At the Gate: Poems of Friendship

A Special Feature edited by Noah Baldino

I open my door, every day, to my friend. This is new; for years, I lived alone. Now, small sensations not my own populate my life—a chair’s yip against hardwood, the infant noise that follows an early morning yawn, a faucet coming on. That tangy smell of their vanilla protein shakes which, secretly, I love. When, in the afternoons, I’m grief-stricken or struck by some exaggerated outrage, in my tearful slump to the fridge I sometimes pass them, and—their presence like a switch, a latch—turn goofy, my problems not sated but set aside as we laugh. Lumbering back from the bathroom in my ratty blue towel, I’m sure they sometimes see the dense garland of hair across my shoulders and back, my other private lovelinesses and uglinesses. Every morning, we encounter each other’s bodies and feelings before we close our separate doors and make ourselves presentable.

“It is possible,” Yanyi begins, “that the implement meant to create ease is actually one that promotes discomfort.” Love, Rose Zinnia and Ross Gay say, puts “some sweet or not-so-sweet axe to my “I.” “Why,” Joe Gutierrez writes, “does the legibility of this thought shame me.” Poems, I think, are encounters: between image, volta, syntax, and other implements of craft, and between reader, speaker, and poet. They let us practice inhabiting tension and discomfort in the pursuit not of certainty but of significance. We practice this in friendship, too. If we’re lucky, the result of collaboration’s constant risk is sustaining love, which stands, Diane Seuss realizes, “respectfully at the gate of someone else’s mystery.” To encounter in one’s life a poem that renders one similarly legible is as lucky as it is overwhelming, as destabilizing as it is redeeming.

The poems presented here trace various speakers confronting the self by encountering—and being encountered by—friends. They are filled with proper nouns, pop culture, queerness, bodies, and difficult learning, by poets who demonstrate across their bodies of work that intentional, compassionate relationships are a form of deep imagination. Fitting, too, that the poems here are so often prosaic; these speakers’ private interiorites—preoccupied with desire, with grief, with belonging—become increasingly perceivable, and, thus, changeable, as the public life of the sentence swings as a door does, closed and then, somehow, open.

I set out to make this feature at a time when I was newly estranged from one of the great friendships of my life and soon to be estranged from another. I thought friendship the repair to loneliness, rather than a way we learn to respect the vulnerabilities our loneliness discloses. Like Oliver Baez Bendorf’s speaker, I had “built/myself a box (safety)//where nothing,” I thought, “could reach.” What we reach for, and with, and from, changes us; alone, I reached for poems.

for Paula, Joe, Javan, Susannah, Joy, Jenn, Kelsey, Kaveh, Janan, Sanna, Clarke, and Josh

Noah Baldino is a poet and editor from Illinois. Their poems can have appeared in New England Review, Memorious, Poetry, and elsewhere. They currently live in St. Louis. Baldino was a Stadler Fellow and associate editor of this magazine in 2019-20.

Diane Seuss
Three Poems

There’s something to be said for having one plate, one spoon,
a fork, a dull knife, living out of a red suitcase, eating when
hungry, grabbing shut-eye when I’m tired, you’re high-natured,
Joyce James said to me when I lived in NYC, we were in a cab
on our Friday lunch break going to a record store, decades later
I see I was not high-natured, only wanted love, still do, though
what that means I don’t know, something about mystery, standing
respectfully at the gate of someone else’s mystery and hoping
for the sound, at least now and then, of the hinges turning, mystery
now, mystery then, as when I went up to a guy at the record store
to ask him who did the song “Refugee” and he said, “Me,”
and I realized after I found the album and looked at the photo
on the cover I’d asked Tom Petty who did a Tom Petty song
I’d heard on the radio when I was hungry and tired and fairly sad.
All at once David went catatonic, you could pose him and he’d freeze
that way, then Steve showed up skinned alive from flying off his motorcycle
on US-31 as it was called then, all to deliver to me a comb for my hair
he found when he was working on a barge on the Mississippi, he smiled
through the blood on his face, laughed like a sandhill crane at the luck
of his misfortune, we’d had some good times hitching to Eau Claire for ice
cream, a small cone is all, he played the harmonica and I hummed, the road
hot and flat, rippling with the mirage of water, but good times do not a love
story make, though I peeled off what was left of his clothes and sacrificed
a full bottle of hydrogen peroxide to the singular wound that was his body,
and dressed him in a ratty shirt and pants which had served me well as a hobo
costume though the green hat had melted in the rain, and fed him watery soup
from a can, and sent him home on a train though I did not pay, I didn’t have
money in those days, nor did I love God, nor David even when he thawed.
After forty years of forced estrangement soulmate shows up
in the lobby of a gold hotel she’s haggard with a loose cough her
eyes disappear into her skull if she doesn’t wear eyeliner we used
to dress as Daryl Hall and John Oates and make brief appearances
at parties or Bowie and Liz Taylor she had a terrible dog named
Wanda who ate Galway Kinnell’s signature off The Book Of Nightmares
I mean Galway Kinnell signed it for me he wrote for Diane and her
poems or some such flummery Ethridge Knight wrote for Sister
Diane and her poems now that has some meat that has some sugar
soulmate’s hair is pink her talons sharp she has received as have I
the blessing of an extinguished sex drive listen she says after forty
goddamned years of forced estrangement guess who I saw in Malibu
he’s famous and he has a huge head and I say without even
having to think about it Tom Waits and soulmate says Bingo.

