy behavior,

handcuffed to a dock before they could be ferried

back to face a mainland judge, spend an hour or two in jail

until a rich queen posted bail. Back by dinnertime—

a common fact of life for not having a wife and Von Trapp

brood in tow. Dancing cheek to cheek or wearing pumps

and panties, the do’s and don’ts, that ever changing list; still

you’d persist, limp-wristed, talking with a lisp, etc., etc. All

the Black or White “ladies” being frisked, threatened with

exposure—though the cops always looked the other way if

you’d pay the customary bribe to back away. By day, sun

and sex, by night, sex and sex, bevies of beauties, boys

and gals poking fun at a life of social roulette, roleplaying

the first or second sex, faked charades of cliché dress to spare

a small-minded world from having to second-guess.

5

You queens, Black, Brown, White, sipping drinks on

the hotel’s deck, no one quite knew what to expect,

what sparkly nights would beget. Legs and garters of the half-

and-half or passing in-between, here you could stop being

repressed—lose your pants for pantalettes or some “wicked”

cocktail dress; a few hours of joy not to be inspected, grilled

to confess and pass all of their silly tests, always, though,

suspect. Bless your queer hearts, dead now beauties

wilted with the rest, I can attest to how your excess

helped me reject a life of threat—

may you rest in queenly tombs,

may we not forget.

Walter Holland is the author of three books of poetry "Circuit" (2010), "Transatlantic," (2001), "A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992" (1992) as well as a novel, "The March" (2011). A forthcoming book of poetry “Reconstruction” will appear from Finishing Line Press in August of 2021. His essays, book reviews, journal articles, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in many fine journals and anthologies over the years. A few of  his most recent poetry credits include “Exquisite Pandemic,” “HIV Here and Now,” “Cutbank Literary Journal,” “About Place Journal,” “Mollyhouse,” and “The Decadent Review. He is now retired and lives in New York City.  For more information visit walterhollandwriter.com.

Photo: Animal Party, 1952, Cherry Grove Archives