“Unmarried, undocumented, unlabeled”: On Stephen S. Mills’ A History of the Unmarried
SIBLING RIVALRY PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY JUSTIN HOLLIDAY
Following his debut He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, Stephen S. Mills again ponders what it means to be queer in America through his new collection A History of the Unmarried. Whereas his first collection dismantles any taboos in his meditations on Jeffrey Dahmer and his prison correspondence with a former pornographic film star, A History of the Unmarried takes a different approach, honing in on mid-twentieth-century mainstream America’s cultural history and incorporating such figures as Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollack, and Betty Draper from Mad Men within a larger context of modern gay life.
Mills’ opening poem “A History of Marriage” demands a call for a new way of understanding “normal” American life by intertwining historical details with the marriages of his family members. First, he pairs his parents’ marriage in 1973 with the year “the American Psychiatric / Association removed homosexuality / from its list of mental disorders” (“A History of Marriage,” 8-10). Then, he juxtaposes his sister’s marriage in 1997 with the conviction of Timothy McVeigh and the death of Princess Diana. While some included historical events appear to have a more direct bearing on Mills as a gay man, others do not pertain strictly to LGBTQ people—suggesting that a queer history should not be separate from the American experience. But, as the fourth stanza shows, this separation can appear irrevocable at times:
the day I slipped my ring off
my left hand and onto my right.
Our symbol. Our sign. Not theirs. (“A History of Marriage,” 79-81)
As the opening poem progresses, Mills questions the extent to which he can or should assimilate in a time when opposition to marriage has become a concern for millions. While some forms of cultural trauma appear to be shared, others appear part of a queer history that seems segmented from the heteronormative world. Therefore, it is not surprising that Mills echoes Essex Hemphill’s “American Wedding,” a poem in which the speaker and his beloved wear cock rings; each of these poems shows that two men can resist the conventional ring ceremony and reclaim love on their own terms.
Furthermore, Mills considers what it means to be properly married when heterosexual marriages, whether real or fictional, fail. By invoking marriages of the mid-twentieth century, he contemplates what it means to critique an institution that had no room for him in that era. He notes the possibility of sexual fluidity when writing about Mad Men, especially Betty Draper, in “Shut up, Betty! You’re Drunk!” and traverses reality and fiction in “Tonight I Dream of January Jones in a Supermarket in Florida.” But in “You Don’t Kiss Boys, Boys Kiss You,” Mills addresses the strictures of compulsory heterosexuality through his question for Betty Draper:
What are the rules
for kissing boys when you
are, in fact, a boy yourself? (“You Don’t Kiss Boys, Boys Kiss You,” 25-27)
Evidently, Mills does not know how exactly to reconcile himself in a world with no guidebook for men who love men; this is not simply a problem for past generations, however. “A Stranger Asks: Who’s the Man and Who’s the Woman?” blatantly demonstrates the still-present inability of many Americans to move beyond a gender binary.
To further assess the closed structure of marriage, Mills pens a series of “Housewife Etiquette” prose poems that he intersperses throughout the collection. These poems reflect middle-class values of the mid-twentieth century, further solidifying the gendered and classist history of marriage. “Housewife Etiquette: Rule 1” ends with a tongue-in-cheek joke: “Be gay and interested” (5). Although the poem intends for “gay” to mean “happy,” Mills consciously exposes what must be hidden—the gay love that must not speak its name lest it ruin heterosexual bliss. While there are only four of these poems, they are fragmented, skipping over many of the rules (going from “Rule 1” to “Rule 9,” for example), indicating they are now obsolete (as marriage now includes queer iterations). Thus, this outdated guidebook cannot provide an ideal or complete vision of marriage, signifying that no single type of existence can define marriage—and, more widely, partnership.
Although the 1950s and ’60s appear to negate queer possibility, Mills invokes Sylvia Plath as a real-life mid-century housewife who rebels against her prescribed role. By juxtaposing the severe depictions of women in marriage, Plath represents freedom (despite her suicide) and therefore remains a welcome figure with which gay men may identify. In “Watching Sylvia While You Cart the Dying,” Mills shifts between his experience and a fictionalized portrayal of Plath’s life in order to address his mother’s job as a hospice nurse and confront his own mortality. In “Us Gays Call You Auntie Sylvia,” Plath becomes part of a queer family, a surrogate aunt for the gay men who look to her as a fellow rebel.
To be clear, Mills has not lost his transgressive edge in his shift from writing about serial killers to poets; he concludes this poem by affirming a desire to pretend “that [Plath’s] troubles are my troubles. Your oven, my oven” (“Us Gays Call You Auntie Sylvia,” 28); he takes the most notorious moment of her life and invokes it as a mode of identification. In this way, Mills signals that trauma is to be shared, so that anyone marginalized may achieve a greater understanding of why it is necessary to escape a unitary model of not only marriage, but also life.
In order to express new possible modes of love, Mills divulges experiences in public spaces and in his own bed. While he hopes in vain to pick up other men at an art museum in “Standing in Front of Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A, London, 2003,” he reveals his sexual forays at circuit clubs and in the woods in “Counting Bears,” which borders on the humorous when a drunken man pounds on the cabin door asking where he may find his clothes, and Mills warns, “Never invite a bear to a picnic” (“Counting Bears,” 57). Even his private space becomes open for the public when he critiques the limits of monogamy in “Obama Says Same-Sex Couples Should Be Allowed to Marry, May 2012.” Mills directs attention away from the titular statement in favor of a promise of love through his and his partner’s depicted sex with a third man whose name they do not know. Yet this man’s unknown identity does not negate the couple’s love, which the speaker reinforces with the joining of one man to another, echoing an intertwining of lovers that resembles the closeness of marriage.
While “On Becoming Domestic Partners, Orlando, 2012” and “A History of the Unmarried” provide further excursions of the secondary, even recondite status of queerness, Mills’ final poem “Slicing Limes for Dustin” returns to the opening poem’s concern for how to wrestle with the status of marriage and gay identity by integrating historical events with his personal life. Even in the final moments of the collection, Mills still has not reconciled his questions of love. He asks:
And what does it mean to become
a housewife voluntarily?
To slice limes for a husband?
To slice limes for Dustin?
And what does it mean to be married
yet remain queer? (“Slicing Limes for Dustin,” 77-82)
Mills is not a 1950s housewife and does not want LGBTQ couples to be reductively labeled as “the man” and “the woman,” yet what other models are there for marriage? Although Mills does not answer this question, perhaps it is currently unanswerable. As same-sex marriage becomes increasingly accepted in the United States, it may develop not as a copy of the different-sex marriage model but rather proliferate in many forms. Although Mills does not overtly suggest an overturning of marriage itself, his collections opens the door for a different radical politics—for a conscious acknowledgement of all the country’s traumas.