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, (Graywolf Press 2018) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.

Joe Gutierrez

I section a piece of rope double the length of my arm: a solid ¼” braid of white nylon I noose the same way I would a dog, around the fat-folds of his neck. The man is fat and wants me to say so, so I say so and slam a cold   cream pie in his face, the first among a pile of store-bought pies: apple, cherry, blueberry, lemon merengue, peach cobbler. I text my friend a picture of the contract I made him sign, filter it black and white. I haven’t    fully processed my motive yet, but mostly I want them to be proud or know I would be a good and responsible partner to raise a child with. Sometimes they are so childlike, it  makes me want to choke them, but I know that they would love that, and that their attention would make me scamper all the same. You don’t need prophecy or doom, my therapist says, in order to make your life miserable, only character flaw, and I agree with her but secretly think in a civil society it is important to nurture one’s criminal side …

I can’t get John Wojtowicz or that Chase  Bank he robbed for his ‘male wife,’ his ‘transvestite in pajamas’ out of my head. OK, he robbed it for the mafia, but to demand  your beloved be delivered to you holding a bag of hamburgers during a stand-off with the feds is a romantic enough idea to guard, and for that I dedicate the next pie I slam, cherry, to John—rotating it into the fat man’s face. He makes a noise like his heart is stitched between two sites: the one in this moment where I am watching him lap my piss from a stainless-steel bowl and pay me for it, and the other where he does not tell his boyfriend   that certain kinds of desire only get you laid   in certain ways, that orgasms, like miracles, are simply formalities. I yank hard on his underwear and the waistband rips. Impatience burns behind the dense blue curtains of my heart. I am not a dramatic person: I want a child. Why does the legibility of this thought shame me.

Joe Gutierrez is an MFA candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. A graduate of California State University at Long Beach, they were a finalist for the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review poetry contest.

Home for the Holidays

It is possible that the implement meant to create ease is actually one that promotes discomfort. Case in point: my laptop resting on the tray in front of me forces me to raise my arms uncomfortably in order for me to write and think and search for whatever it is I am doing on the laptop. The laptop, now comfortably on my lap, wishes me well, moves slightly over my legs in bed, the bed I’ve been in since approximately this morning eight days ago.

This morning, I watched my body being undressed as if for the first time. In a way, it was the first time. Two tubes hung listlessly from my side, clipping, finally, to two suctioning bulbs on my pants. Which were, at various points this week, filled with blood and pus. The tubes on my side and the two yellow foam bolsters sewn into my chest above what I would today begin calling my nipples.

For over a week, I had been gingerly moving quietly and slowly around these bolsters, the incisions on my chest like two shut eyes never to waken again, deep black lines made of other black lines. My chest sewn into my chest, every minute or so feeling like a cactus growing out of itself, invisible, thin-headed needles pricking out of my skin. Or so is the rush of skin connecting again with skin, the nerve of it all.

My body below all these bandages, glue, tape, somewhere in there. Blood around where the drains went into my body had caked and even grafted to my skin: splinters that had sunk so far that I could only see the shadow of them. Susan exclaimed, this afternoon, about the miracle of the body feeling an enormous amount from glass in one’s foot, no larger than dust. My needles shoot through my chest and its jagged skylines, port to port of what I could only attest to be, again, my skin.

Skin again, attached to nothing, can reattach. The body is greedy with itself. So these two long lines, side to side, took those two sides of skin and began to confuse each other. One became the other, and vice versa. Who was speaking, what parts were on fire, or resting, or bumping with electricity, were often in question.

Skin again, reattached, below my bolsters, the sponged keepers of what I would soon begin to call my nipples, revealing two wet patches like the spread of a baby’s forehead when first revealed from the womb. The body reinventing itself became again its own mystic. That’s a medical term, my doctor said, the term being something I don’t remember, that she picked away from my nipple, pink-grey and still internal, emerging from viscous. I looked on with revulsion and shock and barely breathed, which is how, I suppose, people pass out while looking at their own new bodies.

