On Thursday, I took the subway to the Upper West Side to record the poet and publisher, William Leo Coakley—you can call him Willie—at his apartment on 71st Street where he has lived (and loved) since 1961. As I set up the camcorder, we both commiserated about eye surgeries we had just had. Over the summer, my lower eyelids began to turn inward so my eyelashes were scratching my eyes making them itch and water and making it hard to write and read. My procedure began with shots of Novocaine around each eye, intense as bee stings, then I had to stare into a light without blinking while the doctor, with scalpel and what have you, turned my inward eyelids out. It took over an hour, and though I’m stitched and healing, my face is still a black and blue fright. Willie’s micro-surgical cataract removal sounded as endless as my procedure had been. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but he is also healing and still can hardly see.
He’d just gotten back from Fire Island, Cherry Grove where he’d spent a week at the Belvedere with a boyfriend. After the age of 85, Willie has had several lovers although it has been difficult to visit the one he has in Montreal because of the pandemic. The writer, Robin Prising, with whom Willie shared his apartment and life here or in England, Italy and France for over forty years, even Robin, who died in 2008, Willie refers to as, “My lover.” The bedroom is never far.
And when you do get to the bedroom, the walls, you will not be surprised to find, are full of erotic male art. It’s on the way to the bathroom and part of Willie’s tour where he points out with interesting amusing remarks what he remembers, but can hardly see. There are as many phalluses on Willie’s walls as you’d find on the frescoes in a Pompeiian whorehouse, but there’s quality in the quantity; there is some really lovely stuff.
Before we began to record, Willie told me that he was going to recite his poems from memory. “I’d have to use a magnifying glass to read them. You are a ghost,” he says looking at me. He recites beautifully; I had to do very little editing. On the Vimeo below are poems of great empathy, and some that are lyrically suffused and happily filled with gay love. Enjoy.
From the beached boats
on Sappho’s island,
past the nude men at play,
row on row
of Syrian women
veiled in shields of hijab
carry their cargo of flesh
saved from the fires,
saved from the rough sea,
on their journey to nowhere.
Dizzied by languages
their children will learn,
what will they call home
if peace return?
FULL MOON IN ANOTHER COUNTRY
The moon has followed us here,
though we have learnt already
its secrets of darkness and renewal,
of waning and growing to fullness again.
How beautiful you look in its pale light,
the worries faded from your eyes,
the scars of terror beginning to disappear.
Tomorrow in our new rooms
we will hang the paintings we rolled for the journey,
refusing to leave everything we loved behind.
for Margaret Drabble
Darkness descends on the pink corpse in the snow—
the dead don’t bleed: it is their stiff last tactic.
The pink sky’s pink transfusion floods the snow;
the courtyard fills with pink unearthly light.
The mannequin, the woman, swollen pink,
hugs her lost knowledge, what the pink world told:
the rate of falling bodies never falls;
the heart earns nothing that it cannot lose.
The shadow drops upon her, cutthroat’s blade;
her stopped blood thickens to its cold black center.
The faces in the silent windows shutter.
The war-god Mars shines pink in the loathsome west.
Now, in the east, the horned moon struggles higher.
The dog howls murder; then the cats come out:
they purr and stare, their pink eyes thick with pity
for themselves only—like the other watchers.
The murderer comes out, his hands are pink.
Her hacked feet stalk through corridors of pink
in his pink mind: pink, pink, pink, he works his evil—
the sirens’ outcry rouses him; he falters
back to the shadows: nothing pink can feed him.
Doctor and police bend to their duty;
they prod this cloth, this flesh, this carrion mystery.
The several madmen in the courtyard clamour.
The scavengers of health and order paw:
her legs lie fat and pink in the camera’s flash;
a blanket covers what her body knows—
the cats lie down upon its pink rough warmth.
The body-bag, that pink devouring vulture,
cries for its food: it eats, and is forgiven.
There ought to be a rhyme against such weather.
There ought to be a charm, an answer, a law.
LET IT STAY
by Constantine P. Cavafy
(translated by William Leo Coakley)
It could have been one that night,
or a bit later.
In the taverna’s shadows,
the back booth blocked us,
just us two, the place empty,
the lamp’s dim light around us,
the waiter slumped by the door.
Anyway, no-one could see us,
though both on fire—
Why should we care now?
Clothes pulled open, not much on really,
glorious hot July steaming about us.
But out now, ecstatic,
the quick flash of flesh—
How the image flies to me, even these decades away;
now let it stay here, here in this poem.
to the memory of
Pier Paolo Pasolini
This is no meek communion of the saints—
The boys are rough: they take what we will not give,
Kill, cure, or spare us; then the tricks are turned
That tame the streets to gold. We are bought and sold.
The entrances that open let them in
To solitudes in which we love and grow;
They occupy us (boys will not be boys).
Look up! The tower clock begins to groan
With expectations: Time will answer back,
The past come back—nothing is ever new.
Step backwards down the stairs: come up, go down—
Unless we dance between the past and now,
Between the future and the present dance,
The image bursts into its flower of flame,
Breaks from its chain, and we are men of air.
Father of Waters, rain down upon your sons on fire,
Drown us or buoy us in the depths of our desire.
Piazza Navona, Rome
INVASION OF THE ANIMALS
My body’s animals are cold without—
admit them to your house.
These gentle beasts of lip or tongue
nibble until you let them in;
the lions of my hair, my owl eyes,
surprise you at your windows.
Alas my nose, giraffe, ungainly brute,
can only nudge the roof;
and reptiles of my limbs constrict
to tamper with your posts;
but at your door the horses of my hip
grow riotous—open up!
to let that smooth gazelle of thigh
invade your privacy
and mandrill, proud, my great and central beast,
insist its entrance with the rest
till every ant of skin and nerve
enjoy the crevices of your love.
My animals of body swell your rooms
and rummage in your goods
and take possession of the house—
never let them loose.
………… ……….turn your ear
a little nearer, towards my mouth:
one bite will not be enough,
but is a beginning of love.
Locked within your hazel eye
death enacts its cyclic treason—
let me kiss the blood away,
if not for ever, for this day.
For this day of spring uprising
let us lie on the petaled grass,
forty years apple-flower rain
prove us April’s fools again.
Nothing comes of nothing, love
is the best excuse we have
to turn our bones to better use
for the real dead we lie over .
Too much laughter kills the soul;
too much grief, the vital will—
I take you for your graft of the two,
alderliefest, April’s fool.
Robin Prising and William Leo Coakley, taken at a Times Square Photomat in 1960, their first pic together.
This is one of the paintings on William Leo Coakley’s bedroom wall, “Orpheus and the Jester” by Osmani Garcia.
The photographer of the black and white portrait above is Yuki James.