My doctor did many things and said much, picking out the stitches from my body, the rest to be dissolved, and me, à bout de souffle above; bacitracin, dabbing, drains, holes, blood, counting to three and coughing and the cogent rumble of left chest letting out some warm froth and tubing. Of the time we’re awake, we remember the heat, and to me it was to be touched but from the inside, my own muscle being rubbed from behind, the inevitable mess of what followed it on the patient robe below me. The tube which kept me from me was now resting behind me, we did the other side, I had to take a breath for what felt like an eternity, the other side, again, breathing, the rumble, the tubes, wanting to be free of them but also to be never moved again.

Bacitracin and now being able to take a shower. In the midst of all that I felt myself pouring out, merely, probably, a dribble, quite unlike what I have heard it is like to bring forth a living human into the world, our bodies, my body which delivered itself, the medicant, the medicated. What low rushing would I be able to see, my pale nipples, the closed eyes of my chest, two sets of eyes now, four eyes, my scars enabling me to see twice, again, alive, in one week I feel the phantom pang of my previous nipples, the eyes open, the need to move myself so my chest could breathe, the tight muscles of my shoulders which held nothing but air, the air which has started to land on my stomach, my shoulders, no other person will see in the way that I have and do in this moment. I dress.


We go home to experience a sense of relief. Relief is not what I felt when I got up from my bed and my left drain was leaking, profusely, with blood. Ting was with me today. My two good memories of Ting are one night more recently of them breezing in on a Citibike, for dinner, and another, in which they had different hair, dancing to Willow, their body ecstatic under the lights.

(Now somewhere else, one wonders how we have and allow others to have memories of our selves passed: may I have both portraits of Ting, who is still wholly the same person and yet completely different, wondering, groping somewhere further than where they ever imagined that they could go, even past the places that we societally may see or agree as radical?)

(Now somewhere else, I have become more greedy. I no longer want to live another life but to inhabit at least two lives in one. One in which I was myself before these two years and another in which I am only the self I have been since those years have passed. It does not allow for, for example, the facts of my existence, my comforts, the responses of my body, the sense that my body holds for me even further than I’ve ever been able to hold for it. What fairness is there for a body whose work goes unacknowledged? The body keeps the score. I dream (primarily in the day) about how I’ll awake with my body in the moment I was on the operating table, completely outside the room. When it was held down, I gave its pulse to another person, a team of people, nonetheless, and I must always ask, was it worth this life to trade it for another life? Already I am transforming, is this truly the same body?, what continuity is there between a body that is less and less recognizable in one life and then another?)

(Now somewhere else, my mother didn’t recognize my new voice on the phone, and she became very panicked and tried to call me again. I said I was sick. Which is not the first time. The first time, I was also sick. I was getting further and further from this imprint of myself, an image I never believed in, an imprint I pushed myself into so someone else could have room. I needed to be sick to be well again. In one life, I had become sick, and in this one, I was becoming better and better. My two sets of eyes beginning to make sense of their sights. My two eyes double-exposing on each other, the dream on the reality, the ordinary aspect leaning over a puddle of its own confounding.)

Ting was with me today, they had just gotten here, and I had never seen them redress a wound, and I did not know how to redress a wound. But I was bleeding profusely, I had overrun the bandage, and it was unclear if it would ever stop. Ting went out and bought more and more gauze; tape; hydrogen peroxide. We were trying to watch Meet Joe Black. I was trying to have fun and not to be too much of a burden, but my body had other plans. Ting changed my bandages at least three times today. I became comfortable with my body becoming naked in front of those who had never seen me naked; I did not realize the intimacy of giving my body to others: to be watched, to have it not be an object or monster, but fact. I enjoyed learning my body as a fact, and nothing other.

Yanyi is a writer and critic. He is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.

Ross Gay & Rose Zinnia
We Tree Singers Free

with Etheridge Knight

In the room with everyone in it there is a tree.
& if there is one tree, let’s say there are more.
& if there are more, there are entire ecosystems—
but too—this is real—your handwriting; I love it!—O thank you! you
know, the hand is always made of other hands—
clapping & waving & knitting & plaiting—little dinosaur; little okra pod—
hand cupping over your eyebrows, a visor to block the sun—
chlorophyllic, how could we be anything but—
hands reaching for each other—
lungs flexing the song of we—
muscled tenderly,
we buoyed
& buoyant by the buoying, the architecture,
we the body, one—I love to look into your eyes reflecting starlight—
oh, a metaphor my brother teased me about—
one thousand thousand uncles eyes winking
to mean stars—he said, we don’t have a thousand
thousand uncles. But we do, don’t we?!
Oh yes. On high. I’ll lend you one of mine! Shall we
gather them here with us? Our uncles? Our trees?
Yes, summon! Bellow! Bullfrog
the whole damn fam so we can—
& this part we’ll sing—
Bennett, Roy, Tom, Ernest, Wilbur, Earl, Ralph,
Syd, Roman, Ben, Pete, Rob—o hell—Eva, Pam,
Cathy, Ginny, Kathy with a K—who we called
aunt but who was really just my Mom’s friend—
Butter, Biggie, Betty, Verna, & Gerald
from the courts on 10th & Lombard
who called everybody cousin
& Leprechaun (RIP) & Bear (dog) who sang me Happy Birthday
25 times because they missed my birthday 24 times before they knew me—
& Andy (Free) who, when I dropped them off in the woods where they lived,
kissed me on the forehead, both hands framing my temple—
& while we are writing this—Daisy (cat) beckoned at the window to be let in, & two cousins,
Michael & Jenny—who grew up with Lucie BB—oh milliners & haberdashers—o garabagemen
& earthquakes—there is now a mycelial net beneath the forest in this room, it is luminous, it is
named for whomever I was stupid to, whomever I was good;
whomever in their simple breathing, or not,
put some sweet or not so sweet axe to my I
to every creepy crawly little dreamer, our guts,
our guts, don’t die just yet!—
In the dream we sang into the river & it circled us—be-holding—don’t die, don’t die—even so—you came back, in our hands, our hearts made of tombs, hearts & detritus, don’t die—don’t—made of—dying—made of the stomachs & roothairs, made of the coyote’s screaming & the breeze bringing the woodsmoke in a suitcase—in the dream, the river told us we had been weeping, told us our weeping was a being with, a summoning, like cumulonimbus: ephemerality—shapeshifting—a keen of winging, a storm torn like a scab: portal-earthing—told us our wings purring could be trees, could be a sweeping—
keep holding—keep keeping—keep singing—keep weeping—listen
to the weeping, told us, us, put your face to the weeping, told us, us, put the seedlings in the weeping, told us, us, kneel down in the weeping; rinse, rinse, in the weeping, turn & splash your mother with the weeping, fill supersoakers (us, us) with the weeping, let your hand find my hand, us, weeping—us we-ing—us treeing—
We tree singers free, baby,
we tree singers free.

Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University and is most recently the author of the book-length poem Be Holding (Pitt Poetry Series), his fourth book of poetry. Rose Zinnia was born in Akron, Ohio and is the author of the chapbooks Golden Nothing Forever (Nonbinary), Abracadabrachrysanthemum, Hands, and River (with Ross Gay). She lives with her wolfdog, Kiki, in Bloomington, Indiana.

Oliver Baez Bendorf
Stonewall Sestina

Written from my “hundreds” writing group with Andrea Lawlor, Ching-In Chen, Prince Bush, Lucas DeLima, Margaret Rhee, and Suzi F. Garcia, borrowing a word from Lawlor’s hundred the previous day, with thanks to Dr. Kim Tallbear for how I found out about the hundreds practice in the first place, and gratitude to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson for the inheritance of gay liberation, that ongoing struggle.

Monumental bricks
split open
heroic future
cast in
stone. Pleasure
an angry parade,
loving parade.
Throw bricks
from pleasure
to open
archives in
‘better’ future.
My future
a parade
receding in
Bustelo bricks,
so open
about pleasure.
Because pleasure
portends future
desire: open.
After parades,
make brick
trafficking in
representation. In
bold pleasure,
my brick
rubs future
clay parades—
I’m open.
Everyone’s opening
up in
moans. Dogwood parades
toward pleasure
from future
“Now we’ve walked in the open” and know that pleasure.
Everything takes place in between sensations and the future
of planets. This queer parade. These blessed stones.

What the Dead Can Do

Drafted alongside my poetry students at Kalamazoo College

The dead can fly right up to my
window. The dead can be bright
red. The dead can make pictures
come down from walls, and they
can make it so the backyard smells
just like a Christmas tree. The dead
can make a bird land wherever
they want. They can be bright
red if they want. They can make
luck happen, but they can also
make it not. They can curse
your house. They can make
a head of lettuce go bad. They
can wander the streets at night
while I sleep, transmogrify
their tracks sunk in the snow
into those of another mammal.
They can make any song
come on the radio. They can keep
you safe on the road in a whiteout
storm, but they can also not do that.
They can’t initiate a rainbow but
if one already comes on the sky
they can add one more.
They hope someone makes
love the way they loved to.
They like visitors at their bones.
Some of them I’m sure
are waiting for their ashes
be eaten by the young.

Oliver Baez Bendorf is the author of two books of poetry, Advantages of Being Evergreen (CSU Poetry Center 2019) and The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State U. 2015), selected by Mark Doty for the Stan & Tom Wick Poetry Prize.